The responsibility (and challenge) of playing Jackie Robinson
Actor Chadwick Boseman said he felt a great responsibility when he took on the part of playing Jackie Robinson in '42,' the movie that will open next week. Boseman never played baseball past little league, but he worked hard (and successfully) to portray Robinson the baseball player as well as Robinson the man.
The more that Chadwick Boseman learned about Jackie Robinson, the more that he respected him.
The more that he respected him, the more responsibility that Boseman felt to get it right when he played Robinson in the new movie 42.
"The first thing I thought about was that little kids are going to watch this movie and say, 'That's Jackie Robinson,'" Boseman said in a phone interview last week. "You want your portrayal to live up to him."
It does, in more ways than you'd even expect. It does, so much so that the actor said he has already heard praise from Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow.
"She said she is in love with the film," he said. "At the end of the day, if you please her, what else is there?"
Actually, there is more, because even though none of us knew Jackie Robinson as Rachel did, most of us already had a picture in our minds of whom Robinson was. Boseman and the producers faced interesting decisions on how much realism they needed to show and about how much the movie star had to actually become the baseball star.
How do you take a guy who admittedly never played baseball past little league and make him believable as a Hall of Famer?
Boseman said he eventually made two major decisions before filming of the movie, which will open next week. One, he wasn't going to try to emulate Robinson's high-pitched voice. But two, he was going to do everything that he could to emulate the way that Robinson walked, the way that he ran and even the way that he swung the bat and ran the bases.
Even the way that he slid.
"There was a point where they didn't want me to do some of the slides," Boseman said. "I fought them on that. I understood where they were coming from: 'If we lose you, we don't have a movie.' But you're inside the game. If you had to cut away from me every time he slid, it wouldn't be the same."
Boseman said that while some scenes were filmed with body doubles, he also filmed every scene himself.
"If you see it in the movie, I did it," he said.
The swing was just as important. Boseman said the movie's producers got game footage from the Hall of Fame. As he was learning Robinson's swing, they would split-screen his practice swings with Robinson's real swings so he could try to make it look right.
Boseman said he was only somewhat familiar with Robinson's story before he was chosen to play him on screen. As he learned more, what impressed him most was the parts of Robinson's personality that led him to be able to do what he did.
In playing Robinson, he hoped to convey that.
"Basically, I needed you to know that he was a fighter who was asked not to fight back," Boseman said. "If he was passive, there's no way he would have made it through. You have to know what it's like to be under fire in order to withstand it. By most accounts, he was the type of guy who was not going to back down from anybody."
Boseman's performance shows that. It shows Robinson as he was, or at least I think it does. I'm a lot older than Boseman, but I'm not old enough to have seen Robinson or to have been around him.
I'll take Rachel's word for it.
"You have to live up to her," Boseman said. "She's a lovely, regal woman, but she's no pushover."
He lived up to her. He lived up to our vision of Jackie Robinson, too.
And, yes, when kids see him, they'll say, "That's Jackie Robinson."