Jamie Foxx: Inside ‘Soul’ and beyond

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The actor, performer and singer-songwriter takes stock of 2020, talks about his latest Pixar film and his advice for young actors

It has been a tough year for Jamie Foxx. Apart from the pandemic sending the movie and music industry into a tailspin, he also lost his younger sister, DeOndra Dixon, in October. “2020 has been bittersweet for me. My sister has transitioned. She had Down syndrome, but lived every single moment to the hilt. She always reminded me of the little things in life to be excited about. From dancing at the Grammys to starring in my music video, she was a star,” he says, speaking via Zoom from his Los Angeles home.

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In many ways, the life lessons he learnt from his sister is what his upcoming film — Soul, scheduled to release on Christmas Day globally — is all about. The film, which is Pixar’s first with a black lead, is already slated to be a frontrunner for best animated feature at the Oscars next year. “My youngest daughter was like, ‘You’re Pixar now. You made it!’” Foxx laughs.

The answer to life, the universe, everything…

In Soul, the 53-year-old voices Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. However, before the gig, a small misstep takes him from New York to The Great Before, a place where new souls get their personalities and interests before they travel to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe joins hands with a precocious soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). As Joe tries to show 22 what’s so great about living, he begins to understand what he has taken for granted, and the answer to some of life’s most important questions.

Tina Fey as 22 and Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner in Pixar’s ‘Soul’

Tina Fey as 22 and Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner in Pixar’s ‘Soul’  

“It is exactly what I am now going through. Losing someone, but gaining a sort of joy of all the things that they taught me while they were living. The world has been here, billions, millions of years. So 70, 80, 100 years is what? The blink of an eye. Don’t waste your blink. Live your life,” smiles Foxx. Playing a jazz musician too was almost tailor-made for him. His prep included listening to American pianist Thelonious Monk and Jon Batiste, who wrote the jazz songs for Soul. He also drew from his experience of meeting Ray Charles, and playing the pioneer of soul music in his Oscar-winning turn in the 2004 film, Ray.

The movie (minor spoiler alert) also focusses on souls having mentors to help them find their calling. If he had a choice, who would he pick? “Muhammad Ali. He was really speaking truth to power. The minute he began speaking, people hated him. But by the time he finished his sentence, they loved him. I would love to know how he did it.” After Soul, Foxx also has Spider-Man 3 in which he will reprise his role as Electro.

Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner in Pixar’s ‘Soul’

Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner in Pixar’s ‘Soul’  

Shooting his shot

It is not just the awards — the Oscar, a Grammy for 2010 R&B hit, ‘Blame It’ — or his range of critically-acclaimed blockbusters (Django Unchained, Collateral, Baby Driver) that define Foxx’s career. Call him a multi-hyphenate (he is an actor, comedian, singer, songwriter, record producer, television presenter, fashion brand ambassador) and he is thrilled: “Oh, that’s a nice one, I’m going to remember that word.” He recalls an executive on In Living Color (a sketch comedy) telling him to “stick to the jokes” and that he would not be able to sing. However, with encouragement from (American comic) Tommy Davidson, he kept at it. When opportunities appeared, he took them, working with the likes of Kanye West, Jay-Z and Pharrell.

To young black men and women trying to navigate the entertainment industry today, he says, “Don’t get fatigued. When we were coming up, there was nothing, no facetime book, or snap crack, nothing. I find that today sometimes the artist sort of leans back and relies on just the social platform as opposed to pushing their art. Do not lay your art to the side. You have to take advantage of it.”

Jamie Foxx at the 6th Annual Culinary Kickoff in January 2020 in Hollywood, Florida

Jamie Foxx at the 6th Annual Culinary Kickoff in January 2020 in Hollywood, Florida
| Photo Credit:
Dia Dipasupil

Besides giving such sage advice, Foxx is also known and loved as the quintessential Hollywood man, a performer who loves to take centre stage. The actor’s house parties at his ranch home in Los Angeles are the stuff of legend, often frequented by musician friends such as Drake and Diddy (his glitzy BET Awards after-party a couple of years ago even saw Black Panther star Michael B Jordan raise a special toast to Foxx as a role model for his own career).

He still struts around town, his latest flashy, expensive toy in tow — a gold-wrapped Bugatti Veyron and a Rezvani Tank occupy pride of place in his garage — and you just know where he goes, a good time will follow. “I’m forever young, man. I’ll be very honest, my daughters are like, ‘This dude ain’t gonna never grow up’. I’m like a big kid,” he concludes.

Meet Tina Fey

A quick Q &A with the comedian, writer, producer, playwright and 30 Rock actor who plays 22, a soul that Foxx’s character, Gardner, meets in The Great Before.

What did you learn from working on a film like this?

I think Soul does a really interesting thing, where they go a step beyond just saying, ‘You’ve got to find your passion in life.’ They also bring up the idea that an all-consuming passion can overtake your life, and that being present is as important as achieving. Especially coming out in 2020, it is a year when we’re all taking stock of what it means to have had a good year, what it means to have been successful in your life. It now means taking small joys where you can find them and being present with the people that you love.

The movie is a love letter to New York in many ways. What part of the city did Soul best capture?

The look of everything! There’s this one shot where Joe and 22 exit a hospital and I feel like it is St Vincent’s, a [now defunct] hospital in downtown Manhattan. The amount of noise and visuals and energy coming at them is overwhelming to 22, and that really took me back to what it feels like the first time you come to New York. And you’re just like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is so much.’ I think they really captured the spirit of the city.

Soul will stream on Disney+ Hotstar Premium from December 25.

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