LOS ANGELES — Here’s an underrated perk of being Chadwick Boseman. One day, you’re out on a date at a jazz concert with your lady. It’s at one of those pastoral Californian sites: summertime, dragonflies. The sun is setting, pink and orange and spectacular, rivaled in charm only by the swell of the music, which is as shimmering and soulful as the surface of a lake.
It’s a near perfect moment. Perfect, that is, except for the view. A couple of yards ahead, partly obstructing your sightline, you notice a man with far-too-low jeans and AWOL underwear. A man whose fleshy hind-cleavage is putting on an impromptu show of its own.
If you were anyone else, you might crack a joke (ahem), avert your gaze and hope for the best. A funny footnote on an otherwise scrapbook evening.
But you’re Chadwick Boseman. One of the most bankable actors of your generation. Conjurer of heroic icons real and imagined, a ludicrous personal pantheon that so far includes Jackie Robinson (“42,” 2013), James Brown (“Get On Up,” 2014), Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall,” 2017) and, His Majesty of Wakanda himself, Black Panther.
Which is to say that you’ve learned a thing or two about what leadership looks like, about how to embody courage. And so you exchange a glance with your lady and mutually aghast row-mates, consult your repertoire of Great Men like some metaphysical Rolodex, walk up to the fellow with the exposed crack and initiate the following exchange in the very same impersonation of the Godfather of Soul that this newspaper’s reviewer called “bone-deep.”
Chadwick Boseman, as James Brown: Are you enjoying the show?
Man With Exposed Crack: Yeah!
Boseman/Brown: Good. Because we’re trying to enjoy it, too. Only we can’t do it because we’re lookin’ at the crack of yo’ ass.
Pile of Ashes Formerly Constituting Man With Exposed Crack: [Hissing sounds.]
This really happened, mostly.
“Someone had to tell him!” Boseman said in an interview recently, not quite defending himself.
He was laughing and pounding the table in a Western-chic restaurant with adobe brick, exposed beams and soaring skylights. It was the laugh of a benevolent conqueror, or of a man who landed the Robinson role within two years of moving to Los Angeles — both rows of teeth, steady eye contact.
“He had no idea who I was,” Boseman said, noting that the encounter had been a couple of years ago, before he’d personified this year’s most in-demand new Halloween costume. Then, somehow, he capped his story with an observation that was both sophisticated and gracious.
“That’s a gift that the characters give you,” he said. “A dimension of yourself that you never had before.”
Most people would recognize any dimension of Boseman now. After years of surfing the biopic industrial complex as one national idol after another, his role as Black Panther in the “Avengers” films and this year’s eponymous blockbuster, the ninth-highest-grossing movie of all time, has established him as the rare breed of actor with both widely recognized chops and old-school star power — the kind any producer in post-Netflix Hollywood would trade a good kidney to clone in a lab.
Next up are starring roles in the New York police action drama “17 Bridges” (of which he is also a producer), the international thriller “Expatriate” (he’s producing and co-writing that one) and, barring an alien-invasion-level catastrophe, a wildly anticipated “Black Panther” sequel.
Remarkably, Boseman has come this far despite a relatively late start (he led a studio film for the first time at 35) and while remaining noticeably untouched by the tabloid drama, or whiff of overexposure, that can engulf even seasoned celebrities. In a pop taxonomy of black male nobility, he is cut squarely from the mold of Barack Obama — generally cool-blooded, affable, devoted to unglamorous fundamentals — a figure whom he is doubtlessly on a shortlist to portray in an inevitable epic.
Boseman told me his method of humanizing superhumans begins with searching their pasts. He’s looking for gestational wounds, personal failures, private fears — fissures where the molten ore of experience might harden into steel.
For the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, that meant conceiving of a childhood squeezed by the weight of an ancient unbroken dynasty. When it came to becoming Jackie Robinson, he focused on formative years as a Negro League firebrand that crystallized the baseball pioneer’s polished exterior. James Brown: a meditation on irrepressible self-confidence, long starved by years of deprivation and insult in Jim Crow South Carolina.
“You have to hold it all in your mind, scene by scene,” Boseman said, a scraped plate of brussels sprouts with something called yuzu and celery-seed crema before him. He was dressed like an athlete turned agitator: LeBron James sneakers, black jeans, sleeveless black hoodie imprinted with the face of one hero he’d still love to play: Muhammad Ali.
“You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great,” he continued. “So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?”
BOSEMAN, 41, WAS BORN AND RAISED in the manufacturing hub of Anderson, S.C., the youngest of three boys. His mother, Carolyn, had a job as a nurse and the unflappable temperament to match. (“If I had to put anyone on the free throw line, it’s her.”) His father, Leroy, worked for an agricultural conglomerate and had a side business as an upholsterer. “I saw him work a lot of third shifts, a lot of night shifts,” Boseman said. “Whenever I work a particularly hard week, I think of him.”
His closest role models were his two brothers: Derrick, the eldest, now a preacher in Tennessee; and Kevin in the middle, a dancer who has performed with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes and toured with the stage adaptation of “The Lion King.”
Both brothers, each five years apart from the next, were allies and rivals (“I always wanted to dress better than my middle brother, and I wanted to beat the older one in sports”), but it was Kevin who foreshadowed Chadwick’s life in the arts.
In Anderson in the 1980s, Boseman said, there was little context for a boy who dreamed of becoming a dancer, let alone a black one. “It was like, ‘What is that?’” he said of his parents’ initial reaction to his brother’s chosen field. (A spokesman for the actor declined to make Kevin available for an interview.) “It wasn’t something that my family understood.”
But Kevin persisted and, ultimately, excelled. In time, the folks came around, helping him get into the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in nearby Greenville.
“He had the resolve to be like, ‘No — I have something; I’m going to do it anyway, right or wrong,’” Boseman said. “And he was right.”
Some days, Boseman’s mother would take him to pick up Kevin from school theater or dance rehearsals. Boseman would watch the action onstage, mesmerized by verbal directions he strained to comprehend, and by the lights, and by the grace-filled bodies in wordless dialogue.
In high school, he was a serious basketball player but made a final turn toward storytelling after a friend and teammate was tragically shot and killed. Boseman processed his thoughts and emotions by writing what he eventually realized was a play. When it was time to consider colleges, he chose an arts program at Howard University, with a dream of becoming a director.
“There’s no way in the world I would have thought, ‘O.K. let me write this play’ if it wasn’t for him,” Boseman said, of his brother Kevin. “Ultimately, I’m here because of what he did.”
After college, Boseman moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he ran out most of his 20s. He spent his days in coffee shops — playing chess and writing plays to direct, some of which were influenced by hip-hop and Pan-African theology.
At Howard, he’d taken an acting class with the Tony Award-winning actress and director Phylicia Rashad. (One summer, she helped him and some classmates get into an elite theater program at the University of Oxford, an adventure he later learned had been financed by a friend of hers: Denzel Washington.) To earn money, Boseman taught acting to students at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
His own acting was initially secondary. He landed one-off television roles here and there (“Law & Order,” “CSI: NY,” “Cold Case”) and eventually booked a recurring role in the 2007-9 ABC Family series “Lincoln Heights.”
The show filmed in Los Angeles and afforded Boseman his first real taste of Hollywood, which he liked more than he’d expected.
“Before that, I had just wanted to be an artist in New York,” he said. “I didn’t understand that coming to L.A. and trying to be a film actor was a completely different thing.”
But he was a quick study. “If you’ve got New York hustle? In L.A.?” he said, making an incredulous face.
Then he laughed his triumphant laugh.
WHAT MAKES HIM the man who plays the men who stand tall? Brian Helgeland, the writer and director of “42,” the Jackie Robinson movie that gave Boseman his breakout role, told me the actor reminded him of sturdy, self-assured icons of 1970s virility, like Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood.
“It’s the way he carries himself, his stillness — you just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person,” Helgeland said. He remembered choosing Boseman to anchor his film after seeing only two other auditions. “There’s a scene in the movie where Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, puts his arm around him as a kind of show of solidarity. But Chad flips it on its head. He plays it like, ‘I’m doing fine, I’m tough as nails, but go ahead and put your arm around me if it makes you feel better.’ I think that’s who Chad is as a person.”
Lupita Nyong’o, Boseman’s co-star and love interest in “Black Panther,” described his career choices as those of a socially conscious history buff. She recalled a working session with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, and Boseman that he turned into a mini lecture on the ancient Egyptian iconography and spiritual customs that had informed the original comic book.
“He’s very keen to put human experiences in historical context,” she said. “Even with a world that was make-believe, he wanted to connect it to the world that we know and could try to understand.”
One wonders if, as a result of his travels in the shoes of moral giants, Boseman has evolved an occupational shorthand — a secret posture, gaze or pattern of speech — that can invest any character with ineffable dignity.
Asked the question at the restaurant, he seemed to turn it over in his mind, as if he wanted to give it a fair shake.
“They can put the clothes on you,” he allowed, finally, after a long pause. A wry smile fanned across his face — both rows of teeth, steady eye contact. “But then you’ve gotta wear ’em.”
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