In the Bigs

Former D.C. actor Chadwick Boseman hits it big in ‘42,’ portraying the barrier-breaking Jackie Robinson

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Chadwick Boseman delivers a crowd-pleasing performance in “42.” Which was a problem. The crowd was supposed to boo.

While filming the biopic, in which the Howard University alum portrays baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Boseman drew cheers from the extras in the stands who were hired to pretend to be jeering the first African-American player in the majors. The extras’ reaction was partly a response to Boseman’s skills on the field, and partly a rejection of the disturbing behavior that the script — and history — required of them.

“I remember we did seven or eight takes,” Boseman says, “and I’m running down the first base line, sprinting, and not only do I have to sprint full speed, but the guy on third has to backhand [the ball] and jump and throw to first, bounce it, and the first base guy catches it, and I have to beat the throw. Now all that’s got to happen, but the crowd is cheering for me — when they should be booing.”

The extras eventually did boo. And shout. And yell racist taunts.

What “42,” opening Friday, does best is show modern audiences just how bad Robinson had it when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the year he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

As if the on-set taunting didn’t make his job tough enough, Boseman — a 36-year-old relative newcomer to film who’s starring alongside Harrison Ford — had the responsibility of portraying a legend.

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“We would have baseball practice, and we would tape [it],” he says. “And they would split-screen me doing certain things and [Robinson] doing it.” While Boseman eventually picked up Robinson’s batting stance, throwing style and even his pigeon toes, he says imitating the legend’s on-field talents took a backseat, as writer-director Brian Helgeland’s script focused more on Robinson’s emotional struggles.

In the film’s most discomfiting scene, Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) lets loose a horrifically bigoted series of barbs while Robinson’s at the plate. “It’s a twisted thing sometimes,” Boseman says. “Once you’ve heard [the taunting] a certain number of times, you can get lost in it. And then you do feel how awful it is. The actor in you wants them to [jeer], and that human spirit in you wants to hear approval — it does get to you.”

Boseman’s strategy of using the scripted hate to improve his performance was informed by Robinson’s competitive spirit, he says.

“I think he just sort of let [the boos] drive him,” Boseman says. “But at a certain point, people were coming to the ballparks to see him play, so he felt all of it, I think. The cheers and the boos. And I felt it, too.”

More Than A Number

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the last player in Major League Baseball still allowed to wear No. 42, which the sport retired in 1997 to honor Jackie Robinson, above. All players and managers in the league, however, can wear No. 42 on April 15 for Jackie Robinson Day, which was initiated in 2004.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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