KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Harrison Ford has plenty of experience playing fictional icons — Indiana Jones, Han Solo in “Star Wars” — but not so much when it comes to flesh-and-blood historical figures.
In the new film “42,” however, Ford and co-star Chadwick Boseman play real people who did, in fact, become cultural icons for a very good reason — they changed the country.
Boseman plays Jackie Robinson, the complicated ballplayer who made history when he became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. And Ford plays Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who plucked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the stalwart teams of the Negro Leagues.
“42” depicts a post-World War II world that really wasn’t all that long ago. But in terms of the blatant racist verbal abuse and physical threats Robinson had to contend with, it shows us just how different we are as a country today.
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said the time was right for a new film about Robinson. Current tastes allow for racial attitudes to be depicted in a frank fashion that wasn’t acceptable in Hollywood movies of 1950, when Robinson played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
“I think the new film would probably cast a greater light on just how challenged and courageous Jackie Robinson really was,” Kendrick said, comparing “42” to that earlier movie. “This will bring what he accomplished to a whole new level in comparison. It is an important film. But it’s a really good film. So that’s exciting, too.”
The title, “42,” refers to Robinson’s number on the Dodgers, the only retired number in Major League Baseball.
Robinson just wanted to play baseball. And he wanted to win. But by signing with Rickey he volunteered to endure torrents of racist verbal abuse as well as physical threats without fighting back. His job was to play, to win — and to stay cool. He was leading the way for other black players, and he had to be a role model. The film depicts how Robinson and Rickey worked together to make that a reality.
Ford said he really didn’t know much about baseball when he agreed to play Rickey — a part he had to lobby for — but he knew a great role when he saw one on paper.
“No, I wasn’t a baseball player, and I don’t really know much about baseball, to tell you the truth,” Ford said by phone this week. “I learned, but I was never much of a sports fan.”
Ford knew he could play the gruff, cigar-chewing, church-going Rickey. He employed extra padding and prosthetics to transform his appearance, although Ford’s trademark crooked smile is still there. But he had to convince writer / director Brian Helgeland that he was the right actor for the part.
“Somebody told me there was a real good script around, and I got hold of the script,” Ford said. “The director was not anxious to see me because I hadn’t been playing character parts lately, and I don’t blame him at all. … I think Brian was afraid if Harrison Ford showed up in his movie, it would unhinge the whole process. And by that, I mean the recognizable Harrison Ford that he was used to.”
Helgeland, who won a screenwriting Academy Award for “L.A. Confidential,” had the blessing of Robinson’s widow, Rachel. He felt “an enormous amount of pressure” to her husband’s story, he told The Associated Press, both because of Robinson’s significance and because his life had been written about so extensively.
“It’s always a tricky thing because it’s a movie, and even in this movie we’re trying to tell two years in two hours,” he said. “You’re obviously not seeing every moment, but the discipline I applied to the script was trying to make sure every moment was documented.”
While Ford is a major star, he essentially became part of an ensemble. Ford and Boseman had similar challenges: find the real people beneath the iconic images.
“You’re playing a man we all expect to be an icon,” Boseman told the Los Angeles Times recently. “But you can’t do it that way. He didn’t know he was larger than life. He was just moment-to-moment living with this. When Branch Rickey comes to him and says, ‘I have a job for you,’ Jackie Robinson’s response is not ‘Oh, my God, I am the One.’ He’s just thinking about how he’s going to be able to play and not react to what they’ll throw at him.”
Ford said he read extensively about Rickey as he prepared for the role.
“First of all, I wanted to know my character as well as I could,” Ford said. “I wanted to know what he looked like, what he moved like, how he spoke. There was quite a bit written about Branch Rickey. … You don’t play an icon. You play the real guy.
“He grew up in rural Ohio, and I know what his early history was. I know he was a deeply religious guy, that he was a schoolteacher at 17, that he was a lay preacher. He never went to games on Sunday. You know, that’s what you play.”
The film, which opens across the nation on Friday, depicts Rickey’s motivation to break the color line in baseball as a mix of moral and commercial instincts.
“You know, you play a guy that is a businessman and his business is baseball,” Ford said. “He wants the best team that he can get. He wants access to the pool of talent that’s in the Negro Leagues, and he’s got the authority of the board of directors to go ahead. And he needs a partner. He finds a partner in Jackie Robinson.”
One thing Kendrick likes about “42” is its depiction of how the game is played.
“Baseball movies are not easy to do to be convincing,” he said. “The baseball playing I think is very convincing.”
Kendrick said the film offers a romanticized view of the past in certain respects. But he said that’s consistent with the game itself.
“You think about baseball, and it’s probably the most romanticized sport of them all,” he said. “So baseball films can bring that romantic nature out. They are so very romantic in nature because that’s what baseball is all about. Whoever you grew up loving as a child will always be your favorite baseball player. For me, it’s Hank Aaron. The really great baseball movies seem to capture that.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE, AND THE PAST
Harrison Ford, 70, is supposedly returning to two of the most commercially successful franchises in film history. But in a recent interview, he shed little light on his involvement.
Asked if he could say anything about the possibility of reprising Han Solo in “Star Wars: Episode VII,” arriving in 2015, Ford answered in one word: “No.”
And what about the reported “Indiana Jones 5”? “I don’t know. I’m not so good at predictions but it would be something I would be ambitious to do if the script were right. And the circumstances.”