Estelle would be proud of the man who sat across from me at the Setai hotel in Miami this fall. We met up in the sprawling 10,000-square-foot penthouse, with its view of the skyline and the sea. (Jamie was filming Miami Vice , which had brought him to Florida.) Between us, no subject was off-limits—whether it was fatherhood, race, or the years before he adopted his now-famous stage name and was still Eric Bishop, a church musician. Today Jamie is a 37-year-old dad to an 11-year-old, a bachelor who's not exactly looking—and a man who couldn't be clearer about his mission.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Jamie Foxx
Note: This interview appeared in the December 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: What has been the most surprising part of your success?
Jamie: Winning the Oscar. Everybody was crying. Speedy, a friend I've known since I was Eric Bishop, and all the other guys couldn't hold back. Because it's like this: Halle and Denzel are supposed to win the Oscars. Speedy and I were always just a couple of Wet Willies [pranksters] with cops harassing us. You know how our folks are: When one of us wins, we all just want to celebrate.
Oprah: Like in the days when Muhammad Ali would win a fight. Were you nervous on Oscar night?
Jamie: I wanted to be able to look back 20 years later and feel proud of what I said and did. I wasn't nervous but anxious.
Oprah: Which is why you were chewing gum. Do you know I have a whole thing about gum? In Mississippi, my grandmother used to chew gum, then stick it in the cabinet. There were rows and rows of Juicy Fruit and Spearmint. I was afraid of it. Even now I don't allow gum in the building where I work. So when I saw you chewing on Oscar night, I freaked out. I said to myself, I'm going to have to say something to Jamie—and if I have to, I'll take the gum. Finally, I said to Gayle, "I gotta do it."
Jamie: I'm glad you took it from me. You're the one who's teaching me how not to make the wrong step. I've been putting things out there just to stay afloat in stand-up and to carve out a niche—like, I'm a party guy, a ladies' man. That's the way I've always thought: You have to have a point of view. But once I met you and Quincy Jones at the party you threw for Sidney Poitier before the Oscars, I knew I was in a different ball game. Foxx had to grow up real fast. Eric Bishop has always known the right things to do and say; my grandmother raised me well. So at the Oscars, I just had to remember what I'd been taught.
Oprah: When you gave your acceptance speech, who was speaking: Eric or Jamie?
Jamie: A bit of both. Having a stage name is like having a Superman complex. I go into the telephone booth as Eric Bishop and come out as Jamie Foxx.
Oprah: How did you get that name?
Jamie: When Speedy and I showed up at a club to do improv, there'd be a thousand guys and three women—so the women would always get on the lineup. One night I put us down as Stacy Green and Jamie Foxx because those sounded like women's names, and we got picked. When you hear the name Foxx—as in Redd Foxx—you automatically think funny. Back then I had one question: How can we win in Los Angeles? How can we beat the other cats? Back then Speedy and I were like Batman and Robin. Comedy was our way of making money and a name for ourselves.
Oprah: Why did you leave Texas?
Jamie: I won a classical piano scholarship to United States International University [in San Diego]. I'd been playing piano since I was 5, when my grandmother said, "This is how you're going to make your money." Going to that school was great for me, especially since I'd come from a world where blacks and whites were separated by the town's railroad tracks. Every time I went across those tracks, it was like, How am I gonna speak? How am I gonna make money? How am I gonna deal with being called a nigger? But at the university, there were people from 81 different countries. I met people who looked like me, only they came from places like London and Senegal.
Oprah: Even though I was raised poor and black in Mississippi, I can remember only one time when I was called the N word.
Jamie: You're lucky. I was called a nigger almost every day in Texas. It got to the point that when I'd hear the word, I'd think, Okay, but I'm here to play for your Christmas party. Where do I set up? So when I arrived in L.A., I called my friends and said, "We's free! Black people here are makin' their own money, holdin' their heads up."
Oprah: Being called that name had to change the way you saw yourself.
Jamie: I'll tell you how it changed me. When I was 15, I went to play the piano for this white guy's Christmas party. He lived in a mansion. When my friend Chris and I showed up, the guy opened the door and said, "What's goin' on here?" I said, "We're here to play for your party." He said, "But why are there two of you here at the same time?" I explained that my friend had driven me there because I didn't have a license yet. "Is there a problem?" I asked. "The problem," he said, "is that I can't have two niggers in my house at one time." So I asked my friend to wait outside in the truck. "He can't wait on this street," the man protested. I told Chris to drive off, then return at 9:30 to pick me up. When he left, the man said, "Where's your tuxedo?" No one had told me I needed a tux. So he took me into this walk-in closet that blew my mind—there were rows and rows of jackets—and he grabbed a jacket with patches on it and gave it to me to wear. I said to myself, Maybe this isn't so bad.
Oprah: And you're there playing because this is how your grandmother had ensured you would earn a living. Did you play at Bar Mitzvahs and such?
Jamie: No, I had never even heard the word Jew until I got to college. I played for country folk with money—the people who ran the schools and factories.
Oprah: Got it.
Jamie: So as I was playing at the Christmas party that evening, the man and his friends were off to my right telling nigger jokes, one right after another. As I played, I felt like I was in slavery. The guy says, "Come on, man, we're just funnin' witcha." I'll never forget the lady who later said to me, "I want to apologize for them. They're just crazy." Afterward the man hands me $100, which was big money for a 15-year-old. When I took off his jacket and handed it to him, he said, "I can't wear that jacket now. Keep it." Since my friend hadn't yet arrived to pick me up—it was 9:15—he said, "You're gonna have to wait up the street."
Oprah: That does sound like slavery.
Jamie: For a long time after I got to L.A.—when I got my paycheck and my swagger—I had a rule: No more than one white dude in my house. Until my friends said, "Foxx, you've got to realize not all whites are like that. Don't fall into that trap." But from what I experienced growing up, I just couldn't trust whites. I'll never forget this one white cat I used to hang with in Texas. When there was just the two of us, he was cool. Then another boy showed up and said, "What you doin' hangin' with that nigger?" I was smarter than both of them. I said, "What is it about me being born that bothers you so much?"
Oprah: You're making me want to cry into a towel, Jamie. This is so sad! And to think this happened to someone born in 1967.
Jamie: So now you understand why, when I came to L.A., my friends were so important to me. I had no point of reference for what whites in L.A., New York, and San Francisco were like. My friends had to teach me the truth. They'd say things like "Nobody's calling you a nigger in Harlem."
When I look at the suffering we just endured in New Orleans, here's what I understand: Even if a cavalry had shown up, some blacks wouldn't have taken the help. When I visited there after the hurricane, some blacks said to me, "We'd rather swim than go anywhere with them." That's the mistrust that still exists. That's the sickness we carry with us as a country. I'm working on a stand-up piece now about what I call slave residue.
Oprah: When I was on trial in Texas, the black men who were with me had a completely different experience from the one I had. My hairstylist said, "I couldn't stay here, even for the weekend."
Jamie: Most men want the admiration of women—their smiles, their attention, their interest. That's why we beat our chests; that's why we play basketball and football. We want to know how you feel about us. Black men seem to do all the things that women are enamored of effortlessly. So in order for white men to maintain the upper hand, they feel they have to clip our wings. Here's what scares some white people: We are survivors. Blacks just never go away.
Oprah: I get it. Did all the racism you endured make you bitter?
Jamie: Definitely. But it wasn't until I got to California that I had other blacks tell me, "Man, you've gotta let that go." In one sense, I'm glad I had the experiences that I did in Texas, because now I can spot racism in a way that those who grew up in California cannot.
Oprah: You're glad about that blatant racism?
Jamie: It allowed me to understand the years and years of slave residue that is still with us. In this country, blacks have been treated like second-class citizens. So when New Orleans fell apart after Katrina, it didn't surprise me.
Oprah: Are you still angry?
Jamie: More puzzled than angry. I look at the ocean and how big the world is, and I still can't understand why being black makes some people hate me.
Oprah: It's smallness on the part of the hater. Every culture around the world has its way of putting certain people down. You must be one bad mamma jamma to overcome all that and accomplish what you have. What were you feeling on the night of the Oscars?
Jamie: I knew this could be a time when we'd feel proud collectively. People from my hometown had low self-esteem until they'd meet the New York or L.A. cats who knew so many different things, like how to tip. For black folks, this victory was that kind of self-esteem boost.
Oprah: You represented possibility. How did your life change the next day?
Jamie: I was floating! Suddenly, there was respect for my craft. I had to go into humble mode. It was like winning the Super Bowl, the NBA championship, and the Stanley Cup all at once—and with my daughter there beside me.
Oprah: Wearing her gloves. You know what I was so happy about? I was happy that your daughter wasn't 5 or 7, but 11. She will remember that evening for the rest of her life.
Jamie: It was fabulous. I look for every opportunity to strengthen my bond with my daughter. As a father working in Hollywood, I know there will be many times when I have to be away from her. We video chat all the time.
Oprah: What's your responsibility as a father?
Jamie: Connecting with my daughter is the most important thing in my life—the priority. I want to be a man who shows up for her. I want to have such a big influence on her, so that she knows she can call me about anything, which she does. "Daddy, the dog is dying—can you do something?" "It's not gonna die," I told her.
When my daughter was 6, her mom and I were having some challenges, and at that point, it would've been so easy for me to say "Forget this. I'm Jamie Foxx. I don't care what you do. I'll just send the check." But instead of pulling back, I moved toward my daughter.
Oprah: What made you do that when you didn't have a role model for it in your own life?
Jamie: I did have a role model. Although my parents weren't around, my grandparents adopted me when I was 7 months old. I was never short on the love of a mother and father, though it came from an earlier generation of family.
Oprah: I have a friend whose parents gave him up to his grandmother when he was a baby. His mother lived in the next town over, and every Christmas and before every school play, he was always hoping she'd show up. Did you feel that way?
Jamie: I wanted my mom to show up, but for a different reason: She was so fly and good-looking. We were country [Jamie mimics a country-western fiddle], but my mom was straight city. She had the new hair, the gold earrings, the Sting Ray Corvette.
Oprah: How did your father's absence affect you?
Jamie: Again, I was puzzled. Why couldn't he drive 28 miles to check on a son who passed a football more than 1,000 yards? I think some of his absence has to do with his being a Muslim. He drew a line in the sand: "I'm a Muslim, and since you're not, I can't be your father." During our last conversation, which was after my grandmother passed, I said, "Listen, I understand observing your religion, but is that worth missing out on your son's life?"
Oprah: What was your relationship like before that conversation? Was he completely out of your life?
Jamie: Yes, and he's not in my life presently. It's not necessary.
Oprah: Even though you had your grandparents, did not having your father leave you with a hole?
Jamie: No. I don't really even know what my biological father is like. I don't know what his favorite food is. I don't know his quirks. Same with my mother. But I know that the two people who raised me cared deeply for me.
Oprah: And you honestly never missed your parents?
Jamie: Well, maybe I missed my mother a little.
Oprah: Is she still alive?
Jamie: Yes. We don't talk.
Oprah: Your sister lived with your mom. Did you ever wonder why she took your sister but not you?
Jamie: Not at all. Because I'm older than my sister, it's not like she chose to keep one and not the other at the same time.
Oprah: What was life like in your town? Were you poor or really poor?
Jamie: We were on a fixed income. I got free lunch at school.
Oprah: But you had running water and an inside bathroom?
Jamie: Oh, yes. Our neighborhood was a black Pleasantville. No crime. No killing. There might've been a fistfight.
Oprah: Did you have little petunias in the yard?
Jamie: Yes, and my grandmother was serious about those flowers! [Jamie mimics his grandmother.] "That little ol' mean-ass dog is in my flowers."
Oprah: What's the most important lesson she taught you?
Jamie: My grandmother was a confident woman. I think about what she must've endured during the sixties, when she was starting her own day care business. She could walk into a bank filled with white folks and say, "Let me speak to so and so." She knew who she was. And with the love she and my grandfather extended to me, she passed on that confidence.
Oprah: Did you go to church every Sunday?
Jamie: Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, you name it. I was the minister of music, so I had to be there. We learned everything in church, even about kissing your first girl.
Oprah: What was your dream for yourself?
Jamie: I just wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be like Lionel Richie. Like the Winans and the Clark Sisters and Commissioned—they were the first gospel group who could make the girls come down to the altar; they were the fly guys.
Our town had some of the most incredible singers you'll ever hear. Steve Hardy, who sang at my grandmother's funeral, taught me. When he sings, he moves the earth a little bit. Once when my agents heard Steve sing, they were hugging people they didn't know. They were like [Jamie in his imitation white man's voice], "Man, these black folks! Jamie, I have never in my life felt this way! The emotion! I'm thinking we could do a TV series or something." They were moved, man.
I'll never forget looking at Steve Hardy's hands when I was a kid. He had these knuckles—the kind that look like he could fight. He was a spiritual man who'd say, "God doesn't want us fightin'"—but then he might add, "But God does tell us to defend ourselves." When I was a kid, I thought, If I could just be like that, I'll be all right.
Oprah: My fame has been so gradual that I feel I'm the same person I've always been. After you won the Oscar, did you immediately notice people treating you differently?
Jamie: Yes, and I called them on it: "What in the hell is your problem?" After the Oscars, I went to the music studio to work on a record with some producers, guys I've known for years. That's when I realized these guys weren't talking to me. Later I discovered one of my guys was going around telling people he was my new manager. So he'd said to these producers, "Jamie Foxx just won the Oscar, so he ain't paying y'all." These are producers I've known for years!
I've learned to do what I call kill the beast. You say fame hasn't changed you, Oprah? That's because you've killed the beast of who you could become. You could walk around saying, "I'm the powerful Oprah Winfrey." Of course, there are times when you have to pull someone aside and let them know who you are. That's exactly what I had to do with that dude—"You've got to go. If I'm gonna mess up, I'm gonna mess up for myself."
Oprah: That's good, Jamie.
Jamie: After the Oscars, a hotel invited me and my crew to be their guests. "We'll give you the whole tenth floor," they said, "because we want your stay to shed some good light on our establishment." When I left the hotel and returned, I was told that the entire floor had been seized by the cops. For what? "Because one of your people got into it with his wife." Then everyone was saying, "Jamie Foxx is killing somebody's wife."
Oprah: So that's where those stories came from! There were rumors that you were losing your mind. Turns out it was some of your people who'd lost their minds.
Jamie: Lost! That's why I've got to be careful when I say "we" won the Oscar. Some of my folks couldn't handle that.
Oprah: Not everyone's ready for prime time. That spot has to be earned.
Jamie: Right. I'm in uncharted territory, and while I don't know everything, I do know this: Killing the beast is the most important thing. If I keep my head on straight, who cares what everybody says?
Oprah: Exactly. Would you say your head's on straight, Jamie?
Jamie: Completely. I might be in a Lamborghini at the club, just kickin' it and thinking everything's the same, but it's not.
Oprah: It's not that you change, but that everyone around you does—and they expect you to be different as well.
Jamie: Fame can be overwhelming. I've had people show up at my hotel and say, "God told me to come talk to you."
Oprah: My line is, "Well, God never told me." Do you feel like you have to carry yourself differently now?
Jamie: Around certain people. Someone's always looking to see if I've made a mistake.
Oprah: If you were completely unleashed—Eric Bishop and Jamie Foxx together—would we recognize that person?
Jamie: That is the person you see. There's nothing to unleash, because I don't get off on the beast thing like some people do. I've worked with people who actually enjoy being the worst human being they can be. That's crazy.
Oprah: Are you aware of your power?
Jamie: Sometimes I'm not—and that can hurt me. I just want to be the dude next door.
Oprah: But you're not. Can you believe all that has happened to a little black boy from Terrell, Texas, who endured racial insults almost every day?
Jamie: I can believe it.
Oprah: Is there a mantra or phrase you'd use to describe yourself?
Jamie: I think of myself as concentrated Kool-Aid—the kind in the packet. [Once you stir it up, it changes everything around it.] Hundreds of years ago, the slaves sent a message to a kid named Eric Bishop—a boy they knew could grow up to inspire a generation. I want to do great things with great people.
Oprah: Do you think all people are created equal?
Jamie: No. If that were true, there'd be no poverty, no shortcomings.... We're all energy. Some people are stronger forces than others.
Oprah: I love that. That's what I know for sure. Do you think about how you can best use your energy force in the next five, ten, or 15 years?
Jamie: I leave the door open. I never planned to win an Oscar. When I auditioned for Ray, I was just thinking about what a great project it would be.
Oprah: How do you approach acting?
Jamie: I completely step into the role. I'm working on Miami Vice right now, and the minute I was told I had to lose weight, boom, the weight was gone. When you take on a role, there's no formula; you just have to keep working until you perfect the characterization.
Oprah: Who taught you that?
Jamie: Cats like Will Smith. He once told me, "Don't leave anything to chance."
Oprah: Were you acting during your years on In Living Color, when you were performing the Ugly Wanda sketches?
Jamie: That was just fun. But you know what Keenen Wayans taught me? He said, "Take this time to work on your acting skills. Even in those little 30- or 40-second Ugly Wanda sketches, there's acting. You've gotta make people care."
Oprah: You're 37. Do you think the world is a better place than it was 20 years ago?
Jamie: The world is fragile right now. When I was a child, you needed education to have power. Now anything goes.
Oprah: How do you define manhood? I don't think you're a man until you're at least 32. Do you agree?
Jamie: No. I've had to be a man since I was 12 or 13. I had a job. And I was playing the piano for people twice my age. Handling responsibility is what makes a man a man.
Oprah: I once talked with a man on my show who said something I'd never heard: "Every father has a dream for his family." He believed that most men worry about meeting family responsibilities.
Jamie: I worry. When I make decisions, I'm not just thinking for myself.
Oprah: I can't imagine what it's like to be you—to drive down the street and have women wearing their panties on their head for you.
Jamie: That's the easy part. What's tough is developing the backbone to challenge other men when you know they're doing wrong.
Oprah: But are the panties a good thing?
Jamie: A great thing! I'm not going to sit here and say, "As a matter of fact, Oprah, I detest the panties."
Oprah: But after a while, doesn't that get old?
Jamie: No! A man doesn't want to lose his mojo. I just have to regulate myself. It takes discipline. When Bill Clinton messed up, I thought, Wow, dude, you couldn't handle the panties. That's why there will always be an asterisk by his name. You've got to be able to navigate the panties.
Oprah: Do you think about getting married?
Jamie: Of course.
Oprah: So you want to get married?
Jamie: I said I think about it. That's very different from saying I want it.
Oprah: Brian McKnight has said that you're the guy to call for a great party.
Jamie: That's true. I invite artists like Whitney and Bobby, Puff, Jay-Z, and let them do their thing. In my living room, I've had Mos Def breakin' down hip-hop and Eminem breakin' down what it's like to be white. I've had Lil' Kim giving commentary on the R. Kelly situation. I've had Brian McKnight singing a Justin Timberlake song before the song came out. And I've got it all on video camera.
Puffy says, "Yo, I throw the best parties." But his elaborate parties cost him two or three million. With just $430, I can guarantee you the most incredible time of your life. Just give me two hours to pull it together. I'll order some Kentucky Fried Chicken, take it out of the bucket and put it on a plate, set out some kolah, k-o-l-a-h, in little cups, and we're on.
Oprah: So what's true and what's not? Are you a crazy party guy and a ladies' man?
Jamie: No.Yeah. No. Yeah.
Oprah: Enough said. The theme of this issue is pleasure. What brings you real pleasure?
Jamie: A sense of accomplishment. I love to plant a creative seed and watch it grow into an idea the whole world can enjoy. In that moment, I think, Wow, I did that.
Oprah: Will you continue doing stand-up?
Oprah: I've heard that if you take too long of a break from it, you lose your edge.
Jamie: True. That's why I've put the pressure back on my comedian friends, guys like Chris Rock and Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer. I'm like, "Don't let this Oscar thing fool ya'. If I catch you in a club, I'm gonna let you have it."
Oprah: What do you want for your career?
Jamie: I want to maintain the integrity of my work while having some fun along the way.
Oprah: Do you feel like you've made it?
Jamie: I've proved that I can handle the work, no matter what it is.
Oprah: And are you indeed having fun?
Jamie: Yes. It's incredible. Sometimes I'll just sit on the set of Miami Vice, and a sentence will cross my mind: "And the Oscar goes to..." Whenever I go back to that moment, I know that everything is cool.