The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) continued its tradition of honoring the year’s standout performers by presenting one of this year’s Virtuosos awards to Chadwick Boseman for his remarkable work as James Brown in Get on Up. The film, from director Tate Taylor (The Help), is a chronicle of the iconic performer’s rise from extreme poverty to becoming one of the most influential musicians in history.
While there, actor Chadwick Boseman talked about how he approached his performance, five hours a day of dance training, that his own sister didn’t initially believe he could pull off the role, how he lived and breathed James Brown, morning and night, working with Viola Davis, and how the performance affected him, personally. He also talked about putting just as much into his role as Black Panther in the Marvel superhero universe as he has playing any real-life character, and which 2014 movie he’d recommend that people see. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
Question: What was the first thing you did to find your performance as James Brown?
CHADWICK BOSEMAN: There’s no first thing, to be honest with you. You just have to dive into every aspect, and we tested it. Everybody was like, “Are we crazy for trying to do this?” So, the producers, the director and myself all wanted to test this out. We started with the dance moves. If I couldn’t do that, there would be no reason to even try this. Not to say that, when I started, I was good, but we saw potential.
Were the dance moves a situation where you could either do them, or you just can’t?
BOSEMAN: They should probably have a James Brown aerobic tape. You would lose a lot of weight. We thought about shooting that, at one point, as a joke. You have to put a lot of work in. I have to credit the choreographer/coach, Aakomon Jones, who was a drill sergeant. I looked to him, at a certain point, to teach me how to do it, and it was just a lot of work. It was five hours a day of dancing.
How did your family feel about you playing James Brown?
BOSEMAN: The funny thing about this role is that, when I got 42 and I was going to play Jackie Robinson, people called and said, “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” With Black Panther, everybody called and said, “Congratulations!” For this, nobody called. My sister said, “Boy, you can’t dance!” We shot in Mississippi. She came to stay with me during Thanksgiving, and she came to one of the rehearsals, and her jaw was flopped to the floor, the whole time. She could not believe what she was watching. It was the best thing because she was the one person who said it out loud. She loved me enough to actually say, “You know, you might be making a mistake.”
Critics said that you were a man possessed in this performance. Did you feel that way while you were doing it?
BOSEMAN: No. But I would imagine that when people are possessed, they don’t know it. If you knew it, you’d go have an exorcism. The thing about it is that there are movies and TV shows and roles that are jobs. This was not a job. This was something where you go to sleep with a song on – and just imagine going to sleep with James Brown on – and I would try to use ballads, and then I’d wake up the next morning and the same was still playing, so I was working all night.
What is your recollection of the days you spent working so closely with Viola Davis?
BOSEMAN: It’s like the Super Bowl. You prepare for that day. You prepare for any scene you’re going to shoot. With her, she sizes you up, the first time she meets you. I’ve heard her do interviews and she’s said that I wouldn’t talk to her, but the truth is that she would not talk to me. I’d try to get something out of this woman who is amazing and who is a real virtuoso, but she was trying to create that distance between us. We don’t have that close relationship as mother and son, so she was establishing those things, even in our first meeting. We would be in hair and make-up, and nothing. She might say hello, but there were no real conversations. I had to be ready for whatever she would bring.
How did playing James Brown affect you, personally?
BOSEMAN: Everybody put everything they could into the movie, and we fell in love with James Brown and who he was. It was just an honor to go to work, every day, and to try to reach his level of excellence. There’s no way of doing that, but trying to do that helped to make me a better artist. Hopefully, I will continue to strive to live up to that.
You’ve tackled two super high profile roles that were real people, with Jackie Robinson and James Brown, and now you’re going to be Black Panther in the Marvel superhero universe. Is that a completely unreal character for you, or do you want to ground him in reality, too?
BOSEMAN: You try to tell the Marvel fans that he isn’t real. That’s even more scary. I would rather have something that I can put my whole life into. When you make movies, it’s such an important period of time, when you look back at each one of them. You want to be able to say that you did something that was a challenge and that changed you. For me, that’s all that it’s about. You put that type of energy into each thing, regardless of what it is.
What is one movie that came out in 2014 that you loved and would recommend?
BOSEMAN: There were so many. I would say Birdman. The directing of that movie was outstanding. The way you would follow one character into another character’s life, and the stage was a part of the film. I would recommend that.