Sarah Halley Finn is a veteran Hollywood casting director best known for her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s responsible for Robert Downey Jr.’s return from career oblivion in Iron Man, the casting of a relatively unknown Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and perhaps most indelibly, installing Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther. Like most people outside Boseman’s immediate family, Finn had no idea the actor had been diagnosed with stage three cancer when cameras rolled on Black Panther in 2017. And like fans worldwide, she was shocked and saddened by his premature passing. Finn spoke to Vulture about the instinctive qualities that made Boseman the “unanimous” choice to star in the first major superhero movie plotted around a Black character.
I knew Chad when he was first starting out, before he got cast in 42, when he was just a working actor and auditioning. He came in to read for a role in Iron Man 3. So I had seen him audition before, but seeing him read for Drax [in Guardians of the Galaxy] was a turning point. The thing about Chad is, he always came into the room with an outsize presence. He is one of these actors who has gravitas — which is a worn-out word in the industry, but it’s not something you can act or learn. It’s something that you have. I really think it came from the depth of his humanity and his ability to connect with that and channel it as an actor. There was just a very strong presence that he carried with him. I brought him in to read for Drax and he read the part as if he were a king.
To be fair, we’re not able to share scripts with actors. A lot of times, we’re looking for their instinctive take on the material. What he saw [in Drax] was a man who had lost his family, who was fighting to take his place and claim his power. The compassion that he had and the strength and vulnerability all mixed together obviously left an impression on me.
In different projects at Marvel, we’ve had very extensive searches where we’ll see literally thousands of people for a role. But when it came to casting Black Panther, it was unanimous. We all were in absolute agreement immediately that he was the person to play this part. My team at Marvel had seen his body of work and knew his ability to channel this kind of dignity, this grace, this elegance, this regalness with humility and humor and intelligence. Kevin Feige and [co-directors] the Russo brothers picked up the phone and offered him the role in [Captain America:] Civil War just before he was ready to go on the red carpet to do press for another project.
Something else that I saw in Chad was intense preparation. There’s nothing haphazard about the way he approaches his work. He’s all in. I had seen that from the time he was just starting out as a beginning actor, all the way through the incredible way he threw himself into the [Panther] role. Which I now know, in light of what we’ve all learned, is all the more significant based on what he was facing.
He had portrayed historical figures — James Brown, Jackie Robinson — and used that historical basis to approach T’Challa as an African king. Now, obviously, this is an Afrofuturistic world; it’s mythical, but it’s very rooted in specific ideas. Chad worked incredibly hard on it — on the accent he wanted to have, which was a discussion. Would audiences accept that? Would they go through a movie listening to this accent? Chad felt very strongly about that. He had a specific way of fighting that he felt was important for his character, and that was based on extensive training in several disciplines that he studied. He was incredibly detailed and thoughtful and spent months and months preparing, and continued that training all the way through the shoot.
There’s a magic that happens, a kind of alchemy between actor and director. While Chad had an incredibly strong impact on Civil War, I think with Ryan Coogler’s vision for Black Panther and their collaboration — it took T’Challa to a whole new level. The scope and urgency of Ryan’s vision as well as all of the qualities that Ryan embodies as a director and human matched with Chad’s sensibilities. I think they were really able to create a hero we hadn’t seen before, who wears his power lightly while there’s no question about his strength and his ability to lead. It’s not something he ever has to flaunt. In fact, he flourishes it by elevating others, especially women.
Black Panther is the first major superhero centered around a Black character. Everyone involved from start to finish felt an enormous sense of responsibility, pride, passion, and commitment and dedication. And Chad was the leader. He was T’Challa. I think people will remember him as a true hero. As with his character, he was a leader in real life and an inspiration. That he was able to radiate power with kindness and warmth is an incredible legacy to leave behind.