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I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance in 2014 than the one that Chadwick Boseman gives as James Brown in Tate Taylor‘s Get On Up. It is straight-up transformative stuff — Boseman sings, dances and starts to even look just like Brown, “The Godfather of Soul,” who died in 2006 — and if anyone is worthy of a best actor Oscar nomination in this remarkably crowded year for the category, he is. Consequently, I was delighted to have the chance to sit down with the 37-year-old in New York earlier this month for an extensive conversation about his rise to stardom.
Boseman hasn’t been in the public eye for very long, so he looks, to you and me, like an overnight sensation: He hit most people’s radar in the spring of 2013, thanks to his quiet but stirring portrayal of Jackie Robinson in Brian Helgeland‘s 42; then, in August 2014, he brought Brown back to life in Get On Up with a performance that seemed to quiet any doubters about his talents; and, on Tuesday, his fame and fortune were secured with Marvel’s big announcement that he has signed to star as the superhero Black Panther in five films, beginning with Captain America: Civil War.
However, as he emphasized to me, his story is a little more complicated than that.
Born in South Carolina to a nurse and an upholsterer, Boseman grew up worshipping Eddie Murphy. Inspired to do something creative himself by his brother, a dancer, he starting writing stories and directing plays in high school, with the goal of one day working in the theater. He eventually went off to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he directed undergraduate theater productions. He also began trying his hand at making short films. Acting, however, was the furthest thing from his mind.
That is, until the actress Phylicia Rashad — best known for her portrayal of Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show — began flying in to teach one class a week at Howard as a guest professor. “Clair Huxtable is my acting mom,” Boseman says with a chuckle. “The way she taught acting opened up things for me. I would have to take acting classes, but it was purely as director to know what the actors were doing. But when she taught it, it became something where I was like, ‘I want to experience that. I want to know, really, what that feels like.'”
After graduating from Howard in 2000, Boseman found the “real world” of New York more welcoming of him as an actor than as a writer or director (not that he gave up on being either of those). “When you get out of school,” he explained, “weirdly enough, it’s much easier to act than it is to direct. You can assist people [as a director], but nobody is going to hire you.” He continued, “So in the process of me just trying to work and stay in the midst of it, I found myself auditioning, because I guess I didn’t want to assist certain people.”
From then until late 2011, when he was cast as Robinson, his life was something of a roller coaster. “There were good times and there were bad times,” he said. “I was doing guest-star roles [on TV], and the funny thing about it is I always did the lead guest-star role, so I was always sort of able to craft a whole arc. It’s like playing the lead.” He also continued writing; “I wrote a play that got a Jeff nomination, which in Chicago is equivalent to a Tony.” And he even began teaching.
He taught at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in high schools and really anywhere his services could be used. “Essentially, I did whatever I could to stay in the groove of being an artist; I never wanted to wait tables or do anything that was outside of that,” he recalled. “If I had to write some over here, doctor somebody’s script over there, act in this over here, be a teaching artist there, I would do it just so I could stay in the midst of it.”
He saw himself as a success, even if others doubted his career direction. “I would go home and there would be people that’d say, ‘Maybe one day you’re going to make it!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m paying my bills. Are you paying your bills?’”
Around 2010, one opportunity came along that was particularly intriguing. “There was a Tarantino experience,” he told me a bit cryptically. From what I’ve been able to gather, he was approached about playing a part in Django Unchained, but it wasn’t the role of Django (ultimately played by Jamie Foxx) or Stephen (ultimately played by Samuel L. Jackson) — he confirmed that, and also, with a cackle, “It wasn’t Broomhilda” (ultimately played by Kerry Washington) — so it wasn’t right for him. He had his standards, even before he “made it,” and he wasn’t willing to compromise them. He saw himself headed toward bigger things, knowing that he had, for some time already, been going out for — and coming close to getting — the same roles as many higher-profile actors. He never really doubted that things would ultimately work out for him.
Sure enough, they did. The casting director for Django Unchained recommended him to Brian Helgeland, who was prepping 42 and looking for a relative unknown to play the iconic legend. Boseman landed the part.
Did knowing that he had been entrusted with carrying Robinson’s legacy to a new generation — and that he would have to play the part opposite Harrison Ford, who had been cast as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey — leave him intimidated or excited? Both, he said emphatically. “You don’t practice to play in the minor leagues. You practice to play in the big leagues, and the intimidation factor is exhilarating. You want to be intimidated.”
He rose to the occasion, and the film debuted to strong reviews and huge grosses at the box office, which it topped in its opening weekend. He was suddenly much more famous than he had been the week before — but, he insisted to me, it didn’t change him. “The funny thing is, life is life no matter what. Certain things don’t change. You’re still breathing, you’re still eating, you’ve still got to go to the grocery store. Stuff is the same. Your mom still calls you and gets on your case. You’ve got certain friends — it’s the same, no matter what.”
Like his personal life, his professional life didn’t change very much, either — at least for some time. “The perfect project didn’t really present itself,” he remarked, “and, in fact, I don’t think there was anything that presented itself that, at first glance, I looked at and said, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’ There were things that came that were definite no’s; there were things that were like, ‘Oh, now I get to know about this and I wouldn’t have known before’; and then there were things that came and it was like, ‘Uh … I don’t know.’ So like Draft Day [the one film that he made between 42 and Get On Up]? I think Ivan Reitman was totally right about me doing that, but I didn’t see it at first.”
One thing that he knew he wanted to avoid was being regarded in the industry as the go-to guy for biopics about famous black people — which is, of course, ironic because of what happened next. When he was approached by Taylor, best known as the director of The Help, about playing Brown, “I thought twice,” he told me. But, he realized, “Jackie Robinson and James Brown are so far apart from each other. The only thing that’s the same is that they were black and sometimes they voted Republican. That’s literally the only thing that’s the same about those two roles.” He got past that.
Ultimately, a bigger concern was whether or not he had the singing and dancing chops to convincingly play the showiest of showmen.
Boseman has long danced for fun at clubs, he told me, so he thought of himself as a dancer — but not everyone who knew him did. He remembered, “One of my sisters was like, ‘You’re playing James Brown? You can’t dance!’ That was her response. But she just didn’t know that part of me. Now, there’s a difference between dancing when you go out and dancing like James Brown. The curve is so drastic that it’s really unreal — like, when I looked at it at first and when I started working with the choreographer, I didn’t understand how hard it was. I had no idea how difficult, how intricate, how much isolated muscle strength is necessary to do it and the stamina of his performances. He’s a monster for hours!” After a lot of incredibly grueling practice, though, Boseman pulled off Brown’s moves like a champ. Those are really his feet moving in the film.
The singing component proved to be no less of a challenge — “It was just as much of a learning curve,” he admitted — even if it’s not Boseman’s voice that people hear on the film’s soundtrack. “It’s a combination of him and me in the movie,” he explained. “I had to do all the singing — like, when we were doing the performances, I would be singing and the mic was live and the crowd was responding to me singing and him singing at the same time. It was necessary to do that because you can’t fake what the neck is doing, what the chest is doing, what the diaphragm is doing.” So, in order to be his best, he said, “I went to voice lessons two or three times a week with this cat named Ron Anderson. He’s been a vocal coach for Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Adele and Luther Vandross. He’s amazing.”
His dance and vocal instructors pushed him to the limit — and for that he is grateful. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about acting, is finding new parts of your instrument and new techniques,” he submitted. “Each role teaches you something for the next role.” He added, “I can’t even put into words how hard it really was because there was no music director on this movie,” meaning he had to piece much of his performance together on his own. That being said, he did get some music pointers from one of the film’s producers, a fellow Brown fan by the name of Mick Jagger: “We had tea a couple of times and just listened to music and went through stuff and went through scripts. He made his presence known in terms of every aspect.”
In the end, the film hit theaters during the dog days of summer, grossed $30 million and inspired chatter that Boseman might land some awards recognition at the end of the year. What does he make of the buzz? “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to vote for you,” he acknowledged. “But I have not read anything. I just cannot do it. Once you go down the rabbit hole, you’re spending all your time doing that and for me, I just feel guilty for doing it. I feel like I should be trying to figure what to do next and not having these mental arguments with some critic or get gassed on my own performance. I feel guilty either way.” Nevertheless, he added, “If you get acknowledged in any type of way, you cherish it — because of the times when people didn’t notice you.”
It turns out the man has soul on screen and off.
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