Behind Jamie Foxx’s Brilliant, Wild Performance in Amazon’s ‘The Burial’
Maggie Betts may be known as a great director of actors, but when it came to working with Jamie Foxx for her new film The Burial, she found the best strategy was to get out of the way and watch him go. “You couldn’t possibly direct him anyway, because he’s such an insanely talented person—almost frighteningly talented,” she says on this week’s Little Gold Men (listen below). “He’s an improv guy at heart. He’s literally going to do what he feels in the moment. He doesn’t like to rehearse. Every take is different. He’ll ask for little things—but he’s launched and flying from the minute you call ‘action.’”
That energy is plainly apparent in The Burial (streaming Friday on Prime Video), an old-school star vehicle that sees Foxx (Ray) tear into one of the best roles of his career. Adapted from a New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr, the courtroom drama set in mid-1990s Mississippi stars Foxx as real-life personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary, who begins representing the crusty funeral-home owner Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) against the takeover efforts of a ruthless acquisition company run by Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp). Betts peppers her throwback crowdpleaser with flashy costumes, legal hijinks, epic speeches, and a familiar clash of Davids and Goliaths—one that gradually lays bare the grave racial and class disparities in the American South, if always with a light touch.
Foxx circled the film before Betts signed on, and he was part of what attracted her to the project. The Burial is about as different in shape as you could get from Betts’s previous feature, the severe nun drama Novitiate, aside from one factor: Both center on explosive performances from Oscar winners. In the former movie, that honor went to Melissa Leo. Here, it goes to Foxx. “I grew up loving Paul Thomas Anderson movies,” she says, films that are “just on the verge of camp—still in the world of reality, but a little B-ish too. It’s my favorite thing about [his movies]…so I kind of encourage that, which I think [actors] like because their instinct is to go for realism.”
Foxx’s wildly fun portrayal of Gary seems, at times, to speak to the performer’s roots in stand-up. Betts would let him and his ensemble, also including Succession alum Alan Ruck as Gary’s reluctant partner on the case, Mike Allred, run take after take without intervention before gently offering some notes. “I kind of let them figure it out,” Betts says. “When you fill the room with actors who really love improv and are very naturally funny, amazing things happen. But particularly with Jamie and Alan Ruck—their takes were nuts.”
One actor less accustomed to improv? Foxx’s colead Tommy Lee Jones, which made for an intriguing dynamic that extended to their characters’ relationship. While Foxx doesn’t even care for rehearsal, Jones spoke with Betts via Zoom for over a dozen hours, dissecting the script line by line. “He wanted to discuss every word of it. He’s like, ‘So the word the here, what did you mean by that?’”