‘Marshall’ star Chadwick Boseman on the challenges of playing the American icon

Chadwick Boseman has embodied legendary icons such as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall with an electric intensity. While these three intricate men carry their own giant trajectories, there’s a single thread in Boseman’s work. The director of “Marshall,” Reginald Hudlin, says it best: “He’s equal parts artist and intellectual. He’s also a selfless artist. He’s ruthless on himself because he wants to get it right.”

It would be a huge feat to take on the man we know as the first African American Supreme Court Justice, but “Marshall” focuses on a “whodunit” case in 1941. Boseman portrays Marshall as a young NAACP lawyer, who’s dropped in Connecticut to fight on behalf of his client (played by Sterling K. Brown), who’s wrongly accused of rape.

We learn early on that Thurgood wasn’t allowed to try the case. He was left only to oversee and advise nervous attorney Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), who had never tried a criminal case before and with the pressure of the racial divide, had no interest in doing so.

The real challenge for Boseman was to carry all of the spirit and soul of this man and have his greatest strength, his voice, muzzled.

Boseman spoke with amNewYork about how he rose to this challenge and the parallels we face as a nation today. “Marshall” hits theaters Oct. 13.

Thurgood Marshall had such a power to him but while he was in the courtroom he had to stay silent. As an actor, was that challenging?

It was initially the reason why I didn’t want to do the movie. I thought I had these great speeches and now I’m gagged? But as I read the script, I realized that this was the conceit of the film that made it special. If I could make that work, that would be a satisfying experience for the audience. He’s gagged but yet he wins the case. That is why you do the movie.

How do you strip down his iconography?

The facts are only important if they’re relevant in the scene. For me, I initially didn’t want to do it because I felt like I didn’t look like the character. Thurgood Marshall’s son, John Marshall, wrote a letter to me saying, “I want you to play this character.” It became a thing of, “If he wants this then he’s not concerned. He’s concerned with the essence of his father.” For me, it became a thing of, how do I pull from the information that I have, and how can I figure out who this person is? It became a thing of pulling his essence inside of me.

Does any of this lessen the intimidation factor?

It always lessens once you get into the act of it. You try to stay in the moment and it may take a couple of scenes to find it, but once you find it I think that intimidation factor is gone. There’s nothing you can do about it.

If Thurgood Marshall was around today, what do you think he would say about our current climate surrounding civil rights?

I think he believed in America’s systems. He believed in the presidency and the law. I feel like he would look at the system and he would try to make things work within the system. The presidency has changed because of social media. I don’t know if he would sit well with the president making decisions in that arena. I think he would hopefully see this as a time period where we need to get back to the way the government is supposed to work.