When it comes to the issue of race in America, Hollywood can never quite get it right. Most mainstream screenwriters and directors are either too busy selling us revisionist history (i.e. “The Help”) or so caught up in their massive egos (i.e. Quentin Tarantino’s comments on “Roots”) that we can never come to the table to have an honest dialogue about our country’s darkest chapter.
With the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic “42″ we finally have a big screen project that gives us an intelligent and authentic snapshot of race relations from the early 20th century. Writer and director Brian Helgeland gives us an emotionally powerful look at the man behind the legend who put everything on the line to further integration not just in sports, but the world at large. What’s most impressive about “42″ is that it never insults moviegoer’s intelligence about the ugliness of racism, yet is able to find the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Stepping into the role of the iconic Brooklyn Dodger is newcomer Chadwick Boseman who gives a deeply human and compelling performance, which just might land him on next year’s Oscar shortlist. Boseman, a Brooklyn native, graduated from Howard University and the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford.
The Urban Daily caught up with the talented actor to get the scoop on preparing for the role of a lifetime and why “42″ might be Hollywood’s most epic black love story.
TUD: Can you tell us about your physical preparation for the role?
Chadwick Boseman: We trained from the middle of January to May. We had baseball practice five days a week for 2-3 hours a day and then a conditioning session in the afternoon so it was like two-a-days. Fielding, base running, sliding. My baseball coaches had never done a movie, but they knew baseball. Their interest was to make sure the sport was represented. I was given Jackie Robinson’s Hall of Fame footage, so I would study his movements at night. They would tape me at practice and every couple of weeks they would split screen my footage and the real Jackie Robinson’s to see how I was progressing.
There’s a very intense scene where your character gets heckled on the field by Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) with really ugly racial slurs. What was the experience like?
When I met Alan I said to him “I’m a fan of your work, but I’m not gonna talk to you anymore.” I didn’t want to have a report with him because when you’re practicing, there’s a lot of camaraderie with the other actors. It was ok for me to play baseball with them but I had to create the conditions that Jackie Robinson was actually living under. His teammates didn’t like him, they didn’t joke around with him. So I found ways of secluding myself, but in particular with Alan Tudyk, I didn’t ever want to talk with him.
It was difficult because even today racism still exists. If you’ve experienced anything like that in your life, it’s an entryway into that time period. It’s going to affect you and you also had a crowd there, extras who had not read the script. They’re hearing the dialogue to this scene for the first time and it brought a very uncomfortable energy to the set.
What also added to it was that Alan was saying things that weren’t in the script. He and the director added some things. Alan knew how to use these racial slurs. I knew he knew what he was saying. Like “that’s not in the script, you adding stuff now!” (laughs)
Your character then suffers an emotional breakdown. As an actor and a Black man, can you even prepare for a scene so intense?
You can’t really rehearse a scene like that when you have a highly emotional scene. You have to trust that you’ll respond the right way. I think you use the real life situations that you’ve experienced and the moment itself. We had just shot that scene so I just carried over the music of that. And then you have a great actor to work with like Harrison Ford who is receptive to that moment. You just bounce off each other.
What I loved about “42″ is that it’s not only a great sports movie, it’s also a love story. Rachel Robinson is not just “the woman behind the man,” she is very much her husband’s equal.
That’s actually one of the things that struck me about the script. When I read third or fourth draft, Brian had sort of paralleled the idea of Jackie reaching home plate and coming home. I called him up and said “Man, this is a love story. You’re a genius!” I realized how big a deal it was, because I’ve never seen a movie done on this level between a black man and a black woman. It’s an amazing thing to see. Jackie Robinson is still breaking the boundaries, even to this day.
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“42″ opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, April 12th