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Sat April 6, 2013
Movie Interviews

In '42,' A Young Star Suits Up For A Hero's Role

Originally published on Sun April 7, 2013 10:08 am

The number 42 has been retired from every team in Major League Baseball, and in recent years, teams have been eager for fans to remember why: It was the number Jackie Robinson wore for the Brooklyn Dodgers when he broke the sport's color barrier — and began to break a new path in American history.

When civil rights demonstrators marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and were assaulted by police water cannons, the Rev. C.T. Vivian was among them; he remembers holding the memory in his mind of Jackie Robinson, wearing number 42, marching deliberately toward home plate under a hail of threats and epithets.

Director Brian Helgeland has made a movie to tell a chapter from history through the eyes of those who turned that page. The film is 42, and it stars Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, who warns Robinson of what's ahead: "Your enemy will be out in force, and you cannot meet him on his own low ground."

NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Boseman on how it felt to don that uniform.

Interview Highlights

On taking on the intimidating role

"You know, when I first got the role, you know, I celebrated. And during that time period, it started to set in, like, how big of a deal it was. You definitely feel everyone's stake in him. But I think for the most part the pressure that you feel comes from the fact that [Robinson's widow] Rachel Robinson is still alive, so you want to do right by the family."

On what it took to fully embody Jackie, the baseball player

"I watched tape on him, and I had baseball coaches who also watched that footage. So we not only had baseball practice everyday, but it was baseball practice to sort of emulate his style of batting and his style of base-running, which you know was a really, really exciting and exhilarating thing to come to the ballpark to see. So if you don't steal bases like him and put pressure on the pitcher in the same way that he did, then you're not playing Jackie Robinson."

On traveling back to a time of racial injustice

"You know, the crazy thing about it is that when we were filming in Macon [Ga.], theres a scene at a gas station. And when we got there, we saw there was a real 'Whites Only' and 'Colored' sign on this gas station. Like, they painted one for the movie, but there was already one there that was painted over. And that was one of the most striking — this was outside of Macon — and yes, jarring, because we've made a lot of strides. But some of those things are still right in front of us."

On hearing racial epithets on set

"It does become difficult and embarrassing, and you do get angry. And you do feel, in a slice of that reality, somewhat like he would feel. And it's an incredible amount of courage to deal with that. And even the games that you may play in your mind about how you should respond become part of the performance."

On how this role might inform future performances

"I think it's a good thing to carry around. And I think you learn something from every character, every character you play. As you do that, you find parts of yourself that you didn't know. So in order to find those characters, you dig into yourself, and say, 'Jackie Robinson was a courageous man, so what is courage to me?' and 'What is discipline to me? What is commitment to family? What is love to me?' If you do that with every character you play, I think it definitely helps you — it carries you into the next role."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The number 42 has been retired from every team in Major League Baseball and in recent years, teams have been eager for fans to remember why. It's the number Jackie Robinson wore for the Brooklyn Dodgers when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and began to break a new path in American history. When civil rights demonstrators marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, and were assaulted by police water cannon, the Reverend C.T. Vivian recalled that he held the memory in his mind of Jackie Robinson, wearing 42, marching deliberately toward home plate under a hail of threats and epithets.

Director Brian Hegeland has made a movie to tell a chapter from history through the eyes of those who turned that page. The film is "42." It stars Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson; and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, who warns Jackie Robinson of what's ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

HARRISON FORD: (as Branch Rickey) People aren't going to like this. They're going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they'll hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow, and they'll say the Negro lost his temper. Your enemy will be out in force, and you cannot meet him on his own low ground.

SIMON: Chadwick Boseman plays that great baseball player, and he joins us from the studios of NPR West. Mr. Boseman, thanks so much for being with us.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Is it intimidating to play a great icon like Jackie Robinson?

BOSEMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, when I first got the role, you know, I celebrated and during that time period, you know, it started to set in, like, how big of a deal it was. But you definitely feel everyone's stake in him. But I think for the most part, the pressure you feel comes from the fact that Rachel Robinson is still alive. So, you want to do right by the family.

SIMON: Jackie Robinson had one of the best-known and most imitated batting and running styles. And that dance he would do down the third base line, did you work to get that down?

BOSEMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Absolutely. I watched tape on him and I had baseball coaches who also watched that footage. So, we not only had baseball practice every day but it was baseball practice to sort of emulate his style of batting and his style of base running, which, you know, was a really, really exciting and exhilarating things to come to the ballpark and see. So, if you don't, you know, steal bases like him and, you know, put pressure on the pitcher in the same way that he did then you're not playing Jackie Robinson.

Yeah. You were born in South Carolina, I gather.

BOSEMAN: Right.

SIMON: Well, I'm just trying to understand how jarring it might have been for you to, even just on a movie set, see signs that say whites only, that sort of thing.

BOSEMAN: You know, the crazy thing about it is that when we were filming in Macon, there's a scene at a gas station. And when we got there, we saw, there was a real whites only and colored sign on this gas station. Like, they painted one for the movie but there was already one there that was painted over. And that was one of the most striking - this was outside of Macon. Yeah, it's jarring because, you know, we've made a lot of strides. But some of those things are still right in front of us.

SIMON: What was it like to hear those verbal threats and epithets in this day and age, again, even on a movie set?

BOSEMAN: It does become difficult and embarrassing and you do get angry and you do feel in a slice of that reality somewhat like he would feel. And it's an incredible amount of courage to deal with that. And even the games that you may play in your mind about how you should respond become part of the performance.

SIMON: I wonder is this the kind of role that stays with actors? I mean, Gary Cooper always carried around a little of Lou Gehrig. Kevin Costner, no matter what, you know, "Waterworld"-type movies he winds up making, people still often see him as Crash Davis. You're a working actor with a long career ahead. How do you feel about forever carrying a bit of Jackie Robinson with you?

BOSEMAN: I think it's a good thing to carry around, you know. And I think you learn something from every character, every character you play. As you do that, you find parts of yourself that you didn't know. So, in order to find those characters, you dig into yourself and say Jackie Robinson was a courageous man. So, what is courage to me and what is discipline to me? What is commitment to family, what is love to me? And if you do that with every character you play, I think it definitely helps you, it carries you into the next role.

SIMON: Chadwick Boseman, who's Jackie Robinson in the new motion picture, "42," that also stars Harrison Ford. Thanks so much for being with us.

BOSEMAN: Man, thank you for having me. It's a pleasure, man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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