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Becoming Jackie Robinson: How Chadwick Boseman Landed the Lead in '42'

42 Chadwick Boseman Jackie Robinson - H 2013
Warner Bros.
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson

Director Brian Helgeland recalls the actor’s “big and brave” audition that got him the part.

In his first major, big screen role, Chadwick Boseman has big shoes to fill.

To play the part of Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, the organization’s first African-American player, Boseman had not much experience to draw on beyond little league, he says.

“There are not many projects that are going to be more meaningful than this,” Boseman tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding with a smile: “I knew it would be a challenge, but you get to be a professional athlete for a few months.”

Boseman addressed that challenge head on, delivering what writer-director Brian Helgeland recalls as a “big and brave” audition.

PHOTOS: '42' L.A. Premiere: Hollywood Celebrates the Legend of Jackie Robinson

“A lot of actors kind of played it down the middle, so that they didn’t put themselves out of the running,” Helgeland says of the audition scene, in which a frustrated Robinson loses his cool after being verbally assaulted by the manager of an opposing team. “Chadwick nailed it, and I thought he was a really brave guy on top of everything else. So I thought, ‘If you gotta play a brave guy, that’s the guy.’”

After landing the part, Boseman embarked on a baseball boot camp, in which some of the actors were required to practice five days a week for five months including game situations and conditioning. “I had to focus on [Jackie’s] game footage and the way he did things,” Boseman recalls. “I looked at his batting stance, his running style, his fielding, and they would split screen my practices with his hall of fame footage. I would take it home and study it.”

The result: an athletics-heavy biopic that has earned the stamp of approval from Robinson’s widow, Rachel.

For Helgeland, the film was an opportunity to pay tribute to two great men: Robinson, of course, and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers GM who signed Robinson to the team in 1947, played by Harrison Ford.

“I think any time you can remind everybody of Jackie Robinson and what he went through, that he did a lot of good but there’s still more work to be done, that’s a good thing,” says Helgeland. “And he’s such a great man, he deserves a great big movie to be told about him.”

Produced and financed by Legendary Pictures, 42 hits theaters via Warner Bros. on April 12.

Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci