The sports drama 42 tells a story of heroism and achievement that forever changed the game of baseball. When trailblazing Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) signed Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in 1947, he broke Major League Baseball’s infamous color line, shocking both the public and the other players. Tested in a way that seemed insurmountable, Robinson demonstrated such tremendous courage and restraint, instead letting his talent on the field win over the fans, his teammates and the world.
During a press conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, along with writer/director Brian Helgeland, talked about the influence of Jackie Robinson in both his own era and today, what made them want to be a part of this film, how much involvement Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s widow) had, and how they hope the positive portrayal of African Americans in this film will inspire other filmmakers. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN: I think you see some of that influence with the character of Ed Charles, and I was blessed to meet Ed Charles, as a grown man. He was an inspiration, not just to African American boys and girls, but to kids of all races, at that time. I think he can still be that. I have friends that went to screening, who have sons and daughters that went to those screenings, and they left practicing their swings. I think it’s going to be a topical and exciting thing for youth, currently.
Harrison, what attracted to you doing this film?
HARRISON FORD: The thing that attracted me to this project was the quality of the script that I read, and the understanding and the sheer capacity to know where success lives, in the business of making movies. And I don’t mean box office success, but in the quality of the writing and ambition of the writing. I never even thought about doing this because it was something that I’d never done before, and I didn’t think about proving anything to anyone. I just thought that this was such an ambitious and well-qualified recipe for the opportunity to be a part of something great, and I think it is. Without Brian’s commitment, and all of the actors’ commitment to the ideas that Brian illuminated, in a very disciplined way with an incredibly light touch, we wouldn’t have this piece of work.
Brian, what made you decide to take on and tell this story?
BRIAN HELGELAND: In the few years leading into this, I had oddly worked on a couple of biopics that didn’t get made. I had written up a movie about Cortez at Universal, and I had done a Cleopatra biography at Sony. So, I had my research chops down for those films, and nothing ever happened with them. When this came along, I knew that I knew how to get in there and sort it all out and figure it all out, and let the history and the truth of it shine through. I had learned from those other movies how to get out of my own way, and not include myself and my own ego in the process of writing them. It came from Thomas Tull at Legendary Pictures. He was pursuing the rights and he had run into a similar situation with Mrs. Robinson and her wanting to know how things were going to progress and how the film was going to be made, and I came in as a partner with Thomas to do that. In my research, I was just struck by the bravery of Robinson. You can write all the superhero movies there are in the world and you wouldn’t come close. So, I wanting to try to tell that story got me interested. And the, you have to find the guy to pull it off.
HELGELAND: Chad was the second actor to come in. First of all, I didn’t want a really well known actor to play Jackie ‘cause I think it’s always strange when someone really well known plays someone else who’s really famous. It always makes it hard to suspend your disbelief. But, Chad came in and he picked the most difficult scenes of the three of four that I was asking people to read, and he did that first and really went for it. It was the scene when he’s in the tunnel, breaking the bat. He did that scene in the room, with a wiffle ball bat and a chair, in almost exactly the way he did it in the film, and it was a really brave choice. It was a place where a lot of actors would go down the middle of the road and try to do something that they couldn’t be judged negatively for, but he went for it. In 30 seconds of walking in the room, he had put himself in a position of being rejected or having people go, “That’s pretty great!” I thought that was brave, and he had to play a brave guy, so that was all I needed to know about him.
How much involvement did Rachel Robinson have in the movie, and did she express any concerns to you?
HELGELAND: I had to prove to her that the way I wanted to tell the story was the right way to tell the story. She had the rights and wasn’t going to just sell them. So, I had to go meet with her and break down for her how I was going to tell the story, and she told me her concerns. Initially, she wanted a greater breadth to the story, as far as the time frame. She wanted to show him after baseball and before baseball, and you could make movies about both of those time periods, also. What I said was that the passage of time in a movie is an enemy of the drama of a movie. I talked to her about focusing on ‘46 and ‘47, which she agreed to. I had her read the script and got feedback from her for everything. So, she was involved, all the way.
BOSEMAN: She was part of the whole process. I went to go meet her in her office at the Jackie Robinson Foundation. It was such a daunting task that I didn’t even know how to start it until I talked to her. It’s not so much what she said, but it was her essence, and he’s still a part of that. When I think of them, she’s carrying on his legacy, so his spirit is still present with her. I could feel the edges of him when I met her. I could see what type of man could stand beside her. That was part of what I used. To her credit, she’s not a filmmaker or an actor, but she sat right beside me and we had a heart-to-heart. She wanted to know who I was. And there was something about that intimacy that allowed me to get a sense of him, as well. She told me about some physical things, like hand movements and his feet being pigeon-toed. She told me how disciplined he was, how adamant he was about not drinking, and how opinionated he was. I got a sense of who he was from that conversation and from the books she told me to read. And I asked her about their relationship because that was a big part of him being able to achieve this. He had a teammate in her.
Harrison, what was it like to grow up in Chicago? Did you play baseball?
FORD: I didn’t play much ball. I wasn’t much of a ball fan. I went to Wrigley Field with my family. I remember Wrigley Field more than the game or anybody in it. I have such a vivid image, still, of that square of improbable grass in the middle of the city, but I never followed baseball very much. As a kid, I never followed sports. I played a little bit of Little League. We moved to the suburbs when I was about 12 years old, and I played about one and a half games of Little League. The whole atmosphere of anxious parents and more anxious children was too much for me. We, as a family, never went back. So, I came to this script with very little knowledge of the history of baseball or current baseball. It was a study for me, when I became involved.
What was your process for finding Branch Rickey, as a character?
FORD: There was actually more audio tape available of him than there was visual material, but there was some and I tried to find as much of it as I could. Brian, and his people who worked on the film, helped me a lot, in that regard. I studied all the photographs. Early on, I had the idea that the film would be much better served by a Branch Rickey lookalike than a Harrison Ford lookalike. I didn’t want the audience to go into the film thinking that they knew me from some previous experience in a movie, and I knew that that was Brian’s ambition, as well. So, I invested in the process of what I should do and what I shouldn’t do to achieve the look of the character. What helped more than anything else was the fat suit because it really did give me a sense of what it’s like to maneuver, at that size. He was around 65 years of age, at the time of the telling of this story, and I had been given the opportunity to play a younger man, which does not gonna happen a lot anymore. What was interesting to me was that I remember my father, during that period of time, and other men of that age, and we’re lucky now. We eat better. We live better. In those days, 65 was an older man, so I wanted to acknowledge that. He wasn’t healthy and hearty, at that point in this life. It really helped me to be specific about behaviors that I observed, and bring that into play as utilities to help describe the character and tell the story.
Would there have been a Jackie Robinson without a Branch Rickey?
FORD: Well, there was a Robinson and he was distinguished before his discovery by Rickey.
BOSEMAN: Jackie Robinson was a Pasadena sports legend, and a national legend, before this moment. That’s one of the things that I learned about him that I did not know. He was better at football. He was a Hall of Fame football player. He led the nation in scoring in basketball. He could have gone to the Olympics. His brother went to the Olympics and got a silver medal next to Jesse Owens. He broke his brother’s record in the triple jump. So, he was already a person that was great. He’d been in the military. His legend, before he ever reached this moment, was amazing. It was the idea of breaking the color barrier, more so than the person. I think it’s important to remember that there wasn’t just white baseball. There was Negro League baseball. There was already a competitive spirit and a desire for the game to become integrated, on both sides. There were white people who wanted it to be integrated, too. Branch Rickey was not the only person who desired this, but he was the maverick because he had already been an innovator in baseball before. He was the type of person that would take the lead on this. So, it probably would have happened, but maybe it wouldn’t have happened for another 10 or 20 years. We don’t know. But, there would have been someone, at some point, that would have done it. Thank god it was somebody that could not only play baseball, but could handle the pressure on the field and the politics and the social responsibility.
BOSEMAN: Well, I thought I wasn’t going to get it. I had a realization before I got it that I was going to get it, but then doubt set in. I had a baseball try-out and I didn’t do as well as I thought I should have done, so I was worried about it. When Brian called me, he asked me, “Do you want to play Jackie Robinson?” I have found now that it was a good question, but at the time, I thought he was crazy. I was like, “What?!” He was like, “Do you want to play him? If you want to play him, it’s yours.” I was like, “Of course, I want to play him!” But, it was a good question, and it was something that he should have asked me. I found out later that it was a tremendous responsibility. I obviously celebrated, but I’m not going to tell you what I did. I had to keep it secret for a little bit of time because it wasn’t announced yet. I didn’t even tell my mom until just before they announced it. I was just the happiest person in the world, walking around smiling. People were like, “What is he smiling about?” But, I don’t necessarily know what it means, in terms of my entire career. I just know that it’s a fun thing and a proud thing to be a part of, and I know it’s a rare experience. I’m just going to cherish it, in this moment, and thank god for the experience and the people I got to work with. Even finding out that I was going to work with Harrison Ford was amazing. It was like getting the role, all over again. I just cherish the experience.
Harrison, what was your experience when you found out that you got your first big, starring role?
FORD: I was an overnight success. It was just a real long night. The only ambition that I ever had, committing to being an actor, was to live my life.
This really is a movie that portrays African Americans in a positive light and not a stereotypical light. How do you feel about that? Do you hope there will be more movies like that now?
HELGELAND: I certainly hope so! I think it’s a reason why the movie is important. There are a lot of people that want to just say, “I’m glad we solved that problem,” and move on. I think that seeing it points out that there’s not a lot of it, and hopefully that will help there be more of it.
FORD: I think that the best movies are made, not from a point of view that depends on your personal history, whether it’s the color of your skin or the politics that you had or the place that you come from, but from a point of view of an understanding of human nature, an understanding of history, and an understanding of what motivates people. That’s what makes a good movie, from an emotional place. And I think that this movie serves all those requirements. I hope there will be more movies that do that. This is a movie about the history of racial equality in the United States, and it makes it visceral history. A better form of filmmaking is to let the audience experience the story, to be emotionally involved, or at least to feel and experience the story as it unfolds, rather than talking about it, and Brian did that in the scenes with the Philly’s manager. People that I’ve talked to, that have seen the film, have taken away a visceral understanding that is greater than one normally has, and those are the people that are going to go forward in their lives and experience and recognize that this is something that they need to work against. This is something they don’t want their children exposed to. This is something that they don’t want to see in their lives. They recognize the truth of it and the undeniable evil of it.
BOSEMAN: Jackie Robinson, in the past, helped us to expand our boundaries and our realities. You haven’t seen this before. It’s weird to even say that. I remember when I was reading the script, I called Brian and said, “You’re a genius, man! You’re a genius! It’s a love story.” And he just started laughing. I realized that I had not seen two black people in love, in a major motion picture. It’s crazy! I had never seen that before. I’ve seen Claudine. I’ve seen Love Jones. But, I’m talking about this being a Warner Bros. film with billboards going up and trailers on TV. I had never, in my lifetime, seen that. You think you have, but you’ve only seen Denzel [Washington] have a wife, and not the love story. You’ve seen Will Smith have a wife. It’s tacked onto the story, but it’s not a love story. So, to be a part of something that just seems like it’s so simple, but it makes you human and tangible, I think it’s revolutionary. In some ways, it’s sad to say that, but once you see it, you have to embrace it. This is probably the only time I’ll ever say this, as an artist, but hopefully people will copy it. I think it will resonate with some other artists and they will want to create it too, and hopefully investors will want to get behind it and studios will want to do it. Hopefully, it will not be such a strange thing, that we thought we had seen before.
42 opens in theaters on April 12th.