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Chadwick Boseman: from Jackie Robinson to James Brown to Black Panther

(L-R) Actors Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans during Marvel Studios' fan event at The El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles.
(L-R) Actors Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans during Marvel Studios' fan event at The El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

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In a matter of a couple years, Chadwick Boseman has become one of Hollywood's most versatile and talented stars. He portrayed Jackie Robinson in 2013's "42," which led to a widely-praised role as James Brown in 2014's "Get On Up." 

However, it's Boseman's new role that might cement his place at the forefront of today's leading men. At the end of 2014, he was cast as Marvel's Black Panther — the company's first black stand-alone superhero on screen. Boseman makes his debut as Black Panther in "Captain America: Civil War" before starring in a spin-off movie, currently scheduled for release in 2018.

Boseman stopped by The Frame on the heels of the Black Panther announcement. He opened up about having to convince himself that he could play James Brown, the fact that Hollywood isn't quite ready for black actors to play non race-specific roles, and what it means to play a superhero who could one day become an action figure for kids of all races.

Interview Highlights:

What was the audition process for playing James Brown in "Get On Up?"  

They had tried to get me to read the script for months. And then we had a conversation on the phone, and the conversation convinced me, like, Oh yeah, of course, what are you thinking? Of course you want to meet [director Tate Taylor], because you do want to work with him one day. Just go in; he'll see who you are as an artist, but he'll also see that this is not right for you. That's what I expected to happen. [laughs]

But I started prepping for it, and I started to see these things about James Brown that I really liked, so once I did that reading, those things came across. I didn't know how much they would come across, but they sent that tape [of a James Brown performance] to my manager and said, "Have him look at this."

So my manager, my agent and I looked at it, and they didn't say anything except, "Well, what do you think about it?" I said, "But I can't! [laughs] I don't know if I can dance like James Brown, I don't know if I could sing, I don't know about the performance." But they said, "What do you think about the tape?" I said, "I see how I could do it." [laughs]

So you're really having to cast yourself! I mean, the person you're trying to sell isn't the studio, it isn't the director — you're really convincing yourself that you can pull this off.

Yeah, but I still wasn't sure. I just saw a couple of things that were the entry points into who he was.

What were those entry points?

Well, the thing I was worried about the most was the caricature of James Brown, the parody of James Brown. So the one thing I tried to do in that initial audition — and I'm not saying it was good or that it was what I ended up doing — [was]  to find this really honest place, no matter how old he was.

I had to play him in that audition at 63 and at 35, and from those two scenes I really saw the difference in age, and I also saw a certain honesty there that I didn't realize I had reached until I saw the tape. But once I saw that I was like, "Okay, this is going to be a lot of work, but if you pull it off..."

You've played Jackie Robinson, you've played James Brown, and you're playing Black Panther. Are you at a place now where the parts you're reading for are not race-specific?

Well, yes and no. Some are still race-specific. In a lot of cases they're looking for an African-American guy, or a guy of African descent, who can play this role. I'm one of the people who would pop up for that. In other cases, there are some roles — a few, and it's not as much as I would like though.

We're talking about Hollywood, a town that presents itself as very liberal, open-minded and progressive, and you're saying they're not there yet.

No. No, they're not. "They" or "we"? I should say "we," because I can't separate myself from it. We're not there yet. It's definitely a different road for actors of color in terms of choices that you have, mainly because of the mythologies that are used to make movies are viewed as European or Western mythologies. So people have in their heads, "This is a white actor's role."

It's hard to get that out of people's heads, so for me those roles have come, but in some cases they're still not what you want to do. It still might not be the right movie or the right director for you at that moment. But it's definitely different now than it was before "42."

If "Black Panther" works, in a couple of years there will be kids with their Black Panther action figures next to their beds. How does it make you feel to be part of that?

That's one of the first things I thought about when we left the announcement event with Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. I saw fans outside with the rendering of Black Panther and [as] I was signing them I was sitting there like, Oh my gosh! And we were close to Halloween, so over that week I saw people with Iron Man costumes, Captain America costumes, Spider-Man costumes, and I was like, That's going to happen [with Black Panther]. It blew my mind.

It's important because there will be black kids who have the Black Panther outfit and action figure, as well as Latino kids and white kids. It's an amazing thought that it helps from the opposite side to do what you were talking about earlier, about the non-specific racial casting; the idea that this person can be a hero. I feel like "42" did the same thing: there are so many kids from various backgrounds that see Jackie Robinson as a hero, and even though the movie is about race, the heroic spirit has no racial boundaries. So it's amazing to be a part of any of that.

This story first aired in December 2014.


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