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He got his start in the theater department at Howard University. And while he’s had supporting movie and television roles, he’s still the relative unknown director Brian Helgeland was looking for to play baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the upcoming movie “42.” Actor and playwright Chadwick Boseman stars as the man who integrated major league baseball, opposite Harrison Ford as the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed him. Boseman chats with Kojo about preparing to play a sports and civil rights icon.
- Chadwick Boseman Actor and Screenwriter, Star of "42" (Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures; opens April 12, 2013)
’42’ Official Movie Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Pulitzer prize-winning fashion writer Robin Gavan on first lady Michelle Obama and the fashion industry, but first each year on April 15 everyone in major league baseball wear's the same number on his back, 42. It's a tribute to the great Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 when he took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The number is the title of a new movie about the legendary player and the racism he faced in ballparks large and small and among his own teammates. The film stars actor Chadwick Boseman.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is a South Carolina native who got his start in show business in Washington as a theater major at Howard University. He's written plays and screenplays, had a supporting role in the movie, "The Express," about Syracuse University football player Ernie Davis and had recurring roles in the TV shows, "Lincoln Heights," and "Persons Unknown." Now, Boseman has the role of a lifetime, playing Jackie Robinson opposite Harrison Ford as the Dodger's president who signed him. Boseman is back in town to talk with us about his career and what it's like to play a sports and civil rights legend. Chadwick Boseman joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. CHADWICK BOSEMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You grew up in South Carolina and decided to come to Howard University to study theater. Why did you choose Howard and how much did you tap into the Washington theater scene when you were there?
BOSEMANI chose Howard because it has a strong tradition. I knew there were a lot of great actors that came from there and artists that came from there. So it just seemed like the greatest place to pursue, you know, acting, directing, writing, to be around black theater, to just get a nice basis for what I would be doing for the rest of my life. And I, you know, I did readings. I was an intern at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Arena Stage, I was all around, you know, Studio Theatre, everywhere. So…
NNAMDIYou took full advantage of being here, but at some point in high school you made a decision that you were going to be a writer/director, an actor. What triggered that decision?
BOSEMANMy brother was a dancer for Alvin Ailey. And so I guess I saw him in an artistic life, making means. It just appealed to me. And I knew I couldn't dance.
NNAMDISo figure writing.
BOSEMANYeah, I knew I couldn't perform in the same ways that he could and I actually didn't even want to perform. I wanted to be behind the scenes, but it spoke to me, that artistic career, artistic life spoke to me.
NNAMDIAnd you just made a life-changing decision. At that point you graduated from Howard with a degree in directing. You've written plays. You've written screenplays and you act. What do you like most about each of these different roles, if you will?
BOSEMANWriting, to me, is the most liberating, actually. I’m not saying that I like it more. I like each one, you know, on its own for its own reasons. But writing is liberating because you get the opportunity to act and direct while you write.
NNAMDIYou're in control.
BOSEMANYou're imagining all the characters. You know, you can do the whole thing in your head and you can get up and you're not schizophrenic or anything like that, but you could get up and play all the people and it's really a love affair that you have with the story and being a scribe of it. It begins to take its own shape. And at some point it's telling you the story. You dream about it and you wake up and have a new part and get excited. Directing, for me, just the collaborative process that you're dealing with a lot of different people who have their own art form, whether it be the set designer or scenic designer, the, you know, wardrobe or costume designer.
BOSEMANAnd I'm saying those two different because it depends on whether it's film or theater.
BOSEMANLighting or a cinematographer, you're dealing with everybody else's vision and you're placing it into a vision that fits the premise or fits the theme and ideas. And so just being able to organize all of that, as well as work with the actors who all have, you know, actors have different processes. They have different ways that they get into a character. It's fun. I mean, it's fun, it's exhausting, but it's fun. And as an actor I like to use both of those things, the writer and the director, because you have to interpret the work and you also have to, as an actor, self direct, because you can't depend upon a director to tell you everything.
BOSEMANSo especially in film and in TV because you don't have a long rehearsal process and you don't have the ability of doing things chronologically. You're jumping around in a story. You're shooting the end, then the middle, then a beginning, and then between each of those parts. And so you have to have a sense of, you know, where you are in the story, where you're coming from, where you're going to, what does this mean in the largest sense, in the largest scheme of the story, who are you in the largest scheme of the story. And so you're using -- and a lot of actors may disagree with that, but particularly when you're playing the lead, you're using both of those things to sort of interpret and expound on what the writers...
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Chadwick Boseman. He's an actor and playwright. He is star of the movie, "42," about baseball legend Jackie Robinson. What's your favorite memory of Jackie Robinson and his baseball career? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm glad you talk about process for an actor. Talk about how you prepared to play Jackie Robinson. You're talking about a legendary slugger. He breaks the color barrier in major league baseball.
NNAMDIYou studied a lot of footage. You read biographies. You even met with his widow, Rachel Robinson. What were you looking for?
BOSEMANWell, there are pitfalls, I think, when you approach this role. One of them is that, you know, you already know what's going to happen and you don’t want to play it like you already know what's going to happen. The other thing is trying to make everything iconic and big. And I was actually looking for the smaller moments, the smaller just human experiences that he would have to go through on a day-to-day basis. What was he thinking? Because I think, you know, one of the things that make character, your thoughts affect your actions, your actions are choices and become habits and habits make character.
BOSEMANAnd he is such a person of character, his character is what carried him through this. His character is what we remember him for. And so I needed to know what is he thinking moment to moment, particularly because a lot of times he can't say what is on his mind. You know, you have to be able to tell with this guy is going through nonverbally. So I needed to know who he was to know moment to moment how he was responding nonverbally. And I didn't want that to be forced either, so I needed to sort of meditate on it and sort of infuse it in my being so that I could just respond subtly.
NNAMDISee, that's the thing that I found most intriguing about my own reading about my own reading about Jackie Robinson because in the film, Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' general manager tells Jackie Robinson, I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back. And from everything I had read about Jackie Robinson before that, he was an assertive person.
NNAMDIHe could be an aggressive person. So to ask somebody like that to have the guts not to fight back -- how did you convey how hard it was for Robinson to keep all of those emotions and his opinions in check? He was a very opinionated man.
BOSEMANYeah, he had opinions about everything. And that's why I said there are pitfalls. Like if you play this role, like passive, you're not really doing anything. And it's important to, you know, show that he wants to say something, he wants to do something, but he has to make a different choice. And so there are a lot of layers to this type of person, put in this context where he has so much to prove, but he doesn't even feel like he should have to prove it because he already has that sense of pride.
BOSEMANAnd that's, you know, that's something that we don't normally get to see.
NNAMDIYou talked with Rachel Robinson. I had the opportunity to interview her when Arnold Rampersad wrote a book about Jackie Robinson.
NNAMDII interviewed the two of them together. What did she...
BOSEMANI liked that book, by the way.
NNAMDIThat's a very good book. What did Rachel Robinson tell you?
BOSEMANShe, I mean, she talked about his discipline. She talked about, you know, obviously certain, you know, physical things that he did. She talked a lot about their relationship and the agreements that they had, you know, on a day-to-day basis, like to get through a game or get through a certain situation. And that told me a lot. Like, that opened the door to a lot of different things.
NNAMDIHow important was she to what he accomplished?
BOSEMANI mean she was his partner. I mean, they did this together. You know, it sounds cliche, behind every great man there's a great woman, but she really is that. And he knew that he needed her by his side in order to do this. He knew it. There was no question. In every book I read that was clear. Rampersad's book says it. His own biographies say it. They did it together.
NNAMDIAre you a baseball fan? How did you need to learn about the game in order to play this role?
BOSEMANI'm a fan. I'm more of a fan now, than I was when I started. And I have more of an appreciation for the game now.
NNAMDII heard they took you to a baseball tryout at Jackie Robinson Stadium on the campus of UCLA.
BOSEMANYou're the only person that has said that actually.
NNAMDIHow did that work out for you?
BOSEMANThe funny thing about that tryout is that there's a statute of him above that field. And you know, I didn't have the role yet. And the tryout, you know, I didn't really know how I did. I thought I batted pretty well. I thought I ran bases well. My footwork was good. But some of my fielding was a little suspect. But I mean, I wasn't a baseball player, so, you know...
BOSEMAN...I had the ability to get to the ball, but then, what do you do after that? So, but we worked on all that. We had plenty of time to work on it, but I remember after we finished the tryout one of the coaches came over to me and said, you see that statute up there? And they had given me a hat for the tryout and they took it back from me. They took the hat.
BOSEMANThey took the hat from me while they put their arm around me and, you know, that's a statue of him. You realize how important this is? And I didn't know what that meant, why they took the hat back. Why they took the hat back at that moment. It was like, you saying I got it or I didn't get it? And so there was a certain, like, significance about it. And then it was like, this could be a nightmare. I could be looking back on this for the rest of my life saying, I didn't get it and I should've did better. But...
NNAMDIAs it turned out you got the role. And I was about to ask you, how intimidating was that, especially after seeing that statue. But after listening to you talk about how you approached the role, I suspect it was not that intimidating for you. The first major movie about number 42 came out in 1950 with Jackie Robinson playing himself. Now here we come after all these -- have you any idea why it took so long for us to -- were they waiting for you? Was that what it was?
BOSEMANYeah, that's a good answer.
NNAMDIOkay. That works for me.
BOSEMANI don't know. I don't know.
NNAMDIBut in your approach to playing this you seem to have a very thoughtful, some might even say scientific approach to how you played these roles. Is that what it was that stopped this from being an intimidating role for you to play?
BOSEMANIt was intimidating. When I looked at the whole thing it's intimidating. I think it's something that you break down in parts. I mean, you -- I can't -- if I look at my entire life, my entire life might be intimidating as well. But it's moment to moment. You know, it's breath to breath. And I think you just look at it from that point of view that I have to live this step by step. And...
NNAMDIOne moment at a time.
BOSEMANYeah, one moment at a time.
NNAMDIYou also have a starring role in an independent file that opened on Friday that's called "The Kill Hole" and you play a troubled Iraq veteran. Tell us a little bit about that role.
BOSEMANI play a marine who is also a private contractor, or another way of saying it is they use -- he becomes a mercenary who is suffering from PTSD. He is asked to do one last contract and, you know, he's at odds with this task. He's already done some things that he feels guilty for. And he's asked to continue that process by going to find a rogue marine who's actually murdering businessmen who he feels are profiting from the war. So it's a -- it was a really, really challenging...
NNAMDIFinds him and they end up having a relationship, so to speak. I mean, they end up kind of being curious and getting to know one another.
BOSEMANYeah, it's -- I mean...
NNAMDIDon't want to give the whole plot away.
BOSEMANNo, don't give the plot away now.
NNAMDIIt is called "The Kill Hole." There's a surprising parallel between the plot of "The Kill Hole," which was filmed two years ago, and the recent case of one Christopher Dorner, the former Los Angeles Police officer who shot several people and then holed up in a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains last month. Do you think that comparison is going to affect the way people view this film? Because when this film was shot that hadn't happened yet.
BOSEMANI think it makes it topical. I think it makes it, you know, relevant. You know, and they say sometimes art imitates life. And in this case it's life imitating art. And, you know, some people will probably think that the filmmaker is trying to capitalize on the situation. I mean, it's just not true. You know, he...
NNAMDIThe film was shot long before this.
BOSEMANLong before, yeah. And so I don't -- hopefully it just makes it more relevant. It makes people look at the film, you know, more closely and see the value in it.
NNAMDIWe've had a chance to talk a little bit about all the things you do -- a few of the things you do. You do the writing, directing, the acting, this role. What's the takeaway message of the movie "42" for you?
BOSEMANI hope that people come away from the story realizing that they don't know -- like, in other words, I remember there was a crew member on the set who said, I don't know why we still do these movies. Like we seen this story before. And that's the, you know, preconceived idea about the film. And people will have the same preconceived ideas about racism. They think it's done, it's over.
BOSEMANAnd the truth of the matter is, like, people experience racism a whole lot more -- like the person who's experiencing it experiences it a whole lot more than a person who's doing it, who's inflicting it or whatever, who's doing the thing that is racist. And I think it puts you in -- which all art does in all good theater film does it, it puts you in the shows of the various characters. And you can see when you've been one of those hecklers in the stands. And you can see when you've been on the fence about something racist.
BOSEMANYou can see when you've been courageous and a hero and it puts it in a form where it is emotional, you know. You should laugh, you should cry and you should think, I think, everyday to live a full life. And I think this film does that. And I think you take that away from the film. Yeah, you definitely take it...
NNAMDIThat's your take away from the film. The name of the film is "42." We have been talking with Chadwick Boseman. He is the actor and playwright who stars as Jackie Robinson in the film "42." Chad Boseman, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
BOSEMANThank you, man. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Robin Givhan on First Lady Michelle Obama and the fashion industry. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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