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Interview: Chadwick Boseman Gets On Up to a Big Movie Career

With the Get On Up DVD just out this week, let's take a look at the fast rise of Chadwick Boseman. He'd already headlined one surprise hit (42) when he delivered his first huge performance as Godfather of Soul James Brown. Critics casually and regularly mentioned "Oscar" in their reviews but the precursor awards didn't bite (the Golden Globes forcing that film into Drama when films of its kind usually compete in Musical surely didn't help). But individual honors aside, there's no arguing that Boseman is at the beginning of a big career.

When I sat down with him last year (though less long ago than that sounds) he was unusually cagey about future career plans. Chalked it up to caution, I did, at the time. But cut to a very short time after the interview: News broke that he'd spend at least a couple of years in a form fitting black lycra (?) costume as T'Challa, The Black Panther (2017). That surely accounts for some of the shifting in his seat and long pauses when I grilled him about his future plans and what kinds of roles he's looking to play post-Brown over coffee. He must've already known and been sworn to secrecy since these multi-year multi-film deals don't happen overnight.

Here are highlights from our conversation about both his James Brown work, his relationship with those flamboyant costumes and Alex Proyas' forthcoming Gods of Egypt (2016) which arrives before he dons the T'Challa costume. 

NATHANIEL R: Let’s start with something crazy. Could you do the splits before Get On Up? [more...]

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: I have no way of knowing. I would never have even tried that before [Laughter]

How soon would you have had to drop into that skill?

AJ - he's well known choreographer that a lot of music artists work with --  had a particular way of introducing things so we just started out dancing and doing the grooves and then doing some exercises that probably built up the flexibility. One day he was like 'Okay we’re going to do the splits.' 'I can’t do the splits!’ 'Yeah, you’re going to do it. Drop down into it.'  

So this wasn't part of the audition process. They just trusted you to learn that

Basically what happened is Tate had me come in and read scenes: 'These are the most difficult acting scenes and let’s hope he can dance.' I said 'I don’t know if i can do that movement.'  There was no other actor competing at that point. It was just ‘Lets see how it goes. After three days we put together a medley of songs and they shot it and I wore a wig and a jumpsuit while I did it and that was the extent of the audition.

This is your third historical figure.

It is the third. [Laughter] But most people only think of two. I usually get away with two.  We don’t bring up Floyd Little if we don’t have to. Nothing wrong with Floyd Little but '...he did three?!?'

Well, no typecasting worries since you're doing Gods of Egypt next. That guy hardly ever makes movies

Alex Proyas. He's amazing. I'm already finished. It won't come out til 2016.

In descriptions I've heard your character referred to as a 'wisdom dispensing guy'
and I'm like 'No, Chadwick is too young to play the Morgan Freeman parts already!'

He's actually the oldest. But that’s part of his wisdom that he doesn’t age [Laughter] I’m actually serious. The character is like that at times [wisdom dispenser] but not always. It’s kind of like when vampires are thousands of years old. It’s that same idea only he's not a vampire.

No photos of Chadwick from GODS OF EGYPT (unless this is him dispensing wisdom to Gerard Butler)

When you work on a visual fx film like that do you have anything look at? Or do you walk onto the sound stage and it's all green screens? 

There was somewhat of a set. They definitely built some pyramid steps and sand dunes and swamps. But most of it — i’m thinking back through it — was blue screen. We shot in Australia. You’re looking at a dot or a ball on the end of a stick a lot of times. 

That must be hard actually.

It is. It’s kind of like doing theater in some ways. 

What do you mean, like a soliloquy if you're acting alone?

To some degree. A lot of times you’re talking to a crowd or characters that are offstage. They’re not really there. 

Which leads us back to James Brown. When you're a performer playing a performer is it weird to dance and sing just for a camera rather than someone to play to.

We were really -- it was a real performance for real crowd. The mic was live and the band was really playing. We were singing to playback but we were really doing it. Sometimes playback would end and Tate would forget to say “cut” and we would just keep going.

A lot of times we hear that movie-making is a lot of sitting around and waiting. 

Not this movie!

I imagine that's good since how else would you keep that incredible energy level up?  

I honestly. I felt like I always had to be working on that. In particular the dance steps were — it’s new to me so if i wasn’t working on what I was doing at the moment I was working on what I was going to be doing tomorrow

Can you sing in real life?

Yeah. Even though it’s playback of him there are moments where it is me.

In the sound mix?

Yeah. Because the mic was live. if there’s a studio recording it’s pristine but if it’s live it’s not perfect. So we're performing to playback of the original live band. And then the band is actually playing over it and then a band records in a studio on top of it over again.  

The levels! 

In some cases I had to thrown some stuff in there some well.

[Scary authentic James Brown shouting sounds come bursting out of Chadwick's mouth at this point]

Viola Davis is one of my favorite actors.

Mine, too

NATHANIEL R: You don’t have a ton of scenes with her. But did you have time with her on set?

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: You know it’s funny, the two of us. We both have different stories about how we couldn’t talk to each other -- I've heard she has a story about how she couldn’t talk to me. Both are true to a certain degree. I feel like she built up a distance from me so that there would be a distance when we did the scene. If i saw her on set when she would be doing a scene with the little boy --"Hey, Viola!'  -- she wouldn’t really talk to me. But most of the time I was engrossed in Mr Brown. And she might try to talk to Chadwick and Mr Brown would answer. You know what i’m saying. Neither one of us…

This sounds totally schizophrenic.

Maybe. [Mischevious smile]  Neither one of us was available to have an intimate personal conversation. The day before we shot that scene —  She’s very particular and her and Tate have worked together before - the three of us met to talk over that scene and she moreso talked to Tate than talked to me. She still kept that distance. 

We both have voiced separate concerns to Tate. They rewrote the scene. We got new scripts the day we shot the scene. I actually didn’t know what was going to be said in what order. She said some things I didn’t know she was going to says. I said things she didn't know.

So was this is Tate's trick to encourage improv? 

We had not come together on it. Tate was aware of it. He had his secret with each of us.

That's interesting. That would add a little layer to it. What was your favorite costume and least favorite costume?

Oh god! My favorite is definitely the cowboy hat and fur coat. I mean it was just like [laughter] I don’t know how to put it. I don’t have a shirt on under it either it goes so far into his fashion expression. It was just so fun. My second favorite is the red-collared getup for Vietnam. That one is crazy. 

My least favorite — I was gonna say the green jogging suit. I had a fat suit on with it. And the old age makeup.

You didn’t feel too hot in that 

I didn’t feel hot in that. The other old outfit at the end of the movie the burgundy suit with the frills. I like that one. 

Are you trying not to mention the low cut shiny jumpsuit?  Weird to wear or are you basically an exhibitionist?

[Laughter] Two funny stories about that one. When I put it on the first time for rehearsal I was like ‘I don’t know how I’m going to walk out in this!’ Nobody had seen it except the costume designer. The whole band was rehearsing and the dancers were up there rehearsing, AJ the choreographer was working. 'I’m not stepping out until they ready with this on.' So i stepped out and Aunjanue Ellis says:


It could have been the most embarrassing thing but I just had to be Mr Brown so I was just [in James Brown's voice] 'What do you mean what I got on? You see what I got on!' and strutted right into it '1...2....3!'  I couldn’t think about how crazy it looked.

The second thing is after it was over and we had screened the movie for the family, his wife Deirdre comes up to me and whispers and says 'The only thing is some of those outfits weren’t tight enough [Laughter]' You know what i’m saying?! [Laughter] 

You started in movies pretty much instantly as a leading man.

If you say so! [Laughter]

No, I mean. You'd done smaller parts and worked on TV but for the public with 42, it seems like you just started as a leading man. What do you think was your breakthrough moment?

I think a few things happened for me that are unique to my experience. The guest star roles that I did a lot of times were lead roles. If you’re a TV show or cop show and you're a regular you’re generally doing the same thing every episode -- there’s a crime and the cops are looking for the criminal [Long hilariously correct summary of Procedural episodes, all of 'em - edited out for length] 

The guest star is the role that’s interesting.

I hadn't thought of that but that's true.

If you’re the cold case or the person they think committed the crime -- that’s actually the lead role because everyone else is doing what they normally do. For me I was able to do carve a true arc in those performances. So I think the point when I started to play the lead in movies it’s not like all of a sudden it came out of nowhere. 

The role in 42 is obviously a breakthrough but each experience was an important step. 

Your reel builds quickly and then...

Or, when you go on set there’s a working language and a familiarity with how things are done. If i was a basketball player i would become court savvy. You have to build relationships on set so that when you step in front of the camera it’s real and you don’t see them. The key to that is just experience. But I also think of The Kill Hole lead before that — and [long pause] it was definitely a learning experience! [laughter]


In some ways. And you have to go through that. 

When you're the leading man -- particularly of a biopic -- obviously the entire thing falls apart if the leading man isn't right. No pressure or anything so are you thinking about that when you work?

You know it but you don’t -- you can only deal with what’s in front of you at the moment which is the best way to say it. At the end of the day if it’s not working, you also know it. There’s an energy involved on set - the way other people do their jobs, you can feel whether or not you’ve gotten other people to be invested.   

the elephant (or panther) in the room for the rest of our conversation

NATHANIEL R: So James Brown was a biggie. How the hell are you going to follow this up? Have you talked to your agent. Do you have a master plan? 

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: [Pause] To follow this movie. You can’t follow this movie, really. That’s like [long pause] that’s like the scene in the movie... 'You can’t follow James Brown. Anything that comes after this is The Tammy Show.' You have to — it has to be a different kind of film in a totally different way.   

Like a contemporary drama maybe?

It has to be something totally [pause — looking away] I don’t think you can. 

Well, maybe not another historical figure. 

I look at 42 and this as miracles. They were not manufactured situations. There was no long term plan that set it up as an experience that’s going to create a career. You can’t really prepare for it. You have to just be thankful for it and try to keep doing things you’re passionate about. 

previous interviews

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Reader Comments (4)

Love this guy's work. He is also excellent in Draft Day.

BTW, Nat, he is referring to James Brown's legendary performance at the T.A.M.I. Show. The Stones had to play after him.

January 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

What a great interview, Nathaniel!

Mr. Boseman sounds like a class act, very savvy and knowing what's right for him. I know this is a tight Oscar race, but he should get in. He deserves it for this show-stopping, heart-pulsing tour-de-force. He turned an outrageous, larger-than-life icon into a real, breathing human being. No other actor showed as much range in one single film.

My lineup for Best Actor: Keaton, Oyelowo, Isaac, Gillenhaal and Boseman.

Unfortunately, Cumberbatch and Redmayne are going to steal some of these noms.

January 8, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

He's still sitting at number one on my Best Actor chart.

January 8, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermark

Although the movie was technically a drama, it's ridiculous that this year the Globes randomly decide to be legitimate and kick out a film that would've surely gotten Chadwick a nod in the musical/comedy category. Like, they added a musical sequence to My Week With Marilyn so Michelle Williams could take that category. It just sucks to see Chadwick's exemplary work going unnoticed, granted this year's Best Actor category was stacked. But also nice to see him becoming a movie star.

January 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

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