NEW YORK - A heated debate about socio- economic mobility is the last thing you would expect to get into with Hollywood stars, least of all when they are really there just to talk to you about their movie.
The stars in question are Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz, who speak to Life! and a group of reporters in New York recently about their new film Annie, which co-stars Quvenzhane Wallis and opens in Singapore tomorrow.
The movie is the latest screen adaptation of the popular Broadway musical of the same name, itself based on a comic strip launched in the 1920s. And as with the stage version, this rags-to-riches tale of a plucky orphan (Wallis) adopted by a billionaire (Foxx) espouses a rather optimistic world view about economic opportunity and the sunnier tomorrow that little Annie sings about.
It is a view that Foxx - whose cellphone-mogul character declares that anyone can make it big no matter how poor they are - believes in whole- heartedly, as do Diaz and many others who keep faith with the "American dream", or the idea that with hard work, everyone has an equal shot at success in the country.
But the non-American journalists interviewing the two actors are slightly more sceptical about this and press them on whether this is realistic, given the growing income gap in the United States, especially among African Americans and other minorities.
"Are you kidding me?" Foxx says good-naturedly. "Have you been to America? Do you see what you can get famous and make money for in this country? You can do anything in this place, it's the best place in the world to be.
"We literally live in the best country in the world when it comes to doing whatever you want to do. We can walk out of here right now and hold up a sign and say we have some new product and we can get it going. I don't think you can find that anywhere else."
As proof, he points to his own humble origins and subsequent success as a comedian, actor and singer.
The 47-year-old won the Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe for his portrayal of musician Ray Charles in the 2004 film Ray and has continued to win glowing reviews for his roles in other acclaimed dramas, including Collateral (2004) and Django Unchained (2012).
He has also had considerable success as a recording artist, picking up a Grammy in 2006 for his collaboration with Kanye West on the rap hit Gold Digger and another in 2010 for the R&B song Blame It with T-Pain.
The actor was raised in a small, racially segregated Texas town by his mother's adoptive parents, who adopted him too because his parents were too young to take care of him.
He says: "We didn't have money growing up, but it was really sort of a special path.
"I just feel like I've been really blessed and lucky because my childhood was great. I had great adopted parents and my grandmother sort of pushed me into classical music, which was weird in Texas, you know? I said, 'Why am I doing this?' And she said, 'Cause it's gonna take you round the world, baby'.
"I ended up going to college on a classical piano scholarship. And the next thing you know, I'm doing stand-up comedy for a year or two till I was like 20, and the next thing you know, there's this show, In Living Colour," says the actor, referring to the 1991 to 1994 sketch-comedy show that put him, along with fellow comedian Jim Carrey, on the map.
He holds firm even when it is put to him that success is much harder to come by without talent such as his.
"No, it's not - look at reality television stars, they don't have any talent," he says, straight-faced.
"That doesn't bother me because what's interesting is we as actors are always trying to act real. And here they are just being themselves. So, it's like the world opens up, for good or for bad - because a lot of reality TV stuff is f****** crazy."
So even if one thinks that Kim Kardashian and her ilk are talented or undignified, "it speaks to a world where you can do anything you want to do - you can be as undignified or dignified as you want, and you can get things going".
But what about young African Americans and others who find it nearly impossible to escape the poverty trap?
Foxx nods in acknowledgement, but says a lot of the obstacles may be psychological rather than economic.
"So here's where I come in, as a black man. Every time I go to any inner city where there is that, what I do is say, let's take the mental part out of it. Because a lot of it is mental. That's why I would even talk to the guys my age and say, 'It's up to us now to go and talk to these kids about what is worth doing, about getting a job.'
"Because in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn't quite like that, we had a different mindset back then, we were willing to work. There's always going to be poverty, wherever you go. But what you have to do is not concentrate on, 'I'm in poverty', but look at the stories of the people who come out of poverty and apply that to our life because the mentality has to change.
"So when I go out and talk to these kids, I'm like, 'Hey man, you can come and get what I've got too, whether it's your own business or building your own trade. You don't all have to be singers or actors or dancers."
Diaz, who plays Annie's bitter and alcoholic foster mother Miss Hannigan, nods vehemently as he says this.
"I think Jamie and I both know what it is to work hard to earn what you have," says the actress, who was a fashion model before she broke into Hollywood and films such as My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) and There's Something About Mary (1998) established her as a star and sex symbol.
"We both come from a (similar) place and childhood. I know that my parents didn't have a lot but they were hard workers and taught me to be a hard worker. I love making movies because it gives me an opportunity to work hard and I enjoy it. And to see that hard work pay off obviously is so gratifying. So I'm always grateful and I'm always feeling like from where I was and the road I could've gone down, the one opportunity that I got and I took has paid off."
She also agrees that one of the biggest economic barriers may be mental - in particular, the value that young people today place on getting recognition via social media, rather than learning economically useful skills.
"We live in a world today where kids spend all day long looking at how many people like or follow them (on social media) or how many people in the world see them, instead of going, 'This is a waste of my time, I'm going to go learn a trade and see how to put in an honest day's work'. Kids are not connected to what it really takes, they don't live in reality, they wouldn't know how to do a job if they were given a job."
So, while for some it may well be, as orphan Annie would sing it, a "hard-knock life", Diaz and Foxx believe that there is ample opportunity for those willing to do what it takes.
Diaz says: "I think, nowadays, that's going to be the biggest deficit in this country - not whether or not there are enough jobs, but whether we have the people who are capable of actually doing the jobs that need to be done."
This article was first published on Dec 17, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.