Raised by a loving but no-nonsense grandmother and mentored by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, the Oscar winner knows the power of self-discipline, family bonds and giving back.
By Josh Ellis
Jamie Foxx is really excited to find out I am from Texas.
He is from there, too, and like most people who move out of the Lone Star State, he is more than happy to talk about the place where he grew up. During our conversation he will reference Texas somewhere close to a dozen times. Foxx will even refer to himself as “Terrell, Texas” at one point when speaking about the simple, honest values of his hometown, which he believes allowed him to find and maintain success in Hollywood. He has lived in California now a decade longer than the 18 years he spent growing up in the country hamlet about 30 minutes east of Dallas, and even though he is sitting in his plush mansion in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, during our talk, he will go so far as to say “Listen man, we’re in Texas,” as if his whereabouts actually did momentarily slip his mind, because home is where the heart is, you know.
He thinks of his house as something of an embassy—built on a little patch of Texas soil right in the middle of SoCal. He says he is known as “The Sheriff” of the property. He’s constantly looking out for the good people under his roof, trying to keep everyone in line. Dozens of guests seem to come and go as they wish, and there are a few permanent residents now aside from the lifelong bachelor Foxx: his nearly 5-year-old daughter, Anelise; his two younger half-sisters, Deidra and DeOndra; his stepfather, George Dixon; and his mother, Louise Dixon. He has one adult daughter, 20-year-old Corinne Foxx.
To his little one and all of his friends’ children, The Sheriff is a disciplinarian. “We’ve got a big ol’ house, and 20 or 30 kids come over here—my friends I used to party with all now have kids. I tell them when they come over, they’re fixing to learn some discipline,” Foxx says. “It’s because of the fact I had it, and I know how good it can be.” The Sheriff will interrupt our talk countless times to correct his daughter from playing with her food, or getting too close to cars pulling up in the driveway, or fooling around near a cactus.
“Get away from that,” he warns her, grumbling under his breath. “That’s a cactus. It’s a type of cactus. All of these are cacti or from the cacti family. They’re just different types. Yeah, that one, too.”
As staunch as The Sheriff is, he is also forgiving, as evidenced by his willingness to welcome into his home the family that didn’t have room for him 46 years ago—the mother who lives with him is not the woman who raised him and instilled the discipline he so appreciates in himself.
After his biological father left Foxx and his mom when the boy was an infant, Louise realized she didn’t have the financial means or the know-how to take care of her son. So she gave him up to her own adoptive parents, Mark and Estelle Marie Talley. He, too, was adopted by the older couple.
Most of the work of raising him was performed by Miss Talley, already nearing 60 when Foxx was born. “E-Daddy,” as Mark Talley was known, was a stoic, quiet man, but Miss Talley was fiery. She was the one who taught him manners, who insisted he keep his grades up and, starting when he was 5, forced piano and cornet lessons on him.
“She was actually the catalyst in helping form Jamie into who he is today,” Foxx’s oldest, best friend Gilbert Willie says through an East Texas drawl that the entertainer only picks up around folks from back home. “Miss Talley was just firm. She believed that you get your books first, you study, and then comes your craft. Every day when he got in from school, he had to get his homework done and then practice music for so many hours. They basically just kind of forced and molded him to be better.”
When he was actively trying to build his celebrity profile during his 20s and 30s, Foxx was a party guy, admittedly—a drinker and whatever-elser who might stay up all hours of the night, surviving on youthful energy and a commitment to sweating out all the toxins with a furious workout the next day. “I used to be like, ‘Hey man, let’s get it all in,’ ” Foxx says. “When you get a fresh start and a chance to look at life in a different way, man, it’s always beautiful.”
These days Foxx has too many projects going on, too many people who depend on him, to live to such extremes. Duty comes first for gentlemen, which Foxx was made to understand at an early age.
While visiting Terrell with Foxx, California friend Dave Brown was taken to the star’s childhood home and shown the porch where Miss Talley would sit in the afternoon. “He said she sat right here,” Brown remembers. “He wanted to go and play outside, and she wanted him to stay inside and learn the piano. She’d say ‘Step outside and see if I don’t cut you in two!’ ”
Devout Baptists, the Talleys insisted their grandson attend church every Sunday and pushed him to perform during the services, singing in the choir and playing piano for their congregation. As he reached his teenage years he was hired to play piano and sing at private parties around Terrell and Dallas, earning a little pocket money. Eventually he began performing at a new church, making a cool $75 every Sunday, although Miss Talley regularly took the money from him and kept it. This was his money, and Foxx routinely complained to friends about his mean old granny. Then he reached driving age, and sure enough she had used it to buy his first car.
When Foxx accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005—his performance in Ray making him only the third black man to earn the honor—he joked that his grandmother had also been his first acting teacher.
“She told me, ‘Stand up straight. Put your shoulders back. Act like you’ve got some sense,’ ” Foxx explained. “We would go places and I would wild out, and she said, ‘Act like you’ve been somewhere.’ And then when I would act a fool, she would beat me—she would whup me—and she could get an Oscar for the way she whupped me, because she was great at it. And then after she whupped me, she would talk to me; she would tell me why she whipped me: She said, ‘I want you to be a Southern gentleman.’ ”
Terrell wasn’t always full of gentlemen when Foxx was growing up. Although he attended school and played sports with white kids, the town was almost entirely self-segregated through the 1970s and 1980s. While Foxx downplays the ills of the environment where he was raised, others shared the entertainer’s experiences with prejudice: He was harassed one day by a pickup truck full of rednecks who pulled a gun on him, Brown says. When playing piano for certain wealthy families, Foxx was treated like the furniture—told to play the instrument and not talk. “They would tell their N-word jokes, and he would sit there and have to take it,” Brown says. “But that toughened Jamie.”
Another time, just a couple of towns over, Willie and Foxx were spotted by kids from another school who thought them out of place at a tennis tournament—“Nigs! Look at those nigs!” they howled at one another.
In difficult times throughout his life, Foxx has leaned on lessons he learned from his grandmother.
“You stand firm, you stand proud—those were some of the things she instilled in him,” Brown remembers. “And always be respectful. Whatever the situation is, you be professional.”
Foxx has credited his grandmother, who died in 2004 at age 95, with his personal growth and the success that has come in every step of a show-business career that has now spanned a quarter-century.
Twice an Oscar nominee and a two-time Grammy winner, Foxx can sell out arenas as a stand-up comic whenever he wants and has also shown a talent for writing, producing and directing. Naturally he was Mr. Everything during his time at Terrell High School—a singer in his own bands and a record-setting quarterback, star basketball player and track athlete.
His first and greatest love was song, so he accepted a music scholarship to United States International University (now Alliant International University) in San Diego following his high school graduation. After he was settled out West and ready to chase a job in entertainment, a girlfriend urged Foxx to take the stage as a stand-up comic, and soon his knack for impersonations had audiences up and down the Golden Coast rolling. He set aside his given name, Eric Bishop, for his pseudonym, figuring “Jamie” was androgynous enough that comedy club emcees would see his name and (thinking it might be a woman’s) give him ladies-first-honors during open-mic nights.
“Foxx,” as so many of his Hollywood friends call him for brevity, was a tribute to the comedian and actor Redd Foxx.
Before long his stand-up success caught the eyes of folks in the television industry, and he was cast in two shows, including the hit In Living Color, where he crossed paths with Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez, among other up-and-coming entertainers. After stealing the sketch show by playing goofy characters like the cross-dresser Wanda, he won more and more opportunities: He made his big screen debut in the 1992 Robin Williams comedy Toys, and released his first R&B album, Peep This, in 1994. Soon there was a sitcom, The Jamie Foxx Show, which had a five-year run on The WB. The actor essentially played himself, an aspiring entertainer who had relocated to L.A. from little Terrell, Texas.
Just being himself has worked well for Foxx over the years: During his cinema breakthrough in Stone’s 1999 pro football send-up Any Given Sunday, Foxx starred as Willie Beamen, an overlooked quarterback from Dallas. He had been chosen for the role by a stroke of luck: Stone’s first choice, rapper Sean Combs, reportedly couldn’t throw. Five years later, Foxx’s piano background proved crucial to his playing the role of Ray Charles so authentically.
It’s no wonder the star believes things happen for a reason.
“Look at what my grandmother and grandfather did—you know, you never think about what your parents are trying to do at the time,” Foxx says. “Those Texas values, those values we may have thought were constrictive or hard on us, those things sustain you. You want your kids to grow up and do whatever they want to do, but you have to set their mind toward good development…. My grandmother was all about discipline, but she always said ‘I want you to go get your dreams.’ ”
Foxx has the self-discipline to continue working on his craft—he still practices the piano for two hours many days. His personal drive has allowed him to grow and evolve in the entertainment industry, but so has his commitment to treating others the right way. He has graciously accepted the wisdom and direction of those who have gone before him. “When I got to L.A., a big mentor for me was Quincy Jones,” Foxx says of the 81-year-old musician. “He speaks so eloquently about forging friendships with artists, and how to get the best out of this business. It’s not just the money, but how to really make it special and pass on the success.”
While his own fame was skyrocketing, Foxx did what he could to nurture relationships, even with those who couldn’t give him his next big break.
Just after his success in Any Given Sunday, Foxx was approached at a nightclub by an aspiring comedian, Samantha Nagel, who cracked him up with her Snoop Dogg impression. Foxx seemed to see something of himself in Nagel—a petite blonde, but herself a Texan—and it was the beginning of a 15-year professional relationship. Foxx has helped score acting roles for Nagel and promoted her writing career.
“Everything he’s done in the business, basically, he’s tried to find a way for me to be involved,” Nagel says. “He’s unique like that; he’s incredibly selfless when it comes to building people up. He’s just a warm person in general, too, and I think he engenders a sense of trust in anybody he encounters.
“One of the first times I was ever at his house there was a guy there talking disrespectfully, and Jamie just would not have it. He is all about being respectful to women—he’s like, ‘Bro, you gotta get up outta my house right now! You gotta bounce!’ That’s the Southern charm thing—Jamie just totally embodies that.”
Charming as he may be, Foxx says there have been times when baggage from his career has made him less than genteel. A Method actor who insists on immersing himself in every part, he tells me that his sister Deidra (who does his hair for all his roles) cites past characters Jamie has played when he isn’t acting his best in real life.
“She’ll be like, ‘Oh, there goes Ray again,’ ” The Sheriff admits, laughing as he spies a knowing nod from across the room.
Two roles in particular have struck close to home. In 2009’s The Soloist, he played Nathaniel Ayers, a real-life musical prodigy who spiraled into homeless schizophrenia. Touching off his longtime fear of going insane (which was exacerbated in college when he was hospitalized after a partygoer slipped a hallucinogenic into his drink), Foxx was driven to see a therapist by the production. He experienced paranoia and panic attacks during and after filming the movie.
“We do have a sanitarium in Terrell,” Foxx says, referring to the Terrell State Hospital, which opened in 1885 as the North Texas Lunatic Asylum. “That was always sort of the boogeyman.”
The starring turn in Ray wasn’t a walk in the park, either: Through his blindness, Ray Charles became a musical icon, but he had a dark side. His alcoholism, addiction to heroin, and shortcomings as a husband and father were the central conflicts for Foxx to explore.
The actor’s biological father has had scarcely anything to do with him over the years, pushing his offspring to convert to Islam if he wanted a relationship. His mother was around but knew there was a better place for him than her home.
Growing up, “He got a chance to see his mother and his sisters,” Willie says. “It wasn’t that he was being pushed to the side. She was young, and she was living her life at that time. She just couldn’t handle the financial end of it. She put him in a better situation with Miss Talley, who she knew would take better care and be a better person for him.”
As a younger man, Foxx admits, he couldn’t help but feel a void at times, which he occasionally filled with the wrong things. When he has bottomed out mentally or emotionally over the years, Foxx has relied on his friends and his upbringing to put things back in perspective. He’s been clean since the 2009 scare. “I don’t excess,” he says. “No drugs, no anything like that.”
“God was screaming at me with a bullhorn, like ‘You think you’re the center of the universe? Watch what’ll happen,’ ” Foxx says. “I went to some of those really dark places. But it was always, ‘Come on, man. Come on, Terrell, Texas.’ And luckily I had great friends like Gilbert Willie to say, ‘Hey, that ain’t what you’re about,’ and to quote the Bible and all types of things…. To be able to have those people who knew me before [fame], it’s cliché, but it’s real—they talk to me like, ‘Come on, man, forget all that.’ ”
For all the dark roles he’s played, it’s almost hard to fathom that this spring’s release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 marks Foxx’s first spin as a villain—his Electro character is a supervillain at that, a depressed former electrician who obtains the power to shoot bolts of electricity at any crime fighter who stands in his way.
“It’s a little zany, a comedic feel,” Foxx says. “But there’s still the caterpillar/butterfly of acting—you start out as one character and end up at another point…. To be able to flex those acting chops in a popcorn movie, it’s a plus.” The actor and his hairstylist sister have imagined Electro as “the first black guy ever to have a comb-over in a movie.”
Those who have known Foxx for years and have seen his own caterpillar/butterfly transformation—from life of the party to homebody—say he is happier than ever now that he’s surrounded by family. After plunking down $10 million for his country estate in 2007, Foxx began filling the 17,000-square-foot palace with the people he wanted to be around most—people he could help. He brought in his stepfather, George, who was coming off a 10-year prison sentence in Texas. George’s daughters with Foxx’s birth mother, Louise, came next. Though she is 16 years his junior, Foxx has always been tight with his younger half-sister, DeOndra, who has Down syndrome, and he relishes the chance to help take care of her.
“I don’t think Jamie likes to be alone,” Nagel says. “I think he’s kind of felt alone his whole life. I think talent as enormous as he has is a tremendous burden, and it can be isolating. Especially with fame, he’s realized that family are the people you can trust no matter what. He’s started accruing more and more of these close relationships in his life as he’s gotten older.”
Although Foxx’s older daughter was raised by her mother, Dad lived nearby, and the two have always had a good relationship. Corinne was Foxx’s date to the Oscars when he won for Ray in 2005. He was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, in Collateral, that year. Now that he has the chance to raise his younger girl on a daily basis, Foxx loves his role as a father.
At the same time, he is always looking for ways to help more kids and has opened himself to lessons from one of his own role models, the entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, whom he calls his current mentor.
“I’m 46, and I’m making money, and I’m this and I’m that,” Foxx says. “But he says to me, ‘OK, but what are you doing? What are you giving back?’ That’s the thing, a whole new ball game to me now. He’s been very instrumental in explaining to me how to navigate the politics of it and how to be effective.”
Today Foxx is a major advocate for children of broken homes—he has donated time and money to the California Community Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Youth Services Network (YSN), which comprises three small group homes in Southern California.
Brown, both Foxx’s friend and the Youth Development Coordinator of YSN, regularly brings teens to Foxx’s house for mentorship. “Being that he was adopted, he understood the work I was doing with the kids,” Brown says. “I take the kids up to Foxx’s house and let them see that life doesn’t just stop at whatever problem is in front of them—it gets bigger. They see the mansion, and go crazy, and then Foxx pulls them in and says, ‘Hey, I was adopted, too. I know what you feel like. Now, you still have your choices to make, and understand that every choice sets a path for your life.’ And the kids listen.”
One of Foxx’s favorite lessons to share with the teens is the power of understanding.
“I was explaining my story to them here a little bit ago, because these kids have been abandoned by their families,” Foxx says. “One of the kids is like, ‘I don’t ever want to see my mom or my dad!’ I told him if you do get an opportunity to fix it, go ahead and fix it. Just go ahead and try. A lot of times I would have resentment toward my parents. But then I was like, maybe my parents had their own personal things that were off.”
Through forgiveness, Foxx has been able to enjoy something as an adult that he missed out on as a boy: a real relationship with his mom.
“I used to send her plane tickets and ask if she wanted to come for Christmas, or whatever, and most of the time she wouldn’t come,” Foxx says. “Finally she came for Christmas three or four years ago, and I could just tell she didn’t want to go back home. She was getting older. So now we’re getting a chance to bond. And that’s what it’s about.”
As he ages, Foxx feels a greater and greater sense of duty to take care of the people close to him, fulfilling the Southern values that were such a big part of his upbringing.
“Sometimes it weighs heavy on you if you’ve got a family or people who are depending on you,” Foxx says. “You’ve just got to stay focused. And then you’ve got people who you lean on: I lean on my friends. I lean on my family.”
So what’s next? Chances are Foxx will be doing more work behind the camera. Last fall he made his film directing debut with a sci-fi romance short backed by Ron Howard. Titled …And She Was My Eve, it starred Foxx’s longtime friend Tyrin Turner building a Frankensteinian bride and featured Nagel as a villainous bearded lady.
“I want to be able to direct some of these fantastic actors and actresses who are coming up,” Foxx says. “After a while, you know, people get tired of seeing you in front of the camera. If you’re able to make that transition and tell stories the way you want to tell them, it’s a plus. I write, too—I basically wrote …And She Was My Eve.
“So I’ve got some things coming. I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, you know? I’m just a young Texas boy trying to make good.”