190113 Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman Image Credit: The New York Times

Here’s an underrated perk of being Chadwick Boseman. One day, you’re out on a date at a jazz concert with your lady. It’s a near perfect moment. Perfect, that is, except for the view. A couple of yards ahead, partly obstructing your sightline, you notice a man with far-too-low jeans.

If you were anyone else, you might crack a joke (ahem), avert your gaze and hope for the best. A funny footnote on an otherwise scrapbook evening.

But you’re Chadwick Boseman. One of the most bankable actors of your generation. Conjurer of heroic icons real and imagined, a ludicrous personal pantheon that includes Jackie Robinson (‘42,’ 2013), James Brown (‘Get On Up,’ 2014), Thurgood Marshall (‘Marshall,’ 2017) and, His Majesty of Wakanda himself, Black Panther.

And so you exchange a glance with your lady and mutually aghast row-mates, walk up to the fellow with the exposed crack and initiate a conversation.

“Someone had to tell him!” Boseman said recently, not quite defending himself.

It’s the way [Boseman] carries himself, his stillness — you just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person.

- Brian Helgeland, Director

“He had no idea who I was,” Boseman said, noting that the encounter had been a couple of years ago, before he’d personified last year’s most in-demand new Halloween costume.

Most people would Boseman now. After years of surfing the biopic industrial complex as one national idol after another, his role as Black Panther in the ‘Avengers’ films and this year’s eponymous blockbuster, the ninth-highest-grossing movie of all time, has established him as the rare breed of actor with both widely recognised chops and old-school star power — the kind any producer in post-Netflix Hollywood would trade a good kidney to clone in a lab.

Next up are starring roles in the New York police action drama ‘17 Bridges’ (of which he is also a producer), the international thriller ‘Expatriate’ (he’s producing and co-writing that one) and, barring an alien-invasion-level catastrophe, a wildly anticipated ‘Black Panther’ sequel.

Remarkably, Boseman has come this far despite a relatively late start (he led a studio film for the first time at 35) and while remaining noticeably untouched by the tabloid drama, or whiff of overexposure, that can engulf even seasoned celebrities. In a pop taxonomy of black male nobility, he is cut squarely from the mould of Barack Obama — generally cool-blooded, affable, devoted to unglamorous fundamentals — a figure whom he is doubtlessly on a shortlist to portray in an inevitable epic.

Boseman told me his method of humanising superhumans begins with searching their pasts. For the role of T’Challa, aka Black Panther, that meant conceiving of a childhood squeezed by the weight of an ancient unbroken dynasty. When it came to becoming Jackie Robinson, he focused on formative years as a Negro League firebrand that crystallised the baseball pioneer’s polished exterior. James Brown: a meditation on irrepressible self-confidence, long starved by years of deprivation and insult in Jim Crow South Carolina.

“You have to hold it all in your mind, scene by scene,” Boseman said. He was dressed like an athlete turned agitator: LeBron James sneakers, black jeans, sleeveless black hoodie imprinted with the face of one hero he’d still love to play: Muhammad Ali. “You’re a strong black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great,” he continued. “So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?”

Boseman, 41, was born and raised in the manufacturing hub of Anderson, South Carolina, the youngest of three boys. His mother, Carolyn, had a job as a nurse and the unflappable temperament to match. His father, Leroy, worked for an agricultural conglomerate and had a side business as an upholsterer. “I saw him work a lot of third shifts, a lot of night shifts,” Boseman said. “Whenever I work a particularly hard week, I think of him.”

His closest role models were his two brothers: Derrick, the eldest, now a preacher in Tennessee; and Kevin in the middle, a dancer who has performed with the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes and toured with the stage adaptation of ‘The Lion King.’

Both brothers, each five years apart from the next, were allies and rivals, but it was Kevin who foreshadowed Chadwick’s life in the arts.

In Anderson in the 1980s, Boseman said, there was little context for a boy who dreamed of becoming a dancer, let alone a black one. “It wasn’t something that my family understood.”

But Kevin persisted and, ultimately, excelled. In time, the folks came around, helping him get into the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in nearby Greenville.

Some days, Boseman’s mother would take him to pick up Kevin from school theatre or dance rehearsals. Boseman would watch the action onstage, mesmerised by verbal directions he strained to comprehend, and by the lights, and by the grace-filled bodies in wordless dialogue.

In high school, he was a serious basketball player but made a final turn toward storytelling after a friend and teammate was tragically shot and killed. Boseman processed his thoughts and emotions by writing what he eventually realised was a play. When it was time to consider colleges, he chose an arts programme at Howard University, with a dream of becoming a director.

“There’s no way in the world I would have thought, ‘OK let me write this play’ if it wasn’t for him,” Boseman said, of his brother Kevin. “Ultimately, I’m here because of what he did.”

After college, Boseman moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn. He spent his days in coffee shops — playing chess and writing plays to direct. At Howard, he’d taken an acting class with the Tony Award-winning actress and director Phylicia Rashad. (One summer, she helped him and some classmates get into an elite theatre programme at the University of Oxford, an adventure he later learned had been financed by a friend of hers: Denzel Washington.) To earn money, Boseman taught acting to students at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

His own acting was initially secondary. He landed one-off television roles here and there (‘Law & Order,’ ‘CSI: NY,’ ‘Cold Case’) and eventually booked a recurring role in the 2007-09 ABC Family series ‘Lincoln Heights.’

What makes him the man who plays the men who stand tall? Brian Helgeland, the writer and director of ‘42,’ the Jackie Robinson movie that gave Boseman his breakout role, told me the actor reminded him of sturdy, self-assured icons of 1970s virility, like Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood.

“It’s the way he carries himself, his stillness — you just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person,” Helgeland said. He remembered choosing Boseman to anchor his film after seeing only two other auditions. “There’s a scene in the movie where Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, puts his arm around him as a kind of show of solidarity. But Chad flips it on its head. He plays it like, ‘I’m doing fine, I’m tough as nails, but go ahead and put your arm around me if it makes you feel better.’ I think that’s who Chad is as a person.”

One wonders if, as a result of his travels in the shoes of moral giants, Boseman has evolved an occupational shorthand — a secret posture, gaze or pattern of speech — that can invest any character with ineffable dignity.

Asked the question, he seemed to turn it over in his mind, as if he wanted to give it a fair shake.

“They can put the clothes on you,” he allowed, finally, after a long pause. A wry smile fanned across his face - both rows of teeth, steady eye contact. “But then you’ve gotta wear ‘em.”