No stranger to playing icons, Chadwick Boseman changed the game with his role as Marvel superhero, Black Panther. Ahead of his latest bout in Avengers: Infinity War, we ask him about his latest iconic role and the inspirations that got him to where he is today
Every actor dreams of the role that will turn them into a bankable star. With the smash success of Black Panther and its international box-office earnings of $1 billion and counting, Chadwick Boseman has not only attained A-list status but he’s gained his own personal film franchise. Now he’s back in action as T’Challa/Black Panther in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, the latest instalment of the Marvel Comics superhero saga.
It’s a stunning triumph for Boseman, a talented actor who previously played legendary black figures such as James Brown in Get On Up (2014), Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017). He’s also aware that Black Panther is not only a role model and source of pride for black people, but is a watershed moment in Hollywood history by proving that a film driven by a black superhero and largely African-American cast can attract mass audiences across the globe.
“It’s an inspiration to be able to play someone on the screen in whom you can recognise yourself – even in a superhero movie,” Boseman says. “It’s also important and enlightening for non-black viewers who can identify with heroes who don’t conform to the usual stereotypes and see black people do extraordinary things. Black people regularly watch TV series and films where the majority of characters, at least on a visual level, don’t correspond to their world. This (film) not only expands our cultural horizons, it’s also a reflection of reality.”
Boseman’s Black Panther gets to see additional action in Avengers: Infinity War as he and his fellow Avengers are thrust into what Marvel is billing as their “deadliest” battle yet. The epic tale pits Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) against the all-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin) as they attempt to thwart his quest for the Infinity Stones that would allow him to unleash unprecedented devastation on the cosmos. The film will be highlighted by both the appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy squad and a superhero battle royale that takes place in the Black Panther’s high-tech kingdom of Wakanda.
Boseman also reveals that Avengers: Infinity War was a chance for him to work even more closely with his Avengers cast mates’ films: “It’s always exciting to see all these actors I’ve admired from watching their work outside of the Marvel universe. This is fun – it’s like an All-Star game.”
Q: Chad, as King T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, you get to rule over the African kingdom of Wakanda. How does a king handle being part of the Avengers team?
BOSEMAN: I don’t think the Black Panther is afraid or intimidated by any of the Avengers. He’s not even trying to find a spot on their team, he’s carving out his own space within the Avengers and bringing along all his power and skills in his own way. He can exist without them, if he chooses to.
Q: It must be incredibly gratifying for you to reach this kind of level as an actor and get to play a character like Black Panther that is on the verge of becoming an iconic figure?
BOSEMAN: We should have seen a character like this on the screen a long time ago. But even if it took longer than it should to give Black Panther his chance to make his mark, it’s still a remarkable achievement.
There’s no reason why the character who gets to save the world should always be a white man. We’ve evolved I hope to a point beyond that. I’ve very happy that kids are going to start wearing Black Panther outfits and [for them to] feel drawn to his courage and leadership is important.
Q: When you were a kid, was Black Panther one of your favourite comics and superheroes?
BOSEMAN: No, I never really got into him. I was more of a Batman and Spiderman fan. I used to play in the trees behind my grandma’s house and pretend to be Spiderman. But my real hero growing up was Muhammad Ali. He still is. I worship Ali and I like wearing T-shirts with his face on them.
Q: Do you think Hollywood was too cautious when it came to waiting so long to make a film with a black superhero?
BOSEMAN: It just took the right people, like those in charge at Marvel, to say that the time has come to do something different. It should have happened sooner, but there were always doubters in the industry who argued that you couldn’t make money with a movie that has a black hero because not enough people would be interesting in seeing that.
I’m sure there were a lot of people telling Marvel that the idea wouldn’t work but in the end it was great that they had the courage to make the film. It’s a significant moment in film history.
Q: Do you enjoy being part of a rising group of black actors who have been achieving stardom in the industry of late?
BOSEMAN: Oh, yeah. Look at TV series like Atlanta and Insecure and Empire. Or look at Letitia Wright and Lupita N’yongo in Black Panther or actors like John Boyega in Pacific Rim: Uprising which is coming up or A Wrinkle in Time. A lot of black actors are getting opportunities that should have happened earlier and this is going to change a lot of perceptions in the industry. It’s an interesting time for us to be able to get out of our boxes.
Q: You’ve enjoyed tremendous success playing iconic black figures such as James Brown, Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player, and Thurgood Marshall, the first black American Supreme Court Justice. How does Black Panther fit into that scheme?
BOSEMAN: What I’m proudest of is that every one of those characters has set a precedent of some sort. Black Panther is the first black superhero in comics and now he’s the first black superhero character in the movies. The other characters I’ve played were real-life heroes, but people can be inspired and enlightened just as much by fictional characters and Black Panther is a leader and icon in his own right.
Q: Which of those characters has been the most difficult for you to play?
BOSEMAN: Oh, James Brown, for sure. There were so many elements to him that were very unique. Everything about him was so distinct – his way of speaking, his singing, and his way of dancing, of course. A lot of things could have ended up going wrong. I remember my sister laughing and giving me a hard time when I told her I was going to be playing James Brown. She said: “What, you can’t dance at all. How d’you think you’re going to pull that off!”
Q: When did you first decide on becoming an actor?
BOSEMAN: Actually, I never really wanted to be an actor at all. As a kid I was interested in drawing and designing. I first got my bachelor’s degree in theatre at Howard University [in Washington, D.C.] and then I studied at the Digital Film Academy in New York. I started writing after one of my friends who played on my basketball team was shot and killed and my response to that was to write a play about my community.
That started me on the path to being a writer and director and it was only later that I went into acting because I realised that if you want to be a director you need to understand the work and the process of the actors you’re trying to direct.
Q: What did your parents think of your wanting to go into the arts?
BOSEMAN: They didn’t try to influence me one way or the other. Both me and my brother wound up going into the arts. My older brother had it tougher than me because he decided to become a professional dancer and my parents were not very thrilled about that. But they accepted his choice and my own interest in the arts grew deeper by watching him perform on stage and getting to watch him in rehearsals.
My mother just wanted us to work hard and stay out of trouble. She appreciated how much I liked to draw and saw that I was good at it and that I had a strong visual sense. And when I decided to study film and theatre she was very supportive of me.
Q: How tough was it for you when you first arrived in Los Angeles trying to make your way up the Hollywood ladder?
BOSEMAN: It’s disorienting at the beginning. You feel very isolated because there’s this incredibly glamourous world that seems to be beyond your grasp and all the doors are closed to you. It really is a city of broken dreams because only a very few of the people who come to L.A. to work in the movies ever actually get to make it in the business. That’s why I consider myself very lucky.
Q: Apart from Muhammad Ali, which other people have inspired you?
BOSEMAN: My mother set a great example for me. When I would go to her office after school and I would get to watch her work while I was doing my homework and waiting for her to take me home. I remember how hard she worked all the responsibility she had when there would be emergencies and everybody would start to move very fast and react to each case. I really looked up to her.
I also have great respect for my father and some of my teachers who made a great impression on me and taught me so many lessons in life. I’ve also been inspired in life by people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Spike Lee and his movies, and Obama. And as an actor I’ve looked up to Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and my brothers Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson, and Jeffrey Wright.
Q: Do you ever feel inspired in turn by playing a great leader of a nation like King T’Challa?
BOSEMAN: It makes you think about your sense of responsibility, what you contribute to the world. In his case, he’s faced with so many difficult decisions. There’s the key line in the film, “It’s hard for a good man to be king.” It’s complicated to decide whether it’s right to do bad things for the sake of preserving justice and peace. Or whether anyone has the right to decide who lives or dies. Playing him, sometimes I felt like the Godfather!
Words by Miles Kenny