It’s never easy for an actor to play a real-life character, especially one of recent vintage. But Chadwick Boseman isn’t just contending with the memories of older sports fans when he plays Jackie Robinson, major league baseball’s first African American player.
Boseman is 36, which means he was born about five years after Robinson’s 1972 death. And, he admits, he’s not a stalwart baseball follower.
But he brought something that about 25 other actors seriously considered for the role did not.
“He came in and said, ‘You’re either going to like me or not. And we’re going to know in five minutes’ ,” director Brian Helgeland recounted during a question-and-answer session at the White House recently.
It was a winning gambit. “He had to play one of the bravest men who ever lived,” Helgeland noted. “So I thought that he came in brave was a great indication.”
Boseman recently visited Washington, where he graduated from Howard University with a BFA in directing in 2000, to discuss “42,” which got its name from Robinson’s uniform number. It’s the goateed actor’s first big-screen leading role, playing against Harrison Ford in a movie written and directed by Helgeland, who scripted “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River.”
Sitting in a Georgetown hotel suite in black slacks and a blue sweater, Boseman flashed a wide smile and laughed easily and often. But he also was guarded, keeping his arms crossed for much of the interview. Like Robinson himself, Boseman seemed acutely conscious of the role he’s playing, both in and out of the spotlight.
Of “The Jackie Robinson Story,” Boseman said, it’s “the Hollywood version of the story. . . . It’s the real guy. He’s playing the real story. But you don’t get all of it.”
When he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson was subjected to furious racist abuse. But that’s not what Boseman said was missing from the biopic.
“The  movie begins by saying, ‘All he ever wanted to do was play baseball.’ And it’s not true,” Boseman said. “Baseball was probably his fourth or fifth best sport. He was better at track and field, triple jump and long jump. He was definitely better in football and basketball. And he even played tennis. He was just a phenomenal athlete altogether. Baseball just happened to be the thing he was able to actualize his skill in.
“I think he had greatness in him that this country was not necessarily ready to accept. That old movie doesn’t really tell that story.”
The actor learned more about the baseball player from meeting Robinson’s wife, Rachel. “I got a sense of their relationship, and who he was,” Boseman said. “A lot of it was what she wouldn’t say. What she wouldn’t talk about. The way she would gaze off at certain point, and you could tell what was emotionally important for her.”
In addition to the actor’s performance, Rachel Robinson also influenced the script, Helgeland said. He had written a scene in which Jackie benefits from a balk and had the batter’s wife ask what happened.
“In what world do you think I don’t know what a balk is?” Helgeland recalled her asking him. “I said it’s a very hard thing to explain and I need someone to explain it to the audience. And she said, ‘Well, have someone else explain it. Don’t let it be me.’ ”
And so, in the finished movie, a child asks about the balk.
On the field in the early days, Jackie Robinson couldn’t react to outrageous heckling, in part because of his own dignity but also so as not to undermine the man who had risked hiring him, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, played in the movie by Ford.
Boseman said he used acting techniques he learned in college to play the role, but not to understand the outlook of the first black major leaguer. “I probably drew from other things that maybe I didn’t experience at Howard because it was predominantly black,” he said.
To approximate Robinson’s experience, Boseman isolated himself from certain actors, notably the one who plays Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ben Chapman, who tries to rattle the Dodgers rookie with a torrent of racial invective.
“I didn’t talk to Alan Tudyk,” Boseman said. “If you’ve seen that scene, you know that I could not have a cordial relationship with him. . . . I told him when I met him, ‘I’m not going to talk to you for the rest of the movie.’ And he understood that.”
The actor already had bonded with the other actors, however, during “spring training” in Los Angeles, where the actors who were to portray baseball players studied the fundamentals for several months.
“I had to practice with these other guys from the middle of January to May,” Boseman said. “And I wanted to see what it felt like to be on a team.”
Boseman observed film of Robinson to learn how he moved on the field. But his principal trainer, Dennis Reitz, “wasn’t really concerned with what plays we had to do in the movie. In most cases, I think they’d say, ‘You have to do this exact play.’ But he was adamant that you need to be prepared for anything.”
Working on “42,” Boseman came to appreciate what he calls the “theatricality” of sports, and relished a scene he played with Ford in the tunnel leading to the field.
“It was one of the most intimate moments we had in the movie,” he recalled. “The camera crew is at the end of the tunnel. . . . People began to gather around the seats above the tunnel to listen to each take. When we would finish and I would come out, they would applaud. Every time. It was like a play. It was not like we were doing a film anymore.”
That feeling of closeness is one of the things Boseman likes best about “42.” He applauded Helgeland for “not shooting from the stadium. He’s shooting it from inside the game. On the bases. At eye level. I think he wanted you to get inside this moment.”
“The movie is epic,” Boseman said, “but it’s also subtle.”
Not unlike the character he plays.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.