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Skid Role

April 19, 2009|Geoff Boucher

In nightclubs and strip joints across the country, the song of the moment is Jamie Foxx's "Blame It (On the Alcohol)," a leering tale of bad boys, well, behaving badly. The hit certainly inspired a few smirks in Hollywood, where Foxx has become a respected star but also has a reputation for playing as hard as he works. So last year, on the set of "The Soloist," when there were whispers that the star was in a volatile place, many people assumed it was because he was having too much fun.

They could not have been more wrong, according to Foxx.

"I was in a bad place because I felt like I might be literally losing my mind," the Oscar-winning actor said of his immersion into the role of Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man and former music prodigy lost in the mad muttering and slippery reality of schizophrenia. The film, opening Friday, explores the bond between the real-life Ayers and Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.) and shines a compassionate light onto the indigent street life in downtown Los Angeles. But for Foxx, the subject matter became unsettling during the shoot because of very specific and personal resonance with his past.

"There's sort of a private thing for me, something I haven't really told many people about," Foxx said recently, sitting in a quiet corner of a Beverly Hills restaurant and talking fast. "When I was 18, somebody slipped something in my drink. And it ripped me apart. I had to go to the hospital. I mean, I was gone, it was the kind of trip that . . . you know you're losing your mind. I kept thinking, 'I can't live like this.' It didn't go away, either -- for 11 months, I had flashbacks. . . . "

Foxx looked rattled as he explained all of this, which is unusual considering his typical swagger and chiseled cool both on stage and in reputation. The 41-year-old is one of the biggest stars in America if you add it all up: His film success, the surprisingly potent music career, his own satellite radio channel and his persistent reputation in comedy, much of it earned with his popular namesake television show before he moved on in 2001.

On screen, Foxx has rarely looked truly vulnerable, even in his role as the ferociously talented and bitterly addicted Ray Charles in 2004's "Ray," which won him an Academy Award. But in the "The Soloist," there are points where an unsentimental camera lingers on his stricken face and the man on the screen seems very much like a person doubting the contents of his own brainpan. Now, if he is speaking without exaggeration, that is precisely what he brought to the role.

"I thought about just walking away from this movie," said Foxx, who suffered from panic attacks and bouts of paranoia during filming. Instead of bolting, he visited with psychiatrists, turned for help to the film's director, Joe Wright ("Atonement," "Pride & Prejudice"), and also educated himself on the mental-health realities versus the vaporous fears he felt as he studied Ayers in his element.

"I had gone and watched Nathaniel, I had a little bit of a disguise and I spent time following him and studying him when he didn't know I was there, and as I was dissecting and downloading, I got really worried, I felt all these things," Foxx said. "I went to a psychiatrist and I actually asked, 'Can I catch schizophrenia?' Now I know you can't, but I also knew I had this thing happen to me before, and it felt like it was going to happen again. . . . "

Actors are, by their nature, drawn to drama and all that goes with it, so a skeptic might wonder if Foxx is goosing his account to promote his film or slipping a bit into the voice of a fabulist. (He also inspires a roll of the eyes when he says things such as "Well, this one time I took too many energy pills" when asked about mistakes he's made or what he views as the public's misconceptions about his personal character.) But that's not the case, according to director Wright, who spoke in somber tones about the wrenching ordeal he watched the actor endure.

"First of all, the Jamie that I got to know is completely opposite to the public perception of who Jamie Foxx is, which is based on an image in comedy and music that he has created," the British filmmaker said. "That's an alter ego created as protection, and its wall of artifice is 6 feet deep. He is much more fragile than his alter ego. In the making of this film, I felt I had a first priority to be a safety net for him. We all came to see the risk he was at -- or the risk as he felt it. We weren't going to lose him into that dark hole."

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