Chadwick Boseman’s breakthrough role as Jackie Robinson in 42 is as epic as the man he portrays
Author Jaime Lowe
Chadwick Boseman was always more of a Hoops man. “There was a point when I chose basketball over continuing with Little League, but I loved all sports,” he says from his apartment in New York after a day of rehearsing for a musical production based on characters developed from Tupac lyrics. “I was clearly more drawn to the concrete. But I kept up with it and played pick-up baseball games.” Which is a good thing, because it helped him land the role of Dodger Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. The movie tracks Robinson’s historic rise from his beginnings as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro league to his groundbreaking 1947 start as the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The movie pits the relatively unknown Boseman against powerhouse Harrison Ford, who plays the equally groundbreaking manager Branch Rickey, in what ends up being an athletic and emotional tour de force. Play talks with Boseman about what it’s like to be catapulted to stardom, the state of discrimination today and how one manages to embody one of the most important baseball players in history.
How did you prepare to play Jackie Robinson? I was obviously nervous about the part because I knew that there would be a lot of people who had a lot to say about my performance, but it was really exciting and a great challenge. It was one of those things that I had to block out the whole picture and deal with it bit-by-bit.
You’re in your early 30s. How much did you know about the great Jackie Robinson going into the project? I knew the basic outline but not all the details, I didn’t know his family history and I didn’t know anything about the Dodgers, but I knew the basic facts. I don’t know if I first read about him in kindergarten or church or both but I had a sense of the story. And then I read his autobiography, I Never Had it Made, Rampersad’s biography Jackie Robinson. And Wendell Smith has a biography that I read, as well.
Wendell Smith, the black reporter that trailed Jackie Robinson, is someone you don’t hear about much. The movie details how he had to face as many hurdles as Robinson. The journalist’s story is a story all on its own. If it wasn’t for the Pittsburgh Courier and other black papers pressing the envelope, that story wouldn’t have been told. The press would use their reporting to push for integration.
Have you ever experienced the kind of racism that Jackie Robinson faced? Absolutely. Anything from being called names outside of a diner to people not wanting to serve you and teachers being unfair. I’m from South Carolina and people ride around to this day with Confederate flags on their cars. The racism shown in this movie is not completely in the past. Even when we were shooting the movie, two of the stores we shot in outside Macon, Georgia still had white and colored signs on them. We were like, whoa. The train station still had the white and colored words engraved on the building and then you realize it really wasn’t that many years ago. I think they kept it there to remember.
You went to BADA (British Academy of Dramatic Arts), did you notice a difference in the way people responded to race in the U.K. versus the U.S.? You really don’t think about it as much in other places. When I’ve been out of the country. I end up with a better understanding of race in America. It was definitely different there than here.
Harrison Ford played Branch Rickey big. What was it like working opposite that performance? Branch Rickey was really like that, he was known for his charisma, for being a person that would give eloquent and motivating speeches. He was motivated by old country preachers. He’s like a Phil Jackson, his religion had a direct effect on his players and his business. He held his players and himself accountable to those standards.
And his big personality was really different from Jackie Robinson’s, who was a little more reserved, right? Yeah, it was a really subtle dynamic. The two characters play off of each other really well. I always felt like I was there with Harrison. Even when we were off camera, he had a certain intensity and drive. I would wake up dead tired some mornings and I would realize, I get to go shoot a movie, I get to go be Jackie Robinson, I get to go work with Harrison Ford.
That’s a lot of good in one project. And the whole thing resonated because I realized I wouldn’t be where I am today without this person in history.
One of the biggest problems with sports movies is that actors aren’t all that athletic, but you are a very convincing athlete. How did you train? We had baseball practice for three and a half months in Westlake Village, Calif. before we even went on location. We concentrated on the way Jackie Robinson would do things—we looked at footage of him playing and arguing. The studio would split-screen video of me practicing and Jackie Robinson’s footage so that I could get his movements down. It was all about his form.
You picked up on his fingers as he was stealing bases—he almost had jazz hands. He would get that little excitement or energy thrust. I saw those fingers and decided I liked that. It should definitely feel like when he’s out there, in his element, the reason he is able to succeed is because he finds the playfulness and at the same time he finds the warrior inside. He’s able to step up to the plate because he relishes that moment.
So, even though you’re a basketball fan first, do you have a new appreciation for baseball players as athletes? It’s an extremely physical sport. Fans don’t understand that when a baseball player has an injury to his finger, he’s out because he literally cannot catch the ball, it’s not just a hang nail. People are throwing the ball at high speeds and there’s no way around that.
Who’s your team? My dad made me an Atlanta Braves fan. If they didn’t win he was so upset. So, as a kid, I really wanted them to win so that he could not talk about it for the rest of the day.
Now that you’ve played Jackie Robinson, has everyone you know tried to recruit you for summer softball leagues? [Laughs.] I have been recruited but I have decided not to play. I hung up my cleats for the summer.
This is your breakthrough role, has it changed your life? I still breathe and eat. I still do human stuff. I’m not flying or anything. But things are definitely different.
Well, maybe you’ll get cast as Superman someday, then you’ll be flying. That would be a breakthrough: the first black Superman.