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In 'The Soloist,' Sean Daly makes his mark

Credited as the 'hand of Nathaniel Ayers,' the actor-designer says it was his job to capture the real-life character's creative flourishes.

April 26, 2009|Cristy Lytal

In the credits of "The Soloist," Sean Daly is identified as the "hand of Nathaniel Ayers."

Played by Jamie Foxx in the film, the character of Ayers is based on the homeless schizophrenic musician who inspired a series of columns by the Los Angeles Times' Steve Lopez.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, your hand's in the movie?' " says Daly. "And I say, 'No, Jamie Foxx and I have two very different-looking hands.'

"My involvement has been to give Nathaniel's character this very cohesive, overall appearance of one brain creating all of his works, from his props to his costumes to his environments that he moves into," Daly said. "I've been considered a character artist or character designer. It's almost like a new hybrid job."

In the past, Daly has acted in independent films, worked as a production designer, and served as a set designer for several of Annie Leibovitz's Vanity Fair photo shoots in New York.

Born in Boston, the youngest of seven children of a stockbroker and an artist-teacher, Daly recalls that his "household was always chaotic enough that I probably picked up scissors and markers way too early and was never dissuaded from using them."

With "The Soloist," which opened Friday, and the upcoming "Sherlock Holmes," Daly has discovered a way to combine the character work of acting with the visual artistry of production design.

Good penmanship: Since Ayers tends to write on his clothes, possessions and surroundings, it was up to Daly to re-create his font or "hand" on set.

"It was a little bit of something I had designed based on looking at Nathaniel's work," says Daly. "Sometimes he makes this 'W' that looks like the Walt Disney signature 'W.' And then every now and then, there's a big 'L' -- it's half cursive and half block -- and that might actually be pulled from the 'Los Angeles Times' masthead. And then I pulled from the art world. I looked at Joan Miro and Paul Klee, who have similar aesthetics. But my own flourishes stayed out of it. In fact, it's gone the opposite direction, where now Nathaniel's script has entered my signature."

Like a virgin: To create the designs, Daly spent a lot of time with the real-life Ayers.

"It was wild just to get to listen to his actual voice and his intonation, the paths of his conversation," recalls Daly. "We were at the Disney Concert Hall, and first he told me that I smelled like yellow light. And I was standing next to Catherine Keener, who he said smelled like Madonna. We couldn't figure out if he meant Madonna, God's friend, or if he was talking about the singer. And when she asked which one, he said, 'It doesn't really matter.' So just a really playful spirit is what I garnered."

Art cart: Daly built a movie version of Ayers' shopping cart, which is laden with his important belongings.

"We modeled our shopping cart after his original one," says Daly. "He's obsessed with America. So of course, he has this big American flag pillow. But the entire back of the pillow is like a big monologue and a prayer and an identity piece for him. And he's colored-in the stars, and he wrote the national anthem on the white stripes. But then he also has these two two-by-fours that come off of a wooden palette, and they say 'Brahms' and 'Beethoven.' And at night, when Nathaniel makes up his bed, he uses these rails that say 'Brahms' and 'Beethoven.' And it's just this beautiful thing that he tucks himself in under the stars with these musicians that he loves so much."

Wearing him out: Daly also worked closely with the wardrobe department.

"Say they wanted to write 'Mickey Mouse' on his collar, or they wanted to write just a couple music notes to make it look like it wasn't a brand-new shirt," says Daly. "If I was making any mark on anything costume-related, it meant that the next morning, I had to start bright and early to produce 10 of that shirt identically, so that just in case that shirt that he was wearing got dirty, they would have these fall-back duplicates. It was to the point where anything that got brought to me, they'd say, 'What would Nathaniel write on this?' I'd look at one pair of sneakers and think, Oh no! Fifty pairs of sneakers!' And because I had made those marks originally, the only person who could make them was myself."

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