Fifteen years after winning an Oscar for Ray, Jamie Foxx is firmly back in the awards conversation after scoring a SAG Award nomination last week for his heartbreaking turn in Just Mercy (out Dec. 25), which follows the true story of Walter McMillan, an Alabama death row inmate wrongfully convicted of murdering a white woman.
Sitting down for EW’s Awardist podcast, Foxx, 52, is thankful, both for the praise he’s earning for his performance and even more so for the spotlight that the attention is putting on his powerful new film. “If you are able to be in that conversation, it’s so rare and it’s so beautiful. There’s nothing like it,” he says, reflecting on his memories from the Ray awards run. “You never do anything for awards, but in a movie like this, you hope that there are as many eyes on it as there can be. Because, for me, these are the ones that really count.”
Set in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Just Mercy is based on the memoir of lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson (played here by Michael B. Jordan), who, upon graduating from Harvard, heads to Alabama to work with inmates on death row. It is there where he encounters Foxx’s McMillan. While Jordan had Stevenson on set to talk things through with, Foxx was left to his own devices, as McMillan died in 2013. But as a black man who grew up in Texas, Foxx felt like he had plenty to work with. “I love the South, but there is that racial component that we have to deal with,” he says. “I was able to draw from that, to draw from the matter-of-factness of racism.”
Foxx’s voice and lived experience also provided a helpful lens for writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, who was born and raised in Hawaii. When McMillan and Stevenson first meet in Just Mercy, the imprisoned man is skeptical of this Ivy League-educated lawyer from New Jersey, claiming he doesn’t know what it’s like to be “guilty from the moment you’re born.” It turns out Foxx gave that line to Cretton.
“When I met with Destin, I said, ‘Destin, you have to understand, I was just born. I had nothing to do with being born this color, but it’s interesting how much this color brings out rage, brings out anger, brings out happiness, brings out perception, brings out stereotypes, brings out a whole lot of things when you’re black,’” Foxx recalls. “Being black is the greatest — and sometimes the most difficult. Just being born, somebody hates me for that.”
In a loaded cast that also includes Brie Larson and Rob Morgan, Foxx is the one earning awards notices, but the veteran actor was just honored to be around to support Jordan, who, in addition to being the leading man, served as a producer and spearheaded a push for diversity. Following Frances McDormand’s 2018 Oscars speech about inclusion riders, which aim to improve gender and racial representation on both sides of the camera, Jordan announced that his production company, Outlier Society, would use the initiative on all future projects, with the first being Just Mercy.
“I was humbled to be able to work alongside him,” Foxx says of the Black Panther star. “I’m glad that Michael took this one on; I think it really speaks volumes. Young folks need someone like Michael B. Jordan to say, ‘Hey, let’s pay attention to some of these things, because we can change it.’”
Jordan previously told EW that he hopes people “feel something” when they walk out of Just Mercy, and his costar has a similar wish. “I just hope it opens their eyes,” Foxx says. “We’re not beyond reality, where everybody is suddenly going to lead the charge, but as long as it’s out there and everybody can rally around it, to where it’s not black or white, it’s just a human thing. This is a movie where everybody feels like they can help. This is the right kind of medicine that we need.”
For more from Foxx, listen to the new episode of EW’s Awardist podcast below.