Capturing the inner Ray Jamie Foxx's rendering of Ray Charles is no jerky impressionist's act. In "Ray," opening Friday, he becomes the blind soul genius.

Posted: October 24, 2004

NEW YORK — Knocking around L.A. comedy clubs early in his stand-up career, Jamie Foxx convulsed audiences with an impersonation of a head-bobbing, shoulder-rocking Ray Charles rasping "The Brady Bunch Theme."

But slipping into Charles' skin for Ray, a biopic of the musical revolutionary who married gospel with rock, and R&B with country, required other means.

Mimicry, Foxx explains, is an inventory of physical and vocal tics. But "to play Ray, I had to find the place where he was still and quiet," he says, holding forth in a hotel suite and popping M&Ms as if they were vitamins.

He got into the "Ray zone" by wearing prosthetics on his eyes that rendered him as sightless as his subject, and forced him to depend more on his hearing. "Ray saw with his ears," Foxx observes of the singer, who died in June.

In musical terms, Foxx found Charles between the notes. In Ray, opening Friday, he internalizes him to the point of incarnating him. And he plays it not as a man who triumphed over disability, but as one who emphasized his ability. This isn't an actor playing Ray: Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ray Charles.

Foxx's electrifying turn as the blind artist who did not recognize the boundaries between musical genres - just as he did not recognize those between black and white in segregated America - looks like the one to beat at February's Academy Awards.

Actors always tell you how playing a special part has changed them as an artist. But Foxx, who is 36, tells you the specifics. Playing Ray transformed him not only as an actor, but as a man. "I listen differently now," he says.

To hear Foxx tell it, he's been altered by experiencing how the blind are also colorblind. "When you can't see, you don't care who takes you to the bathroom, walks you to the car, sits next to you on the bus."

"Before we made the movie, Ray's music, for me, was like oxygen," says the actor, who lip-synchs in the movie to Charles' vocals. "I took it for granted." Only when Foxx understood the obstacles Charles endured as a black man in the Jim Crow South, and as a blind man exploited by some sighted hustlers, did the music resonate. "What Ray taught me is that when you rid yourself of excuses, there's nothing you can't do."

Foxx's seamless transformation into Charles is the latest stage in his metamorphosis from small-screen comic to big-screen drama king. Could be that he gets a second Oscar nod this year, a supporting bid for the role of Max, the cabbie who picks up the wrong fare in Collateral.

A Hollywood axiom is that funny means money and serious means awards. Foxx's film path defies half of that.

In the decade since he left television's In Living Color, neither his self-titled 1996 WB sitcom nor his appearances in film raunchfests such as Booty Call (1997) have earned him the money or the acclaim of his performances as the full-of-himself quarterback Willie Beamen in Any Given Sunday (1999), as cornerman "Bundini" Brown in Ali (2001), or as Max in Collateral.

In those features, Foxx not only stood his ground opposite Al Pacino, Will Smith and Tom Cruise, he elevated their games. Still, the guy with the rep as the secret sauce for Hollywood's prime cuts had never before Ray carried a movie on his own.

"You live and die by the person who plays the role in a biopic," says the film's director, Taylor Hackford, who gestated the Ray screenplay for 15 years before financing came through.

When Hackford approached Foxx, the filmmaker had no idea he was tapping an accomplished pianist. Not only had Foxx, born Eric Bishop in Terrell, Texas, played for his church choir growing up, but in 1986 he won a classical-piano scholarship to U.S. International University in San Diego. (Bishop rechristened himself Jamie Foxx the following year, when he heard that comedy-club bookers were looking for women. On open-mike night, the gender-neutral name helped.)

Before Hackford closed the deal, he sought Charles' blessing. When the music icon and the actor met at Charles' L.A. studio, Charles invited Foxx to the adjoining piano, taking his measure by jamming the blues. Then the music man stunned the actor by taking a U-turn into a complex Thelonious Monk composition, testing Foxx.

Though the actor couldn't quite keep up, he managed to "stay on the mechanical bull" of Charles' challenge. And after a few tries Foxx nailed the Monk riff. "Got it, Jamie?" Charles teased. "It's right under your fingertips."

"Once Ray anointed Jamie," says Hackford, in a separate interview, "I saw him grow from his regular height to 10 feet."

To take on the role, the supremely disciplined Foxx shrank from his normal weight of 190 to 156 so he would look more like the wiry musician.

Make no mistake, Foxx is no Method actor who lived Ray 24/7. Actress "CCH Pounder taught me character is like a coat," Foxx says. "Put it on when you're working, hang it up when you're done." This comes easy to the man who lives as both Eric Bishop and Jamie Foxx.

"My first acting job was telling the insurance guy that Granny wasn't home," Foxx remembers with a grin. When Foxx's parents split up, his maternal grandparents, Estelle and Mark Talley, adopted their grandson. Granny Talley was 57; Eric was seven months. She's now 95.

"There was a generation gap," he says. "She didn't understand me, but she raised me with an iron fist."

For Eric, it was a structured life of Boy Scouts, football on Friday, church on Sunday. "But with me, the racial thing was a big thing. To be a strong black man in Texas, you were risking your life," he remembers.

If he ever harbored anger for the kids who hurled epithets, success has helped to dissipate it. When he recently went back to Terrell to visit Granny Talley and shoot a segment for the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, he says, "some of the kids who called me the N-word apologized for it."

Though in L.A. Foxx is known as the ringmaster of bacchanals where Puffy and Tom and Will come to play (one reveler tattled to Newsweek that in Foxx's den, "anything goes, and I mean anything"), the single father is also a hands-on parent.

Because of his schedule, 9-year-old Corinne lives primarily with her mother. But Foxx is there for homework and home-school meetings. He even coaches Corinne's track team. Her event is the high-jump. Given her father's soaring ambitions, what else would it be?

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/carrierickey.

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