Though he didn't sing, Boseman had to learn James Brown's moves for 'Get on Up.' (D. Stevens / MCT)
A year after playing Jackie Robinson in “42,” Chadwick Boseman was back in biopic spring training.
To become James Brown for the film “Get on Up,” Boseman needed to rely on an entirely different skill set. But the preparation necessary to transform into a tireless performer like Brown — “the hardest working man in show business,” after all — was oddly reminiscent of working out on the baseball diamond.
“I was like, ‘This is deja vu,’ ” says Boseman. “I’m waking up in the morning and lacing them up. Doesn’t matter whether it’s cleats or if it’s leather shoes.”
For the second time, Boseman has stepped into some very big ones. A largely unknown actor previously, the 32-year-old Boseman has emerged with back-to-back biopics of 20th century titans: one the revolutionary breaker of baseball’s color line, the other the Godfather of Soul. Both were unstoppable forces that blazed across civil rights-era America. One could steal home; the other could do the Mashed Potato.
Tackling one such historical figure is daring; two is audacious. It wasn’t Boseman’s idea.
“There’s no way in the world,” Boseman says was his initial reaction to playing Brown, still sounding genuinely resistant to the idea. Not only was playing such a complicated, iconic personality like Brown a fearsome challenge, it also could potentially typecast Boseman in a biopic bubble.
But director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) pressed. He brought Boseman in to read a scene in the movie of Brown at 63 and was immediately won over by the fresh-faced Boseman’s ability to transform into the legend late in life.
“I thought, ‘This is the guy. Please let him be able to learn how to dance,’ ” Taylor says. But it took weeks of coaxing: “Chad’s point of view was, ‘Nobody should do this. It’s just not even possible.’ ”
“Get on Up,” produced by Brian Grazer, had gone through other iterations. At one time, Spike Lee was to direct. Later, Mick Jagger, who frequently crossed paths with Brown and took much inspiration from him, came aboard as a producer.
The film, which opens in theaters Friday, skips across Brown’s expansive life, from the Georgia poverty of his hard upbringing to his more cartoonish and violent later years. (James died in 2006.) “Get on Up,” written by the brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, attempts to synthesize all of James’ many dimensions: tyrannical bandleader, musical visionary, funk preacher, domestic abuser.
Brown’s vocals are used during performances in the movie, but the part required Boseman to play Brown across time and pompadours. He had to find the voice, the moves, the posture and the persona, and hope somewhere in there was the man, too.
“It was all daunting, to be honest with you,” sighs Boseman.
Whereas most biopics travel a familiar path, Brown’s life resists a typical arc. One memorable early scene shows James, at his label’s request, accepting top billing over his early band, the Flames.
“There is a certain amount of cutthroat-ness to him,” Boseman says. “But it’s like what Little Richard says in the movie: When you see the moment, you have to seize it.”
It took some time for Boseman’s moment to come. He first got into theater, acting and writing plays, as an undergrad at Howard University. Boseman had roles on little-seen TV shows like ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights” and NBC’s “Persons Unknown,” but before “42,” he had only acted in one film (2008’s football drama “The Express”). Boseman still attracted notice in Hollywood, often just missing out on big parts.
Now Boseman is seen as a rising star. “The cream eventually rises to the top,” Taylor says.