Star of Black Panther, Marshall is an ideal A-list prospect
Story by Benjamin Schmidt As Told to Chasity Saunders
Chadwick Boseman was lost in thought. He had been rattling off a list of African cities with flawless pronunciation: “Limba, Sierra Leone. Uraba, Nigeria. Jola …” He paused and squinted, racking his brain for another, as if it were on the tip of his tongue. The interview was nearly over, but Boseman was hell-bent on recalling places he wants to visit. “Oh,” he interrupted as we were asking a final question. “Mende. In Sierra Leone. That’s the last one,” the actor says, laughing and satisfied.
The locations, he says, came about after he took a DNA test some time ago to determine his ancestry. Though born in South Carolina, he wants to visit his places of origin in Africa. It might seem inconsequential, but it serves as a tidy anecdote that helps crystalize Boseman’s near obsessive sense of self-awareness and his insatiable desire to know things. Those two traits have put the 40-year-old actor in an enviable position. Now locked into a multiyear, multifilm deal with Marvel as Black Panther, he is on the cusp of breaking onto the Hollywood A-list. Despite maintaining a shooting schedule that is truly around-the-clock, regularly appearing in fashion editorials donning stylish wares, and employing an array of agents and managers to handle an ever-mounting stack of potential work, Boseman retains his thoughtful and dynamic soul, one that is deeply private and unmotivated by temporary glamor or superficial risk. He’s an example of steady confidence in the 21st century, a time during which it seems anything and everything is up for discussion, or at least a second look.
Boseman is a private man and hesitates to reveal much about his personal life. He offered these: He’s in a committed relationship but doesn’t have any children, prefers to keep his cellphone turned off and has a tight-knit group of friends.
His interest in the arts began early. The actor, who portrayed James Brown in the film Get On Up, grew up surrounded by family members involved in theater and who were musically motivated—his older brother danced for Alvin Ailey.
In terms of musical taste, he’s as eclectic as they come. “I’m a connoisseur of music. All different types of music. Jazz, hip-hop, blues, R&B.” It’s on the subject of music that Boseman starts to reveal his comprehensive cool: He’s well-versed in everything without sounding like a know-it-all. “I loved The D.O.C. Loved Fresh Prince, Tribe Called Quest, a little Big Daddy Kane.”
Then things got … interesting when talking about his diet. “I’m vegan right now,” he states matter-of-factly, having been one for only about a month. The cadence of his voice suggests it was a strategic effort. We take a beat and attribute his veganism to a What the Health video he shot a brief time ago, documenting the risks of consuming meat. Perhaps unintentionally a master of suspense, Boseman tantalizes us: “Well, we shot a scene,” a pause and a glance, “I don’t know if I should tell you.” He relents and reveals, tapping into his own subtle bewilderment to sell it completely: “For a film called Message From the King, we shot a scene in a morgue. And it’s an actual morgue. The director [Fabrice du Welz], he’s a very . . .” Boseman pauses again, a charm that chronically works in his favor before softening and switching gears. “He just goes deep, you know what I’m saying?”
His application of sensory detail made the experience lush and real, despite the unpleasant circumstance. “We shot in there for 13 or 14 hours. It was so traumatic because I was seeing the bodies coming in and bodies go to be processed. It was hundreds and it wasn’t like they were in drawers. There was no drawers. You see it in the movie when they pull my sister out from the drawer, it’s beside real bodies. It traumatized me because of the smell. The smell of flesh, whether it’s human or animal, it’s the same.”
Boseman pulls back and brings it full circle. “Not to freak you out anymore, [but] it was after that day I couldn’t even look at meat on a plate.” He opens it up further, revealing a sliver of his personal position on the subject of healthy eating: “In general, I think that’s part of what we as a country need to do—we’ve got to switch what you put in your body first. Black people especially, ’cause we don’t have a lot of healthy stuff around us in a lot of our neighborhoods to make those choices.”
He is unreserved when it comes to facing issues of race; if anything, he’s brutally honest. “I’m not surprised by where we are because the whole time that we’ve been hearing that we’re in a post-racial society, most of us that are African-American, Latino, we knew that was not true. Even Asians. We knew that was not true. We knew that was a way of making people feel better. Not just White people, but all of us. Denial is deadly.” This candid expression isn’t without merit or logical support. “Denial is a deadly thing. If you have a sickness, you have to deal with it. You have to acknowledge what it is, so that you can treat it. We spend a lot of time in this country not doing that and not dealing with it; not facing what the problem is,” he explains.
The thespian plays attorney and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the biopic Marshall. When asked why the film is significant, he identifies a nuanced element regarding race: “It presents a look at racism that we still need to see. People feel like we’re in a time period now where racism doesn’t exist.” Though Marshall is set in the early 1950s, not 2017, Boseman connects it effortlessly. “It was in Bridgeport, Conn., a part of the country where you could say, ‘Well, [racism] doesn’t exist.’ So I feel like you could examine the country as it is now, based upon that case.” In one fell swoop, he solidifies the significance of Marshall as a film in its 2017 time and place, as well as the contribution Thurgood Marshall himself made to the justice system, saying, “His career is based upon him getting the most he possibly can out of the system.”
Best known as an actor portraying the likes of Jackie Robinson in 42 and The Godfather of Soul, it became clear during the interview that, though physically subdued, Boseman’s mind is endlessly darting and fizzing with energy, going where words sometimes cannot. While discussing Marshall, Boseman starts to sound more like a director than an actor, remarking on the importance of the entertainment factor and applicability element: “You could read the script, and if you didn’t know who Thurgood Marshall was, it would still entertain you.” It was a wise and prescient remark backed up by Boseman’s own synthesis of what makes a good biographical picture. By mentioning the sheer number of biopic scripts that land on his desk on any given day, Boseman reveals a deciding factor: “A lot of times they feel like you’re watching history.” He continues, “[Marshall] didn’t feel like that.” Although the film documents a brief period in the complex and often difficult rise of Thurgood Marshall, Boseman sees it as an asset. “If it had been about Brown v. Board of Education, then we would already know the end to that story. [Marshall has a] certain amount of suspense and in certain ways, a whodunit quality.” If the actor’s keen assessments come as a surprise, they shouldn’t. He studied directing at Howard University and worked as a drama instructor at a specialty school before moving to Los Angeles in 2008 to pursue acting.
Boseman’s thoughts on Marshall reveal something else about the man as an actor: He’s not in the business of treating history as a step-and-repeat. Instead, he has a tendency to take a more sensitive approach. “I begin to explore the role before I ever have the role. That’s generally happened to me with every role I’ve played. There is something pulling me into it. If it pulls me all the way in, there’s nothing that can really stop me from doing it.” The process isn’t a straight line, either.
When working with material about legendary personalities and high-achievers such as James Brown or Jackie Robinson, Boseman must develop an improvised and consistent nature, for the moments when these iconic people are not in the spotlight. “For James Brown, there are certain things that have to be present,” waving his hands and parroting the list of demands from a director. “‘Oh, you’ve got to dance, you have to capture that Georgia/South Carolina border voice. You have to have the hair and the clothes and all that stuff.’ This was the essence, his belief system, who he was and the confidence that was building at that time in his career.” Boseman didn’t put any of this into terms of difficulty, a symbol of his instantly understanding quality that is so rare for actors. For Marshall, the lack of footage of a young Thurgood is no detriment for him. “It’s a matter of pouring his essence inside of me as opposed to imitation,” he explains. If anything, Boseman is a uniquely learned actor. “Each character stays with you a little, so I don’t think I would be at a place where I could play [Thurgood] had I not played the others.”
When discussing the title character in Marvel’s Black Panther, Boseman became particularly candid, suggesting he had explored this role for a long time: “Actors generally have certain things that they want to do, certain characters they want to play, and that was one of mine.” He continues, “I had already thought about it, I had already written about it in my journals.” He tells the story about how it came about, everything from getting the comic book from a burly security guard while in Europe and turning on his cellphone in time to receive a call from Marvel after a long period of not being accessible. While parked outside of an antique store displaying Panther miniatures, he recalled that it seemed like divine intervention as a Marvel representative told him: “We’ve got this character we think you want to play.”
In his subtle way, Boseman seems optimistic. For example, when told the trailer for Black Panther hit 31 million views, he’s pleasantly surprised: “Oh, see, I didn’t even know that.” He communicates optimism through his trust in others and himself. “I have a couple other people that I’m like, ‘Yo, I need you to read this. What do you think about it? What’s wrong with the script?’” But it goes both ways: “You need to be able to meditate. You need to be able to pray. You need to be able to talk to yourself, not in a crazy way.”
“I’m not surprised by where we are because the whole time that we’ve been hearing that we’re in a post-racial society, most of us that are African-American, Latino, we knew that was not true. Even Asians. Denial is deadly.”