Breaking Big: Welcome to The Show, Chadwick Boseman
“I don’t know who he is… or where he is… but he’s coming.” —Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) in 42
Jackie Robinson was already 28 when he made history, a grown man who’d struggled and thrived in relative anonymity before he was handpicked to be the first African-American player in modern baseball. Perhaps that’s why Chadwick Boseman so ably tapped into his character in the film, 42—he possessed the same hunger, the same desire.
For most of the moviegoing audience, Boseman was a promising rookie, an overnight success with a bright future. But the now-37-year-old actor had been a working actor for more than a decade, appearing in theater, television, and smaller films. Not until he put on Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodger uniform, however, did the Hollywood star machine take notice.
If playing Robinson was an imposing responsibility, Boseman didn’t flinch in the slightest. For his next leading role, he accepted the challenge of “live-wire channeling” the Godfather of Soul, James Brown in Get On Up. With charisma to spare, Boseman’s dynamic performance raised his profile to the next level—the next level in this case being comic-book superstardom.
After playing two consecutive African-American icons, Boseman was announced in October as Black Panther, the prince of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda who has long been rumored to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character will make his debut in the 2016 Captain America sequel, Civil War, and then join the ranks of truly elite superheros with his own 2017 standalone movie, a first for an African-American character.
So the hard-working actor who portrayed Jackie Robinson and James Brown will get the honor of bringing Black Panther to life. There’s something absolutely correct about that. It’s not 1947 any more in this country, but Boseman is well aware of the responsibility that comes with great power. He’s been working for this opportunity for years and he’s not about to waste it.
The South Carolina native, who’s about to start filming the revenge thriller, Message From the King, spoke to Entertainment Weekly about his fateful encounter with Quentin Tarantino, learning to say no, and the “marching orders” he received from Harry Belafonte.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN: That’s exactly right. He was always known everywhere in that area. Anderson is a small city—lots of factories and blue-collar work—not a metropolitan area at all. As far as I can remember, Radio was always famous on some level.
I’m going to assume that it wasn’t Radio, but what was the movie or play that you saw as a kid that made you want to act and direct?
What I’m doing, there’s no way in the world I could’ve conceived of it in my head. I watched movies, obviously, just like anybody else, but there was nothing to make me think I’m going to go to L.A. and become a movie star or anything like that. I think I experienced things that were artistic, that made me decide I wanted to be an artist, though not necessarily an actor and doing movies.
Well that’s the perfect segue, then, into my next question, which is a doozy, so please bear with me: What was your moment of truth that in hindsight has proved to be the difference between where you are right now and perhaps the life of a frustrated artist? Not a moment where fortune simply smiled on you, but a moment where you had to make a 50/50 decision that at the time you couldn’t have anticipated the outcome.
Boy, that is a lot. [Laughs]. That’s a very, very complicated question. I can’t pick one thing, but I can say that in New York as an artist, I was very often saying yes to everything. Mainly because one thing wasn’t enough: It wasn’t enough to fulfill me as an artist, or it wasn’t enough to pay the bills, or it wasn’t enough to make a difference and change the reality or even let me know where I was in terms of the game. So I think the No. 1 thing was beginning to say no. Saying no was the most important thing. Because then I began to figure out what should I say yes to. Second, I had written something and I was asked to come to L.A. to write for producers or to turn things into films. I didn’t make those films. I didn’t write them, because I didn’t feel like they were the right decision for me, but because I made those trips, I was able to see how L.A. worked. Even after I became involved in theater and involved in TV and film, I had this sort of idea that Hollywood was off limits. There was something about L.A., the mystique of it and fear of it. But it was at that point that I realized that I needed to play the game a little bit differently. My New York experience was great and it helped me, but I needed to explore what this was, what this is here. That, I think, was a difference maker.
You were always more interested in writing and directing, but at Howard University, you had a famous teacher who turned you on to acting: Phylicia Rashad.
She would come once a week and teach a class. Everybody didn’t get to take the class and people might sit in on the class; there would be like administrators and politicians trying to get in to take pictures with her. That experience was important because before that, even though I was in theater, I wasn’t really thinking about acting. But it was the way that she approached it. I learned a lot about being a director from her. She’s a fabulous director herself, and she has this ability to just sort of say one thing to an actor, and it opens up this wealth of sensory availability and understanding about something that you end up doing it entirely different. So she whispered in my ear during a scene, and I was like, “What did I just do?” From then on, she’s always been somebody I can call and talk to or get advice from. She was pivotal.
Now when you were cast as Jackie Robinson in 42, the media narrative was Overnight Success. But that was hardly the case. You’d been a working actor for more than a decade.
It had been going for a few years where maybe I didn’t get the role for something that you ended up seeing on TV and film, but I was in contention. It was between me and some other person—but the other person had the better credits, the relationship, the upper hand in those situations, and all respect for them. It’s probably a total of 10 guys competing [for the same prime] roles. In 2011, the year that I actually went in for 42, I had tested for so many, like, over five major roles—roles that you would be like, “Oh, that could change your life.” And I didn’t get it. So I had become frustrated with that.
Was one of them Django Unchained, and did that experience help land 42?
It’s not just the cause-and-effect type of situation. I think that’s one of the factors. I had read that Django script, and Quentin Tarantino is funny because, on one hand, I was like, “This script is amazing, it’s offensive, I don’t know what to think about it, I wish I had written it.” It was all these different things that you feel when you read one of his scripts, and I was like, “I just want to meet this dude.” My agent and the casting director had told me not to come in for it. To be honest, I didn’t even know what role I was coming in for. But I just wanted to meet him—because you’re not going to have another situation where you’re going to run into Quentin Tarantino. He was bringing actors in as a group, but he basically called me into the room by myself. He sat me down and said, “Hey, I love your work.” And I said, “What?” [Laughs] And he had randomly seen—well, not randomly, because he apparently watches everything—he knew my whole arc on this show called Lincoln Heights. And I said, “Get out of here. You don’t know my work.” And he starts doing my scene from the show. So the casting director, Vicky Thomas, saw that, which definitely helped. [Laughs] But it also just helped my confidence. You know, you can be doing stuff and you think people are not noticing. For somebody like Quentin to say they noticed, it’s really all I needed. For him to be so forthcoming with that was a tremendous confidence builder. So going into a room after that—with her knowing that people were noticing—helped. I’m grateful. Anytime I’ve had anybody encourage me like that, you have to be thankful.
Both Jackie Robinson and then James Brown in Get On Up are both physically demanding roles. I assume auditions weren’t just sitting at a table reading scenes. What was your prep even before you got the part, to show these guys that you could swing the bat and move like James Brown.
In both cases, you read for the role and then they see if you can play baseball or if you can dance and sing. For Jackie Robinson, I knew they didn’t expect me to be a professional baseball player when I walked into the audition. So for 42, I read for the role, I got together with a friend of mine and went to the batting cage and hit some balls and threw the ball around a little bit. They looked at me and said, “Hey, he needs a lot of work. But he’s definitely an athlete and we can work with him.” And that’s the extent of what was necessary to get the role. They could see that I was an athlete. For Get On Up, I didn’t expect the reading process to advance anywhere else, and when it did, I was like, “Okay, let’s see what this physical thing is.” So we all agreed that we needed a choreographer to make sure that this was something that was even possible. So we got this cat, Aakomon Jones, who later became the actual choreographer for the film. And we had three days of him throwing me James Brown choreography vocabulary. They got together Robert L. Stevenson, who made the wigs for the film, and Sharen Davis to do the wardrobe for the test, and we shot the concert scene, with me dancing and singing and everything. It was an intense amount of work, just to see, “What would this look like, if we did it?” I had no idea how it would come out. No idea.
Obviously, it came out pretty great. But as complex and grueling as the physical demands of playing Brown were, what really stands out is how you capture the spirit of the man, both at his highs and lows. Was there one thing that you tapped into mentally, something that put you in the right state of mind to be James Brown every day before you went to work?
It wasn’t one thing, because you’re dealing with a dude that changes so much and there were so many versions of him in that movie. He’s changing ages, and his status is changing, and his style is changing, and he’s changing because he’s a manipulative S.O.B. I would pick something different from my research that helped me get to that place. So it might be the Boston Garden performance. Or it might be I’m listening to a particular song. Or it might be I’m watching a particular interview. Or it might just be, like, “Today I feel sexy.” [Laughs]. It can just be that.
A few weeks back, Harry Belafonte gave this speech at the Governors Awards, where he spoke about the power of cinema to break down walls and inflict real social and political change. In a way, you’re an heir to that spirit, not only for the roles you’ve played in the past few years, but also for what it means when you step into the shoes of one of these big franchise superheros, Black Panther. You were at the gala, yes?
I talked to Harry Belafonte a couple of times that night.
What did he tell you?
You’re talking about a person who’s not talking about history; he’s talking about his life. He’s talking about his actual experiences. He knew Jackie Robinson and was proud of me, of what I’m doing. I was able to talk to him after his speech as well, and I told him that what he said was so timely and courageous. I told him, “I’m not surprised that you said what you said but it was exactly what was needed.” I can’t tell you what else he said but I definitely will carry it. I feel like to a certain degree, he gives you marching orders. So I got some marching orders.
With Black Panther, you’re joining the unstoppable Marvel Universe machine. At the announcement, they unveiled his costume. Have you tried it on yet?
[Laughs] No, I have not tried it on yet.
Really? If it were me, I’d be wearing it around the house. Were you a big comic book reader as a kid?
I wasn’t, like, a fanatic. I definitely read comic books, but this particular character was not someone that I knew very well until the last 10 years or so. I’d heard of him, but I hadn’t really been like I’m a huge Black Panther fan. I think once you get into the film business, though, you start thinking about things that would be really cool to do, and then I fell in love with [the character]. For me, that’s going to be the case for most people who watch it, for most people who see this character emerge inside the Marvel world. And it’s the right time for it, at the end of the day. It’s the right time for the character to emerge and to have his own life, so I’m really, really excited for it. And I just feel it can be done the right way right now.
As you know, Marvel plans years in advance, so working backwards, how long has Black Panther been in your life? Years? Or just a few months?
Not even that long. You mean how long [back] was my communication with Marvel?
Yeah, how long had you been in talks when this was announced?
Not even a month. The real official conversations happened really quickly. I think there were rumors out there, but those were rumors. Maybe that’s a form of conversation, but it wasn’t an actual conversation, if that makes any sense.
Had you previously auditioned for other comic-book characters?
This was really the first. It wasn’t really an audition process. It was more of a discussion about what they wanted to do and how I saw it and what I wanted to do. It was more of a feeling out process and they’re really smart. I can’t talk too much about it—the only thing I can say is that they are smarter than you think they are.
Are you kidding me? Ten years ago, when they started this whole unified universe, I had doubts. They’ve proven me an idiot, which is hardly a first. But they’ve got it all figured out, don’t they?
They have a lot of it figured out. This is the part where I have to be quiet. Because the same way that surprise happened at the El Capitan Theatre, I feel like it all has to happen like that. I just know they’re really good at what they do. And it’s not like, “Oh, I can make a whole lot of a money playing a superhero, or anything like that.” For me, I’ve always been a person that says I’m not really looking to put on a suit and become a comic-book person. It’s never really been something in my scope, as far as a goal of mine. I’m more the person that says, “I want to do these really cool independent films with great characters with great directors, or studio films that have critical acclaim.” But I think with Marvel, you have the best of both worlds.
And someone like Chris Evans has used being Captain America to direct his own movie. Do you see yourself following that path?
Yeah, I just sold a pitch to Universal for something that I am writing. They won’t let me tell you about it right now. Whether or not I direct that, or act in it remains to be seen. But being a complete artist is what I’m interested in. I haven’t given up that idea. For me, being complete artist means not necessarily just being in front of the camera, but being behind the camera or being the originator or creator of something.
When you were introduced at the El Capitan, was that the first time you met Chris and Robert Downey Jr.? Is there a secret handshake to joining this club?
They didn’t teach it to me yet. Maybe I still have to be initiated. But that was not the first time I had met Robert Downey. I met him before we were about to do Jay Leno [in April 2013]. And he’s so cool because he actually came to my dressing room to talk with me. I didn’t even know how to take it; it was so not what you would think he would do. He came and sat down, and we talked for a good 15, 20 minutes, just chatting it up. So when we got to the day with he and Chris Evans—Chris is also like that—it was just sort of a family atmosphere. They just invited me in and both walked me through that process. They seemed like they were reliving their own versions of that [introduction] through me.
I assume you phone was ringing off the hook after that. Any memorable congrats texts or calls?
Besides old girlfriends? [Laughs]
“Too late, ladies, I’m Black Panther now!” You’ll officially be introduced in the next Captain America sequel in 2016. And you’re slated for a Black Panther standalone film in 2017. Is there a screenplay yet, or is that still just conceptual at this point?
Honestly, I don’t think so. All of that is being come up with right now. How do they say that: My pay grade doesn’t reach that high.