Wrongly-convicted Death Row prisoner Walter McMillian may have tragically lost most of his life to a broken justice system, but McMillian’s story lives on in both the memoir of his tireless lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, and now in the film it inspired: Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy. Jamie Foxx plays McMillian—a man without hope, facing both the electric chair and the endemic racism in Alabama that condemned him—when a young, idealistic Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) decides to fight his case. Having experienced the incarceration of his own father, Foxx brought a deeply heartfelt perspective to the role.
DEADLINE: How did you first get on board the film?
JAMIE FOXX: Michael B. Jordan called me. I’ve known Michael B. Jordan since he was tiny. If he ever needed anything I was always there, which is just a thing that I do. And in this situation, he called and said, “Listen, I would really love for you to take on this role.” He was so eloquent. I mean, whatever he was going to ask me I was going to say yes anyway. But when he told me about what it was… if you look at his body of work, when he did Fruitvale Station, I thought that was amazing because it allowed a narrative that he could always go back to, talking about what’s going on with us, some Black folk. Those stories that are so important. And then what he did in Black Panther was still that narrative of us feeling good about ourselves. And now, along comes Just Mercy with Bryan Stevenson. I said, “It’s beautiful that you have this that you can go to and let us feel good about something.” And I said, “I want to be a part of it.” And I was humbled by it. And then we started working.
DEADLINE: What were those early conversations with Destin?
FOXX: It was interesting because with Destin being from Hawaii it’s, “Howzit brother, howzit sister? Shaka Brah.” He was still grasping what the South could be like. You know, me coming from the South, being from Texas, I was able to tell him some private things, like when it comes to the element of race, it’s an everyday thing. Being a Black person, you have to speak different languages. If I’m at home I can be myself. The minute I leave that door I’ve got to be something else. Because anything can happen to me.
No matter what financial status I’m in, no matter what I’m in. Being a Black person, because of [that] perception, things could go bad for me. And sometimes, when you’re explaining this to people, they look like, “Ah, come on. It’s not like that all the time.” But he [Cretton] was like, “I really want to know this.” And it was beautiful talking to him, because the simplicity with which he told the story I think is fantastic. Because we tell stories about the Black humanity, or things that go on in our community, and sometimes we can maybe overshoot the runway with the Black statement.
He was able to take what we were talking about, take the things that meant the most to us, and make sure that it’s set inside a beautiful artistic box that everyone could join on board. Meaning when you watched the movie, I thought it was poignant the way the white characters had contrition. The correctional officer was like, “Man, this is wrong.” You can see it on his face. Even the prosecutor, Rafe [Spall]’s character, was like, “This is just wrong.” I think those moves, those beautiful small things that Destin did were so important to the story. That allows everyone in.
DEADLINE: The scene where you and Michael are meeting in the prison for the first time is incredibly tense. How did you create that with him?
FOXX: Basketball. And what I mean by that is that he hoops and I hoop, right? So when you’re playing basketball, even on this artistic basketball court, we shoot the shot, all of those different things sort of come into play. So what was great about working with Michael is that we practiced, we rehearsed. So by the time we got there, knowing the text and everything like that was second nature. Now it was a matter of taking what we know inside of us as far as character development to bring it to life.
I know people that have been to prison and my father was in jail. The loneliness of like, how am I here? How could this be? And it’s simply because I fit the description. So, we knew that we had to entertain, make the scene work, but also it was speaking for people. We speak for a lot of people in that situation. People don’t understand. There are so many Black men in jail, Black people period in jail.
DEADLINE: Walter doesn’t want Bryan to help him at first.
FOXX: The last thing you can give a person on Death Row… You go see someone in prison, it’s one thing. It’s a different skin. But when you’re on Death Row, when I visited Death Row before, the last thing you can give them is hope. I don’t want hope. I don’t want any, I want to live minute-to-minute, day-to-day in just this moment. But to hope is the worst thing. That’s what Walter was trying to explain to him. Don’t come in here and give me hope.
DEADLINE: How was the experience of visiting Death Row in the past and of being in those cells for this film?
FOXX: The Death Row that I went to, San Quentin. You remember in Silence of the Lambs? When he looks at Jodie Foster and he goes, “You’ll do fine,” and you see that the minute that door closes, it’s a different world. The people that are behind those bars, not everybody’s innocent. This is the people that have done bad crimes.
The people that they hire to deal with those people are different. It’s not just an average correctional officer. These guys have backgrounds in psychotherapy, so you definitely feel the difference because you know it’s death. It’s people that are there for a reason. When I met the guy I was supposed to be playing at that time, he came in with shackles, two shotguns flanked him, it’s a lot different. That being said, the Death Row back then where these guys were [in Just Mercy], it was even more diabolical because the cells were right next to where they are being executed. So they can smell the smell of the burn. It was a torturous thing.
DEADLINE: Sadly, Walter has passed away, so how did you build a clear picture of him? Through Bryan? Through the family?
FOXX: I call it a blessing to be able to look at someone or hear a few things about them and start to wrap the skin around them. And if you look at Walter, we are from the same tribe. We have the same cheekbones, the diamond-shaped head, the haircut that he had, I had the haircut in the ’80s. There are pictures. I can show you we looked exactly the same. I know this sounds weird, but J.T. From Kool & The Gang has the same kind of head. That and then talking to Bryan and him explaining that Walter was just any Black man from the South that just wanted to do right. Then once he got into the prison, he was still trying to be a light for some of these guys. He had a great spirit. Then it was just finding the way he talked. Me being from Texas, man, when we talk it’s something different. And that was Destin, myself and Michael sitting in the room, finding out what’s the best way to approach that so it doesn’t come off caricature-like. And then finally, anybody will tell you the spirit of that person has to come visit you. So, you sit with your fingers crossed that Walter will step in at some point. And then once we started, Walter was there, Bryan was there, everything was there. And you just feel like, “Oh, here he is.”
DEADLINE: What kind of feedback did you get from the family and how did you feel anticipating them watching the film?
FOXX: That’s an intricate dance, because you still have to do the movie and you want them to feel good about it, and you feel great when they come up and say, “That was Walter.” I remember doing Ray and a lady that used to be with Ray Charles on the road walked in and saw me as Ray. So those moments when the family goes, “Wow, that’s really him.” That’s when you feel like you’ve done at least that part right. Getting them to where they see their family member brought to life on film.
DEADLINE: How did you cope with the weight of telling this story?
FOXX: It’s tough. Especially in today’s world, because if you look at social media, you can peer into what everybody’s thinking. If a person is racist and there’s a racist act that goes on or a sexist act, you’re going to see it. I don’t know if you feel it, but it’s like it’s ramped up, and we don’t have a lot of people that are responsible that are at the top to deal with it. We’re in a new world. We’re in a world where if a young Black kid is on his social and he sees a police officer do something illegal to a Black person, he’s ramped up. Same token, that white police officer sees this Black kid and now he’s ramped up. So, by the time they meet, it’s combustible. When you have a world like that, you need people at the highest level [saying] “Okay guys, this is where we are. Let’s understand each other.” So, it’s tough. And then when you have this type of subject matter, it’s a bittersweet thing because of who you’re portraying. Walter didn’t get a chance to live his life, but it’s also beautiful in what Bryan Stevenson has done. It’s beautiful to be able to see that balance out.
We got so many crazy people talking in media that you don’t know who the f*ck who is running this. And then there’s someone like Bryan Stevenson, who is very pragmatic, who is very articulate and articulating things that we actually need. We need proximity. You need to be around people who are going through these things, understanding that we are really connected with each other. So that’s the silver lining of it. That’s watching Michael B. Jordan take on Bryan Stevenson and the words that he’s saying. I think it’s really things that we need and it’s hard to have art meet message. But the response, watching people in rooms, mostly white rooms, how they respond and how they get on their feet and they cheer. They’re like, “What can I do? How can we change this narrative? We didn’t know about this.” I think the good outweighs the bad heavily. The good of it when you get a chance to find out who Bryan Stevenson is.
DEADLINE: Did making this film change your politics around the death penalty at all?
FOXX: Well, I’ve never been for the death penalty because my father went to jail for seven years. They gave him a seven-year sentence for $25-worth of illegal substance. He got a chance to view the movie. Living in the South of Texas it’s common, so you don’t know how to really grasp it sometimes. But it’s interesting to see people going, “Oh.” Also too, I talked to a judge. He was a judge in Alabama and he quit. I said, “Why’d you quit?” He says, “I couldn’t take it anymore because we will pick up kids off the street, Black kids, 15 or 16 for nothing. Put them in the system.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, so we could have a lineup. So, if anything goes wrong in Pleasantville, go grab them kids, put them up.” And then when the jail is privatized, you go pick them kids up. You put them in the system. Because for every kid you have in there, if you meet your quota, you get a check.
So when you see people getting hauled off to jail, hey man, it’s about design, you know? The one thing that I hope out of this is that we don’t become fatigued. Because a lot of times people say, “Oh this, they’re at all the world’s against them again.” One government official said, “Hey, we gave you a Black president. What else do you need?” And you go, “Hey man, that’s great. That means we are walking in the right direction.”
I’ve always said this about America, our natural resource is freedom. And the great thing about America is the evolution of it. We got this wrong at one point in American history, we’re righting those things, and we continue to do it. Hopefully we understand that this is an ongoing thing and accept that this is a problem and then try to fix it because like Bryan Stevenson would say, “If we don’t acknowledge that these things are happening, then we can’t take steps in trying to correct it.”