The Distinguished Rise of Cinema’s Next Champion
After securing the lead role in
, the major studio biopic about baseball legend Jackie Robinson, actor Chadwick Boseman paid Robinson’s 90-year-old widow a visit. He’d hoped for her blessing when playing her late husband, the first African-American player signed to the major leagues. He didn’t get it.
“Rachel Robinson had it in her head that Denzel [Washington] would play this role,” recalls Boseman via phone from his Los Angeles home. At one point Washington was in the running to play Robinson, but that project, along with a few other attempts to make the biopic, fell through. “She said ‘Well, if we had made this movie when we were supposed to make this movie, Sidney Poitier would have played Jackie and then Denzel was supposed to play him. Now, we have you. So who are you?’” Over the phone, Boseman sighs. “You have to brace yourself for that right there.” Luckily, Mrs. Robinson was pleased with his performance in the film. “So,” he says. “I think we’re good now.”
The actor will be the first to admit that stepping into Jackie Robinson’s shoes is huge, especially since studios had passed on him for big roles before. So far, Boseman’s credits have included a supporting feature film role in the football drama The Express and appearances on shows like FOX’s Fringe and ABC Family’s Lincoln Heights. But, after only two auditions with writer and director Brian Helgeland—most famous for his work on the Oscar winning L.A. Confidential and Mystic River—the role was his. “When he called I thought he was playing games with me,” remembers Boseman of Helgeland’s call offering him the part. “I went out and celebrated with the ‘I just won a new car’ look on my face,” he adds. “Then I thought, ‘Ok, how do I tackle this?’”
While studying theater at Howard University, the South Carolina native had planned to direct, not act. “I didn’t think I’d be in front of the camera at all,” says the 36-year-old, who still writes and directs short films. “But in order to direct, I acted to get the sense of the actor’s process and fell in love with the good response from the audience.”
With the release of 42, audiences’ love for Boseman’s artistic range will be inevitable. His turn in the film is both brave and moving, erasing any evidence that this is his first leap toward box office greatness. As Robinson, he brings the grace and pride of the civil rights pioneer back to life. In the face of intense racial scrutiny, during a time when African-Americans could only use bathrooms labeled “colored” and racial epithets were cast freely, Robinson’s strength was in his ability to stay poised and cavalier. Part of his agreement with Rickey, when signing to the Majors, was that Robison could not fight back, no matter how harsh or blatant the racist conditions became. Consequently, Robinson had to keep quiet. “This is a role where you don’t say everything you mean,” says Boseman of the film, which also stars Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was responsible for signing Robinson to the majors. “It is much more difficult to act without words than it is with words.” But, he embraced the challenge. “I never thought ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” he says.
Still, Boseman recalls those moments when his heart sped up while filming. “I got nervous the first time I got out to the baseball field,” remembers the actor, who practiced playing baseball five days a week for three hours a day to prepare for the role, “and the first time I met Harrison Ford.” Luckily, Ford possessed the same benevolent qualities as the man he was playing. “He came out to watch my baseball practice, just like Branch Rickey would do,” details Boseman. “He never said, ‘I’ve done 50-something movies. How many have you done?’ He never held anything over my head. My opinion was just as valuable as his. That disarmed the hype.”
So when it came time to shoot the most emotionally charged scene in the film, Boseman was glad to have Ford in his corner. In 1947, when the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who is played by Alan Tudyk, fired countless racial slurs at Robinson. The ball player held back his reaction until he escaped into the Dodgers’ tunnel. Once there, Robinson smashed his bat and burst into tears. Ford’s Rickey talks him into getting back on the field. “That was definitely the most draining moment,” says Boseman, who drew from his own experiences with racism when shooting the difficult scenes. “Racism now happens more subtly,” he says, recalling a crewmember questioning the importance of releasing 42 in 2013. “The victim usually realizes it more than the person who is doing it. But after you’ve done a scene like that it starts to get real and uncomfortable and starts to register feelings that are primal. It hits part of your history and part of your present at the same time.”
Sure, Robinson’s history is widely known, but, as Boseman notes, “You assume that you understand the feelings and have a sensitivity to it, but when you see the film you take away the real emotional fabric of the time and where we’ve come and where we still are.” Excited that he’s finally able to chat about 42, Boseman says another challenge came before stepping foot on set; he had to keep the news from his mother. “I celebrated very quietly,” he says. “I couldn’t tell anyone I got the role, not even my mom because you know she was going to brag about it and say ‘My baby is playing Jackie Robinson!’”
Even now, the private actor hopes to maintain some anonymity. While he admits he’s recently gained an appreciation for a “good and flashy” pair of Prada slacks, he’s not looking forward to people recognizing him on the street. “I just want to work on good material and build,” he says. “Playing this role was in no way close to what Jackie really went through, but I’ll continue to use small openings to portray things that are much bigger.”
Photographer: Dylan Don for OpusReps.com. Stylist: Annis Psaltiras for TheWallGroup.com. Groomer: Lina Hanson for TraceyMattingly.com using Global Face Serum.
Grooming Notes: Global Face Serum by Lina Hanson.