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When he first auditioned for Any Given Sunday director Oliver Stone to play quarterback Willie Beamen, an embittered bench-warmer prone to fits of vomiting before each snap, Jamie Foxx was sure he'd blown it. Stone, as subtle as an ice pick to the cornea, said as much--loud enough so Foxx, walking away with head in hands, could hear him. "Jamie Foxx," the director whispered-hollered, "slave to television." Stone made no secret he abhorred Foxx's show on the WB network; he ratcheted up his disdain, and Foxx's ire, by using so loaded a phrase--slave to television. For three weeks, Foxx stewed over Stone's comments, his untoward choice of words. But when he returned for another audition three weeks later, he was in the right frame of mind: pissed off and ready to prove to the coach he deserved the starting job. "Oliver Stone," Foxx says now, in a soft, bemused tone, "is a diabolical genius."
It was not the first time a filmmaker had written off Foxx as nothing more than a product of the small screen and smaller movies destined to run, ad infinitum, at 2 a.m. on Comedy Central, before the network gives way to paid programming. Producers and directors loathed his eponymous TV show, which gave off the stench of a stale rerun even during first-run episodes; with Saturday Night Live's isn't-he-dead? Garrett Morris as his sidekick, Foxx tried way too hard just to tickle the laugh track. He'd been part of the In Living Color ensemble, as well, and Hollywood just figured him as nothing more than bit player--a comedian better suited to three-minute stints as gawky freaks, such as the hideous 'ho Wanda.
Serious directors wanted nothing to do with Foxx, whose résumé includes the likes of Booty Call, a safe-sex raunch-out in which Foxx foreplayed around as Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr.; The Player's Club, the Ice Cube-written-and-directed love letter to strip joints; Held Up, in which Foxx (and the audience) found himself embroiled in a hostage situation; and Bait, a comic thriller so dreary it played like straight drama. He felt he'd gotten to the party too late--after Chris Rock, after Martin Lawrence, after Chris Tucker, even after Bernie Mac--and was left with little to do but mop up roles they didn't claim.
"In TV, even I was still a little bit behind," he says. "When I did my own TV show, Martin Lawrence had already had his own show, so it was a little bit of an afterthought. It was like I was slipping a little bit in that sense, because in this business it's about first. If you do it first, then everybody else is copying you...With Oliver Stone, it was a learning experience, to where I could say, “OK, now I've been through the boot camp of all boot camps.' Now, everything else is gravy. And then I turned it inside out on Oliver Stone, when he said, “I want to quit this movie, because all of the actors I've seen are too rich and too this or too that.' I said, “Well, here's a young black dude who hasn't had a chance to do anything; you can't quit now. This is what I want to do. Look at the opportunities I will have if this goes off.' It's been a changing experience as far as those characters go."
Today, he insists all that is behind him--the uninspired TV show, the miserable movies, the bad choices made for money. Today, he is co-starring in one of the holiday season's most anticipated films, Michael Mann's Ali, in which Foxx plays Drew "Bundini" Brown, Muhammad Ali's counselor and corner man. Though the biopic is, too often, slow on its feet--it recounts the most well-documented period in the boxer's life, from his win over Sonny Liston in 1964 to the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman a decade later, with little new insight or perspective--Foxx's performance is a galvanizing revelation.
With head shaved and gut extended, Foxx captures the pride and pain of a man linked to Ali in every way--who thrived when Ali won, who died a little when he was stripped of his title for draft dodging in 1967. It was Bundini who provided Ali with his string of catchphrases (among them, of course, that bit about floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee); it was Bundini who broke Ali's heart by selling his heavyweight title belt to fund his drug habit.
And Foxx, who swipes the film from Will Smith, knows his is a remarkable performance; he's the thief quite proud of his larceny. Unlike other actors who go on talk shows and disingenuously slough off "the O-word" when talking about Academy Award nominations, Foxx openly revels in the good reviews and positive buzz. He makes no secret that he'd like to be considered when the industry passes out its golden doorstops. After all, he says, "if I get nominated, it's even better. It's not just, “Oh, I wanna have an Oscar,' or, “I wanna have a nomination.' But that stuff gives you a chance to get better scripts. You get much better, A-level scripts, which is what you want. It definitely opens every single door you can possibly imagine.