Q&A: Bringing a sports legend to life on the big screen

The new movie 42 focuses on the years when baseball great Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African American player in the modern era of Major League Baseball. The cast includes newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager who signed him onto the team. (Both men were Methodists, a fact mentioned briefly in the film.)

A scene recreates Robinson’s style of dancing off a base to worry the opposing team’s pitcher. PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

After a preview screening in Los Angeles, the two stars and writer-director Brian Helgeland spoke to a group of journalists from across the country, including associate editor Bill Fentum. Here are excerpts from the press conference, edited for length and clarity.

What do you think was Jackie Robinson’s influence for kids of his own era, and how do you think he can influence kids and teens today?

Chadwick Boseman: He was an inspiration not just to African American boys and girls but also to kids of all races at that time. And Robinson can still inspire kids. I have friends who went to preview screenings with their sons and daughters, and they left practicing their swings. Screenings have been set up through the Jerry Manuel Foundation, which concentrates on getting African American boys to take baseball seriously again. So I think it’s going to be a topical and exciting thing for youth.

How much involvement did Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, have in the movie? Did she express any concerns about bringing her husband’s image to the screen?

Brian Helgeland: Yes, I had to meet with her and prove that the way I wanted to tell the story was the right way. She had the rights and wasn’t going to just sell them. Initially, she wanted a greater breadth to the story, to see Jackie before baseball and after baseball. And you could make movies about those times, too. But I convinced her that the passage of time in a movie is the enemy of the drama, and talked to her about focusing on 1946 and 1947.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson at bat, in the new biographical drama, 42. PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

She was involved all the way. In the movie there’s a scene involving the baseball term called a “balk.” In the first draft I wrote, I had a character explain the term to Rachel while they’re watching from the stands, because it’s a hard thing to understand and describe. I needed someone to do it for the movie audience. When I met her, she sat down and said, “Well, I read the script. Let me ask you a question.” I said, “Of course.” She said, “In what world do you think I don’t know what a balk is?” She said to have someone else ask the question, to not have it be her. She was tough!

[To Mr. Helgeland]: What led you to take on this story? And how did you decide on casting Chadwick?

BH: In the years leading up to 42, I had worked on a couple of biopics that didn’t get made. I had written a script about Hernán Cortés for Universal and a Cleopatra biography at Sony. And so I had my research chops down from those films, though nothing ever happened with them. I knew how to get in there and sort it all out—the history and the truth of it—and how to keep myself and my ego out of the process. I came in as a partner with [producer] Thomas Tull, and in my research I was struck by the bravery of Robinson. You could write all the superhero movies in the world, and you wouldn’t come close. And so wanting to tell that story got me interested.

Then we had to find an actor to pull it off. I thought, first of all, I didn’t want a well-known actor to play Jackie, because it’s always strange when someone well-known plays someone else who’s famous. Chad was the second actor to come in, and he picked the most difficult of the three or four scenes I was asking people to read, the scene in the tunnel when he’s breaking the bat. He did that scene in the room with a wiffle-ball bat and a chair, almost exactly the way he does it in the film. A lot of actors would go down the middle of the road and try to do something they couldn’t be judged negatively for, so I thought it was a brave choice, and of course he had to play a brave guy. It just seemed to be all I needed to know.

Mr. Ford, can you tell us a bit about researching the role of Branch Rickey? Were there recordings or films of him available to help?

Harrison Ford: Yes, there was actually more audio tape available than there was visual material, but there was some. I studied all the photographs, and 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 the movies. And I knew that was Brian’s ambition as well. So I invested in the process of trying to figure out what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, how to achieve the look and the character.

Andre Holland (center) plays African American sportswriter Wendell Smith, who is credited with recommending Robinson to Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

What helped more than anything else, actually, was the fat suit, because it gave me a sense of what it meant to maneuver at that size. Also, he was around 65 at the time of this story. That gave me the opportunity to play a younger man, which is not going to happen a lot anymore [laughter]. (Note: Mr. Ford turned 70 last year.)

Would there have been a Jackie Robinson without a Branch Rickey?

HF: Well, Robinson was distinguished before his discovery by Rickey. The guy had a rich history.

CB: That’s right. Jackie Robinson was a major sports figure on the West Coast. That’s one of the things I learned about him that I did not know. He was a football player; he led the conference in scoring at college basketball. He could have gone to the Olympics. His brother Mack went to the Olympics and got a silver medal in the men’s 200 meters just behind Jesse Owens, and Jackie broke his brother’s records in college. So his legend, before he ever reached his “moment,” was amazing.

But to me, the question of whether there would have still been a Jackie Robinson is about breaking the color barrier, more than the person. And it’s important to remember that even then there wasn’t just white baseball. There had been Negro league baseball [for nearly a century], there had been barnstorming games for 50 years in which white players played black players, and most of the time the black players won. Out of maybe 400 games, the black players won 300. So there was already a competitive spirit, and a desire for the game to become integrated, on both sides. Branch Rickey was not the only person who desired this. But he was the maverick because he had already been an innovator in baseball, he created the minor league “farm system” of training young players, and also some of the drills for the minor leagues. So he was the type of person that would take the lead.

It probably would have happened without Rickey, though maybe it wouldn’t have happened for another 10 or 20 years. There would have been a player at some point to break the barrier. And thank God it was [someone like

Nicole Beharie (right) co-stars as Robinson’s wife, Rachel. PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Robinson], who could not only play baseball but could handle the pressure on the field, and the politics, and the social responsibility.

Do you think there will be more movies like this that portray African Americans in a positive light instead of in stereotypical ways?

CB: Yes. Jackie Robinson helped us to expand our boundaries and our realities. So I think it’s fitting that this movie about him exposes something that you haven’t seen before [onscreen]. When Brian was developing the scenes between Jackie and Rachel, about the third or fourth draft, I remember calling him and saying, “You’re a genius, man. It’s a love story.” I realized that I had not seen two black people in love in a major motion picture. I’m talking about Warner Brothers billboards going up, trailers on TV and online. I have never in my lifetime seen this. You think you have, but you’ve only seen Denzel or Will Smith have a wife, not a love story. So to be a part of that . . . I think it’s revolutionary. In some ways, it’s sad to say that. But I think it will resonate with other artists, and the studios will want to do more of this.

And as Brian said, Rachel was part of the whole process. I went to her office at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, because taking the role was such a daunting task that I didn’t even know how to start until I talked to her. She’s carried on his legacy, and his spirit is still present with her. You know, I can see what type of man could stand beside her. And so, that’s a part of what I used. She sat me down and had a heart-to-heart; she wanted to know “who I was.” And there’s something about that intimacy that allowed me to get a sense of him as well. She told me about some physical things and hand gestures, and his feet being pigeon-toed. How disciplined he was, how adamant he was about not drinking. I could see certain things that she really loved about him [and that she was] a big part of him being able to achieve this. He had a teammate in her.

bfentum@umr.org

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Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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