Jamie Foxx unchained: Oscar-winning star talks starring in new Tarantino film
Despite the racism he encountered in his youth, Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx always knew he was destined for greatness, writes Neala Johnson
In his first meeting with Quentin Tarantino to discuss Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx flipped the script on the motormouth director.
"When he started talking about the script I said, 'Let's not talk about the script. Let me tell you about my life and how I grew up and where I came from'."
So Foxx told Tarantino about growing up in Terrell, a small city in Texas. He told him how, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the local newspaper refused to put the nation's first black leader on the front page: "He's not our president."
Foxx told him of the time he was riding his bike to high school when a ute pulled up alongside and a white man pulled out a gun and clicked the trigger, yelling racial epithets as he did so.
How the driver did a u-turn and came back to taunt him again. And how, when he finally got to school, the principal's reaction was: "Oh well. You're here now. Don't worry about it, go into class."
Foxx told the director about the time he went to get 35 worth of gas for his grandfather on the white side of town and was called the "N" word for the first time.
He was eight years old.
How his grandfather marched to the gas station and told the attendant: "This little boy is gonna be special. Give him a pass, don't be so hard on him."
He told Tarantino about his grandmother the maid, about "going through the back door", about asking his grandfather why it had to be this way and his grandfather replying that the older generation was enduring the hard stuff so Jamie could have an easier life: "We laid it down so you could do it."
"Because America is always about race," Foxx explains. "Good and bad, there's always a racial component to it."
To Tarantino, these stories signalled that Foxx understood: "He knew what time it was. He understood what I was writing, he understood what needed to be on screen and he understood how people should take it."
The director had found his Django.
Django Unchained is a revenge flick, a buddy movie, a spaghetti western, a comedy and a brutal splatterfest rolled into one.
But, most strikingly, it is about slavery. And that is why Foxx understood.
"Maybe for somebody from New York or LA or overseas, they would read Quentin's script like: 'Oh God! How could this have happened?' While I approach it like, 'I know it happened'."
That, and he always wanted to be a cowboy.
"When we actually got in the western gear the cowboy hats, the guns and we rode up on those horses, I looked at my sister who's from South Dallas, from the 'hood and her eyes welled up, like 'Wow, you're really a cowboy'," says Foxx.
"For people where we come from, you never really get a chance to see the black cowboy, you know what I'm saying?"
When we first meet Django, he is a slave in a chain gang being marched across Texas.
The gang crosses paths with Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter moonlighting as a dentist.
Schultz takes "ownership" of Django and the two strike a bargain - if Django helps Schultz track down three slave overseers, Schultz will help Django find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), master of the mother of all plantations, Candieland.
When Hit catches up with Foxx, he's only halfway through the Django Unchained shoot and he admits to having a hard time with the emotions brought up by the story.
"When you go back to the plantation where your ancestors were killed ... ," he trails off.
"You see, people don't understand the slave trade was 300 years. 300 years. If you had a ship pick up 100 slaves in Africa and travel for four months and it made it to the Port of Boston with 12 (live slaves), it was considered a good haul.
"So all of those other people were thrown overboard or died. They say sharks in the Atlantic Ocean still follow those currents because of the blood.
"It's a very, very serious undertaking when you talk about slavery."
That it was a white man doing the talking didn't bother Foxx.
"No man, Quentin Tarantino got so much black in him, you be hanging out with this dude you forget he's white! You start saying s--- with him and, 'Oh s---, yeah, you're white, dude!'
"It comes down to this: no one could tell it like he could. He also did Inglourious Basterds - he's not German or Jewish. So at the end of the day, you have to side on the side of artisticness."
Foxx uses the word "courageous" a lot when talking about this movie Tarantino's script is courageous, as is DiCaprio's performance as the plantation owner.
He doesn't go so far as to declare his own part courageous, but Foxx's forthright side (the side that joked on Saturday Night Live he was excited to "kill all the white people in the movie") loves the idea that Django Unchained will provoke a lot of, shall we say, interesting conversations.
"It's gonna be beyond interesting but it's necessary," he says.
"There's never been a western where they acknowledged slavery. There's never been a slave who actually picked up a whip and fought his master without saying, 'God doesn't want me to do it'. 'You hit me, I'm gonna hit you twice, hit you three times, gonna kill you' no one's ever done that.
"But like Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Candie's top servant) said, with all art comes controversy.
"This movie," Foxx concludes, "will be talked about for the next 30 years."
Foxx has always been outspoken as a kid his grandmother used to worry his big mouth would be his undoing.
Still, young Foxx believed when his grandpa called him "special".
"Oh, I've always felt I was special. From the time I was born I was like, 'I know something's happening'. I play the piano, I sing, I've been touched, I've been put here to entertain."
There is talk that Foxx, who won the Best Actor Oscar for Ray in 2005, may take on the villain role in the next Spider-Man movie.
If he does, it will be a 180-degree turn from Django, who, the way Tarantino talks about him, could be considered a superhero.
"Do you know what I see Django as?" asks Foxx. "How do you say, off the grid? He's connected to nothing.
"So it's not a superhero, it's a man who loves his wife in a time where taking a wife would get you killed. All he wanted to do is get his wife back.
"Once he gets his wife, everybody else can do whatever they wanna do. You wanna keep slavery going? Fine. I got my wife."
So it's basically a love story?
"Yeah, it's a love story, man. He (Django) doesn't wanna be a superhero ... but he has to put the cape on and go get his girl."
Except it's not a cape Django wears, but a vibrant, frilly blue suit that even Austin Powers would baulk at.
Originally, Schultz was supposed to give Django the suit, but Foxx insisted he would pick his own.
"Now, me being a slave, I've never had clothes. And me being black, I want the blue! You know black people like colours I need that blue!
"It gives us an opportunity within this deep subject matter to still have entertainment value."
As much as the actor threw himself into Tarantino's world, Django's quest for vengeance is ultimately not Foxx's own.
Despite the racism he grew up with "this stuff was every day," he emphasises and despite that crack about killing white folk, Foxx is not filled with hatred.
"Black folk don't have that muscle. We don't hate well, I'll speak for me. I don't hate the white man. I'm just born, I just happen to be this colour, there's nothing I can do about it. You, me, we're all born, there's nothing you can do about it.
"So as I journey through my life and somebody is mad because I was born this way, what sense does that make?
"I don't know if you've ever been to Africa, but ... " He does a right-on impression of a happy, dancing African.
"There are struggles within but most of the time ... " He starts singing and dancing again. "We come from that!"
Django Unchained (MA15+) is out on January 23.
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Cowboy dreams: Django Unchained gave Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx a chance to play a cowboy in a world of southern slavery.