Casting began with finding the right actor to embody the film's main character. Helgeland recalls, "Our casting director, Vickie Thomas, has a terrific eye and brought me great people, but as far as the part of Jackie Robinson was concerned, I just felt I would know him when he walked in the door. And that's exactly what happened. Chadwick Boseman read for the role and when he left the room, I said, 'That's it; the bar has been set.' And no one else came close to it."
Boseman bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Robinson, but Helgeland says he was more impressed by what the actor conveyed from within. "You can see him reacting even when he's being quiet. You know how things are hitting him just looking at his face."
"Sometimes what a person doesn't say is more powerful than what they say," Boseman states. "And the way Robinson played the game was so outspoken and demonstrative; he was able to perform in the most clutch moments and on the grandest stages. That spoke volumes, and it added value to Robinson's words when he did become vocal."
The actor notes that he had to "bridge the gap" between himself and Jackie Robinson, particularly in terms of the racially charged atmosphere of then versus now. "I had to take it all in and ask myself what that must have been like. What would that do to me? He obviously feels everything that any person would feel in that situation: anger, frustration, fear... But he has pride in his race and an unshakeable sense of self that enables him to stand in the storm, which is a difficult thing to do. It ultimately comes down to basic human dignity -- just respect me as a human being."
Jackie earns the respect of Branch Rickey, who braves his own storm when he signs Robinson to the Dodgers organization, defying the unwritten but nonetheless explicit segregation of Major League Baseball. His only caveat is that Robinson not react in kind to the abuse -- both verbal and physical -- that will inevitably come his way. "They make a bargain," Helgeland expounds. "Rickey knows all eyes will be on Jackie, so he has to just play baseball and ignore everything else. If they are to succeed, Jackie must tolerate things he otherwise wouldn't so people can't use anything he says or does against him."
Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, who reveals, "When I read the script, I thought it was wonderfully written; there were scenes that just knocked my socks off. I was fascinated by the character of Branch Rickey and immediately began to invest some energy in researching him because it was a part I very much wanted to play."
Despite being an unabashed fan of the actor, Helgeland acknowledges that he was at first a bit reluctant to cast him as Rickey because of Ford's iconic stature. "Then when we talked, I could tell he totally embraced the part and understood him exactly as I understood him. He absolutely nailed it."
Describing his role, Ford offers, "He is a businessman who recognizes that dollars aren't black or white; they are green. But he is also a moralist and a patriot who believes it is unseemly of this country not to offer opportunities to talented people because of the color of their skin. It's an issue of fairness, especially in a game that is so woven into the American spirit."
Ford, who had never before portrayed a real historical figure, continues, "I was interested in capturing the truth of the character; however, at the same time, I was concerned about how much freedom there would be in the context of becoming an actual person of some significance."
It was Ford himself who suggested that he wear padding and makeup prosthetics to look more like the real Branch Rickey. Additionally, in his research, he viewed some archival footage and found, "Rickey had a distinctive way of speaking, so I tried to suggest his voice. I was happy that Brian gave me the liberty to make those changes to my physiognomy, to give me that mask. He is one of the most generous and patient directors with whom I've ever had the pleasure to work."
"Harrison is an incredible actor," Tull remarks, "but he's also one of the most recognizable people in the world. So I was in awe watching him completely disappear into Branch Rickey."
With Rickey's help, Robinson is placed at the forefront of change, but there is also a woman behind the man, his wife, Rachel. "The love story is what drew me in," says Nicole Beharie, who was cast in the role. "Rachel is at Jackie's side on this mission. They have to deal with the bruises, physical and otherwise, together."
"Nicole is not only beautiful; she has the kind of strength and independence that I wanted to see in Rachel. I believed her in the role," Helgeland states. "She also had natural chemistry with Chad, which is something you can't force but was very important."
Beharie had the advantage of being able to consult with her real-life counterpart, Rachel Robinson, who thrilled everyone when she paid a visit to the set. The actress marvels, "For me, the most amazing thing was that her love and devotion to Jackie is as tangible and strong as it as it ever was. That's a powerful thing."
"Rachel had a very emotional response to watching the scenes between Chad and Nicole. If this movie was able to bring a little of the romance between her and her husband back to her life, we could not achieve anything better than that," Helgeland smiles.
"Meeting Rachel made me realize that the story is not his, it's theirs," Boseman adds. "They were a unit -- lovers, friends, teammates."
Jackie has another strong ally with a stake in his success. Wendell Smith is an African-American baseball writer who is hired by Branch Rickey to help guide his controversial rookie through the politics and pitfalls of his newfound fame. Andre Holland plays the reporter, who is coping with his own struggles with segregation. He emphasizes, "Wendell is confronted with the same sort of discrimination in his job; black journalists aren't even allowed in the press box so he is forced to sit in the stands with a typewriter on his lap. As much as anyone, he knows that breaking the color barrier in baseball is a beacon of hope for people who have been waiting for change in this country. Wendell senses the size of the moment and knows he has to do whatever he can to help."
Holland, who had never even heard of Wendell Smith before reading the script, continues, "In researching him, I discovered he was such an important figure -- really an unsung hero. He and Jackie were fighting the same battle, just on different battlefields. Wendell ended up becoming first African American to be admitted to the Baseball Writers Association, which was a huge deal. Every day on the set, I felt an enormous sense of pride to be part of a movie about people who, under dire circumstances, were able to excel."
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