After “Black Panther” leaps into multiplexes next week, it will make a star out of the actor playing the king of Wakanda. Chadwick Boseman was cast as Marvel royalty based on his onscreen turns in “42” (as Jackie Robinson) and “Get on Up” (as James Brown). A trained martial artist, Boseman spent at least five hours in the gym each day to bulk up for his Herculean fight scenes.
In this week’s cover story, Boseman and director Ryan Coogler spoke to Variety about the historical significance of their film, as the first superhero tentpole led by a primarily black cast. Here’s what Boseman had to say about the secrets of his suit, his counterintuitive diet, and why Coogler was the right director for this project.
How did you prepare to play Black Panther?
I was actually introduced to the character in college. Obviously, I read the comic books. Marvel will provide you with [them]. I wanted to have the experience of going to the store and buying it as opposed to them giving it to me. So we go there and that was a funny part. You got your hat on, your shades, got my friends with me to cover it. We did it the first time, and they started ordering stuff that wasn’t in. The second time, they were like, “This is the dude that’s playing the character!”
You were offered the role without having to audition. That’s rare for a Marvel movie.
It’s not that rare. It depends on who you are. I don’t know what everyone else’s experience was. They called me on the phone, and the process started from that. I did go in and talk to them, just to get a sense of what they were thinking.
Did you watch other Marvel movies?
For me to understand what Marvel is doing, you have to watch the “Iron Man” movies and the “Captain America” movies. Those were the important ones to focus on.
Were you worried about being typecast as a Marvel star?
I didn’t think I would have that issue, because of the other characters that I played. Those characters are historical figures. I’ve already experienced a time period where I was nobody but Jackie Robinson. I’ve experienced times when I was Jackie Brown, because fans, when they are excited, they have James Brown and Jackie Robinson on their mind. I’ve been called Jackie Brown so many times, it’s funny.
Most Marvel movies don’t have the director’s fingerprints so clearly on them. Do you look at “Black Panther” as a Ryan Coogler movie?
I feel like it’s definitely a Ryan Coogler film. There are certain choices that are made in this movie that are distinctly his stamp on it. I can’t see another filmmaker making those decisions, because they don’t have his background, they don’t have his perspective. Having seen his other movies, this fits on that resume.
Do you think it would have been possible for a white director to make “Black Panther”?
Well, is it possible for them to make it? It could be, yes. Would they have his perspective, like the perspective [Coogler] brought to the movie? Probably not. It wouldn’t be nuanced in the same way because they don’t have the same conflict. They don’t have the African-American conflict that always exists: whether you’re conscious of it or not, you have an ancestry that’s very hard to trace. And then, going to the continent and meeting a person that’s African. In order to do this, you have to find ways to make those connections, especially because the character is coming from that place. They know exactly who they are, who their ancestors are. Would a white director understand that? Those nuances of American, African-American, African? I’m not sure. But I think it’s an important part of this movie.
Are you wearing the same suit that you wore in “Captain America: Civil War”?
It’s the same suit at first and then it changes.
Michelle Pfeiffer once said that when she wore her Catwoman suit for “Batman Returns,” they forgot to install a zipper. That made going to the bathroom tricky.
It’s probably better than when she had her suit. There are some concessions to make it a little easier. But it depends on what you’re talking about. Number two is much harder. Number one is still a hassle. You’ve got to get it off and get it back on. [Coogler adds: “It’s like, all right. We got to figure something else out in the meantime.”]
How many other people do you need to put on the Black Panther suit?
It used to take three people to put it on. We were able to shorten the time period significantly and shorten it just to one. It’s a process of trying to pull this, pull that.
What’s the suit made out of?
Latex. I think there’s got to be some kind of rubber in there. It’s like Under Armour thickened to a certain degree.
So that must mean you needed to go on a diet.
Yeah, we had a couple of diets. It went through some stages. At first, I was eating a lot of meat, and then I felt like it was too much for the amount of energy we needed to extend every day. So my diet became more vegetarian as we went along. It’s a lot of eating because there’s a lot of physical activity. The character has to have a lot of agility. It’s like when you see a boxer and he looks like he put on weight, but he actually dropped weight.
There’s never been a comic-book movie to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Do you think “Black Panther” could change that?
I think it’s kind of early to ask that question.
See behind-the-scenes footage of Variety’s cover shoot with Chadwick Boseman and Ryan Coogler below.