“I’m not really interested in being a superhero,” Chadwick Boseman told me two weeks ago as we sat in the restaurant of the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles. He leaned back in his chair, waving a dismissive hand. “That’s not a box I’ve been trying to check off.”
Suffice it to say, the man can keep a secret.
Yesterday, Marvel announced that the 37-year-old Boseman will indeed be playing a superhero, and no minor one, at that: He’s signed a five-film contract to play the iconic comic-book character Black Panther, who will be introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and then become the first superhero of color to get his own Marvel Studios movie. That’s a significant development in a shared cinematic universe that has so far been dominated by white actors named Chris, and it’s one that could make Boseman the biggest black leading-man since Will Smith, provided that Black Panther becomes a worldwide smash when it’s released in 2017. Given Marvel’s recent record-breaking output, that seems more than likely.
Boseman first landed on Marvel’s radar after playing Jackie Robinson in last year’s baseball drama 42, and he doubled down on the promise he showed in that role with this past summer’s Get On Up, where he turned in a galvanizing, charismatic performance as soul singer James Brown. It was the latter film that we met to talk about at the Sunset Marquis two weeks ago as Universal mounts an awards campaign for Boseman, who must contend with a crowded field of strong Best Actor candidates, including The Imitation Game’s Benedict Cumberbatch (poised to become Boseman’s Marvel stablemate if his current negotiations for Doctor Strange bear fruit). Get On Up won Boseman rave reviews but underperformed at the box office; still, I think his Oscar campaign will pick up more energy over the next few weeks as journalists clamor to meet with Marvel’s new man.
What they’ll find is a handsome, quick-to-smile matinee idol with a contagious sense of humor. When I sat down with Boseman, the restaurant crowd was abuzz with the news that Rihanna had just passed through. “She was sitting over there,” nodded Boseman, lifting a flirtatious eyebrow. “I was like, ‘I see you, girl, but I’m not going to let you know that I saw you.’ Setting that up for later, man.” He laughed. “I’m joking! It’s jokes, it’s jokes!”
Much of my time with Boseman went like that, as he’d venture a refreshingly candid opinion or punctuate his point with a naughty punch line, only to pull back as though he’d glimpsed the E! Online headline that would earn him a disapproving call from Marvel. “You’ve got to watch what you say,” he admitted, which is why I can’t tell you much about the hilarious pick-up lines he suggested he’d woo Rihanna with. (They were all immediately retracted, and amazing.)
What I can tell you is that Boseman is determined to keep a level head even as his profile grows. He didn’t read the reviews for Get On Up — including a memorably hyperbolic one from Time’s Richard Corliss that claimed Boseman deserved “a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and instant election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” — and instead measured his success based on the praise he received from his fellow actors, among them some of the young black men with whom he regularly vies for roles. “Actors can have a fair amount of hate for each other,” he laughed ruefully, “so when another actor says, ‘You did your thing,’ or ‘That was inspiring,’ you can’t really ask for more than that.”
Boseman has a healthy sense of perspective that’s informed both by his delayed big-screen bow (he didn’t land a significant movie role until his mid-30s, after a career spent mostly in theater and TV) and by his part-time work as a screenwriter: In September, he sold a movie pitch to Universal that he’ll star in and script with partner Logan Coles. Many of the studio executives who now request meetings with him are the same ones who turned Boseman down years ago when he arrived in Hollywood with several screenplay competition wins under his belt, “but we won’t talk about that,” he said with a magnanimous grin. “Nobody has to give me permission to write.”
More than anything, Boseman hopes to script the opportunities that he himself hasn’t yet gotten; while he’s played an enviable run of larger-than-life figures that will now include a superhero, he wants more than anything to be seen as a regular guy. “There are some stories I want to tell that I think it’d be cool to see an African-American dude do,” he said. “I like ambiguity, because you may be the villain in someone else’s story and the hero in your own, and I think very often, African-American characters are either one thing or the other. You shouldn’t have to be perfectly good or perfectly bad. You don’t even have to be magical.”
But before Boseman can show off his range in more contemporary, earthbound roles, he’ll next be seen playing the Egyptian deity Thoth in 2015’s Gods of Egypt, a mythological epic starring Gerard Butler. It was his first entrée into the sort of big-budget blue-screen acting that will likely become his boilerplate over the next few years of Marvel stardom, and Boseman said it took some getting used to. “That was new to me, acting with a ball at the end of the pole,” Boseman said, recalling how long each CG-laden scene would take to set up. “I mean, it’s not something I would rather do. I would rather interact with Harrison [Ford] or Viola [Davis] or Kevin Costner,” to name just three of the actors Boseman has shared more realistic scenes with over the last three years.
Still, he said he’s now got the wherewithal to tackle more work in that blockbuster vein, in part because of the confidence he gained while playing the brash James Brown in Get On Up. “When you play characters, you shouldn’t just be putting on their characteristics — you should be finding it inside yourself,” he told me. “There’s some things about James Brown as a man that you want to hold on to, there’s some things about James Brown as a performer that you want to hold on to, even though there’s some things about James Brown as a man you want to let go of — you know what I’m saying?”
Was Boseman intimating, then, that James Brown’s sexual charisma and sureness have still stuck with him? He rose in his seat, rolling his significant shoulders back as if to demonstrate. “I was about to go to talk to Rihanna and be like, ‘Listen, I don’t care who you are …’” Boseman said, bursting into laughter. “Chris, who?” He kept laughing, then caught himself. “I’m joking!”