When Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 as the first African American to play in the major leagues, it not only created a titanic shift in baseball, but had a cultural impact across the country that is still felt today. More than 40 years after he played his last game, his uniform number, 42, was retired in 1997, so no other player in baseball can ever where that number again.
The movie, “42,” which opens in theaters Friday, April 12, details the trials and tribulations that Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) faced when Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) recruited the star minor league player to break the color barrier. Robinson not only had to face overt racism from other teams, but his own teammates as well. But his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) stood by his side throughout the hardships.
Director Brian Helgeland and stars Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford spoke about the Jackie Robinson biopic:
“He was an inspiration, not only to African American boys and girls, but to people of all races at that time,” said Boseman of Robinson’s legacy. “I think he can still be that. He's still that. I have friends that went to a pre-screening and they have sons and daughters that went to those screenings and they left practicing their swings.”
Ford said growing up in Chicago, he never was a sports fan nor picked up a bat, except for a little league games. So before he transformed himself into Rickey, he had to do a lot of studying.
“There was more audio tape available of him then visual material, but there was some,” Ford said. “I tried to find as much as that as I could. Brian and his people who worked on the film helped me a lot in that regard. I studied all the photographs and early on I had the idea that the film would be better served by a Branch Rickey look-alike then a Harrison Ford look-alike. I didn't want the audience to go into the film thinking that they knew me from some previous experience in the movies. I knew that was Brian's ambition as well. I invested in the process of trying to figure out what I should do what I shouldn't do and archive the look of the character. What helped more than anything else was the fat suit because it gave me the sense of what it meant to maneuver at that size. The 65 years of age at the telling of this story gave me the opportunity to play a younger man, which is not going to happen much anymore.”
Rachel Robison owned the rights to his story, so his widow (Robinson died in 1972 from a heart attack at the age of 53) was heavily involved in the film’s production, according to Helgeland, who won a best adapted screenplay Oscar for “L.A. Confidential.”
“I had to prove to her that the way I wanted to tell the story was the right way to tell the story,” said Helgeland, who also wrote the screenplay. “She had the rights and wasn't just going to sell them so I had to go meet with her and break down how I was going to tell the story and she told me her concerns. Initially she wanted a greater breadth to the story … so you could see him after
baseball and before baseball. You can make movies about those also. What I said was, ‘Passage of time in a movie is the enemy of drama.’ I talked to her about concentrating on 1946 and 1947, which she agreed to. I had her read the script and got feedback from her about everything … she was involved all the way.”
Boseman also had a number of conversations with Rachel Robinson.
“I went to go meet her in her office in the Jackie Robinson Foundation because I felt I couldn't ... it was such a big daunting task that I didn't even know how to start it until I talked to her,” Boseman said. “It is what she said, but it's more of her presence and her spirit and persona, her essence is like a puzzle and he’s still part of it … she's carrying on his legacy. His spirit is still present with her and I can feel the edges of him when I meet her. I can see what type of man could stand beside her. That's part of what I used. To her credit, she's not a filmmaker or an actor, she sat me down and sat beside me and had a heart to heart. She wanted to know who I was and there's something about that intimacy that allowed me to get a sense of him as well.”
Helgeland said during his research he was “struck by the bravery of Robinson that you could never invent,” but he had to find the right actor to fill those legendary shoes. Boseman had a number of credits in T.V. and film, yet he never had to that point had such an important role.
“Chad was the second actor to come in,” Helgeland said. “First of all, I didn't want a really well-known actor to play Jackie because I think it’s always strange when someone really well known plays someone whose famous. It always makes it hard to suspend your disbelief. But Chad came in and he picked the most difficult scene of the three or four scenes I was asking people to read. He picked the hardest one and read that first. I think he really went for it … within 30 seconds of walking into the room he put himself in a position of being rejected or ‘that’s pretty great.’”
Asked what his reaction was when he was offered his first big role, that of an icon, Boseman replied, “When he called me he asked me I thought it was a good question …. at first I thought he was crazy, ‘Do you want to play Jackie Robinson?’” Boseman said. “I was like ‘What?’ ... ‘If you want to play him it’s yours.’ I found out later there is a tremendous responsibility, it’s something that he should have asked me. Obviously I celebrate it … I had fun and I kept it a secret because it wasn’t announced yet. I didn’t event tell my mom until right before they announced it. I was kind of the happiest person in the world walking around smiling and people were like, ‘What is he smiling about?’ I don’t know what it means in terms of my entire career, I just know its a fun thing to and a proud thing to be part of. I know its a rare experience. I’m going to cherish it in this moment and thank God for the experience and the people I worked with. Even finding out I was working with Harrison Ford, it was amazing. It was like getting the role all over again.”
Asked the same question, Ford became a little chocked up and had difficulty responding to the question, but he said, “I was an overnight ... it was just a real long night. The only ambition I ever had going into committing, to wanting to be an actor … was to live my life.”
Ford later said he felt “42” was an “opportunity to be part of something great.”
“The best movies are made from a point of view of human nature and ... history and what motivates people or what makes a good movie from an emotional place and I think that this movies attends to all those requirements,” Ford said. “This is a movie about the racial equality in the United States and it makes it a visceral history … there's a kind of writing that I always try to avoid ... I call it ‘talk story’ when you’re talking about the story. What I think is a better form of writing and a better form for filmmaking is to allow the audience to experience the story, to be emotionally involved in seeing and feeling and experiencing the story as I unfolds instead of talking about it.”
Production company: Legendary Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast and Crew of 42:
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Nichole Beharie, John C. McGinley, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk, Ryan Merriman and T.R. Knight
Directed By: Brian Helgeland
Written By: Brian Helgeland
Produced By: Thomas Tull