Chadwick Boseman makes superhero history as T'Challa in Black Panther
After portraying such trailblazing icons as Jackie Robinson and James Brown, Chadwick Boseman is sinking his claws into his biggest role yet in Marvel Comics' Black Panther.
Chadwick Boseman wants to dance. As he poses for a photo shoot in a hotel suite overlooking Hollywood Boulevard, a stylist frantically tries to figure out how to connect his smartphone to the room’s speakers for some much-needed musical inspiration. In person, Boseman is surprisingly reserved—not quite aloof, but on the mysterious side of cool. But then, when the correct plug is found and James Brown’s “The Boss” booms out, Boseman’s feet start shuffling across the floor. “You can’t let it go,” the 41-year-old actor says, his legs a shimmying blur. Before winning the part of Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ first black superhero, he was best known for his spot-on portrayal of James Brown in the thoughtful 2014 biopic Get On Up.
I pull my phone out to capture his moves, but he notices and stops dead. “I see what you’re doing over there!” he yells, flashing a bright smile. A moment later, the phone pocketed, his impromptu dance party resumes as if nothing happened. Without any hint of ego, Boseman commands the room.
It’s that sort of effortless authority that led Marvel Studios to pick Boseman to play T’Challa, a fictional African king who moonlights as a clawed crime fighter in a skintight panther suit. The character, created by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, originated in the comics in 1966. Black Panther was as much a social statement as he was a totally cool dude. He wasn’t just black. He had a great origin story and awesome powers—enhanced senses and strength, as well as a slick uniform laced with impenetrable metal. The character has been a pillar of the superhero community ever since, with Boseman first appearing as T’Challa in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War.
The release of this month’s standalone Black Panther (Feb. 16) is making a similar statement. It features a predominantly black cast and is set almost entirely in the secretive and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. The film starts with T’Challa returning home to deal with the fallout from his father’s death, including villains vying for the throne and looking to expose Wakanda to the outside world.
While he didn’t grow up bingeing on comics, Boseman was always aware of the character’s importance. Before Black Panther, there were more green superheroes than black ones. “I understood what the comic book meant,” he says. He also understands the significance of the Black Panther taking a front-and-center role in Marvel’s multi-billion-dollar movie franchise. “I knew if this film ever happened, it would be a sea change moment,” he says. “Not just for me, but for everyone.”
The film’s impact hit home for Boseman during Halloween, when Black Panther became one of the most popular costumes of the season. “It was crazy to see little kids dressed up like me,” he says, adding that there may be more to all this than lighthearted fantasy. “There are kids going through certain things, and they use these stories as their medicine,” he continues, referring to the sense of empowerment Black Panther can convey. “Even adults use it as medicine to help them get through these times.”
And the character’s profile looks set to loom even larger. Black Panther marks the penultimate stop in Marvel’s 10-year journey toward Avengers: Infinity War (May 4), the much-anticipated superhero mash-up that will unite characters from across Marvel’s cinematic universe, including T’Challa and his Wakandan cohorts. Hulk, meet Panther.
For years, Boseman was hiding in plain sight as an aspiring writer-director who’d shifted toward acting. After a spate of guest roles on TV shows such as Law & Order and ER, he deftly brought Jackie Robinson’s quiet dignity to the big screen in 2013 in 42. A year later, he showcased his dramatic prowess—and those dance moves—in Get On Up. The lack of a Golden Globe or Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Brown landed Boseman on many critics’ lists of awards snubs that year.
Boseman was unveiled as Black Panther at a splashy 2014 press conference at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre. Joining him onstage at the event were two of Earth’s mightiest heroes: Captain America and Iron Man, aka Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Until that point, in true superhero fashion, Boseman had kept his role a secret.
“I didn’t even tell my mom,” he says with a snicker. “I don’t even know if my mom would have been able to grasp what it was. She might have been, like, ‘OK, so you are doing a movie about the Black Panthers.’”
Though Boseman had planted his flag depicting real people in serious films, it was a no-brainer for him to enter the superhero world, which is storytelling on an epic scale. “There are things that change your psyche and open you up to a new reality,” he says over a cup of tea in the hotel’s lobby, dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt and jacket. “I knew Black Panther had the possibility of doing that, from the commercial aspect, but also the intellectual, spiritual and the artistic aspect. It’s a grand thing to think about.”
Storytelling has deep roots in Boseman’s life. While growing up in Anderson, South Carolina, his mother required her son to read at least one book a week. Her thinking was that if he was disciplined enough to do that, he could stay out of trouble, reach his goals and learn a thing or two in the process. One week, he goofed around and didn’t read anything. Instead of fessing up, he produced a little creative fiction of his own.
“She wanted to know what I had read, and I made up this whole book that wasn’t real,” Boseman recalls with a grin. “I came up with the story. I drew pictures of it. It took more time for me to create the book than to actually just read a book. That was probably the beginning of me being a storyteller.” It was also the beginning of his acting career—his mother totally bought it.
After high school, Boseman attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he studied directing, while also laying the foundations for his acting career. “When I was growing up, there were very few books written by black authors, so it made me seek knowledge from outside of that space,” he says with a deliberate tone. “When you see me playing these iconic characters, I am attracted to that because I grew up looking for them in books.”
During his college years, Boseman veered away from his dreams of being a writer-director to study acting at Oxford University’s British American Drama Academy. He was encouraged to do so—pushed, really—by a teacher, Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad. Yes, Mrs. Huxtable convinced the future Black Panther to go to England. “She basically talked me into auditioning for that program,” he says. “I didn’t think I was going to get into it.”
Boseman was always keen to act in friends’ productions in the hope that they would repay the favor when he staged his plays, but he didn’t necessarily feel the urge to be onstage or in front of the camera. During his time at Oxford, though, he was exposed to the classics, which fed his enthusiasm and boosted his confidence. “When I came back, I began to feel like, ‘Oh, now I know what it means to be an actor. There’s a difference between being able to do it and being it.’”
Boseman was not particularly interested in stardom. “I wasn’t looking for it,” he says. Instead, he worked on projects that mattered to him. His play Deep Azure, loosely based on the story of a fellow Howard student killed by police in 2000, was nominated for a 2006 Joseph Jefferson Award for New Work, and he’s developed several film scripts. “If I was paying my bills, it didn’t matter whether someone else thought I was successful or not. It came to a point where it just sorta paid off.”
For actors to become a superhero nowadays, they essentially have to give their lives over to the part. Maintaining a strict diet and exercise routine becomes just as important as remembering the lines and understanding the character’s motivation. Boseman’s part as T’Challa requires using his body in ways he never imagined. “The physical aspect of it becomes part of your day-to-day—yoga, martial arts, weight lifting,” he says. “All that stuff is a way into the character.”
Regardless of whether he is playing a real-world legend or a superhero, Boseman approaches every role with the same vigor. Despite the fact that Black Panther was created with ink and pen, if the film is to be successful, if the story is to be powerful, the character needs to be just as fleshed out as Jackie Robinson, James Brown or Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice he played in last year’s courtroom drama Marshall. “For me, it’s the opportunity to test myself and try different stuff because, ultimately, playing the Black Panther is going to help me with the next real person I play—or if it’s completely fantasy, it’s going to help me, too.”
Meanwhile, Boseman has found another famous mentor in Robert Downey Jr. Having appeared in eight Marvel films, the veteran actor is basically the godfather of the superhero genre. While showing Boseman the ropes, Downey cautioned him about the unforgiving nature of the Marvel movie machine. “It is not meant to necessarily take care of you,” Boseman says before pausing, looking for the right way to express himself—or not get into trouble. “You have to take care of yourself.” He says he learned just as much from watching Downey interact with his family on set as he has from any of their conversations. “Family takes care of me, I take care of family, and this superhero thing is part of my life,” he says. “But it’s not my life—and that is key.”
When he speaks, Boseman is deliberate and to the point. He doesn’t spend time hemming and hawing, nor does he crack jokes—a smile, yes; one-liners, no. It’s surprising just how seriously he takes this superhero stuff, but to those who know him well, this would probably make sense.
During production of Black Panther in Atlanta, Lupita Nyong’o organized a bowling outing for the cast one night. The Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave actress plays Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover and a member of Wakanda’s all-female special forces team. Boseman proceeded to turn what was intended to be a fun night out into a merciless competition. “He won every game,” says Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s sister Shuri. “We kept joking, ‘Go back to Wakanda. Go away!’”
That’s a cute story, but it also points to the steely determination that leads Boseman to, say, spend five months practicing baseball for 42, or work with a choreographer several hours a day to mimic Brown’s moves for Get On Up. Even in the raucous environment of an action-hero movie set, Wright says, she noticed something different about her costar. “He’s not much of a talker. He’s very internal. He takes in everything before he speaks, which is a great trait to have.”
Boseman is particularly circumspect when it comes to discussing his personal life. “It’s no one’s business, really,” he says when asked about the possibility of getting married or having children, albeit with another of those million-watt smiles. “When you talk about that, you become a whole different type of celebrity. Your personal life bleeds into your professional life. I’m an actor, and you know me from who I play. You get a sense of who I am, but you don’t know everything.”
As for the plot of Black Panther, meanwhile, Boseman is under strict orders not to reveal too much. He does say that his favorite scenes to shoot involved meditative Wakandan rituals—he and the extras became so immersed in these, he says, that they forgot they were making a movie. “Those things were particularly interesting to me. They deal with connections to your family, ancestors and spirit that drive the character and inform why he thinks the way he thinks and feels the way he feels.”
In a way, playing T’Challa has put the African-American actor in touch with his own ancestry. “For black people, if you were brought here, you don’t actually know what ethnic group you come from. You don’t know what tribe you come from, so you can’t say, ‘This is what we used to do over there.’ It’s a whole new culture here, so we’re people who have never tapped into that. It became real. It’s a moment I will never forget.”
As he says this, I’m reminded how rare it is for a mainstream superhero movie to star a dark-skinned actor. It’s even rarer for such a movie to be set in Africa. Boseman acknowledges that bringing the fantastical realm of Wakanda to the big screen was a monumental challenge, one that could have gone horribly wrong. However, writer-director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) and his team worked diligently to craft a place that stayed true to both its comic-book roots and to Africa. “If you don’t do that, then you’d end up with something comedic,” Boseman says. “I think every single person who worked on this movie was aware of that.”
In a neat little twist, the cachet of playing Black Panther is now enabling Boseman to return to what he originally set out to do: write and direct. Throughout our conversation, he’s been ignoring his phone, which is vibrating with messages instead of James Brown tunes. “Oh, yeah,” he says when asked about potential pet projects, holding up his screen to show a string of recent text messages. “That’s what this is all about. I wish I could tell you, but some of the things I’m most excited about are writing projects that might happen next year.”
First, however, Black Panther has to reclaim Wakanda’s throne and help the Avengers save the universe. As Marvel forges into its next phase, the question is: What role will Black Panther play? Iron Man is the wisecracking leader. Hulk is the tough guy. Captain America is the righteous one. Spider-Man is the lovable rascal. Where exactly does Black Panther fit in?
“He doesn’t have to fit in,” says Boseman without hesitation. “That’s the thing about Black Panther. He already has his own space. We’re just now finding out about it.” A moment later, the six-foot-tall actor stands, lets down that debonair exterior and wraps an arm around me in half of a goodbye hug. Boseman isn’t worried about being cool. He just is.
Boseman on the ladies of Black Panther.
Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia, T’Challa’s Ex)
“Lupita is very organized. She multitasks. I could easily see her managing a kingdom.”
Danai Gurira (Okoye, T’Challa’s Confidant)
“It’s easy to get lost and be put in the background, but she makes sure you find your way to her light.”
Letitia Wright (Shuri, T’Challa’s Sister)
“Letitia is not afraid to admit that she is nervous. But she doesn’t let that stop her.”
Angela Bassett (Ramonda, T’Challa’s Mother)
“She’s powerful and strong, and yet she is, at the same time, patient with the process.”