Q&A: Chadwick Boseman on his own personal Wakanda

In this Feb. 14, 2018 photo, actor Chadwick Boseman poses for a portrait in New York to promote his film, "Black Panther." The film opens nationwide on Friday. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
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AP Film Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — No one is more at the epicenter of the watershed pop-culture moment that is “Black Panther” than Chadwick Boseman, the Panther himself. On the eve of Ryan Coogler’s juggernaut of a film arriving in theaters — and shortly before stepping out with his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day — Boseman has the relaxed air of a politician who knows election day is going to go very, very well.

Not only is Marvel’s acclaimed “Black Panther” expected to gross at least $150-180 million this weekend in North America, it’s already considered a brilliant milestone in African-American big-budget moviemaking. Mobbed wherever he goes by selfie-seeking fans, the 41-year-old Boseman has experienced the excitement firsthand. “People are thirsty for it,” he says. “That’s what you’re witnessing now.”

For Boseman, the role of the Wakanda prince T’Challa (Black Panther), follows what he calls “a string of gifts”: the high-profile biopic roles of Jackie Robinson (“42”), James Brown (“Get on Up”) and Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”). The South Carolina-native’s acting career only blossomed in his ’30s. He initially planned to be a writer and director, something he hasn’t given up on. “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins last month signed on to direct a thriller titled “Expatriate,” co-written by Boseman.

“Black Panther” is about the mythical and highly advanced African nation of Wakanda, where T’Challa inherits the throne but is challenged by a Wakandan exile named Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Many people have their own personal Wakanda, including Boseman.

AP: Did the production of “Black Panther” feel historic?
Boseman: In some ways. I think what we were just trying to do is make a good movie. We all knew from the comic book and/or the script that there were elements here that you’d never seen before in a movie like this — in a Marvel movie, in an action movie, in a blockbuster. So I felt like we knew there was an opportunity here if we put the work in and paid attention to detail. Each day was just a grind. It was a war. If there’s anybody I want to go down a dark alley with in movies, it’s Ryan Coogler. We didn’t know how people would respond to that opportunity. We just wanted to create the art.

AP: How did Ryan explain his vision for the film in your first meetings?
Boseman: Our initial conversations were about the conflict between myself and Michael in the movie. We talked about the fact that he wanted to cast him. And I was right on board with that. I think the other aspect was: How does a Wakanda exist in the world? So he had this concept of the spy and War Dog and I think it fit in line with what Kevin Feige had originally pitched as the idea that there’s a James Bond element to this, that Black Panther is the James Bond of the MCU.

AP: Jordan’s character can’t really even be called a villain, can he? There are laudable aspects to him.
Boseman: He’s an antagonist. But if he was just a villain, it wouldn’t be as compelling as it is. For all intensive purposes, in the comic-book genre, he is a villain. But we’re two sides of the same coin.

AP: In that conflict, who do you identify with?
Boseman: I identify with both. It’s easier for me, in some ways, to identify with his character because it’s the place where you start. All African-Americans — unless they have some direct connection — have been severed from that past. There’s things that cannot be tracked. And if you are tracking it, you’re tracking it based upon the commercialization of your humanity. You’re tracking it because you were cargo freight. You were a product sold. So it’s very difficult as an African-American to connect directly to

Africa. I have made that part of my search and my life, so those things were already there when I got to the role. So I was born with some Killmonger in me and I have learned T’Challa throughout my studies.

AP: Tell me about some of those studies.
Boseman: Well I went to Howard University. That’s all I really have to say. It is a Wakanda to a certain degree. There is definitely a lot of T’Challa there. If you have a blanketed idea of what it means to be of African descent and you go to Howard University, you’re meeting people from all over the diaspora — from the Caribbean, any country in Africa, in Europe. So you’re seeing people from all walks of life that look like you but they sound different.

AP: You’ve now played Robinson, Brown, Marshall and the Black Panther. Yet it doesn’t seem as though you’ve been burdened by such iconic characters.
Boseman: I’m not in front of the camera all the time so you don’t get to see the moments where I’m like, “Oh my God!” I just try to take it day to day and enjoy the process. I try not to look at it as pressure but as opportunity.

AP: Are you surprised to have been cast so frequently as a heroic lead? Is there something of you in that?
Boseman: There is now. (laughs) There is now because I’ve played them. I feel honored to have taken on those roles and to get to learn from embodying them and trying to walk in their shoes and get lost in it. Certainly there’s a lot to learn from Jackie Robinson. There’s a lot to learn from James Brown. There’s a lot to learn from Thurgood Marshall. I would like to say that some of those qualities have infused themselves into me at this point.

AP: How do you plan to spend opening weekend?
Boseman: First I got to get some rest because we’ve been on this tour for a minute. I plan to find a quiet place. And I think also we want to surprise some people and show up. Sneak in and listen to some people while they watch the movie and just get a sense of what it is. So you won’t know I’m there unless I come out and surprise you. It’s just going to be fun to see how people respond. I think everyone’s enjoying the festive nature of this moment.