How '42' Star Prepped to Play Baseball Great

Chadwick Boseman told us how equipment Jackie Robinson used and research helped him with the role.

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Chadwick Boseman in 42 (IMDb.com)

(The Root) -- Is it irony or fate that the same week the film 42 is opening, rumblings are surfacing that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is creating a task force to examine why African Americans make up only 7.7 percent of MLB's players?

The biopic about how Jackie Robinson -- the legendary player who broke the MLB color barrier in 1947 -- ushered in a new era for the league and black baseball players (outside of the Negro Leagues) makes its way into movie theaters just as a discussion about a long-standing lack of representation of African Americans in the major league is reaching a feverish pitch. Also gaining momentum are discussions about newcomer Chadwick Boseman's performance as the iconic sports figure, raising the question of whether another iconic figure -- the Oscar -- might be in Boseman's future.

What is the likelihood of an up-and-coming black actor landing the lead role in a major film like 42 anyway, in an industry that is constantly criticized for the lack of complex roles for black actors and the stereotypical representations of black men in the roles that do exist? "I try not to think about it in those terms. It's a lot of pressure," says Boseman.

The Howard University graduate says that he prepared for the role as any other actor would. "When you're in college, you do primary research and secondary research. My preparation was similar to that. I just tried to take in as much as I could about Robinson. Whether I could use it or not or in the moment, I had to figure out where he was mentally and physically. You just prep yourself as much as possible for whatever may come."

Part of Boseman's preparation included baseball practice five days a week, using the equipment that Robinson used when he played the game. "The game hasn't changed, but the tools have. The bats were heavier back then, and you could see why gloves are designed the way that they are today because you couldn't really depend on catching anything with those old gloves."

Boseman practiced with major-league players, attempting to master Robinson's unorthodox swing. Perhaps the most grueling aspect of preparing for the role was using cleats from the era, which Boseman describes as "basically running on nails take after take." He adds, "We went through four or five different pairs of cleats, and my feet took a few months to heal. I would get up in the morning, like, three or four months after we were done and still feel like I had on cleats."

Boseman's physical approach to preparing for the film was connected to the mental preparation for the role. "While you're out there failing and succeeding, you get a sense of the type of pressure that Robinson really is under. You can't play the role unless you know what it's like to have a ball coming to you and it's your assignment," he offers.

"You have to kind of play it to get how much pressure this person is under and how it's personally affecting him," he continued. "How is it emotionally affecting him? How could a mistake get in his head? How much could his teammate looking down on him affect him? I tried to figure out what he was thinking moment to moment because a lot of things, he can't say," says Boseman.

Robinson is often portrayed as a stoic man who "showed and proved" on the baseball field but without much fire in his belly, an assertion that many sports scholars challenge. Robinson was a man who would rush the mound, who fought hard against injustice on and off the field, even fighting a court-martial -- and winning an exoneration -- while serving in the Army in Texas for refusing to give up his seat on a bus to a white person.

This complicated public image of Robinson posed another challenge for Boseman, who had to decide how to portray this legendary athlete. "I had to figure out the type of person Jackie Robinson was and how to play him. If I play him passively -- in a way where he just didn't say anything back to his detractors -- then I'm not doing anything," Boseman said.

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