Chadwick Boseman channels James Brown on the ‘Get On Up’ set

04.30.14 5 years ago 2 Comments

NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI. It's mid-December on the Mississippi set of “Get On Up” and it's possible that the hardest working man in show business is the young actor playing The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

We're between shots in a scene recreating James Brown and The Famous Flames' iconic performance in the concert film “T.A.M.I. Show” and everything is resetting. 

For Chadwick Boseman, though, there's no such thing as a reset. The cameras may not be rolling, but Boseman's feet keep shuffling across the shiny green linoleum of the Natchez Auditorium stage, which is standing in for the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. He only pauses to run over to the monitor to see how his footwork looks, but then he returns to the stage, dancing his way there and back.

Chadwick Boseman has become something of a perpetual motion machine, but if you watch old videos of James Brown, the rhythmic restlessness is one of the first things you'll notice about the Godfather of Soul as well. 

When I mention this to the movie's choreographer Aakomon Jones, also playing one of the Flames, he's instantly gratified.

“That's literally where I start,” Jones smiles. “Because we got into the cool slides and all that footwork and the spins and all that. It's just this thing that James Brown does when he's like driving the beat, he's clicking both heels, one into the other — right-left, right-left, right-left. I worked with Chad on that for hours, maybe two days straight before we ever started trying to add flashes. I knew that if he got that, he had 60 percent of what James Brown is as a performer as far as quantity, because he does that throughout his entire performance. He'll flash here, he'll slip off to the fight and dance-break and he'll hit a spin or a split, but 75 percent of the time? He's right-left with the heels. That's what keeps the band locked in.”

And Boseman is certainly locked in as well. 

Director Tate Taylor, the man behind the Oscar-winning hit “The Help,” is shooting James Brown's “T.A.M.I. Show” numbers as full, uninterrupted songs. [After editing, I highly doubt that's the approach Taylor will take, but I can assure you that at least in the moment, the performances are sustained.]

Boseman goes through the entirety of his “Out of Sight” performance, which includes spins, a split and ends with him on his knees as the crowd shrieks.

“Mr. Brown, would you like another?” Taylor asks. And every time, Boseman does, indeed, want another.. 

Backed by a seven-piece brass band, as well as three guitarists, to say nothing of the Famous Flames, Boseman isn't the only one keeping busy between takes, but he just seems to be keeping busier. One particular move involves a spin and then a microphone tilt-and-catch and it's causing problems. Over and over, Boseman pushes the microphone out, spins, catches the mic and goes into a kneel. Actually, as he copies the motion over and over again, it doesn't appear to be causing problems, but you can sense that Boseman worries it might become tougher when he has music and wailing vying for his attention. Each of the repetitions is perfect, but he's cultivating muscle memory. He only pauses when assistants rush out on-stage to brush off James Brown's pants.

Boseman's enthusiasm and energy are unflagging as the morning goes into early afternoon. 

“Well the secret is, it ain”t no secret,” Boseman says of keeping juiced. “We had a lot of rehearsals. We had a lot of, just stamina like in dance rehearsals doing stuff over and over and over again. Doing different numbers and doing all the numbers in one day. All that stuff is like you”re building up a stamina so that you can do it on the day, we”ve got to do it take after take after take. So that”s what it is.”

It's only a few hours later, darkness fallen and the long shooting day complete, that Boseman is able to sit for questions with a pair of reporters. He hasn't exactly collapsed, but he's slumped in one chair and won't move except for to rotate into a different seat.

Asked about maintaining that level of motion for that long, Boseman quickly interjects.

“Exhausting,” he says.

But he doesn't “say” it so much as “croak” in a thick Southern drawl.

“[P]art of it is you don”t want your energy to get down so you want to stay up as if you were gonna do his whole show,” he explains. “That”s my philosophy. And the other thing is, you know, we”re shooting 14, 12… Have we gone 14? We haven”t done that have we? But we”re shooting long hours every day and you don”t have the time to practice like you did when you wasn”t shooting. So I know that next week we”ve got to do three days of music and dance. So I”ve got to stay in shape for what”s coming. So it”s a matter of just being diligent about the fact that I have to keep my wind up and my legs up and stamina up because it”s not. You don”t just start doing the Mashed Potato like he does the Mashed Potato or any of those dances at that, it”s a set way that it”s done and his body”s moving in different directions. And you can”t just stop doing it.”

Talking with the actor in his trailer as the hair and makeup team divest him of wig and prosthetics, you can sense that this nightly ritual is more than just superficially transformative. As the external pieces of James Brown are removed, Boseman's voice shifts. Like Brown, Boseman was born in South Carolina and there's a thick growl to his accent when we initially enter his trailer, but it becomes smoother and smoother as he eases out. Helping the process is the scalp massage he's receiving after the day's wig is removed, but perhaps fearing he might slip too far from character, Boseman insists on listening to James Brown in the background.

“It”s different depending upon which age we”re playing,” Boseman says of the preparatory process. “If it”s the older James Brown he takes a little longer to get ready in the morning. I think we got it down to what? Two-and-a-half hours. And it started at like three-something. So it”s down to two-and-a-half hours. They work really quick. They”ve got it down to where everybody eats at a certain time, different parts and then we start again. For the young James Brown it”s like – I mean it”s probably like an hour, right? I think it”s like an hour.”

For better and sometimes for worse, James Brown was a force of nature and you'd think it was difficult casting the role. Taylor, however, demurs. 

[Continued on Page 2…]

“I could tell you it was exhaustively hard. It was not,” Taylor tells us earlier. “When I cast, I cast on intuition so I don”t see a lot of people that I probably in my soul know won”t be the person. So I brought in probably about 15 or 20 people that I sought out that I thought could do it and Chad was just hands down. I mean I”m a Southerner and he”s a Southerner and when we”re from this part of the country, there”s an innate countryness to him that I knew I needed and we talked about it before he came in. And he said, 'Well, this is my grandfather.' He came in and he just did it.”

Taylor didn't require convincing on Boseman, but Boseman required convincing.

“I didn”t see it, you know what I”m saying? I didn”t see it,” he chuckles.

Boseman had just finished playing Jackie Robinson in last spring's hit biopic “42” and while you might think he was nervous about playing two iconic 20th Century figures in a row, but he actually wasn't sure if he wanted to play James Brown because he had a different [undisclosed] biopic in his sights.

“I had a manager that showed me the script like in I want to say February. Or she was trying to show me the script in February and it was somebody else that I wanted to play. And I was like, 'Nope, I”m not reading it because I want to play that person.' Another real person. And then I had said that was the only other real person I would play,” Boseman recalls. “So then they came back around in July and I was like, 'Well, let me read it.' And then I had a conversation with Tate about it and he, you know, sold me on the story but didn”t necessarily sell me on the fact that I could do it. You know what I”m saying? So we all decided it was a good — and I mean the producers, him and and myself — decided it was a good idea to do a test. So we did a test with a wig, the clothes and they hired the choreographer who we have now who is amazing, AJ. And we worked on it for like three days. So we rehearsed for three days and then put that quick test together and I got to see how much work it would take and then decide whether or not it was something I felt like I could do. So I didn”t know. I just knew it would be a challenge.”

That was also the first major “Get On Up” test for Aakomon Jones, who doesn't sugar-coat his initial reaction to working with Boseman.

“I knew it was gonna be a long road ahead, honestly,” Jones laughs. “It could be Usher or Chris Brown up there and I still would have asked for the same amount of time and that's not bulls***. It's so specific. It's not just 'Can you dance and can you hit a split?' Those are small nuances in James Brown that are so recognizable to where we had to get it as on-point as we could. That takes time for anyone, let alone for Chadwick.”

Jones claims that a lot of the showier moves that we associate with Brown aren't the most difficult things to teach.

“That's the easiest. If you are physically able, then we can just learn a split and learn a split and just stretch and 'Don't be afraid to try it' and then you do it, but it's those small things. It's staying locked into the beat. It's the Mashed Potato, not just the Mashed Potato because it's the popular dance of the time, but how James Brown did it. It's how he looks off to the side, how he nods his head, how he slams his fist down to stop or start the band. All that is really tough,” Jones explains.

While Jones jokes about the first couple days of trying to coach Boseman on the splits, he raves about the actor's work ethic and how that let him know he had somebody he could work with.

“The first day that I kinda was winded and was ready to take a break a grab a drink of water and he was ready to keep going? That told me that he would be able to do it,” Jones says. “He introduced me to a work ethic that I'm familiar with that I typically don't see from other actors, or singers for that matter.”

Boseman shies from the notion that “Get On Up” produces physical challenges beyond what he experienced on “42.”

“No. I would say it”s a different physicality. It”s not more physicality. It”s just different,” he says. “It”s a different movement and it”s a different… If you”re a figure skater or a gymnast, you”re in shape. Your body”s in amazing shape. You look at the Olympics like, “Wow, their bodies are in amazing shape.” But you”re gonna have a different body than a boxer or a basketball player or a swimmer. You concentrate on different muscles and different flexibility and a different, you know, degree of stamina or type of stamina. So it”s just like that. You choose for this period of time to work on a different aspect of your physical health. Like me having the flexibility to have to do the splits is different than, you know, the rigidity and smoothness that it takes to do the baseball slides. It”s two different things. But they help each other. But they help each other.”

Taylor decided to use original James Brown masters for the vocals on “Get On Up” — his explanation is in the other set visit story posting today — but between takes, in addition to the dancing, Boseman was singing and although nobody would ever accuse him of sounding exactly like Brown, the guy has a great voice. 

“Well, I am singing in this,” he insists. “There are scenes that are performance scenes and then there are also scenes where, you know, he”s just – he”s singing as a kid. He”s singing gospel. So, you don”t have those recordings and you don”t have those recordings of him younger. And then there”s also him singing older, singing other moments like him saying goodbye to his wife and kid, you know, he”s gonna sing to them a little bit before he goes. It”s not just the performances. So in those moments like I”m practicing that because the voice – I think the voice he sings from also is similar to the voice that he speaks from. So when I have to talk, me singing helps me deal with him talking. And also it helps me when another scene comes up that I just want to sing something for a second. You don't want to be like, “He don't sound like James Brown. I listened to the whole movie and the way he sings…” So there”s there”s a gap that has to be bridged between my voice and his voice.”

It's all part of making sure there weren't limitations to the sides of James Brown that “Get On Up” can showcase.

He notes, “I wasn”t quite sure how that would work in the script but like once you start doing it you realize 'Well, it”s kind of messed up if he can”t sing right here.' You”re trying to figure something out. You”re making a movie about somebody”s – their genius. You”re making a movie about them, their genius and them creating an art form, a style of music. And if you can”t show them coming up with it, if you could only show them when they”re already polished, then you miss a part of it. You miss a part of what makes them a genius. The work. So I had to do it.”

And nobody is going to accuse Chadwick Boseman of not putting in the work.

Click through for a few additional Q&A highlights of Boseman's end-of-day conversation with me and a lone colleague. He discusses his research process, as well as the aspects of James Brown's personality he hopes to carry with him after production.

On to Page 3…


Question: Can you talk a little bit about the educational process and how you educate yourself on this role before jumping into it

Chadwick Boseman: Well first of all it”s not enough time to really deal with who he is. You know, we”re just doing the best we can do. But I wish I had a whole year, because there”s so much about him once you start, you know, exploring who he is. So I wish I had more time. The education process was basically reading the biographies. On the one he has a biography that he wrote himself in his own words. Those are the two that I enjoyed the most, but you look into as much as you can and as many you can and then also talking to people that knew him. So you”ve got like a band director or rehearsal director who came in, Keith Jenkins, and we had, you know, I talked to Charles Bobbit, one of his road managers, and Tommy Ray, Deedee, two of the wives and his grandson. And, you know, a nephew. So to me it”s like a lot of people have their own stories about him. You just learn as much as you can from whoever knows something. Watching footage, all of that stuff.

Question: What have you learned about James Brown the man in your research that you didn”t know before that”s helped you with this role?

Chadwick Boseman: I would say everything. Everything about him. There”s a certain drive, drive for perfection and drive for holding people accountable. You know whether that comes from his background or it comes from, you know, just him not wanting to lose it. A certain amount of genius and brains and paranoia there. There”s so many different things about him that you get by walking in his shoes that you wouldn”t get if you were just listening to his music or reading the book or whatever. So I don”t know. I just think he”s a person that expected the best out of everybody and he was like, “I”m gonna make the rules myself. I make the rules.” You know what I”m saying? “These are the rules. I”m gonna fire you. If you want to be here follow these rules. You”ve got to live under this domain that I create.” So he saw himself as a king in that right.

Question: When you first met with AJ, what was your reaction to sort of what you were gonna have to do and what he was trying to get you to do?

Chadwick Boseman: The funny thing about it is you”re watching it but you don”t really understand what”s actually happening when you”re watching him dance. Like “What is the body actually doing?” And we would look at footage and then we would try to do it and I would be like, “Yeah, but his… How is he doing that that fast in that way?” and all of it, and then just understanding what was the actual coordination of it. AJ was amazing in terms of being able to break stuff down from the first part of the movement to another part of the movement. Like just adding parts in. So it was like amazing to me, you know.  It was like a constant, like another way of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. Like, “OK. I can get that part but that part, but that part?” So I was blown away, basically, each day. Like seeing how each movement worked in that vocabulary.

Question: Now we know that there”s this long process that you have to go through with the wigs and with the makeup. When you see yourself in that wig like you were wearing today, how does it allow everything else to just sort of click in around that? How much does that help you with your performance?

Chadwick Boseman: I think every day as an actor you get up in the morning and you have a certain ritual that you go through no matter who you”re playing, even if you play somebody that looks just like you. You have a ritual that you go through in terms of… And it”s not necessarily the same, each day it might be the same in terms of the type of scene that you”re doing. So if you were doing a really quiet scene, you know, it might be a very meditative morning. If you”re doing a scene where you”ve got to get up and perform in front of a whole bunch of people, you might be hyped more. Or and then you just fill it out. So I think it just adds to that process of allowing the character into you each day. You allow the character to introduce himself and you wake up as you. You wake up in your skin and you can”t just come in and put on the skin of the character without seducing it a little bit. So I think the wig adds to that self-seduction and it helps you to allow it to enter. As well as the makeup and prosthetics. All of it, it does. Like the prosthetics is crazy. 

Question: When you dive into a character so deeply, you know, sometimes a lot of actors say it”s hard to shake off at the end of a film. Now is there anything about James that you”ve kind of attached yourself to that you don”t want to lose, that you want to continue with, keep as a part of your personality?

Chadwick Boseman: Yeah, I mean there”s an audacity and confidence and, you know, self-worth. it”s like Mohammad Ali in a way. You know what I”m saying? “I”m gonna be my own promoter, spokesman.” He does have the – go through the list of his names – his great names, you know, Godfather of Soul, the whole thing. But if nobody else did it, he would do it himself. So I think there”s some of that. Like I wouldn”t necessarily hold on to all of it but that confidence and that audacity is something that, you know, swagger is what it is. I would like to hold onto it and be able to pull it out when I need it. 

“Get On Up” opens on August 1, 2014.

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