GET ON UP
Watch Me Work: Boseman Meets Brown
Among the many qualities Taylor hoped to find in
the actor who would play James Brown in Get on Up
were Southern country roots-the kind found in people
born into a hardscrabble life in 1933's Barnwell, South
Carolina. Chadwick Boseman has those roots, and much
more, including a deep work ethic.
"Chad just brings it," lauds Taylor. "He's from the
red earth of South Carolina, right down the road from
where James Brown was born, and that's exactly what this
character needs. You can't just put a pompadour wig on a
well-trained actor who happens to be African-American.
"It's an intimidating role," Taylor continues. "The
dialect, the range of ages, the performance sequences. It's
a lot to take on. I don't know how he did it, but Chad
showed up in Mississippi and he was James Brown.
Playing age 17 one day, and 60 the next, he was in it!"
Boseman owned the role so completely that crew
members addressed him as "Mr.
Brown" every day at work, just as
Brown's own team had addressed him.
It began organically with one production
assistant and grew from there. Boseman
appreciated the support. "James Brown
is so particular: his movement, his dance,
his musicality. You see it when you look
at footage of him just talking-that
musicality carries over into everything he
does," he says. "I had a short time to get
all this right, whereas he was doing what
he did for his entire life. I didn't have
time to break character."
Besides, Boseman is very particular,
too, an admitted perfectionist. "I wanted
my performance to be an interpretation,
not an imitation," he emphasizes. "I think
an imitation makes fun of the person at a certain level, but
an interpretation gets to the spirit or essence of who the
person is. That's another reason to breathe it throughout
the day, so that you're not just playing at it."
The actor didn't actually chase the role. In fact, he
didn't even want to read the script. After his breakout
performance as Jackie Robinson in Brian Helgeland's
2013 film, 42, Boseman thought the last thing he should
do was another biopic about a cultural icon. Even if he
hadn't played Jackie Robinson, the idea of anyone playing
James Brown seemed just about impossible to him. "James
Brown was ahead of his time, and we still haven't caught
up with him," he says. "He lived the life of a thousand
people in one lifetime."
Still, he talked to Taylor. "I had a very candid
conversation with Tate and saw how passionate he was
about the story, and that he wanted to do something
different with it," says the actor. "He was basically
telling me to stop being scared and come in and read.
So, I finally went in and did the scenes. I thought nothing
would come of it."
But Brown remained on Boseman's mind. "I wanted
to see what it would look like to have the wigs on because
I knew there would be a lot of that in the role," the
performer shares. "And dancing. I had to know I could
work with the choreographer, and what methodology
would inform his teaching."
For this pivotal crew member, the production hired
choreographer Aakomon Jones to work with Boseman in
advance of his screen test. After Jones taught him "Cold
Sweat" and "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)"
and wig consultant ROBERT STEVENSON endowed him
with a pompadour, the camera rolled. "I still had to do a lot
of soul-searching because I knew it would be such a big
deal," the actor says. "But I like a challenge. And with the
people involved, including Aakomon and Robert, I thought
we had a good chance of doing something special."
Meetings with Grazer, Jagger, Pearman and Huggins
confirmed it. "The conversations we had about why they
wanted to do the movie were pretty amazing," Boseman
admits. "Brian Grazer has made movie after movie, hit
after hit, so you know he's going to be involved with
quality. Mick Jagger, as a connoisseur of music and an
expert in performance and exchange with an audience,
brings something important to the table as well."
Once signed on, Boseman and Taylor took it to the
next level with a road trip to Georgia to meet the Brown
family. "Being with them gave us a sense of his everyday
life, when he was off the road, relaxed and not 'James
Brown,'" says Taylor. "Chad says these people reminded
him of his uncles and granddad, and it started to feel real."
With less than two months to prepare for his first day
on set, Boseman flung himself into a grueling regimen,
ready to give whatever it took to make his performance
worthy of the character. The bulk that he'd added for
his portrayals of athletes in 42 and Draft Day
disappeared during rehearsals, and then,
suddenly, filming was underway.
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