Although he's been acting in television and film for about 10 years, I think the only thing a actually recognized Chadwick Boseman from was a film called THE EXPRESS (2008), opposite Dennis Quaid, and an episode of "Fringe" from a couple years back. For the most part, when I walked into the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, I was watching an unknown play one of the most coveted roles ever among African-American actors.
A film about Robinson has been in some stage of development for many years, and 42 isn't exactly a comprehensive biography film. It's more about his professional life, in particular is elevation to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, making him the first black man to play in Major League Baseball. The film covers most of the career achievements, as well as the often brutal way Robinson was treated by fans, other players (including some on his own team), and other coaches. There's an especially nasty exchange with Phillies Coach Ben Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk) in the film that is almost too ugly to watch.
What Boseman does that is so extraordinary is show Robinson's anger and frustration without getting outwardly angry while anyone is watching. It's one of the finest dialed-back performances in recent memory, and Boseman gets both the man and the athlete perfectly. This interview was, appropriately enough, conducted at Wrigley Field. The park is actually only a few blocks from where I live, so getting there wasn't a problem. What was an issue was the near-freezing temperatures and winds whipping through the Wrigley and very few heated places to conduct the interview. But after getting Chadwick some warm chili for lunch, we sat down for a quick chat about his first starring role. Enjoy…
CB: It’s good to meet you, Steve.
Capone: Welcome to Chicago.
CB: They wanted me to get the full weather experience.
Capone: You can leave here with about how cold it was.
CB: I’ve already been here before. I know it’s cold. [laughs]
Capone: Playing a role like this is not just a role; it’s a responsibility. There’s a whole lot of weight attached to it. How do you brace yourself for that? How do you prepare yourself mentally for playing an icon, a legend?
CB: You’ve just got to jump off the bridge. I think all you can do is do your best, and for me, I did the research that I felt was necessary to play the role. I went through my process as an actor and I did the athletic part of it. Once you’ve done the preparation, all you can do is just go for it, and my thought was, “I may not please everybody.” But I wanted to honor his widow, his family, and do justice to it for them, and if they were pleased with it, that's what I cared about. Other people are going to way whatever they want to say, but she’s pleased and I take that away from it. Whatever else happens is gravy.
Capone: When you are doing the research, were there any things that you came across that really surprised you that you were able to incorporate into the way you played Jackie Robinson?
CB: Surprise? No. I think I was looking for what made him tick and ways to be active without saying anything, like “How did he do this?” and “How do you play this role if you’re not going to fight back?”
Capone: A huge part of this performance is restraint. You must be using a completely different acting muscle than when you're able to express yourself a little more.
CB: Yeah. To me, it was the non-verbal response, and that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to fight. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel emotion. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t go through everything that everybody else would. He’s human, but it’s “What is he thinking?” He’s an opinionated person. He is a fighter, in fact. I would actually call him a fighter, a warrior. He is also very disciplined and prideful. All of those different aspects of him are layered inside his play on the field and how he carried himself off the field. I didn’t even realize he was such a religious man. He was a deeply religious person and didn’t drink and didn’t womanize, didn’t do any of that stuff, as far as we know. I just found that--how rigorous he was about that--surprising. There are few people like that.
Capone: That scene in the tunnel, where he smashes the bat, was that an important scene for you? Just to be able to have that release at least one time while you’re making this movie?
CB: Sure. The film is building toward that moment, and I think it’s the moment that a lot of white people don’t get to see.
CB: You know what I mean? It’s the moment we didn’t get to see in his story. It’s important in the movie for that reason. Brian Helgeland asked Ralph Branca (a teammate of Robinson's, played by Hamish Linklater in the film], “Did he ever break down?” And Ralph Branca always points to his guts and says “Guts,” and actually he doesn’t even say “guts” he just points. Brian didn’t know what he was doing for a long time, and finally he just said one word: “Guts. He's the bravest person I ever saw. There’s nobody that even comes close to being as brave as this man to be able out walk out on the field that way.”
It’s funny, because when you are a writer and director, that’s part of dramatic structure--you're looking for what they call the pit. You're looking for the dark moment, the "Dark Night of the Soul." Classic structure, they call it that. "When does this person reach that?” So I asked the question to Rachel Robinson [Jackie's widow], and she wouldn’t give anything away, but I think the fact that she approves this story--she approved the script, she approved the film--it tells you how deep she feels this. The things she didn’t say tell you like a lot about him. It says that those moments did happen; he shared them with the people he could trust, and they're not talking about it. But if you’re going to tell this story, you have to be artful enough to show it. I like that scene, not just because of the emotional fabric of the scene, but because of the cinematography, the lighting, and how it’s slightly shady. You see it, but you don’t see it.
Capone: It’s just this little square of light in the middle of a black screen, this little silhouette. It’s great.
CB: Yeah. To me, when I look at what the cinematographer, what Brian put together, in terms of the look of the movie and capturing the emotions, it pays respect to the fact that, yes, this moment had to happen, but you couldn’t see it.
Capone: The scene that leads to that scene, that horrible stand-off with Allen Tudyk, it's one of the toughest things I’ve ever seen, and I'm just watching it on the screen. What was that day like?
CB: It was days.
Capone: Even worse.
CB: To connect it to the scene we just talked about, they didn’t happen right after each other, there was a lot of time, maybe even like a week between the scene above ground and the scene in the tunnel.
Capone: Sure. But talk about that day with Allen. What that like in front of all of those people?
CB: I knew it was in the script. The interesting thing is that the extras in the crowd, they haven’t read the script, and when they begin to hear it, it sets the context, because it’s like “Huh?” The white people in the audience begin to feel uncomfortable, because you being associated with this in the story. You have on period costume, he has on a period uniform, and you are not doing anything about this. You can’t do anything about this, because the script says you can’t do anything about it. In fact, you may be going along with it depending upon what the AD told you to do. So it was uncomfortable.
The black people were like “Nobody's going to do anything about this?” It was uncomfortable. But as an actor, I needed him to take it as far as he could take it, so that I could bridge the gap between the present and the past. So after you do it a few times, how everybody else begins to fall into it, even the people that are not really actors who have joined us in this process, they begin to make it real for you.
Capone: I didn’t realize that incident was such a pivotal moment in his career. Even the baseball fans that didn’t like the idea of integrated baseball started to think, “This guy can play. Let him play. If he’s going to fail, let him fail.”
CB: It is. I think the better way to put it into the movie and in context with the history is that we can’t show you every game in the movie. We can show you snapshots of important moments: him signing a contract for the first time, him going…. Branch Rickey [Dodgers owner, played by Harrison Ford] living up to his promise to actually let him play in the minor leagues, his marriage. They're snapshots, and that game is actually the combination of probably several games that happened. That had to happen in several different ball fields, but in this movie, we can only show you one. In fact, two games might have been combined together to a certain extent. It’s a snapshot of what happened to him.
Capone: I’ve just got to as you about working with Harrison Ford. I doesn't matter how many movies you might have been in or how much work you’ve done, when you walk into a scene with him, there’s history there. Tell me about the scenes that you had with him . Did you suddenly become 10 years old watching an INDIANA JONES or STAR WARS movie?
CB: [laughs] Well luckily, I got a chance to meet him before we were on set. We had a few meetings. The first time I met him, he actually came out to my baseball practice and just talked to me and watched practice a little bit. So that relieved some of the tension of the mystique;i t made it easier. Then I saw him again in New York. We kicked it in New York a little bit. One of his friends and a couple of my friends just sitting around having dinner or drinks or whatever. It was more leisurely than I think it was, so once we got to set we had spent some time together where I wouldn’t be as intimidated.
I don’t know if he intentionally did that, but I think it was good that it happened that way. The first scene we actually shot was the scene in the training room after I'd been spiked. That was our first actual scene together, but it was a fun process. It was a challenge and I love him, man. He’s a great dude.
Capone: Well, it’s great to meet you. Thank you so much.
CB: Thank you, man.
Capone: I’m sorry you got bounced from room to room here.
CB: [laughs] That’s all right. Apparently that’s just how this goes.