Chadwick Boseman: Standing up for James Brown

Chadwick Boseman, who plays 1960s pop star James Brown in a new biopic Get on Up, talks to Donald Clarke


You wouldn’t ask any mortal to play James Brown. It’s not just the voice. It’s not just the moves and the madness. Even at rest, Mr Please Please Please looked like nobody else on the planet. They no longer fashion pop stars from that skewed mould.

Scrunch up your eyes. It’s no good. Chadwick Boseman, a 31-year-old from Brown’s home state of South Carolina, is still too, well, good looking to be mistaken for the Godfather of Soul. Isn’t he?

Somehow or other, Boseman pulls it off in the biopic Get on Up. Tate Taylor’s follow-up to The Help is alive with all the juice of Brown’s dangerous funk. Chadwick is deranged and invigoratingly unrestrained throughout. Yet it seems that one Mick Jagger, producer of the picture, had to lean on Chadwick to convince him he was up to it.

“I was eventually confident I could pull it off,” he says. “But I wasn’t confident at first. I think everybody had a question whether it was possible to replicate James Brown on stage. I watched him for a couple of weeks when I was making the decision. Then I had a conversation with Mick Jagger and I talked myself into it. I felt I was right. But you can’t be 100 per cent sure.”

Working from a clever, ingeniously structured script by Jez Butterworth, Taylor’s cracking film touches on the more unlovely elements of Brown’s character: his meanness, his violence to women, his domination of collaborators. I wonder if Boseman allowed himself to feel affection for this difficult genius.

“Well, I think I understand him probably more than most people,” he says. “Once you look at his childhood you can understand who he is. You don’t make the same judgments. You understand why he’s making the decisions he’s making. When the camera wasn’t rolling, it meant I was allowed to be difficult. Ha ha.”

Ah, the advantages of staying in character. Boseman worked closely with members of Brown’s family and was surprised at how open they were to the film addressing the star’s less attractive side. “I think they would have been fine if there had been more of that in there,” he says.

It’s a strange time for Boseman. After a decade working assiduously, but quietly, in Brooklyn as a writer and director, he suddenly finds himself embodying a trio of African-American icons. Last year, he played Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball star to play for a major-league team, in Brian Helgeland’s well-received 42. Last month, it was confirmed that he is to appear as Black Panther, Marvel’s pioneering black superhero, in the next Captain America film and, later, in a standalone project.

Troublesome figure Robinson and Brown could, however, hardly be more different. The baseball star, signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, is still regarded as a sort of secular saint. For all the brilliance of his music, Mr Brown (as he insisted on being called), remains a much more troublesome figure.

“Well, that’s a big part of why I wanted to play him,” Boseman says. “I didn’t want to do another biopic in general. So, my initial reaction was: there’s no way I am touching that. But one of the things I was looking for was a character that allowed me to show a different side.”

Slim, chiselled, with a rich, flexible voice, Chadwick Boseman comes across as a man of some integrity. Raised in north-western South Carolina, he attended Howard University before making for New York City. He initially saw himself more as a writer and managed to knock together theatre productions in various corners of the city. Towards the end of the last decade, acting roles began to come his way and financial pressures eased somewhat.

“I had made a vow to put bread on the table doing this alone,” he says. “That was a huge leap of faith on my part. How else are you going to get experience? I would have to do two or three jobs: I’d ghostwrite something while doing another job. But I never thought about it as hard. This is what I wanted.”

So, in the early days, he wouldn’t take a bar job or a waiting job on principle. “No, when the moment came, I didn’t want to be in the wrong place.”

By golly, the moment has come now. All grown-up, but a decade away from middle-age, Chadwick Boseman will be with us for some time. Marvel will be making Black Panther films for as long as he can stand up. Can he believe what’s happened in the last two years?

“If I thought about it, it would drive me crazy,” he laughs. “Playing James Brown? Playing Jackie Robinson? I let others worry about it. Think about that and you’ll just mess yourself up.”

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