Actor Chadwick Boseman

The actor, director and playwright explains the challenge of playing the lead role in the feature biopic, 42, which celebrates the courage of Jackie Robinson.

In his first major, big screen role, Chadwick Boseman portrays the legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson in the box office hit, 42. The South Carolina native, who graduated from Howard University and also attended the prestigious British American Drama Academy at Oxford, began his career in the theater. He made a name for himself with various TV guest spots, which led to recurring roles on the series Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown. At the same time, he enjoyed a successful career as a playwright and director. Boseman made his feature debut in the 2008 drama, The Express, and starred in last year's indie film, The Kill Hole.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Playing Jackie Roosevelt Robinson in “42,” the movie that celebrates the heroism of the man who broke the color barrier in baseball was without a doubt one of the most coveted roles for any young African American actor. After multiple auditions and the blessing of one Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, of course, Chadwick Boseman won the part.

From my point of view, one of the movie’s strengths is the spotlight it shines on the solid and passionate marriage of Jackie and Rachel. So let’s take a look at a clip from “42.”

[Clip]

Tavis: All right. So, Chadwick, how you processing all this? This thing is already past $50 million. I just saw a couple of predictions this morning that expected it ultimately to go past $100 million. So you can set your humility aside for just a second [laugh]. That big smile now. Put the camera on him, not on me. There you go. That’s the smile I’m looking for. So how you processing all this? How you feeling about this?

Chadwick Boseman: I mean, I thank God every morning, man. Throughout the whole process, I’ve felt just incredibly blessed to be a part of it. Like I will wake up even before we started shooting in the mornings when I practice and I wasn’t too sore, I would just be vibrating with energy, you know. So I just feel that still even now just knowing that it’s out in the world.

It’s not so much the money as much as people are appreciating it. We have an A+ exit rating and that’s sort of more important than the money and it informs, you know, the money because you know people are coming back and they’re telling other people. That’s what feels good about it.

Tavis: How bad did you want this part and what did you have to do? I mentioned the multiple auditions, but how bad did you want this? What did it mean to you and what did you have to go through to get the part of Jackie Robinson?

Boseman: At first, and this is just part of the process of an actor going in day to day. It’s like almost going up to bat. You know, there’s a failure element that you have to learn to deal with. So I’ve learned over time to just do what I plan to do when I walk in a room and leave it.

So I throw that paper away, I throw that script away. I put it out of my mind no matter how good it goes because there’s so many times when it goes so well and you don’t get it. So I actually didn’t think about the process the first audition after I left.

I went back to New York. I was directing a play and it didn’t really occur to me that I was gonna get the role until I was watching the ninth inning of the World Series. Something about that celebration process, you know. The players were so exhilarated because they knew what they had gone through to get to this point and they finally reached the pinnacle of winning a World Series.

At that moment, I just had this feeling that I was gonna get this thing. I nudged one of my friends. He nudged another one of my friends and he’s saying, “He’s gonna play Jackie Robinson” and one of them said, “Toast it,” so we toasted it.

Tavis: Before you had the part.

Boseman: Before we had the part.

Tavis: Right.

Boseman: You know, I ended up going back and this was the interesting thing about it. Because I think when you have those moments where you feel like something is yours, you can’t just sit on it. So I felt the need at that point. That’s when that real strong desire for it came in.

You know, I went to the batting cage even though they didn’t say necessarily yet that I would have to play baseball, but I tried to prepare myself for what I might have to do and I ended up having to do a baseball tryout.

And we went in one more time for an audition and I could tell during those readings that Brian Helgeland, the director, knew that he wanted me and he was just trying to make sure everybody else knew that I could handle the full range of possibilities of playing a role.

You know, it wasn’t necessarily a really difficult audition process. It was just a process of trying to keep your mind in a place where you believe it, so you in turn have the right action to actualize it.

Tavis: So Harrison Ford, your costar, was on our program not too long ago and I wanted to get his take on what he thought of you and here’s what Harrison Ford had to say.

Tavis: I don’t wanna call him a kid, but this is obviously the movie of his career so far. What do you make of this Chadwick Boseman?

Harrison Ford: An extraordinary actor, a really extraordinary person. He worked from mid-January to May, five days a week, five hours a day, on perfecting the baseball skills that were necessary to play Jackie Robinson. He really understood the opportunity that he had and the challenge that he had and I think he took tremendous advantage of that opportunity. He’s a great kid. We’re going to be seeing him a lot.

Tavis: That’s high praise from Harrison Ford.

Boseman: You know [laugh], we text back and forth now and sometimes we play phone tag with each other. But he’s just been, you know, a great support not just onset but even after we’ve shot the movie. It just feels good to know you have somebody like that in your corner.

Tavis: You feel like you’ve developed a lifelong friendship with him now?

Boseman: Yeah, I hope so, I hope so. Yeah, it feels like we have. You know, he doesn’t really say a whole lot in terms of…

Tavis: I know [laugh].

Boseman: But he leads by action. You know what I’m saying? He’s a person of action and I appreciate that. You know, I’ve had a good time hanging out with him and I’ve sort of gotten the chance to understand his sense of humor. So it’s just been fun. He’s a legend, but at the end of the day, he’s a real person.

Tavis: Speaking of legend and a real person, Rachel Robinson is iconic, given how she has so wonderfully and beautifully protected and advanced the legacy of her husband, Jackie Robinson. What has she said to you? What did she say to you about your work when it was all said and done?

Boseman: Well, she definitely let me know that she was satisfied with it. You know, she told me that it not only made her remember the difficulties of the time, but the joy that they shared together. To me, she was the person that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Like I had to get everybody else out of my head just to do it and I tried to. Like there’s this actor thing, you just don’t want to be seeking everybody’s approval. But it felt all right to have her in that space.

Tavis: It’s one thing not to seek her approval per se, and I get that as a thespian, but is there a level of intimidation and pressure knowing that she’s gonna see these Dailies from time to time, I suspect?

Boseman: Yeah. And I guess the best way to say it is I knew that she wouldn’t hold her tongue about it.

Tavis: Right.

Boseman: And I found I trusted her to say the right thing, but also because of the person that she is, she’s loving and stately, that she would be able to do it in a way that would be positive for the film if it didn’t in fact happen to be something that she wasn’t pleased with.

But when she came to the set, she just really was enjoying this moment. You know, she’s waited for so long to have this happen and it was fun to her to be able to experience it and absorb it.

Tavis: How would you have processed having had the chance to play the role if the film had not been a box office success? You still played the role. It’s the same film. It just didn’t connect with the public, didn’t make this kind of money. How would you have felt about having had the chance to play the role if it wasn’t making $100 million dollars eventually?

Boseman: The only time that I ever considered that it wouldn’t do well was when Harrison said to me – this was last year when we were looking at an early cut. He said, “Look, you’ve done everything you could do. You worked as hard as you could work.”

He actually said, “You know, sometimes it’s not good to work too hard as an actor, but you had to work hard doing this because of just the baseball part of it, the physical part of it made it where you had to let them see you sweat.”

And then there was a deep internal emotional part that you have to take home with you when you get over certain days. He said, “But you can take that and cherish that because you can’t control how people respond to it.”

Tavis: Can’t control the box office, yeah.

Boseman: You can’t control the box office. So I just sort of, once he said that, I hadn’t considered that it wouldn’t do well, but I took that as like that is my victory. And that’s sort of what I mean about auditioning as well. It prepares your mind for these moments.

If you don’t go in and do those reps and get those failures, that’s preparing you for bigger success and also for bigger failure. So I always leave it at the door. Now if it hadn’t done well, you’re definitely gonna feel it. I wouldn’t deny that. You’re gonna feel disappointed.

I’m sure I would have felt not only disappointed in the film, but disappointed in people that they didn’t acknowledge that it was an important thing to go see. But I’m just glad that people have turned out and that they’re appreciating what they see when they go in there.

Tavis: I told Harrison when he was on – as a matter of fact, I brought my ticket stub to show him that I actually paid to see this. I’m fortunate that Hollywood studios send me these screeners all the time, so typically I stay home and watch a screener. But I really wanted to go see this in the movie theater, so I went to the ArcLight up in Hollywood and bought my ticket and went to see it.

So I’m in a theater with mostly, overwhelmingly, white folk and I had to control myself ’cause I was laughing so hard. You know where I’m going with this.

Boseman: Yes [laugh].

Tavis: I read later on that you were laughing too in the filming. I was laughing so hard at the scene when the coach of the Pittsburgh team is taunting you and calling you nigger over and over and over again and this, that and the other, and I’m in my seat falling out laughing ’cause it was so hilarious to me that they were doing everything they could to try to throw you off your game.

I was there and a couple other African Americans and we were laughing and the white folk were like that’s not funny. It wasn’t funny, but if you’re Black, you process it a different sort of way like they are doing. These white folk are doing everything they can to throw him off his game.

I didn’t want to laugh out loud, of course, but I had to control myself. Then I read later where it was kind of humorous for you too while you were filming it. Is that true?

Boseman: Well, here’s the funny part about it. I’m glad you asked the question because, you know, a lot of times when people ask you, they want you to say a certain thing. They want you to say that those words have control over you in a certain way.

I’ve answered it from various different standpoints in that process of reading it and also hearing him do it. Alan Tudyk is a funny guy, like most of the stuff he does is funny. Like he’s cast in a role that is not typical for him.

So when I first started hearing it, you know, in some of the early rehearsals, I did chuckle because [laugh] it’s so absurd and it’s so like off the wall that you’re just like I can’t believe that he’s doing it. I can’t believe that he’s gone there. And it’s almost like a standup comedian to a certain degree.

Then at a certain point, I think what happens is the real context of the word sets in and that just teaches you something about the power of words and the power that words do have and don’t have, that you give words power. Because there’s always that debate about whether or not the “N” word should be used or not.

So it’s interesting that, in my method or process, I gave the power to the word to either be funny or to be serious, and it’s the context. It’s like we created on the set the real context of those words and it took Alan Tudyk and I not speaking, it took the crowd not knowing what the scene was and them being disturbed by it.

There were some African Americans in there that laughed and some that began to feel uncomfortable, so they went through the same process that I did. Then there was a point where it almost has like – it just overwhelms you in a way where you have to feel emotions that you don’t want to reach. But, yeah, all of that…

Tavis: I think you’re right about the fact that it is about whether one chooses to give power to the word or not. But in fairness to Jackie Robinson who had to endure these taunts, it is also about context. So we’re looking at this film in real time. We’re looking at it in 2013. He was enduring this back in the day.

So what he was enduring at the time and the context of the way Black folk were being treated more broadly, obviously it was not a laughing matter then.

Boseman: Right.

Tavis: I think the reason why I found it humorous now was, one, his delivery was kind of funny ’cause he was trying to be…

Boseman: He’s a funny actor.

Tavis: He was being over the top. But the other part that was funny for me was that, you know, sitting here in 2013, if the best you can do in 2013, if the best you’ve got is to call me a nigger…

Boseman: What do you do next?

Tavis: Yeah. You better come with something else.

Boseman: Right.

Tavis: If that’s the worst you’ve got for me is to call me out of my game, I may have to check you on that, but you gotta come with a whole lot more than just “name-calling” to throw me off of my game. So I think, again, it was about the context of when he had to endure and when we had to live it, but it was a powerful scene, though.

Boseman: You know that he can back it up in that. In 1947, the lynch mob is outside.

Tavis: That’s right.

Boseman: You know, they’re gonna show up at your house in 1947. So it just sort of – you know, for me, it was just a learning lesson, like that is the debate all in this one moment. I could see this entire debate, which is a powerful thing to take from a film also.

Tavis: It’s interesting to me that this will be regarded, I suspect, for as long as your career goes on, will be regarded as your breakout role playing Jackie Robinson in “42.” And yet before this ever happened, you were writing and you were directing plays. So we had not heard of you. We, the nation, had not heard of Chadwick Boseman prior to that.

But give me some sense of what you have been doing all this time to exercise your craft before this moment brings you to our consciousness.

Boseman: I think there’s a difference between a working actor, a movie star and a celebrity. They’re all three different things.

Tavis: I totally agree.

Boseman: And I was a working actor and I was a working writer who basically worked in various different realms like, whether it be script doctoring, when it would be hip-hop theater which we would take the aesthetics of hip-hop and put them into a theatrical form, classical works, Shakespeare, just anything that you could imagine in terms of stage, and then TV work.

There came a certain point where I knew that I wanted to be sitting here talking about a movie and I knew that the way to do that was to do as much TV or film, stuff on camera, as I could. So I began to turn some of the other work down. At some point, I probably will bring it all back together again.

So I consider myself really not to just be an actor, but an artist. I’ve always seen it that way because there’s some works that you shouldn’t act in, some parts you shouldn’t do. But if you’re a writer, you should write them. There’s some movies you should produce or direct.

So I’ve always kind of kept all those trains running and, as I said, right before I got this role, I was directing a play on Broadway. So I never like to just sit and allow someone else to tell me when I can work.

You know, if I’m an artist, I have to get up and be an artist every day. And if all I’m doing is sitting there waiting on the breakdowns or waiting on my agent to call me, how can I get better? So to me, as an artist, it was always important to me to get up and write. That makes me a better actor. Acting makes me a better writer. Directing makes me a better writer and actor.

So to get up and do something that moves me towards my goal and it really is about what’s feeding you, you know, at a particular time, what is driving you or what is inspiring you.

Tavis: What’s your sense, what’s your hope, or is there already evidence to answer this question that you can put on the table, about how much more the agent is gonna be calling you on the other side of “42″? I ask that because Rita Moreno was on this show a few weeks ago and I was fascinated.

I mean, I’ve watched Rita Moreno for years and I was fascinated to go back into her corpus and way back in the day when she won the – first Latina to win the Academy Award, she did not do film again for another seven years.

Boseman: Right.

Tavis: Seven years after winning an Academy – it doesn’t get much bigger than that, and she didn’t have another role that was worthy of doing that was offered to her for seven years. I doubt very seriously if that fate will befall you. But we had a wonderful conversation about for actors of color what these “awards” really mean.

And she and I had a really deep dialog about persons of color who’ve won these awards and they disappeared. You don’t see them for a long time or, if you do, they’re in a bad movie. But the industry oftentimes won’t let them capitalize on the success they’ve had no matter how good they were at what they were doing.

So that’s a long way of asking whether or not the phone is ringing more or you expect that it will. I assume you hope that it will now that we’ve seen what you are capable of.

Boseman: Well, I don’t answer my phone [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] That answers that question [laugh].

Boseman: No, but I answer my agent’s call and my family’s call.

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Boseman: But right now, it’s just too crazy.

Tavis: You ain’t gonna answer the phone right now.

Boseman: I’m just like, ahh, it’s buzzing all the time. I have a good feeling about, you know, what’s to come and I’ve seen some evidence of good things. I just, you know, signed on to do another film with Kevin Costner.

And there are a lot of things that are on the table to do, but where I am the same is that some of the things that come to you, you’re like I’m not gonna follow Jackie Robinson with that.

Tavis: That’s what I wanted to hear [laugh].

Boseman: I can’t follow Jackie Robinson with that. You know, I think you have to sort of pay respect to what you just came from. And a lot of times, you know, what I’ve also seen that’s really disturbing is you’ll see people within the industry will almost treat you like a person that got to sit down in a restaurant.

Now the owner set you in this seat, right? But they’re the host and they’re like how did you get past me? I’m the gatekeeper. How did you get past me to get to sit in this seat? And they want to send you back outside and sit you in your proper place.

That is really disturbing and you have to remember, oh, no, this is what I just did and this is what I aspire to do.

Tavis: To your earlier point, I think one of the great lessons that I personally take away from the brilliant career of Sydney Poitier and you’ve just hit this. Denzel was a good example as well that so often in building these careers, it’s the value found in the stuff you turn down.

It’s not just the stuff that you say yes to. It’s the stuff you turn down that ends up making you an iconic actor way down the road. But you’re well on your way and a whole lot of us are proud of the work you’ve already done and we look forward to seeing a lot more of you.

Boseman: Thank you, man, thank you.

Tavis: The name, of course, is Chadwick Boseman. He is the star of the new film about the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, along with his wonderful wife, Rachel. The movie, of course, “42.” Of course, you already know that ’cause it’s well on its way to making a lot more money. Chadwick, good to see you.

Boseman: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Thank you for coming on. That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching and, until next time, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Court

    It’s funny because I too laughed really hard at the Pittsburgh coach taunting. I thought it was just me.

Last modified: April 29, 2013 at 2:44 pm