Arts & Culture

The Southern A-List: Chadwick Boseman

From Jackie Robinson to James Brown, an actor who’s getting used to walking in the footsteps of giants

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Boseman on January 28, 2014. It was the actor's last day of filming for Get On Up, and a rare winter storm blanketed the Natchez, Mississippi, set in snow.

Chadwick Boseman is an actor on the rise. After a decade of small television roles, he got his big-screen breakthrough last year, playing the baseball great Jackie Robinson in the film 42. Now the Anderson, South Carolina, native has traded his cleats and bat for patent loafers and a microphone to portray another American icon, starring as James Brown in director Tate Taylor’s (The Help) forthcoming biopic, Get On Up. We caught up with the multitalented performer on set in Natchez, Mississippi, for a closer look at the new Godfather of Soul.

You played Jackie Robinson, then went right into playing another larger-than-life Southern-born legend in James Brown. Do you find these roles daunting at all?
Those first days of training, whether it’s on the baseball field or in a dance studio, you have no idea where it’s going. Get On Up focuses pretty much on Brown’s entire career, almost an entire life span. So, yeah, it’s extremely daunting. It’s a wide lens with a lot of different time periods and wardrobe styles and hairdos.

I want to ask about the hair in just a second, but before we go there, another question on Robinson and Brown. Did you find that these men had any similarities?
They were nothing like each other in some ways. Jackie was more internal and James was very flashy, as we know. But inside, they were very much like each other. Both of them were men who seized opportunity and who were not afraid of the spotlight, of that clutch moment. They were both very competitive and confident. I was able to use some of what I got from Jackie Robinson and incorporate it into what I did with James Brown. You won’t see it on-screen, but internally it is there.

Okay, tell us about the hair, Brown’s famous pompadour. Did you ever walk around town wearing it?
Naw, naw, naw. I never walked around with it. In the initial audition, there actually was no singing or dancing or wardrobes or hair. We just did scenes from the movie that went through the range of emotions needed for the role. But I wanted to test the wardrobe and the hair while dancing and trying out James Brown’s signature moves. So we brought in a choreographer and played around with it. Robert Stevenson did the wigs. He’s worked on The Color Purple, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, and with basically any actor who’s had to wear a wig and is black. We had so many different wigs. Every day, I’d come in and ask, “What time period are we in and which wig will I be wearing? That one? Okay, cool.” I walked around set and played around with people, but I never wore one in town. We didn’t want word to get out about what I looked like as Brown.

Speaking of town, did you frequent any local hangouts when you weren’t filming?
In Natchez, there’s a spot called King’s Tavern. Really, really cool hip spot with signature 

Do you find it easy to “play” Southern on-screen?
I don’t know what it would be like to play Brown’s role if I wasn’t Southern. I think it would be impossible. He grew up in South Carolina and Georgia, in an area where I have family. I used that. Like, we would be listening to some of his songs, and people in the room would ask, “What did he just say?” They’d even have the lyrics written out in front of them and think Brown was saying one thing when I’d be like, “No, no, he’s saying this.” A lot of times, it was something you would know only if you grew up in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina.

Earlier in your career, you had many smaller roles in TV shows before you got your big break. What kept you going?
I think what always kept me going is that I loved it. I still don’t think about whether I’ve made it or not. I just think about enjoying the process. I’m always working or writing or directing or looking for the next thing to do. I never stop.