To understand how the molecules in a room move differently when Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington get together, it helps to focus on the space between the two actors. At the moment, we’re talking about a quarter of an inch, max. Foxx is in a bistro chair at a photo shoot in Hollywood, cool as Christmas Eve in a navy Ozwald Boateng suit and monochromatic purple shirt and a Tom Ford tie. Washington, sparkling in black Prada and vintage YSL, is inching toward him atop a cocktail table, her lips holding one hot breath shy of a kiss.

“So, so sexy,” the photographer says, and it is. The stylists, lighting assistants, publicists, bodyguards, and various hangers-on (both actors are traveling with small armies) just stand there gawking. “I think my camera is sweating a little.”

Afterward, Foxx, 45, and Washington, 35, kick back in street clothes: black jeans, a black form-fitting tee, and a diamond-encrusted black watch for Foxx; skinny jeans, a white blouse, and a colorful wraparound scarf for Washington. Even without pretending to be all over each other (“He’s my movie husband,” Washington says, just for confirmation), the gap between the actors as they sit together on a leather couch is still fully charged.

“Chemistry is so weird in this business because you cannot manufacture it,” Foxx says, smiling at Washington as she completes his thought. “What you see with Jamie and me—it’s rare,” she says, “but it comes from a whole lot of crying, a whole lot of sharing, a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears.”

Those last three ingredients pretty much fueled their new venture together. Django Unchained, opening December 25, is the long-awaited Quentin Tarantino movie about an avenging slave (Foxx) who gets separated from his sold-off wife, Broomhilda (Washington), and the long, violent road to their reunion. As one might expect with Tarantino, the film features a shabby lineup of no-name costars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, James Remar, and Jonah Hill.

Django Unchained has stirred controversy since Tarantino’s phonebook-thick script made the rounds last year. After being liberated from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter (Waltz) bent on settling a score, Django wields guns and fists in a bloody battle against his oppressors. As Washington says, the movie is “pure Tarantino in terms of the tone, the violence, the music, the unexpected cracks of humor, the language—except multiply that by the darkest chapter in American history.”

Filming at Louisiana’s Evergreen Plantation, the most intact slave plantation in the South, the actors spent days in iron shackles, running barefoot through the woods, staging beatings, and holing up in confining slave shacks built to the original specs. “There’s no words for what people went through,” Washington says. “We barely survived it for pretend for eight months. Jamie and I’d be texting each other in the middle of the night going, ‘If this goes on another week, I’m not gonna make it.’ I was calling my shrink on the regular and telling Quentin, ‘I’m gonna send you my bills.’”

Foxx needs to interject. “And here’s the life lesson,” he says. “You realize what people went through so we could have a voice. Every second on this movie, I thought about how unbelievably good I have it. I don’t have shit to complain about. ‘Oh, you brought me Arrowhead water? I asked for Fiji! I can taste the difference.’ When you see what real shit is, man? All you can say is, my life is motherf---ing surreal.” Washington can’t recall the very first time she met Foxx. It might have been her screen test for Ray, in which she played Ray Charles’s beleaguered second wife, Della Bea Robinson. Or maybe it was the first walk-through of the script.

“You kidding me?” Foxx says, tossing up his hands. He went on to win an Oscar and Golden Globe (and a lot of stage time singing with Kanye) in the title role. “I remember exactly when I first saw you. You were driving up in your little green car.” It was one of the original Priuses, she reminds him. “That’s right,” he says, slipping into a falsetto. ‘Little Miss Do-good. Keepin’ the community clean so we can stay a little longer on the earth,’ and I’m thinking, Here comes somebody!”

Their routes to that intersection couldn’t have been more different. Foxx grew up dirt-poor in small-town Texas, and never really knew his birth parents. His grandmother, Esther Talley, adopted him when he was 7 months old and instilled an old-fashioned ethic that hard work conquers all. Young Eric Bishop, as he was known then, played classical piano as well as he played football as well as he told a joke, which is to say he could have followed any of those pursuits professionally.

He got into showbiz on a dare. A friend at United States International University in San Diego, where Foxx was studying on a classical music scholarship, taunted him into getting onstage at The Comedy Store in La Jolla, and soon enough he was at the mic seven nights a week in Los Angeles. One night an agent in the crowd asked him to audition for In Living Color, which eventually led to The Jamie Foxx Show, which, frankly, might have been enough for most mortals. “But here’s the thing about being a black entertainer,” says Foxx, who plays the president of the United States next summer in the popcorn thriller White House Down and is gearing up to be The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s next big villain. “You can never be mediocre. White comedians can walk up to the microphone and go, ‘Hey guys, where ya from?’ With black comedians, you have to shoot a short film, you have to play your own music, there’s dancing, there’s smoke, and then you rise up out of the stage.”

Washington was always more of a city mouse. She grew up in the Bronx. Her mom was a professor of education and her dad sold real estate. “Dinner conversations were always very intense and very political,” says Washington, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer and champions various lefty causes on shows like HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. She attended the all-girls Spence School in Manhattan a few years after Gwyneth Paltrow; then went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa as a interdisciplinary major in anthropology and sociology at The George Washington University. On the side, Washington studied voice and dance, and got her career break opposite Julia Stiles in the 2001 teen hit Save the Last Dance. But it was the acclaim from Ray that got her prestige parts in films like The Last King of Scotland and the lead role as Olivia Pope on ABC’s political drama series Scandal.

It’s not lost on Washington that she, too, has a life that does not suck. “My grandmother was a maid on Park Avenue and her grandmother was a slave,” she says with emotion in her eyes. “The expectations about what’s possible for African Americans is always shifting and always growing, but Jamie’s right: If you’re black in Hollywood, you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard as everybody else.”

That space between Washington and Foxx just got interesting again. They’re going back and forth on the sofa, bouncing thoughts on a perfect Sunday in LA. Each rave from one gets an “Mmmhmm!” or “Oh, yeah!” and the occasional touch on the arm or shoulder from the other. For Foxx, it’s up and out by 9 am at his 17,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion on 40 acres to do a little horseback riding at a ranch nearby. “We take the kids,” by which he means his daughter Corinne, 20, from a relationship Foxx doesn’t talk about (a longtime bachelor, the actor doesn’t talk about any of his romances, although he also has a 4-year-old daughter, Anelise, with another woman whose name he won’t reveal). He’ll take along his old friend Speedy and Speedy’s kids, too, and “a few kids from LA who’ve never even seen horses before,” Foxx says. He is heavily involved with his own charity, The Jamie Foxx Foundation, as well as the Pacific Lodge Youth Services, both of which support children in need.

When Washington is in town on a Sunday (she still calls herself a New Yorker), she’s out at the Brentwood Farmer’s Market (“You gotta get your flowers and salad goodies for the week, and see the beautiful people,” she says.). Then she likes to have lunch with girlfriends at Café Gratitude on Larchmont. Washington is single, too. For several years, she dated the actor David Moscow, best known as the kid who morphed into Tom Hanks in Big. “A great night in LA?” she says. “An early movie at the ArcLight. Potluck salads at home after that. Maybe a board game and up way too late chatting with the girlfriends.”

“Oh, I’m liking the sound of chatting with the girlfriends,” Foxx says, and suddenly he’s playing all midnight cool again. “Maybe I can get in on some of that?” He leans toward Washington, not letting it go. “Hmm?” he says. She just stares at him stone-faced. The molecules are bumping like crazy. Rare chemistry, indeed. But then Foxx leans back and bursts out laughing. Washington shakes her head and wags a finger at him slowly. “I swear,” she says, through a big smile, “You really gotta watch this guy.”

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