Foxx, Downey Jr. and Keener on The Soloist


Racing to meet a deadline, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was pacing the streets of downtown L.A. brainstorming ideas for his next piece when he heard a homeless man playing Beethoven. He stopped to listen to the music and didn’t know at the time that the chance encounter would change his life forever. After speaking to Nathaniel Anthony Ayers–a gifted, but mentally ill musician who attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York–Lopez realized he didn’t need to look any further for his next story.

Four years after befriending Mr. Ayers, his tale of living in skid row after once having a promising future is coming to the big screen in Paramount Pictures’ The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx as Ayers, Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Catherine Keener as Lopez’s editor and ex-wife. talked to the three stars about the Joe Wright-directed drama.

Q: Robert, how did you get into your character?

Robert Downey Jr.: I just remember we all decided we were doing the movie and then Jamie and I were in rehearsals and Keener and it was about telling this story. What was Joe’s approach to this as far as the realism?

Jamie Foxx: I think what really had me was on a couple of fronts. We wanted to tell a story about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and Joe wanted to make sure we stayed sensitive towards the homeless situation in L.A. We all had sort of different goals we wanted to achieve. In doing that, everything sort of clicked and then we figured out a way to make it work.

Q: It was sensitive, but your character wasn’t over the top in feeling sorry for Nathaniel.

Downey Jr.: Right. It’s a tricky thing. Particularly when we were doing this last year, the newspapers were seeming like they might be becoming outmoded and all these layoffs and stuff so initially in the story Steve and his wife and she’s his ex and they don’t work, but I think what Joe did and the biggest probably change we made was to let Catherine not only be my love interest/ex, but also my boss. I think that covered some interesting ground, but also the thing of where you’re in this position where you’re having to let go of people who do their job really well.

Catherine Keener: Yeah, well recently I’ve known a couple of Los Angeles journalists who have lost their jobs. You probably know some of them which is shocking because they have such credibility and credentials and that they’re outmoded now which is pretty surprising that it’s happening within the community of elevated journalists.

Downey Jr.: Hence Steve’s thing and doing this series about Nathaniel became sensationalized and maybe that was good and maybe there was some kudos or some cache to that for him as a journalist, but it transcended that. To answer the question , because they’re relationship transcended – the book and even the movie, they’re still hanging out now. It’s not like once the movie rights were bought he said, “Hey my job is done” or whatever in that typical L.A. fashion that that might occur. I think that’s what attracted us too. We knew that these were good people who became friends in the most unlikely circumstances.

Keener: I think there was a story, I don’t know if you shared this, but it was Nathaniel’s birthday and I think Steve hosted a birthday party for him at a bowling alley. I think that Nathaniel wanted to have it at a bowling alley and have pizza. I guess everyone came and there was bowling and pizza and Nathaniel ended up playing the whole night anyway. They are all tight still.

Q: Jamie you have a gift of embodying the characters that you play, especially those with meaning or influence. Can you talk about the journey into this character and the journey out of this character? How do you keep your sanity?

Foxx: This was tough because you are dealing with schizophrenia. We are halfway crazy sometimes anyway, just as an artist. We go places in our minds that’s why we are who we are. So the first day I had to go see a psychiatrist and I’ve had some things happen to me in my previous years where I felt like I was a little weird. So I walk into this guy’s place and you really feel antsy about playing someone who has lost their mind. In the back of my mind – if I was to lose my mind that is everything. All of my creativity comes from there. If I’m not able to draw from it I would be nowhere. In doing this it was tough because as the psychiatrist said, it is like taking your brain, when you are schizophrenic and putting it through a meat grinder and then having to think. It is a very horrid place to be in as a person. With that being said, I remember being at a function where Steven Spielberg was at and he looked at me and said, “Are you okay? Because I know this is tough for you playing something like this.” I was thinking maybe he was reading something, because I was actually going through things like I was actually knowing – which is a little weird, but I was actually knowing why Nathaniel was acting the way he was acting, which may trip you out a little bit. Because when he would say things, green jacket, red this, blue jeans, he was saying it to try and stay sane, but by saying it over and over again and saying it out loud it becomes, “What’s wrong with this guy? He’s insane.” I understood that. I called my manager at 3 o’clock in the morning and said “I know why he is the way he is.” [laughter] I’m buck naked in my bathroom on the phone with my manager, saying “I did it now, I know why he is the way he is. This is what’s going to happen. I’m going to end up going crazy. I’m going to end up getting fired from the movie. I’m going to be homeless, but I’m going to be a great piano player. I’m just telling you what it is. I’m not crazy, but I know exactly what it is. And I know why he plays the music.” And he said, “why?” [I said], “Because the music soothes his mind and that is why he plays the music.” When we – he’s a musician (pointing at Downey Jr.) so we have these crazy lives. His was more documented than mine – but when we have these crazy… when he played the music that was sort of his blanket so I understood what the character is about, but understanding what the character is about is a scary place because being that character you have to go there. I remember doing Ray Charles, and my friend Lamonte says, “How’s Ray coming along?” and I went “I’m him.” And he said, “No, I mean” and I said “No, you don’t understand. I’m him [in Ray’s voice].” And when he got there he understood what it meant to be him. When I was Nathaniel Anthony Ayers for that whole year and not until a few months later – I would talk to [Robert Downey Jr.] in some serious situations saying, “I’m kinda going through some things.” And he would say “Dude, I’ve been through it all.”

Q: For everyone, especially Jamie, please talk about experiencing Nathaniel and getting to know him, meeting him, etc?

Foxx: It was interesting because he would get to know you and everything would be great and then [pauses] he wouldn’t know you and things would be different and then he would get angry at times. But, when he knew that this thing was about to happen for him [goes into character voice] “oh, yeah, um, Jamie Foxx, yeah, I don’t know where they got him…” I mean just different weird things. And, so, to see Nathaniel and Steve Lopez how they interact was interesting to me because Steve was a rock, and he had basically seen every aspect of Nathaniel. So, when I would freak out like “oh, is he all right?” So, it was great to see him to light up to know that this great thing was happening for him.

Keener: I remember when I met Nathaniel, which was at the end of our rehearsal process, the week that we had, which we were all involved in, and I’d say twenty or so of the people who lived at LAMP and other people who ended up being in the movie – it was a beautiful week of rehearsal just kind of sharing stuff that you never think you’d have the opportunity to actually download with people. And then at the end of it, Nathaniel came in and he came in with his shopping cart and his cello and I went up to introduce myself and said that I was playing Steve Lopez’s wife, and I think he took that to mean that I was Steve Lopez’s ex-wife and then he started to talk to me and you know it sounded like it could have been mistakenly heard. And then we had a very lucid kind of conversation and at the end of it he said I reminded him of Jacqueline du Pré, and then he went into Beethoven, started talking about – just went dun, dun, dun, but it’s not unlike a conversation I would have with one of these two [points to Jamie and Robert and everyone laughs].

Downey Jr.: Nathaniel told me that I reminded him of the “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” which, by the way, like you were talking about makes connections. I realized that’s what people do. I know this one, I’m in a new environment – that person reminds me of Leno, who I was in Jr. High School with. And it’s a way of just being this kind of predictably irrational way for me, or I would imagine people that you sooth yourself so you can just be okay in your skin, depending on how high your anxiety is. What I do remember though is the transcending moment – I’ll never forget this, was we were toward the end of rehearsal and it had been really, really something else – never worried, never worried that you were going to lose your aesthetic distance or whatever of any of that stuff, but I knew that you were riding that razor’s edge in a way that was appropriate, in a way you kind of had to – it was sh*tty but the job description was that you had to do that. And, Jamie, who really at this point was Nathaniel, came in and we were doing improvisation with all the LAMP members. And it was when he came in and we all took our turns sitting in a chair in the middle of this room. And it was when Jamie came in as Nathaniel and in a spontaneously improvisational way, answered questions and behaved as though and responded as though Nathaniel were there. And all of the Lamp members said “That’s him.” That’s when we knew we were ready to shoot and that’s when we went and started. The litmus came from the community. They were always the democracy that had this final say and stamp of approval on this thing. Very, very odd, democratic way this film was enacted.

Keener: I remember that. That was amazing.

Foxx: That was a lot of pressure!

Downey Jr.: By the way, they were really good actors.

Foxx: They were better than us! They were in a circle and doing all of this improv and I got nervous. I was like, “Man, if I suck in front of these people…”

Keener: In fact, I think you went last, didn’t you?

Foxx: I did.

Q: I heard that Steve Lopez asked you not to impersonate him. How did you go about doing the character and not do that?

Downey Jr.: I never listen to anything anyone says about what I should or shouldn’t do! [laughing] I know he said it would be a mistake to impersonate him and there wasn’t time and it wasn’t my job. And I felt like my job was to observe and report and Joe Wright said I needed to witness this movie which was very odd, because I had so been the center of attention in a very overt way in a couple things I’d done before. So to me, it was about having the humility to do what we are supposed to do as actors all the time, which is just be there and imagine that that’s enough. At a certain point when we weren’t quite sure what the boundaries were, I asked [Steve] if I could cast his nose, and we cast his nose. And I said “Let me see what Steve’s nose looks like on me.” And I said “God, I kind of like that” and Joe said “Robert…,” because I’d gotten used to all of this armature. I had had a suit on, or was African-American, and my mask was really easy. So I was asked not to do that.

Keener: I did cut your hair though!

Downey Jr.: She cut my hair! It was fantastic. That was at rehearsal! But I think the thing this time is that even though we were all playing characters, we were asked to not wear any masks, which for Jamie, must’ve been horrifying and insanely challenging and for us it was kind of like the usual thing. We just did what we are always supposed to do. We just did it in this really sensitive story that we felt a lot of onus on not blowing it.

The Soloist opens in theatres on Friday, April 24.