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Here's to you, Jackie Robinson

Chadwick Boseman plays the game-changing Brooklyn Dodger — and civil rights pioneer — in the upcoming biopic ”42.” It’s the actor’s first starring role, and he trained hard, both on the field and off.

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As a kid growing up in South Carolina, Chadwick Boseman spent some time playing Little League, but he has never been what you’d call a baseball fanatic; basketball has always been more his speed. ”Baseball is not a sport I run home to watch,” he says, drinking a cup of tea on a warm March afternoon. ”That’s not me.” For the 36-year-old actor to play any professional baseball player in his first big-screen starring role, then, would have been a major challenge. But in the film 42, opening April 12 (rated PG-13), Boseman doesn’t take on just any baseball player — he portrays Jackie Robinson, one of the most revered icons ever to play the game. It’s hard to think of a more daunting way to be called up to Hollywood’s big leagues. ”He’s a hard man to measure up to,” Boseman says. ”It’s one of those things where you celebrate when you get it — and then you’re like, ‘Oh, now I have to do this thing.”’

Robinson, who died in 1972 at the age of 53, left a legacy that reached far beyond the baseball diamond. As the man who broke the sport’s color line in 1947 when he was signed to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers by owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford in 42), Robinson became a pivotal figure in the history of the civil rights struggle. ”Schools, community centers, streets, even days are named after him,” says Boseman. ”I understood that. But did I really know specific details about his life?” He pauses. ”I didn’t know anything.”

So Boseman — who has had parts on TV shows like Law & Order and Lincoln Heights and played a supporting role in the 2008 football film The Express — threw himself into researching Robinson’s life on and off the field. He pored over archival footage, underwent four months of intensive baseball training, and met with Robinson’s widow, Rachel. ”That was scary, man,” he says. ”We sat and talked for an hour, hour and a half. She showed me pictures and asked me why I thought I should play her Jackie.” He laughs. ”There’s no answer to that question. If you answer, you’re wrong.”

Boseman, who ultimately wants to direct as well as act, knows that his life will change dramatically once 42 opens, so he’s been enjoying his last weeks of anonymity. Recently, he says, he went to an outdoor mall in L.A. after the stores had closed just to look at the giant ads for 42. ”This security guard was following me and looking at me, like, ‘What’s this black man doing at this time of night?”’ he says. Boseman pointed at a 42 poster. ”I said, ‘That’s me right there.”’