Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland’s entertaining biopic, “42,” chronicles the heroism of baseball great Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and trailblazing Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Oscar nominee Harrison Ford) who took a brave stand against prejudice and forever changed the world by changing the game of baseball. The film opens this Friday and also stars Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black and Hamish Linklater.
In 1947, Rickey put himself at the forefront of history when he signed Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking Major League Baseball’s infamous color line. Facing blatant racism from every side, including even his own team, Robinson was forced to demonstrate tremendous courage and restraint by not reacting in kind. Instead, Number 42 let his talent on the field do the talking, ultimately winning over fans and his teammates, silencing his critics, and paving the way for others to follow.
At the film’s recent press day, Helgeland, Boseman and Ford talked about what inspired them to make “42,” why they feel the film is important, the casting process, researching and bringing their characters to life, how Rachel Robinson helped to bring her husband’s image to the screen, how the Dodger organization contributed to the making of the film, and the impact they hope “42” and Robinson’s legacy will have on people today.
Question: Chadwick, what do you think Jackie Robinson’s influence was on kids in his era and how do you think he can influence young people today?
Chadwick Boseman: I think you see some of that influence with the character of Ed Charles who I was blessed to meet as a grown man. He was an inspiration not just to African American boys and girls, but also to people and kids of all races at that time. He still is that. I have friends that went to pre-screenings, and they have sons and daughters that went to those screenings, and they left practicing their swings. The Jerry Manuel Foundation, which concentrates on getting African American boys to take baseball seriously again, is setting up screenings, and they’re excited about seeing the movie as well. They have vintage uniforms that they’re wearing. I’ve seen pictures of them. So, I think it’s going to be a topical and exciting thing for youth currently.
Q: How much involvement did Rachel Robinson have in the movie? Did she express any concerns to you about bringing her husband’s image to the screen?
Brian 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 just going to sell them. So, I had to go meet with her and break down for her how I was going to tell the story. She told me her concerns. Initially, she wanted a greater breadth to the story as far as the time and to see him after baseball and before baseball. You can make movies about both of those also. I convinced her, what I said was that the passage of time in the movie is the enemy of the drama in the movie. I talked to her about focusing on ’46 and ’47 which she agreed to. She had to read the script, and I got feedback from her about everything from “I called my grandmother ‘Gram’.” I forget what I had her call her. She was involved all the way. In the movie, there’s the scene with the bock (balk). In the script that I first wrote, balk is such a hard thing to get across. I don’t understand what a balk is. So, I had her say to Wendell Smith, “What just happened?” and Wendell Smith explains a balk to her. That’s how it was in the first draft. When I had to go see her, I didn’t know what she thought. I flew across the country. I talked to everyone and asked them, “What does she think?”, but no one knew because she wouldn’t say. I’m sitting in her office waiting for her, and she walks in with this script that’s dog eared and it’s got post-its sticking out of it, and I’m just like, “Oh no!” She sat down and she said, “Well, I read the script. Let me ask you a question.” She wasn’t mad, but I could tell she wasn’t happy, so I said, “Of course.” She said, “In what world do you think I don’t know what a balk is?” I said, “It’s a really hard thing to describe and understand. I have to have someone explain it.” She said, “Well have someone else ask the question, but don’t have it be me.” So, I was like, “Okay.” It’s not like your grandmother and you’re going to get away with something. She’s tough.
Q: Brian, why did you decide to take on this story and do a film like this when in the past you’ve done crime films and thrillers?
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 a movie about Cortez at Universal, and I had done a Cleopatra biography at Sony. I had my research chops down from those films and nothing ever happened with them. This came along and I knew that I knew how to get in there and sort it all out and figure it out and try to get the history and the truth of it. Put it this way, 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, who was pursuing the rights, and he had run into a similar situation with Mrs. Robinson of her wanting to know how he was going to [approach it], how things were going to progress, and how the film was going to be made. I came in as partners with Thomas to do that. In my research, I was struck by the bravery of Robinson that you couldn’t ever invent. You could write all the super hero movies there were in the world and you wouldn’t come close. And so, wanting to try to tell that story got me interested.
Q: How did you decide on casting Chadwick? Did you intentionally seek out a fresh face instead of an established actor?
Helgeland: You have to find the guy to pull it off. Chad was the second actor to come in. 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 else who’s really famous. It always makes it hard to suspend your disbelief. Chad came in and he picked the most difficult scene of the three or four scenes that I was asking people to read. He picked the hardest one and did that first. He really went for it. It’s the scene when he’s in the tunnel where he’s 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. 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. He went for it. Within 30 seconds of walking into the room, he had put himself in a position of being rejected or “that’s pretty great.” I thought that was brave and he had to play a brave guy, so it just seemed all I needed to know about him. And also, they talk about baseball players having five tools. The ultimate baseball player can hit, field, run, hit for power (referring to running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, and fielding), and Chad was sort of a three-tool actor as far as intellectually, emotionally, and physically. It was a blessing when he walked in the door.
Q: Mr. Ford, can you talk a little bit about growing up in Chicago? Did you play baseball?
Harrison 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 I remember the game or anybody in it. It is such a vivid, visual image in my mind 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 Little League. We moved to the suburbs when I was about 12 years old, and I played maybe one and a half games of Little League. The whole atmosphere of anxious parents and more anxious children was just too much for me. We, as a family, never went back. 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.
Q: How did you find your character, Branch? How did you go about researching him and getting his look?
Ford: There was 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 look-a-like than a Harrison Ford look-a-like. I didn’t want the audience to go into the film thinking that they knew me from some previous experience in the movies, and I knew that that was Brian’s ambition as well. I invested in the process of trying to figure out what I should do and what I shouldn’t do and how to achieve the look and the character. What helped more than anything else actually was the fat suit, because it really did give me a sense of what it meant to maneuver at that size and what it was like. He was around 65 years of age at the time of the telling of this story. That gave me the opportunity to play a younger man which is not going to happen a lot anymore. What was interesting to me is, I remember my father in that period of time and other men of that age at that period in time, and we’re luckier now. We live better. Sixty-five in those days was an older man. I wanted to acknowledge that part of it. He wasn’t hale and hearty at that point in his life. It really helped me a lot to be specific about behaviors that I had observed and bring them into play as utilities to help describe the character and tell a story.
Q: 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. He was a guy who had a rich history, but I’ll leave that to Brian and Chad.
Boseman: I think Harrison answered it. Jackie Robinson was a Pasadena sports legend and a national legend before this moment. I think that’s one of the things 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 [Southern Division of the Pacific Coast] Conference in scoring in basketball. He was definitely one of the top scorers in the nation in basketball. He could’ve gone to the Olympics. His brother went to the Olympics and got a silver medal next to Jesse Owens. He broke his brother Mack’s records, I think, in the triple jump. He was already a person that was great. He’d been in the military. He’d been court martialed, had won the court martial, had won that case. That’s actually a movie in and of itself. So, his legend before he ever reached this moment was amazing. When you say, would there have been a Jackie Robinson, to me, it sounds like it’s the idea of breaking the color barrier more so than the person, and maybe that’s the question. It’s important to remember that there wasn’t just white baseball. There was Negro League baseball. There had always been pretty much Negro League baseball. There were barnstorming days in which the white players played the black players, and most of the time, the black players won. Maybe out of 400 games, the black players won 300. There was already a competition or competitive spirit and a desire for the game to become integrated on both sides. There were white people who wanted 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 created the Farm System that we now know of, the Minor Leagues, and also some of the drills of the Minor Leagues. He was the type of person that would take the lead on this. It probably would have happened, but maybe it wouldn’t have happened for another ten or twenty years. We don’t know. But there would have been someone at some point that would have done it, and 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.
Ford: I think it would have been another ten or twenty years before the Civil Rights Movement happened in its span of time after what happened in baseball. That’s what shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Q: I’ve heard Hollywood doesn’t make movies for black people, but I thought this was their answer to everything they’ve been asking for. Do you think there will be more movies that portray blacks in a positive light instead of a stereotypical light?
Helgeland: Yes, I certainly hope so. I think it’s a reason why the movie is important, because I think there are a lot of people that just want to say, “I’m glad we solved that problem,” and move on. 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 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’ve had, or the place that you come from. The best movies are made from a point of view of an understanding of human nature and an understanding of history and an understanding of what motivates people, of what makes a good movie from an emotional place, and this movie attends to all of those requirements. I think that there often are movies that do that and I hope that there will be more. This is a movie about the history of racial equality in the United States, and it makes it visceral history, and the visceral quality of it. There’s a kind of writing that I always try to avoid, which for convenience I call it “talk story.” It’s when you’re talking about the story. What I always think is a better form of writing and a better form of filmmaking is to allow the audience to experience the story, to be emotionally involved in seeing and feeling and experiencing the story as it unfolds rather than talking about it, and Brian did that in the scenes of the Philly manager. People who I’ve talked to that have seen the film, not people who are in the business of thinking deeply about films and writing about films, but real people, they have taken away from this experience a visceral understanding that is greater than what one normally has. Those are the people that are going to go forward in their lives and their experience and recognize that this is something to be worked against. This is something that they don’t want their children exposed to. This is something that they don’t want to see in their lives. They recognize both the truth of it and the undeniable evil of it.
Boseman: My answer to the question is simply yes. Jackie Robinson in the past helped us to expand our boundaries and our realities. I think it’s fitting that this movie exposes when I said that you haven’t seen this before. It’s weird to even say it. I remember when I was reading the script. It was the third or fourth script. (to Brian) Remember when I called you, and I said, “You’re a genius, man.” I said it because it’s a love story, and he just starting 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 it before. I mean, I’ve seen “Claudine.” I’ve seen “Love Jones.” But I’m talking about Warner Bros. and billboards going up and trailers on TV. I had never in my lifetime seen this. You think you have, but you’ve only seen Denzel (Washington) have a wife but not a love story. Or you’ve seen Will Smith have a wife, but it’s just tacked onto the story. But it’s not a love story. And so, to be a part of that, something that seems like it’s so simple, but it makes you human. It makes you tangible. I think it’s revolutionary. In some ways, it’s sad to say that, but I think once you see it, you have to embrace it, and this probably will be the only time I’ll ever say this as an artist, but hopefully people clap. I think it will resonate with some other artists and they will want to create it, and hopefully investors will want to get behind it, and studios will want to do it, and it will not seem like such a strange thing that we thought we had seen before.
Q: Chadwick, what was it like when you found out that you got the role? And in contrast, Mr. Ford, could you share with us what your experience was like when you got your first big starring acting role?
Boseman: I thought I wasn’t going to get it. I know that some people have heard me say that I had a realization before I got it that I was going to get it. But then, doubt sets in, and you have a baseball tryout, and you don’t do as well as you thought you should. And so, I was worried about it. When Brian called me, he asked me, and I thought it was a good question, I have found now that it was a good question, but at first I thought he was crazy, because he said, “Do you want to play Jackie Robinson?” And I was like, “What?” He was like, “Do you want to play him? Because if you want to play him, it’s yours. But if you don’t want to play him…” I was like, “Oh no, of course I want to play him.” But it was a good question because I found out later that it is a tremendous responsibility and it’s something that he should have asked me. Obviously, I celebrated. I’m not going to tell you what I did. I had fun and I had to keep it a secret for a little bit of time because nobody was supposed to know. It wasn’t announced yet. I didn’t tell my Mom until just before they announced it. I was the happiest person in the world walking around smiling, and people were like, “What is he smiling about? What is it?” It was definitely something. I don’t necessarily know what it means in terms of my entire career. I just know it’s a fun thing and a proud thing to be a part of. 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 working with Harrison Ford, it was amazing. It was like getting the role all over again. So, I cherish the experience.
Ford: Well, I was an overnight success. It was just a real long night. The only ambition I ever had going into and committing to wanting to be an actor was to live my life.
Q: Chadwick, what are some of the things that Rachel Robinson shared with you that helped you to be able to play Jackie Robinson?
Boseman: As Brian already said, she was part of the whole process. I went to go meet her in her office down on Olvera Street at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, because I felt it was such a daunting task that I didn’t even know how to start it until I talked to her. It is what she said, but it’s more so her presence. Her spirit, her essence, is like a puzzle, and he’s still part of it. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. They’re joined as one. I believed that when I think of them because she’s carried 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. And so, that’s part of what I used. To her credit, she’s not a filmmaker or an actor, but she set me down and sat right beside me and we had a heart to heart. She wanted to know who I was. There’s something about that intimacy that allowed me to get a sense of him as well. She told me obviously about some physical things – his hand gestures and hand movements, his feet and being pigeon toed, how disciplined he was, how adamant he was about not drinking, him being opinionated, and then, even when you hear a wife talk about her husband, you see certain moments where you can tell she really loved that about him. She loved this or hated this about him, or whatever it is. And so, I just got a sense of who he was from that conversation and from the books that she told me to read. I asked her about their relationship, because that is a big part of him being able to achieve this. It’s that he had a teammate in her. What were the rules of that relationship? How did they differ when they were communicating vs. when he communicated with other people? Was he two different people in those moments? I wanted to know what that was.
Q: Did anyone from the Dodger organization reach out to you and offer you any feedback?
Boseman: As far as the Dodger organization, Brian and Harrison can answer more than me, but I know David Iden, who was a Minor League player for the Dodgers, was one of my coaches the entire time. I’m talking about day one until the last day we shot baseball. We’d have their Major League players with us because they were Major League stuff. They made sure that David Iden was with us. I mean, we still text to this day. He even let me know the other day that the Dodgers had watched the film. It came out in the press that they had watched it, but he told me by text. He was like, “They loved it. They endorsed it.” I found that out before anyone else knew it, so they were involved in everything.
Q: Any final words you’d like to say about “42” and the making this film?
Helgeland: When Branch Rickey got involved in this whole thing, he was 65. He had a Hall of Fame career at that point. He’d won the World Series with the Cardinals. He had invented the Farm System and the things that Chad mentioned. He had nothing to prove. Harrison came into this film under similar circumstances with nothing to prove, and he decided that he wanted to prove something, and I think he did. I’m forever grateful to him and I just want to thank him very much.
Boseman: And I want to thank Brian Helgeland for believing in me as well. It was a joy to not only work with him, but just to powwow.
Ford: Okay, and me too. (laughs) 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. I don’t mean box office success. I mean in terms of the quality of the writing and the ambition of the writing. The thing that attracted me to this was not…I had never even thought about doing something that I’d never done before or proving anything. What I thought about was this was such an ambitious and well qualified recipe for the opportunity to be part of something great, and I think it is, with his commitment and Chadwick’s commitment and all of the actors’ commitment to the ideas that Brian illuminated, and then, in a very disciplined way and with an incredibly light touch continued to nurture and focus and point and adjust for all of us and for himself. [If not for all of that,] we wouldn’t have this piece of work. Thank you.