NEW YORK — Jamie Foxx, who stars in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, knows something about the double-life of a superhero. Though he’s 46, Jamie Foxx was only born 25 years ago. Named Eric Bishop at birth, he adopted the stage name at a Texas open mic, choosing a gender neutral moniker since women were chosen quicker at the comedy club.
“When I go home, I’m Eric Bishop,” says Foxx. “And then when I go out, I put my cape on and I’m Jamie Foxx.” He smiles and summons a sonorous Superman entrance: “I’m Jamie Foooxx! I’m here to save the world!”
But being “Jamie Foxx,” he grants, can be exhausting: “You have to know how to pull back, especially for me because sometimes I’m constantly on.”
So it’s fitting that when the makers of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needed someone to play energy embodied, they turned to the perpetually “on” Foxx. In the film, he plays Max Dillon, the shy Oscorp electrical engineer who’s transformed into the villain Electro after falling into a pool of electric eels.
Foxx’s highly charged personal energy takes many forms. He’s a stand-up, a sketch comedian (see: In Living Color or his 2012 stint hosting Saturday Night Live), an Oscar-winning dramatic actor (the Ray Charles biopic Ray), a chart-topping pop star, and now he’s a member of the Marvel universe.
“He’s a performer in the deepest sense of the word,” says Spider-Man director Marc Webb. “When we were on set shooting three weeks at night in Times Square in the cold, he would get out and do Michael Jackson in the center of Times Square in his Electro outfit. The first day on set, he comes in and he just holds court. He does five minutes of stand-up that he’s improvising right there.”
In a recent interview, Foxx casually displayed his versatility, peppering his otherwise thoughtful conversation with bursts of impressions: the boxer Mike Tyson (he wants to play him in a biopic), a hint of President Barack Obama, a hysterical version of the comedian Mo’Nique (“Hey, baby, let me tell you somethin’!”), a Peter O’Toole-like English accent to talk about winning an Oscar.
“That’s my whole life, mimicking,” Foxx says. “It’s what I do.”
He also switches into Will Smith to explain why he wanted the part of Electro, recalling a conversation between the two in which Smith befuddles Foxx by traveling to Russia to sell a movie.
“I’m like, ‘Why are you’ll going to Russia? I’m going to Detroit,’” says Foxx. “But what he was doing was opening it up for a person like me to be able to go to these places.”
For Foxx, the globally popular Spider-Man is a way to sow a worldwide audience. The actor believes he landed the part because of the huge international success of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, (it made $262 million overseas), which Foxx calls a “reset button” on his career.
“In our business, we say, ‘How do you travel internationally?’ – especially for an African-American kid,” says Foxx. “So Django gave me a huge international look so now we’re talking about taking Annie down the streets of Rome, down the streets of Paris, down the streets of Singapore.”
“It’s an opportunity to put a flag down,” says Foxx, who this December stars in an update of Annie with Quvenzhané Wallis and produced by Smith. “I’m just laying down stakes.”
If proving to be a box-office draw internationally has sometimes been challenging for African-American actors, so too has entering the historically Caucasian realm of comic-book movies. Electro, who first appeared in a 1961 comic book, is a white man in print.
There was a small amount of backlash from some fans when Foxx was cast. Says producer Avi Arad: “There were still some rednecks in there.”
But for Arad and producer Matthew Tolmach, Foxx was an obvious choice. Aside from his talent, Arad says Foxx brings a “morale value” to a long production.
“He does capture the spirit of the franchise,” says Tolmach. “He gets people excited about what we’re doing.”
Foxx spent hours in makeup to daily transform into the blue Electro (an update of the green-and-yellow suit of the original), and studied Clint Eastwood for a menacing, gravelly voice. Webb, though, says Foxx also wanted to make “a visual statement” with his sheepish, bespectacled Max Dillon as “the first African-American on camera with a comb-over.”
Foxx had been in line to play Martin Luther King Jr. in a biopic written and directed by Oliver Stone (who directed Foxx in Any Given Sunday), but that project fell apart over disputes over the script with King’s family. “Not everyone wants to show every side of every hero,” says Foxx.
For now, Foxx is happy playing the villain. He hopes Electro turns up in the planned Sinister Six spinoff.
“I know that electricity, you can’t kill it,” he says. “It just goes in a different place.”