Sly Foxx

He steals Ali, but will Hollywood give Jamie Foxx a shot at the title?

"I believe entertainment is about slots, and sometimes slots are filled. Chris Tucker has a slot, and it's filled. Chris Rock has a slot. Martin Lawrence has a slot. I'm talking about African-American comedians, and now here's a chance for me to find a slot that's basically all my own as far as comedians are concerned. Now, people who may not have seen me do stand-up, like Jonathan Demme, they may give me a shot."

But, again, it wasn't so easy to convince Mann to let him read for the part; Will Smith, who Foxx constantly refers to as "the most well-adjusted multimillionaire in the world," had to force open the door and wrangle an invite just so Foxx could read for the role. Which he eventually did--for nearly a month, coming in every few days before Mann finally gave him tapes of Brown to let him hear the corner man's cadence. Once he shaved his head and put meat on his toothpick frame, Foxx looked the part. He would eventually wake up every morning as Bundini Brown, he explains, so that when the cameras began rolling, it appeared as though they were catching him "just doing my thing"--a technique Foxx likes to call "the running start," appropriate for a 34-year-old who was once a high school football star in Terrell, Texas, where he was known as Eric Bishop.

Foxx, as it turns out, has long played against type: The spastic stand-up with the malleable face of Plastic Man disguises the meditative career actor pondering the long haul. He's all too aware of how easily he can blow the opportunities Ali promises; he's been too often tempted by the long green for the short haul. And he's had his heart broken plenty of times, most recently when he and Stone were to follow Any Given Sunday with a remake of A Star is Born, this time with a hip-hop makeover (at one point, he was to co-star with Aaliyah). Producer Jon Peters (one of Ali's producers, in fact) owns the property and passed on Foxx; he was looking for a bigger name.

The unholy trinity: Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) and Don King  (Mykelti Williamson) wait for the Rumble in the Jungle in Ali.
The unholy trinity: Drew "Bundini" Brown (Jamie Foxx), Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) and Don King (Mykelti Williamson) wait for the Rumble in the Jungle in Ali.

There's no doubt this is Foxx's turning point; he just needs to keep from screwing it up--from turning into Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, comics who drained the life of their performances when they decided it was time to be taken seriously. Foxx likes to talk about the career arcs of Eddie Murphy ("Everybody's chasing Eddie Murphy as far as box office," he insists) and, especially, Williams; he goes on long tangents about how without The World According to Garp and Dead Poets Society, Williams would have never been cast in Good Will Hunting, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Bundini Brown, then, is the perfect role--the comic sidekick whose story takes a sudden, heartrending turn until he's forgiven and resurrected. "You see the fun, you see the tragedy, you see the repenting, all of it," Foxx says. "And that's what you want. You want a character that shows all those sides, because anytime you play just dramatic, that's one-sided, too."

For now, and likely forever, he's through with TV: The Jamie Foxx Show is, at long last, off the air after its five-year run--or, two years longer than Foxx would have liked. It debuted in 1996 and was scheduled to end in 1999, but after Any Given Sunday and its attendant publicity for the show's star, the WB insisted on keeping it around, much to its star's chagrin. "I felt like, at times, I was just wasting my time," he says, referring to the last couple of seasons. "I wasn't happy." Instead, he will wait for the good scripts, the meaty roles, the prestigious directors whose credibility will rub off--his Steven Soderbergh, his Neil LaBute.

"At the end of it, nobody's gonna have that cash in the grave with 'em anyway, so when I'm looking at a project now, I'm saying, "I can't think about the money. I can't look at the other guys and get envious,'" he says. "Of course you wanna make the $20 million, but you wanna leave a mark. You want to leave it to where people say, "Wow, I was really touched.' If you look at our pop culture right now, how thin is it? You know like I do when you go to a movie, you're disgusted. They want to turn their back on the art and just look at the box office, which is why you have a lot of studios generating a lot of movies that aren't leaving anything, and so the culture goes up in smoke. I have the chance to try to do some great things so people can look at me and say I was more than about the money. And how long does that opportunity last?"

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