Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
April 9, 2013
Actors who portray professional baseball players are not themselves professional baseball players. So hitting home runs—or just making contact with the ball—isn’t automatic.
“There [were] some times when I struck out. Struck out over and over again,” says Chadwick Boseman, who stars as legendary Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson in “42.” “At a certain point you wonder, ‘Oh, I hope I really can do this.’ ”
He absolutely did it. The relatively unknown actor (seen previously on TV shows such as “Lincoln Heights” and “Persons Unknown”) is fantastic as the baseball great, who in the late 1940s strives to break baseball’s color barrier with support from his wife (Nicole Beharie) and Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford).
At Wrigley Field—a place where Boseman notes Robinson was booed—the 36-year-old South Carolina native talked about how “42” could have gone wrong, similarities between Jackie Robinson and President Obama, and the kid-friendly sports movie he does and doesn’t prefer.
Why do you think you got the role in “42”?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I know that [writer-director] Brian Helgeland and I, I think we realized that we would be making the same movie. I think when you’re a director, it’s kind of like being a coach. You need those players on the team that are coaches on the floor, and I think he felt secure in the fact that I had the passion for it. That I believed in it.
During filming, did he direct you by twirling his arm and shouting, “Go home!” like a third-base coach?
No, no. [Laughs.] That’s a funny joke, though. We actually didn’t have to talk that much. We would just kind of look at each other sometimes. People have talked about that before, how we had an uncanny connection in moments. He would be like, “I think I want you to ...” I would be like, “I gotcha, I gotcha.” He’d be like, “Yeah, that’s what I meant right there.”
There’s so much obvious inspiration in the story. What’s a way this could have been done wrong?
To play it like you already knew what was going to happen. And to do it passively. And to also do it like a victim. He’s not a victim; he’s a hero. For it to be a more paternal relationship between Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. They were two men who saw eye-to-eye on something, who made an agreement to achieve a goal and to perform a different task to achieve that goal. I feel like those pitfalls have been made in movies like this, and I don’t think we did. I don’t think we did any of that stuff.
I appreciated that both in the way the character is drawn and in your performance, the emphasis is on Jackie. I was thinking about “The Blind Side,” which is much more about Sandra Bullock’s character and, also, by the way, Michael Oher had some good stuff happen to him too.
Right, right. The true story is his story. Again, that was one of the things, Brian Helgeland and I—nothing against “The Blind Side,” it’s a great movie—we knew that wasn’t this movie. The iconic character is Jackie Robinson, and we had to follow that.
I think a lot of younger viewers are living in a “Jersey Shore” world where if someone yells something at you, people are much more likely to emulate that, starting a fight--this notion that’s the opposite of what Jackie had to do. How many people out there have the attitude that Jackie had to have—that it takes more strength not to fight back? Or is it that if people say something to them, they’re more inclined to react?
I think he is a special individual. [Laughs.] What you just described, that’s not anything to fight for anyway, but we still fight for it. To be put in his situation where the essence of who you are is being questioned and undermined and belittled and your family is being belittled and your wife, your manhood is being challenged, in most cases people would think that is something to fight for.
What do you mean that what I described is not something to fight for?
Meaning reality TV sometimes stages fights. And you look at it like, “Why are they fighting over that?”
“Because somebody shouted at me across the bar!”
“Yeah! You got a problem with me?” None of that. To me it sensationalizes that response, and there’s a glorification of that response. I think this movie, it’s definitely a messianic idea. “I can sacrifice that for something greater.”
Can you think of a time when you had your temper tested in a similar way?
Yeah, but I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs.] Absolutely, I mean, yeah. Growing up as kids, everybody’s been in a fight before. Everybody’s had a situation where things could have blown up in a way that they shouldn’t and sometimes you fought and sometimes you didn’t. I don’t think I could do what Jackie Robinson did. I’m not sure if I have that in me to withstand moments and not rationalize that I should fight.
Have you ever had something that was even remotely comparable?
To the racism and the prejudice? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I grew up in the South. I love the South, but people say that racism is more subtle now. It’s not always subtle. I definitely have some things to draw from in order to play this role. It was a gap that needed to be bridged because we do live in a different reality. I acknowledge the strides that we’ve made. I definitely wouldn’t say that I haven’t experienced racism and prejudice.
What’s an aspect of society you can’t believe hasn’t progressed farther? You say people call racism subtle but that it’s not actually as under the rug as some act like it is.
I think it’s all throughout. If you look at even the presidential race, there was not necessarily an equal treatment throughout Obama’s campaigns. And I think he was scrutinized in a way that most candidates wouldn’t be scrutinized. I would assume that he feels some pressure that he can’t even speak of. And that is very similar to the situation that Jackie Robinson is in. He can’t even talk about it because talking about it magnifies it more and makes it something bigger. Sometimes you beat things by not talking about it, by not giving it power. That’s something that everybody can see. We don’t need to go into everything else.
There used to be a ton of kid-friendly sports movies made when I was growing up, like “Rookie of the Year,” “Little Big League,” “The Sandlot.” What’s your favorite movie of those?
Uh, whoooo …. Kid-friendly sports movies. Does it have to be kid-friendly? Well, to me, “Remember the Titans.” I can watch it anytime it comes on. I like “Any Given Sunday.” There are a few that I could name, but “Remember the Titans” is probably my favorite.
So you’re not a “Rookie of the Year” fan is what you’re trying to say.
I’m trying to say that, yes. [Laughs.]
No love for “The Sandlot” either?!
It’s OK, it’s OK.
Why do you think those movies don’t get made much anymore?
I think that when you make a sports movie you have to consider a lot of things. It takes a lot of money to recreate sports scenes and the crowd. Sometimes I think people don’t make money off of them. There are ones that have done really well and a lot of them that haven’t, so it’s maybe viewed as a business risk to do it at times. I think that when you get a good one, when you get a special one, it’s all worth it.
Well, I think “Rookie of the Year” and “The Sandlot” were very special movies.
“Rookie of the Year” is special, but you asked me what mine was, man, and I told you what mine was. [Laughs.]
Why he thinks the percentage of African-American major-league ball players went from 27 percent in 1975 to 8 percent in 2012: “I think part of it is because of basketball. Basketball is a lot flashier; people see it. And it’s a lot easier for people to play in terms of equipment and fields. If you play baseball, you have to have a field that is kept up. You have to have a field that someone’s going to mow the lawn. It’s gotta be watered, all that stuff has to be done. It’s an opportunity game, much like hockey and golf. I think African-Americans don’t have the same opportunity to play it as other people do.”
On playing another African-American sports icon like, say, Tiger Woods: “Uh … I’m not interested right now. [Laughs.] I think his story is still being written … They also did the Michael Jordan story as well. I think the next step for me is not to play another sports figure necessarily. But there was a wise man who said if you ask an actor what role he wants next, he’s probably lying to you anyway. If there’s a good script that comes across our desk, I’m not going to rule anything out.”
On how “Django Unchained” impacted the way people talk about race and racism on film: “Uh … you really going to ask me a question about ‘Django’? [Laughs.] I’m not quite sure where to begin with that. It’s definitely a provocative--it’s a fascinating movie like you said. It definitely raised the question of race up again in a way that people haven’t talked about in a while … I appreciate the dialogue that it set up.”
The first album he bought: Eric B. and Rakim. (He doesn’t remember the name of the album.)
His first concert: The Roots
If he were on Jimmy Fallon, what song he’d want the Roots to play to welcome him: Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
A movie that scared him when he was younger: “The Exorcist.” “‘The Exorcist’ is not even a scary movie. It’s just about pure fear.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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