Chadwick Boseman has only done a handful of movies, but in the past two years, he’s superbly played two iconic black legends—Jackie Robinson in 42 and now James Brown in the recently released Get on Up.
Boseman not only looks, dances and walks like the Godfather of Soul, he seems to transform into the man. In the process, he brings to life Brown’s troubled early times, his voracious ambition and his legendary music.
We caught up with the suddenly red-hot 37-year-old to talk about preparing for the Oscar-buzzed role, his beloved Giants and what’s next.
“I had to let go of Jackie to do James. They were both extremely talented men who changed perceptions. James did it by breaking doors down. Jackie was active while being silent.”
Were you reluctant to do another biopic after 42?
I was hesitant partly because it was another biopic. I didn’t even want to read the script. And there were so many different things around playing James Brown, the performing, then also his life, who he was as a man. So I really didn’t know how to strike the balance. But then I thought, roles like this don’t come around that often. Robinson and Brown, I still can’t believe I got to play them both, wow!
How similar were the two men in their legacies?
For me, James Brown benefitted from Jackie Robinson, and I also benefitted from doing 42 first. But I had to let go of Jackie to do James. They were both extremely talented men who changed perceptions. James did it by breaking doors down. Jackie was active while being silent.
Talk about preparing to play the very physical James Brown.
It was like preparing for 42, I had to lace them up in the morning a similar way. For 42, we did everything you would do for a baseball player. Then with Get on Up, it was training and dancing six hours a day with choreographer Aakomon Jones. That was required. Then on my own, I’d do it all over again. But it was a fun process to learn James’ [physical] vocabulary, like learning to do the splits. The hard part was not going down, but getting back up. When we were shooting one scene, I supposedly did close to one hundred splits that day. I don’t know how I got up!
How did you research Brown?
Director Tate Taylor and I went down and did the whole tour, met his family, got a first-hand taste of his life. It helped that I’m from the south, because you’ve got to have some kind of visceral connection to any character you play. His family was so open about the good and the bad, they wanted all that to come out. I would phone them, “Would he do this?” And they’d say yes.
But you were playing him over several decades?
He reinvented himself so many times, for six decades of performing. So yes, you’re looking at all those different versions of him. But my goal was to be at peace with my performance, and once we had the facts and events down, we were good to go.
It’s a (Bose)man’s world: If you like the hair, wait’ll you see the splits.
You can’t help but notice the impact Brown has had on so many music performers today, right?
Exactly. While I was rehearsing, I didn’t listen much to contemporary music, but obviously I listened to a lot of James. But then it became apparent how much modern music leans on him. His music transcends his own time. Hip hop wouldn’t probably exist without James Brown. It’s hard not to look at modern music and performers and not think of Brown, from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson—James was Michael Jackson before Michael—to Justin Timberlake, Outkast and Jay-Z.
How was Jagger involved in getting the movie made?
They’d been trying to get it off the ground for 15 years. They had the rights, then they lost them when James passed. Finally, it took Mick Jagger and producer Brian Grazer, a powerful team, to get it going. I met Mick, and you know he’s going to be cool. But he’s way cooler than you even think. I was just hanging with him, listening to music. He’s a totally chill dude. But he’s also Sir Mick Jagger, and he has that air of being an icon. He and James knew each other well, and that’s why Mick wanted to do the movie. He told me he went to James Brown shows, watching and learning from him, going backstage to talk.
With football season coming up fast, tell us about preparing to play an NFL hopeful in Draft Day earlier this year?
I play a college linebacker who has a dream about going high in the draft. And I had to gain a lot of weight, with people saying, he’s not a football player. I got the role three weeks before we started shooting and had to put on over 25 pounds, eating six times a day, lifting and bulking up. That was a crash course. By the way, I’m a Giants fan! Bring it on!
What sort of movie would you like to do?
I’d love to do a boxing movie. You’ve got to stay ready so that you don’t have to be ready. James was a boxer, you see that scene in the movie, and that informed his athleticism and energy throughout his performance.
What’s the key to getting into characters?
The main thing, whether they’re real or not, heroic or not, you can’t judge them. They may be doing some awful things, but I think we’re attracted to selfish characters on the screen. We like to watch those parts of ourselves we don’t want to admit to. For me, what you’re trying to do is to find any character’s inner desires. That way, you grow to like them through a better understanding of who they are and why they do the things they do. You sort of walk in their shoes—almost literally with James, wearing his type of dancing shoes.