Athlon talks baseball, Brooklyn and "Star Wars" with the movie's star
When Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) defied baseball’s “color barrier” by signing an African-American player, he understood that he needed a man with the guts to stare down the challenges the decision created. Similarly, any actor asked to play the legendary Jackie Robinson has to bring a lot more to the table than just acting ability. Chadwick Boseman, with a growing body of film and TV work, seemed uniquely suited to donning No. 42. But learning to field like an all-time great? That’s another story…
Did you play much baseball growing up?
I played Little League, but at a certain point I started playing basketball more seriously. It took the place of baseball. But I’m a sports fan in general.
What were your first impressions of Jackie Robinson?
I remember being told the story of Jackie Robinson as a kid and being excited about him the same way I was about Muhammad Ali or Martin Luther King Jr. When I heard about this movie, I felt like I would give my right arm for it.
For the role, you had to convincingly play like Jackie. How did you train for it?
All the coaches I worked with concentrated on the way he did things. They studied his swing, and I studied his swing on my own. We would tape batting practice and they would film me baserunning, and then every two or three weeks they would take his footage and split-screen it (with mine) and give it to me and let me compare. We did that for almost five months.
What was the toughest thing to nail?
The fielding was much more difficult than the batting. I’m a natural athlete, so I have the hand-eye coordination to hit the ball. But the fielding? The footwork? Understanding where to throw the ball from, depending on where you receive it? I just wish there was more of it in the movie because I worked so hard on it! (laughs) When I saw the movie I was like, “Man, that’s all? That’s it?” (laughs)
Did you have any contact with the Robinson family?
(Jackie’s widow) Rachel Robinson has been trying to get this movie produced for a long time. She was involved in the process from the beginning. She came to the set. Once I got the role the first thing I did was go see her. I felt like I had to get her blessing. She sat me down, showed me pictures, gave me some books to read. She talked about their relationship. She didn’t necessarily spell out, like, body movements or anything, other than he was pigeon-toed and he put his hands on his hips a lot.
What was it like on set? Did (director) Brian Helgeland keep you separated from the actors playing your teammates in order to develop believable tension?
I think he just left that up to us, because (shooting the film) was too stressful in terms of the workload anyway. Although, we didn’t stay in the same hotel.
One of the toughest scenes involves former Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who spews unrelentingly hateful things at Jackie from the dugout. Chapman is played by Alan Tudyk, who is known more for comedy — did you guys try and relieve tension between takes?
We never talked. No, we made it a point to never talk. When I met him the first time, I said, “You’re a great actor and I’m a fan of your work, but I’m not going to talk to you anymore.” And he said, “Cool.” He turned his eyes away from me, I turned my eyes away from him, and we walked past each other and we were like that the entire time that I was filming. For months. We never talked.
Jackie has to be pretty stoic for much of the movie – advised not to fight back or explode – is that tougher as an actor to play?
Yes. I mean, I think it’s much easier when you have dialogue, absolutely, and for me, the pitfall would have been to be passive. Like, if I was passive, then I wouldn’t necessarily be doing anything. So I had to know what he would normally do in that situation. What would you do if someone insulted you or talked about your momma or your wife or used a racial slur, what would you normally do, and then have that be part of the moment when he doesn’t do anything – or else you’re not really watching anything. That was important.
Not only do you play a legend, but you also get to work alongside one. You share a lot of screen time with Harrison Ford. What was it like working with him?
It was an amazing experience, man. If you put it in sports terms, you know how you gotta get up for certain teams that you play? Every time I had a scene with Harrison, I marked that game on the calendar. (laughs) I was so excited. I learned a lot from him. I tried to steal some of his tricks, you know? He had plenty of them. It was fun just watching his experience on the set. It’s something you have to be around, you can’t really learn it in school. It was just great to get a chance to soak it all up.
So, Han Solo or Indiana Jones?
Han Solo. Definitely Han Solo.
When you’re not in L.A. working, you actually live in Brooklyn. Is there still something special about putting on that old Dodgers cap?
Honestly, I just think it’s fly. (laughs) It’s the best cap you could possibly put on. And the old uniforms are just much more stylish than the new ones. But, yes — putting that jersey on for the first time was a magical moment.
—By Eric Alt