Four months after the death of the 'Black Panther' star, who succumbed to colon cancer at age 43, those in his inner circle reminisce about their unique bond with the gifted actor: "He was one of the most potent people I've ever met."
It's a chilly December morning in L.A., and personal costumer Craig Anthony is pacing outside his Hollywood Hills home, clutching a cup of coffee in one hand while balancing his iPhone in the other. The reception is better outside, and a cathartic meeting awaits. He is hopping on a Zoom call with three others — hair designer Deidra Dixon, makeup designer Siân Richards and agent Michael Greene. Since 2016, this quartet made up the innermost ring of Chadwick Boseman's inner circle.
Richards is on the New Mexico set of the Western Surrounded, stealing a few hours for herself before star Letitia Wright awakens after a long night of shooting. Dixon is huddled under a mountain of blankets in the home of her septuagenarian parents, whom she is caring for during the novel coronavirus lockdown. She and her brother Jamie Foxx were rocked by a separate tragedy when their sister, DeOndra Dixon, died of COVID-19 in October at the age of 36. Greene, who lost his partner of 15 years, commercials agent Jermaine Johnson, in December 2019 when he died of a heart attack at 40, joins the call last from his home in Malibu. For the first time since Boseman's Sept. 4 memorial service, the four are converging.
In the years leading up to Boseman's death on Aug. 28 at the age of 43, the group of five had become an inseparable unit. "We were always a group," says Anthony. "We all worked as a family and rode together for four or five years with him."
When Greene, who runs his own boutique agency, negotiated a contract for Boseman, it was stipulated that Anthony, Dixon and Richards were part of the package. "Michael was just the conductor amongst all of us," says Anthony.
Occasionally, producers have their own idea of who is necessary for a given production, and in the case of Spike Lee's tight-budgeted Da 5 Bloods — which already had its own hair, makeup and costume team in place — there was some resistance on the inclusion of the three, all at the top of their game and paid accordingly. In those instances, Boseman stepped in.
"They were really pushing back on him having his team, and production was going, 'No, you can't have this entourage.' 'No, it's not an entourage. You don't understand,' " Richards recalls. "He really did say, 'I don't need to do this film. If they don't come, I don't come.' "
On this day, just three months after Boseman succumbed to colon cancer, it feels a bit like a therapy session as memories are shared and the tears flow. The four have been separated, with Anthony now working as Brad Pitt's personal costumer on Bullet Train and Dixon — still grieving both Boseman and her sister — unsure if she'll ever return to the film business.
"It's still pretty tough to deal with because everybody looks at it as work, and it wasn't for us. We became family," Dixon explains. "We were the last people that he would see before he had to get in front of that camera. And we always wanted to make sure that he could do his best when it was time to say action."
Greene's relationship with Boseman dates back the furthest, to 2008. Two of his clients at the time — Omari Hardwick and Tessa Thompson — were up for Deep Azure, a hip-hop Romeo and Juliet film that Boseman wrote and planned to direct. The movie never got off the ground because the financing fell apart. But it spawned the 12-year union between actor and agent and set in motion Boseman's trailblazing career.
As he remembers it, Greene called Boseman to feel him out about Hardwick's and Thompson's prospects for the project. Boseman, a then-unknown living in Brooklyn, was startled.
"He said, 'How did you get my number?' And I said, 'It's on the script.' " Greene laughs at the memory. "And he said, 'Oh man, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like that. I didn't know how you found me so easily,' " Greene adds.
One week later, Boseman sent Greene a headshot, and an assistant noted that he was the same person the agent spoke to about Deep Azure. Greene decided to bring Boseman in for a meeting, even if it meant flying him in from New York. Within a week, they were working together and never stopped.
In short order, Boseman moved to L.A., and Greene booked him on the ABC Family series Lincoln Heights, getting him $5,000 for a guest appearance. Boseman was the rare megastar who stayed with the agent who made his career rather than signing with one of the top agencies. A decade later, Greene was negotiating a $10 upfront million deal for his star client to reprise his role as T'Challa in a Black Panther sequel, with a $20 million option for a then-planned Black Panther 3, according to sources. Greene wouldn't confirm those figures, but says his client's mandate was never about the money.
"He always wanted to do things that mattered or were meaningful," he says. "Like, every role, even if it was a series or a TV show, it had to be something that would represent something positive. Because he was always a speaker — on debate teams and so on, he told me. And when we went to the Congressional Black Caucus together when 42 came out, he was standing there with Jesse Jackson and it was like he had been doing this for his entire life, he was so comfortable."
Richards met Boseman in 2015 on the L.A.-set crime drama Message From the King. She had been hired as the makeup department head. Boseman had gravitated to the small indie role of a mysterious man tracking down his missing sister because he wanted to start practicing his South African accent for T'Challa, a role he had already booked but with production still a couple of years away.
"He came into the makeup trailer for a makeup test, and he was one of the most potent people I have ever been around, and yet had such inner peace. I knew he was different because I'd grown up in the business. This is the only thing I've known my entire life," says the British-born second-generation makeup artist, whose first film credit was 1991's Robin Hood with Uma Thurman. "He never announced himself physically in entrance. He would just appear. Like a ninja. And we just hit it off. It was bizarre. I felt like I'd known him forever."
By the end of production, Boseman asked Richards to join him on Black Panther. "I said, 'Are you kidding? It would be my honor,' " she continues. After Message, she did every movie with Boseman except Marshall, including Avengers ensembles Infinity War and Endgame.
Like Richards, Dixon met Boseman on Message From the King. "He is very quiet, but he was not quiet when I met him. We immediately started joking, singing, cracking up — I mean, he was just jovial. It was the opposite of what he normally is," says Dixon. "He became one of my best friends. He was just rare, man. He didn't seem like he was of this world."
In keeping with Boseman's spiritual vibe, Richards and Dixon sought out therapeutic teas and essential oils. They filled their makeup and hair stations with crystals, Buddhas and large wind chimes to create the proper energy. "Every time things would get all crazy or something, we'd just hit the wind chime and this sound would go off and we'd just be this little piece of …" Dixon says, trailing off.
Anthony's relationship with Boseman began more recently than the others', though he and Dixon already had forged a close friendship after they both worked with Foxx on multiple films including Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Anthony met Boseman on Black Panther after Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter brought him onto her team.
"Immediately we clicked," he says. "It's a little bit more unique when it's a male-on-male first meeting. But me and him, our rhythm was right on beat the first time we met. We spent a lot of time together on set, but off set, I think our relationship was even tighter. We would hang out, play music. We were together off set as much as we were on set."
Anthony worked with Boseman on all his subsequent films, culminating with the upcoming Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (out Dec. 18 on Netflix). Throughout the final years of Boseman's life, Anthony, Dixon and Richards became his on-set protectors, creating an environment that enabled him to thrive in front of the camera.
"He called them his three angels," Greene explains. "He wanted them around because he knew he'd be safe and taken care of and they cared so deeply about him." They say Boseman cared just as deeply about others.
"On Black Panther, there was a much older lady on the set, and I remember him calling to me and saying, 'I don't think she has had anything to eat,' " says Greene. "He was stopping everything he was doing to make sure that this little older lady from the tribal scenes was taken care of. And that's what he did. He never changed from the day I met him, ever, which is so unusual in Hollywood."
The four begin prodding one another, often finishing one another's sentences as they talk about shared histories, like their three daily meditation sessions with the actor. "The energy exchanges we would do, just holding hands with each other," offers Dixon.
Anthony adds, "It would always happen with Dee and Siân in the morning with him before they even started makeup. And then once we got on set, it would happen there. And then in the afternoon, when we needed a vibration, it would happen again."
Continues Richards, "I remember us doing that big circle in Thailand on [the Da 5 Bloods] set, and people were so surprised, weren't they?"
"Yeah," Dixon answers.
"People did talk. They didn't understand it. And we didn't care," Richards says.
"We heard this stuff about, 'Oh, they're a cult,' " Dixon says, and they all laugh.
Few knew the spiritual side of Boseman like Greene, Richards, Dixon and Anthony did; they were all familiar with his soul searching.
On Ma Rainey, he began every day with prayer. He could quote verbatim from Christian Scripture. It was a particularly challenging role because it deviated wildly from his character, the cocky and libidinous Levee.
"He read from his Bible every morning, and then he'd prepare to get into that character, which actually went against everything that he stands for," Dixon notes. "To watch that transition every morning was both a very interesting thing and very hard."
Another difficult thing to watch was his physical suffering. With the exception of Greene, none knew his exact condition.
"We didn't know what it was, but we knew that there was something," says Richards. "We were worried at one point. But he told us just to focus on the positive. You can look at someone and question, but at the end of the day, if they say, 'This is how I'm going to be,' that's what you have to do, too."
Amid the lockdown, Greene continued to see Boseman regularly, but there was little physical contact for the other three. Dixon dropped off some avocados from Foxx's farm at his gate, and Boseman would leave her grapefruits from trees on his property. Dixon's sister, who had Down syndrome, needed extra care, shifting her focus.
"Maybe three good times I saw him. And then, after that, it was just text messages and phone calls. And we kept promising to see each other when everything would open up and … nope," says Dixon. "God took the two most pure people in my life when he took my sister and Chad. And that's the thing that I keep battling with right now."
With that, Anthony jumps in: "We're here for you, though, girl. Don't let me have to call Brad [Pitt] and say I can't come in today. I'm coming over to your house and see what's going on."
He pauses before continuing: "So much went into building this beautiful pyramid, and now that he's gone we haven't worked together, we haven't seen Michael, our whole energy has been broken apart. So, it's a really sad situation. All of us were in such fine tune, and then we all stopped."
Black Panther 2, which begins shooting in summer 2021, will offer a chance for some to reunite. Richards has already committed. Greene, who also lost his dog of 15 years in November, hopes to work with Black Panther 2 casting director Sarah Finn as the project comes together. But Anthony has decided against it.
"It didn't go down very well when I told Siân I'm not going to do it," he says. "Brad is doing another film after this, Babylon. I decided to go ahead with him. I really wanted to be part of [Panther], but if Chad's not in it, there is nobody for me to take care of, really."
Richards is pushing Dixon to come along, but she's hesitant.
"I know what Chad would want, but I also know that he knows me and knows that this is a very hard thing. It's going to remind me too much of him."
"Yeah, but he'd tell you to get up," says Richards. "He would totally say, 'Get up, Dee. Get up.' "
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.