ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. The movie, "The Soloist," tells the story of an odd friendship: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and a homeless, schizophrenic, Julliard drop out named Nathaniel Ayers. "60 Minutes" did a story about them.
In the movie, Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez, a man in search of a column. Jamie Foxx plays Ayers, a man with his life's belongings in a shopping cart and a broken down cello.
(Soundbite of film, "The Soloist")
Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Actor): (As Steve Lopez) You only got two strings.
Mr. JAMIE FOXX (Actor): (As Nathaniel Ayers) All I want to do is play music, and here is a problem that I'm having right here. This one's gone. This one's gone. This little one's out of commission.
SIEGEL: They're both terrific performances, but equally noteworthy is how director Joe Wright depicts mental illness. Wright, a Londoner who directed "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement," used real-life, homeless, mentally ill denizens of Skid Row in Los Angeles to play themselves. Joe Wright told me that he makes movies to overcome his fears, and he says the fear of mental illness has been with him for a long time.
Mr. JOE WRIGHT (Director, "The Soloist"): Well, mental illness is something that has scared me all my life. I've always been terrified of the places our minds can go to, and it's kind of been with me since quite early childhood. And then later, when I was about 21, a friend of mine had a fairly severe psychotic breakdown, and it was both illuminating and terrifying.
And later, sort of around the time when I was doing post-production on "Atonement," I had a bit of what I kind of call a wobble, where I had panic attacks to the extent sometimes that you can think you hear sounds or, you know, very mild forms of hallucination, and I was terrified that I was becoming a schizophrenic. I was very, very glad to hear that actually I was too old to be a schizophrenic.
SIEGEL: You're probably out of the psychotic woods by that time, if you…
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, exactly.
SIEGEL: In making "The Soloist," you had - obviously you were going to cast someone who was going to play someone who is seriously mentally ill. Jamie Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers, but then there were other people surrounding him, and you made an interesting choice, which was to depict several homeless, mentally ill people by casting homeless mentally ill people.
Mr. WRIGHT: I did, and that was kind of the key choice in the whole process, really. I felt, you know, like I perhaps didn't have the right to make a film about these people's lives, who I knew so little about, but I came over. I met Steve Lopez, and Steve took me on a walk down Skid Row, and finally we arrived at LAMP, which is a shelter for homeless people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
And there I found the most extraordinary community of people. So I went back to DreamWorks, and I said okay. I'll make this film on the condition that your lawyers and accountants find a way to pay 500 members of the Skid Row community. And it was by far one of the most wonderful professional experiences of my career.
SIEGEL: Using that cast as you did, deciding on that cast, I imagine was a check on any impulse, if you ever felt it, to sugar-coat, to sentimentalize, to make something a little sweeter about the life of being fearfully paranoid and living out in the streets of Los Angeles.
Mr. WRIGHT: Very much so, and they kind of confounded all preconceptions that one might have. I mean, there was a lot of joy while we were making the film with them. You know, they showed me what to do. They showed me what was real and what wasn't real, what was truthful and what wasn't and how to smoke a crack pipe and how to make your bed out in the cold.
SIEGEL: Lessons in their version of real life, they were showing you.
Mr. WRIGHT: Absolutely, and they were great lessons. I mean, I don't mean to be flip when I talk about crack pipes and the like, you know. There are so many issues down in that community, but they do look after each other and they do care for each other in a way that I don't see people caring for each other in Beverly Hills or Hollywood, perhaps.
SIEGEL: I was reminded at one point in the movie, when you're filming - I think it's inside LAMP - of an American documentary film. I don't know you're familiar with it, "Titicut Follies," that Frederick Wiseman made about 40 years ago.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah.
SIEGEL: Which is inside a hospital for the criminally insane, as they said in Massachusetts, and what Wiseman did, in part, was hang in long enough with people so that you could experience them both sounding lucid and convincing and then also veer off and sort of get lost in their odd thoughts.
The challenge seemed to be can you talk to a person who's schizophrenic long enough to actually experience both sides of that personality?
Mr. WRIGHT: That was definitely my experience. When you first meet them, what's kind of fascinating and thrilling almost are these kind of extraordinary mental leaps and what are known as word salads, these incredible juxtapositions and crazy, surreal stuff.
But actually, the more time you spend with them, they become less interesting, and what you hold onto and the real gems come when Nathaniel or any of them actually share with you a tiny glimpse of the reality of their lives, of what they've had to endure.
SIEGEL: Did you set out at all with any images of mental illness that you were determined not to present in this film?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I didn't want him to be a genius because I think it's too easy to kind of fall for this stereotype of the mad genius, you know, and although Nathaniel is incredibly talented, he's not a genius. He's someone who has a passion for music, and that's the point of him. He's passionate about something that guides him through. It's not about a kind of a crazy genius.
SIEGEL: You know, before I let you go, I just have to ask you. I think a lot of people are going to leave movie theaters after seeing "The Soloist," and there'll be these conversations on the way out, saying the same guy who made "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" just made that movie?
Mr. WRIGHT: Why?
SIEGEL: It does seems to be an incredible - well, it seems to be an extraordinary - when we spoke last, you told me that you were making another period piece. This one was set in 2005 in Los Angeles, so I guess it's similar in that sense to "Pride & Prejudice."
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it's a love story. You know, another of the great mysteries of the mind is love, and I'm fascinated by it. And this is really, you know, a platonic love story between these two very different human beings, both of whom are isolated and lonely.
SIEGEL: Steve Lopez, the columnist, and Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless musician.
Mr. WRIGHT: Exactly, exactly, and they learn to connect, and so it's another love story but with a very different backing.
SIEGEL: Joe Wright, director of "The Soloist." Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: It's been great. Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WRIGHT: Joe Wright's movie, "The Soloist," opens tomorrow. You can watch clips of the movie and read an excerpt of Steve Lopez's book by the same name at our Web site, npr.org.