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Robert Downey Jr’s last movie earned him an Oscar nomination for playing a method actor in black face, and controversy for a speech about going “full retard” when playing mentally challenged characters. That film spoofed Hollywood, and with it the method actors who go overboard in performances as disabled characters to earn acclaim. 


His latest film, The Soloist has to overcome that stereotype to offer a sincere portrayal of Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic musician who dropped out of Julliard and wound up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. The Soloist is Ayer’s story, as told through the eyes of Steve Lopez (Downey), the L.A. Times reporter who discovered him on the street and profiled him in a series of features, and who ultimately wrote the book on which the film is based. 


Lopez’s columns captured the city’s hearts, leading one donor to give Ayers a cello to play, a shelter to offer him room to perform and a coach to resume the lessons he’d given up since college. In real life, Lopez was torn about exploiting Ayers for his own gain, and making a film about such a sensitive subject even gave the actors pause.


Robert Downey Jr. and katherine keener

“I just remember we all decided we were doing the movie and then Jamie [Foxx] and Catherine [Keener] and I were in rehearsals and it was about telling this story,” Downey told Dish. We were doing this last year, and at the time the newspapers were seeming like they might be becoming outmoded and all these layoffs and stuff. Hence, Steve’s thing about doing this film about Nathanial became sensationalized, and maybe that was good and maybe there were some kudos or some cache′ to that for him as a journalist. But it transcended that. Because their relationship transcended the book and even the movie- they’re still hanging out now. It’s not like once the movie rights were bought Steve said, ‘Hey my job is done’ or whatever in that typical L.A. fashion that might occur. I think that’s what attracted us too. We knew that these were good people who became friends in the most unlikely circumstances.”


As the title character, a showcase part for any actor, Foxx had to be sure he was not exploiting Ayers further. The Oscar winner could easily court more acclaim portraying a schizophrenic homeless musician, so he had to find more selfless reasons to do The Soloist.


“I think what really had me was on a couple of fronts,” Foxx said. “We wanted to tell a story about Nathanial Anthony Ayers and Joe [Wright] wanted to make sure we stayed sensitive towards the homeless situation in LA. We all had sort of different goals we wanted to achieve. In doing that, everything sort of clicked and then we figured out a way to make it work.”


Joe Wright and Jamie Foxx

Once he committed to the part, however, Foxx admitted he went a little bit crazy. “This was tough because you are dealing with schizophrenia. We are halfway crazy sometimes anyway, just as an artist. We go places in our minds and that’s why we are who we are. So the first day I had to go see a psychiatrist and I’ve had some things happen to me in my previous years where I felt like I was a little weird. So I walk into this guy’s place, and I really feel antsy about playing someone who has lost their mind. If I was to lose my mind, that is everything. All of my creativity comes from there. If I’m not able to draw from it, I would be nowhere.”


Now Foxx had to voluntarily allow his mind to let loose. “As the psychiatrist said, it is like taking your brain, when you are schizophrenic, and putting it through a meat grinder and then having to think. It is a very horrid place to be in as a person. 


I called my manager at 3 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘I know why he is the way he is.’ I’m buck naked in my bathroom on the phone with my manager, saying ‘I did it now, I know why he is the way he is. This is what’s going to happen. I’m going to end up going crazy. I’m going to end up getting fired from the movie. I’m going to be homeless, but I’m going to be a great piano player. I’m just telling you what it is. I’m not crazy, but I know exactly what it is. And I know why he plays the music, because the music soothes his mind and that is why he plays the music.’”


The soloist with Jamie Foxx

Foxx’s management were not the only witnesses to his immersion in the part. While he was working on the part, some of Foxx’s Hollywood friends observed noticeable difference in their friend’s behavior. “I remember being at a function where Stephen Spielberg was at and he looked at me and said, ‘Are you okay? Because I know this is tough for you playing something like this.’ I was thinking maybe he was reading something, because I was actually going through things- like I was actually knowing why Nathaniel was acting the way he was acting, which may trip you out a little bit. Because when he would say things like, ‘Green jacket, red this, blue jean,’ he was saying it to try and stay sane, but by saying it over and over again and saying it out loud it becomes, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? He’s insane.’ I understood that.”


Perhaps Foxx is on to something. The last time he went this far with a character, he won that Oscar. “Understanding what the character is about is a scary place because being that character you have to go there. I remember doing Ray Charles, and my friend Lamonte says, ‘How’s Ray coming along?’ and I went ‘I’m him.’ And he said, ‘No, I mean…’ and I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’m him.’ And when I got there I understood what it meant to be him. When I was Nathaniel Anthony Ayers for that whole year and not until a few months later, I would talk to [Downey] in some serious situations saying, ‘I’m kinda going through some things.’ And he would say, ‘Dude, I’ve been through it all.’” 


The Soloist

Downey is also known for his immersive performances. He tried to get deep into Steve Lopez, but found it was not necessary. “He said it would be a mistake to impersonate him and there wasn't time and it wasn't my job. I felt like my job was to observe and report and Joe Wright said I needed to witness this movie which was very odd, because I had so been the center of attention in a very overt way in a couple things I'd done before.”


Being the title character in Iron Man or the most outrageous spectacle in Tropic Thunder made Downey’s craft the center of attention last year. This time, he had to serve others. “To me, it was about having the humility to do what we are supposed to do as actors all the time, which is just be there and imagine that that's enough. At a certain point when we weren't quite sure what the boundaries were, I asked him [Steve] if I could cast his nose, and we cast his nose.  And I said ‘Let me see what Steve's nose looks like on me.’ And I said, ‘God, I kind of like that’ because I'd gotten used to all of this armature. I had had a suit on, or was African-American, and my mask was really easy. So I was asked not to do that. I think the thing this time is that even though we were all playing characters, we were asked to not wear any masks, which for Jamie must've been horrifying and insanely challenging and for us it was kind of like the usual thing. We just did what we are always supposed to do. We just did it in this really sensitive story that we felt a lot of onus on not blowing it.”


The cast and crew got to meet the real Nathaniel Ayers during production as well. “It was interesting because he would get to know you and everything would be great and then he wouldn’t know you and things would be different and then he would get angry at times,” Foxx recalled. “When he knew that this thing was about to happen for him [he would say,] ‘Oh, yeah, um, Jamie Foxx, yeah, I don’t know where they got him…’ I mean just different weird things. And, so, to see Nathaniel and Steve Lopez how they interact was interesting to me because Steve was a rock, and he had basically seen every aspect of Nathaniel. I would freak out like, ‘Oh, is he all right?’ So, it was great to see him light up, to know that this great thing was happening for him.”


The Soloist with Robert Downey Jr.

The cast knew they were on to something when they hung out with the real residents of LAMP, the homeless shelter that took Ayers in. They gave Foxx their stamp of approval.


“What I do remember though is the transcending moment,” Downey shared. “I’ll never forget this. We were toward the end of rehearsal and it had been really, really something else. [We were] never worried, never worried that [Foxx] was going to lose his aesthetic distance or whatever of any of that stuff, but I knew that he was riding that razor’s edge in a way that was appropriate, in a way you kind of had to. It was sh*tty but the job description was that you had to do that. Jamie, who really at this point was Nathaniel, came in and we were doing improvisation with all the LAMP members. It was when he came in and we all took our turns sitting in a chair in the middle of this room. It's when Jamie came in as Nathanial and in a spontaneously improvisational way, answered questions and behaved as though, and responded as though, Nathanael were there.  All of the LAMP members said, ‘That’s him.’ That's when we knew we were ready to shoot and that's when we went and started. The litmus came from the community.  They were always the democracy that had this final say and stamp of approval on this thing.  In a very, very odd, democratic way this film was enacted.” / Issue 94 - September 2018
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