(The Root) — Given his Texas roots, it's not a surprise that Jamie Foxx is comfortable around horses. In fact, the Oscar-winning actor rode his own horse, Cheetah, in several scenes as the titular character in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film, Django Unchained.
During a recent press conference, Foxx admitted to being scared when asked to step in for a stuntman and ride bareback on another stallion. "They had built this track — there were people at the end of the track ready to catch me in case something happened," he explained. "The horse turns and sees the truck with the cameras, and since he's used to the stunt person — [he takes off] 28 miles per hour!" A room full of media folks shrieked, and Foxx continued: "On the outside I look like Django, but on the inside I was Little Richard."
But Foxx pulls it off — left hand full of horse mane, right hand gripping a rifle. It's one of several scenes in which viewers will get that this isn't a typical slavery-era film. A horseback-riding, gunslinging former slave?
In case you haven't kept up with the avalanche of prerelease coverage, the film follows Django, a newly freed slave, and Dr. King Schultz, a white dentist-cum-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), as they plot to rescue Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from dastardly slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The Root caught up with Foxx at the Ritz-Carlton in New York to discuss how the movie may at turns leave audiences shocked, angered and — he hopes — ultimately enlightened about one of the most problematic parts of American history.
The Root: In the film your character, Django, rides horses and becomes a sharpshooter. How did you prepare for the physical aspects of the role?
Jamie Foxx: I had been riding for a while. Luckily my horse is just a half a mile down from me. I live in a horse community, so we often ride in the day. [For the film,] we did these tactical things where I'd chase a horse with my gun out. A rodeo guy would take you around, so you have to navigate your horse to get your horse used to being part of your body. And then [we had to be] able to pull the guns where you're able to be cool.
I've twirled guns before … this guy Thirl [Halston] — who's actually a draw champion — he comes up to the house, and he's a little white kid, with a belly or whatever, pulls out all these guns and stuff, and my boy, he's from Miami, and he's like, "How fast are you with these guns, man?" He's like, "Well, I'm a world-record holder." [My friend says:] "Man, you ain't no world-record holder, man. Let me see something."
[The guy] opens his case. There's a Colt .45, [and he] sticks it in his jean pocket and tells my man, at any point whenever you're ready, just point your finger at me. And before [my dude] could even point, he had taken it, released and put it back in his pocket. And I was like, I need all that. I need Django to have all that.
TR: How concerned are you about black folks understanding and being comfortable with the film's portrayal of slavery?
JF: Obviously I want them to understand it, but I don't want them to be comfortable with everything. When was the last time you saw a show or watched a documentary about slavery? My question was, why don't we ever talk about it? It's not supposed to be easy.
[For example,] the word "nigger" … I use the word all the time. I'm the king n-word user. I start my sentences off like that. So, what's up, Foxx? "Nigga … " then I go into my s—t. But [as the term relates to this film,] it's to start a dialogue. Man, that's what we really went through. As a matter of fact, that was just a label. It wasn't even a hot-button issue.
TR: What about Quentin Tarantino made you confident that he could get slavery right, given all of its racial implications for modern-day audiences?
JF: Could it be that Quentin Tarantino is a better director than some of these people, than some of these other directors? Could it be that he's just good enough to tell these stories? My question is, what director could tell a slave story and get it right and tell it in this way? When it comes to him, even Spike Lee said he's not going to say nothing bad about the film, which is big for Spike.
TR: Did you seek any advice from other black actors before agreeing to do the part? Or even ask Sam Jackson during filming if you're doing the right thing?
JF: Sam Jackson told one of my friends, if Jamie Foxx doesn't do this movie, he's crazy. He said this movie is heroic. When you see the slave pick up the whip, pick up a gun — you've never seen that in any movie. To see the slave kick that much ass, you never seen that. You never seen them on horses. I don't think that any of us are dumb. I don't think Sam, Leo, Quentin, Kerry, Christoph — all of us can't get all of this wrong. If I thought this was wack, I'd be the first one to tell you it's wack. I don't care who it is. When I read that script, I was like man, this is some dope s—t.
TR: With Lincoln and the upcoming Twelve Years a Slave, it seems Hollywood has a rekindled interested in that era.
JF: If you ask the average 18- to 25-year-old kid, when did slavery end, what will they say? [He shrugs.] I think that's bad. We got to take some responsibility, now that the movie is out, to spark the education; we gotta know our history. We're the only race who doesn't.
Ask any Italian, and they're like, "My great-grand and great-duh-duh-duh," or ask a Jewish person, it's the same thing. You ask us, and we're at the club. And I am, too. I'm like [singing Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything"]: "All gold is my chain, all gold on my ring." I'm on that, too, but is this supposed to be all we know?
TR: What films did you watch to get up to speed on the era and help inform how you'd play Django?
JF: I watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Tombstone; and the original Django. Then I watched Denzel [Washington] in Glory, Denzel in A Soldier's Story. At the end [of Django Unchained], it's a complete nod to Denzel when I'm talking to the Australian. [Mimics fast talking.] I watched Wesley Snipes in New Jack City — to me New Jack City was the ultimate black superhero movie.
I want to be Nino Brown. I went as Nino Brown for my 40th birthday. I had never been affected by a performance, ever. I didn't watch Mandingo. What I didn't want to do was have the old school [influence me]. I wanted this to be new school — even in my speech, [which] would go in and out when I wanted to speak a certain way. And when I wanted to speak more current, I would switch it up here and there. I didn't want this legacy left where I was [saying], "Aw, Lord Jesus … " I wanted this s—t to be fly.
Brett Johnson is The Root's associate editor.