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THE RIGHT ONE <br> JAMIE FOXX HAS CREATED A BUZZ WITH HIS AMAZING PORTRAYAL OF RAY CHARLES

An Oscar nomination, at this stage, seems a virtual given.

Only one other performance thus far all year deserves an Oscar nomination for best actor, much less the award itself -- Jeff Bridges in "The Door in the Floor." Liam Neeson in Bill Condon's "Kinsey" and Paul Giamatti in Alexander Payne's "Sideways" are two upcoming performances that would make for respectable company, but other obvious candidates simply haven't presented themselves yet.

In the grander schemes of eternity, an Oscar isn't all that much, but talk of it is the best way the movie world has to denote a performance that's as moving and as much an act of love, devotion, fealty and ambition as Jamie Foxx's extraordinary turn as Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's "Ray," opening Friday.

Buzz doesn't get any buzzier than that surrounding Foxx at the moment. For once, all the media beehive racket is announcing something worthy and genuine -- something, in other words, beyond its own volume level.

And yet the man talking to an admiring critic on the other end of the phone is so modest, respectful and likable that he often insists on calling the man he portrays "Mr. Charles" (even though the claims of love give most of his fans no qualms about referring to him as "Ray").

Few, before Michael Mann's "Collateral" arrived in theaters, had any inkling Jamie Foxx was up to the challenge of playing one of the most beloved and influential figures in the history of American music. "In Living Color," "Any Given Sunday," "Booty Call" and "Breakin' All the Rules" do not an Oscar-winner's resume make, not even if you throw in his panache as Drew "Bundini" Brown in Mann's "Ali."

But Jamie Foxx is just as disarmingly candid about his early ambitions as a member of the stock company of Keenen Ivory Wayans' "In Living Color" as he was conspicuously dedicated to his role in "Ray." But even there the vehement loyalist in him insists on treating his old employer on the same level, even though his performance in "Ray" puts him in another class entirely.

"When you look at me and Keenen Ivory Wayans, we do things as means. Meaning that when we did comedy, it was a means to get to television. When we did television, it was a means to get to movies. There were certain ideas Keenen wouldn't do on television, because he was saving them for movies.

"We all want to move to the next level. And then when you get to the next level you want it to be as open wide as you can. You want to set yourself up so that when they're making those decisions in that office about who they want to play something, they can feel comfortable that we can get to every type of role.

"It's always been our thing to try to be as choosey (about roles) as I could. But now . . . it's all coming. I talked to Lorne Michaels over at 'Saturday Night Live,' and he said 'Jamie, it's the projects that you choose. A comedian never falls off. An actor never stops acting. It's all in the projects.' " (His next film is a prestige project if ever there was one -- Sam Mendes' film version of the Gulf War memoir "Jarhead.")

A few observations, then, from an actor who has moved up "to the next level" -- and then some -- playing one of the indisputable legends of American popular music.

On whether or not it was intimidating to play so beloved a figure.

It was a little bit, because everybody knows him. Young kids, older folks, Quincy Jones, his best friends, you gotta make sure you get this right. Once I started to get into it, once it became feasible that I could really make it happen, I welcomed it. Like man, I can't wait for him to see it, so I could see the reaction to it.

So I spent hours and hours and hours trying to make Ray Charles the smallest, biggest performance of my life -- meaning (get) the small nuances: how he orders his food, how he talks to his kids, all the small things that people could be fascinated by.

He viewed the film in his own way before he passed. He loved it. Here's a man who had lived his life. He knew the end for him was not too far around the corner. To be able to get his family together, to be able to talk to his friends and then to be able to hear this movie and see this movie -- as he would be able to "see" it in his own way -- and be able to feel good about it, well it all happened the right way.

On whether he feels a sense of vindication after so many were dubious at his casting in the role.

We never really thought about the people who were out there sayin' "he can't" or "he couldn't" or whatever. You wanted to make sure you did the best job you could for the art of it so that the people who really counted -- like (producer) Stewart Benjamin and (director) Taylor Hackford who, for 15 years, had a great hunch about this movie -- that they were satisfied, that they could see something that they've been walking around with for all these years and see it come out right for them.

And after THAT, it's everybody else. After that, it's a pleasant surprise when a person says, "Wow, I really didn't think you could do it, man. Nothing against you, but I just didn't know if that was your thing." And then to see people in Toronto (at the Toronto International Film Festival) accept it and love it. That's when it feels good.

But you never try to do it just to say "I'm going to show THEM!" Because then you forget what you're really there to do. And what you're really there to do is create art.

On the decision to use Charles' own singing in the soundtrack rather than let him try to simulate Charles' voice. (Those who know Foxx's own singing praise him highly.)

If they had done it where I had to be Ray Charles singing, that would not have been as good, because he's the greatest. We definitely would have fine-tuned (his singing) to get it to where we needed it. But the fact that we HAVE Ray Charles, that's the beauty of it. That's his signature (on the movie). You know? Anybody in the world listening, when they hear that voice, they know it's classic Ray Charles.

On "soaking up" Ray Charles before filming.

I took a DVD of him home with me. Not him performing but just doing regular things. Just his sitting around talking to his family, ordering food, drinking water. Then I watched that over and over and over.

On winning his approval.

When I met Ray Charles, he said, "If you can play the blues, you can do anything." So he played the blues on one piano. I was on the other piano. Man, just to hear him play and say "YEAH! ALL RIGHT!" To feel that and have that is amazing.

(Director Taylor Hackford describes the moment in the published script of "Ray" available from Newmarket Press: "When I introduced Jamie to RC and told him that Jamie was an accomplished pianist, Ray immediately demanded that they sit down at two pianos and jam. Ray had set up two electric pianos, side by side, in his studio, and Jamie took the bait, sitting down to play a little funk and gospel.

"Ray matched him for a while and then started playing Thelonious Monk. Now Monk is brilliant, but he doesn't follow any rules; people used to think he was slightly mad.

"Jamie didn't have Ray's jazz background, so he was in trouble with Monk's complicated figures, and Ray didn't let up on him. He said 'Come on, man, it's right under your fingers, come on man.' The pressure was almost embarrassing. I started thinking this situation might just blow up in my face.

"However Jamie didn't wilt. He stayed with it until he mastered Monk's intricate phrasing. At that moment, Ray jumped up and hugged himself. 'This is IT! The kid can do it. He's the one.' ")

On whether or not Charles declared any parts of his life off-limits to the film.

He wanted to tell everything about his life in the most genuine way, and he signed off on it. When you're doing a biopic and there are some places they won't allow you to go, you can feel it. You know there must be something more to it. But he allowed us to get underneath his skin.

When he became aware the film's subject's health was in such dire straits.

It was after the film was made. He viewed the film in his own way. And then he said he wasn't feeling too well. Then he made right with his family, signed off on the film and walked off into the sunset, like any genius, any legend would do.

We all knew about. People were around just to make sure he was comfortable. Quincy Jones made a CD of (Jones') voice talking to Ray as he was passing away, a CD just for Ray of his voice just talking to him about when they met each other, how they hung out, stuff like that. It's a beautiful bittersweet thing that we celebrate the life of Ray Charles.

The spirit of this thing is so touching. And Ray Charles has blessed it. For everybody that's ever been a Ray Charles fan or has ever heard a Ray Charles song, they want to celebrate it.

Sometimes things come through in life. You just say "wow."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com