Q and A: How Harrison Ford channeled Branch Rickey for “42”

Harrison Ford, left, as Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, does a scene from the upcoming movie “42” with Chadwick Boseman, as Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson, during their first meeting in Brooklyn. (Warner Bros. photo)

Harrison Ford was flummoxed.

Or, if he wasn’t, his acting skills certainly kicked in quickly and he played the part well.

Sitting at a table in the Dodger Stadium club restaurant on this morning with a group of writers, Ford decided to get out of his chair a couple of times to go to the back of the room to find out why there had to be a constant sounds of circular saws, cordless drills and power hammers going on in the background as he was trying to talk.

It seems that all those upgrades to the stadium still haven’t been completed, and the off-day in the Dodgers’ opening-week schedule allowed more hard hats to come back and work away on the suite-level improvements.

Ford’s almost perturbed persona was as if he was back in the role of Branch Rickey for the upcoming movie “42,” Hollywood’s new attempt to portray how Jackie Robinson was picked to break the major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947. The much- anticipated film hits theaters next Friday.

As Rickey, Ford would furrow his bushy eyebrows, twist his lips and take a drag off his cigar whenever there was a backlash of noise that came as a result of his mission to engineer  “The Great Experiment” as the Dodgers general manager.

Collecting his thoughts about how wanted to portray the Rickey and play that off Chadwick Boseman’s characterization as Robinson in “42,” Ford explained how he got into character and was able to help re-enact a true story that’s been written about many times but only acted out for the big screen for the first time in decades with the Robinson family’s blessing:

Harrison Ford as Dodgers GM Branch Rickey. (Warner Bros. photo)

QUESTION: One of the most famous lines Rickey has said about picking Robinson as the one to break the color barrier for the Dodgers – and it’s one used often in the movie trailer — is that he wasn’t looking for someone willing to fight, but more for someone who was willing not to fight. How do you see Rickey’s expectations playing out in that office meeting and the courage Robinson  could draw upon to stand up but not fight back as he started this journey?
ANSWER: The scene is based on reconstructed recollections of that moment, and it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what went on during that first meeting. And the other important part of that line is: Echo the curse of a curse, and they’ll only hear yours. Or return a blow with a blow, and they’ll say the Negro doesn’t belong and he’s in over his head. That’s the practical side of what Branch Rickey wanted to know about Jackie Robinson’s commitment, and whether he’d be able to do that. He had a famous temper.
I think what’s important is how film also articulates is the strength he drew from his relationship from his wife (Rachel). We never had the opportunity to meet Jackie Robinson, but to get to meet her – she creates a formidable presence. Great grace and beauty, but also steel. She was very involved in the rights to her husband’s story and the legacy of Jackie Robinson and in his foundation, which she heads. It’s really quite remarkable.

Q: Was there anyone still alive who you could draw upon to help you play Rickey?
A: There are, but I frankly depended less on that than a really good book by Jimmy Breslin written about Branch Rickey. There was a little bit of film, some recorded television appearances and speeches, and a lot of audio tape. I based my representation of the character on that, and also on many photographs.

Q: Robinson, as one of the great social figures of the 20th century, is still honored every April 15, and it may be surprising that there are a lot of kids who are not that aware of this man. How important is it to get this story out again reaching another generation?
There’s the textbook version, which is useful and I’m sure every representation of black history mentions Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier in baseball. But there’s nothing like the visceral experience that an audience can have. When they can see, when they can feel, participate in the experience that Jackie Robinson had, that’s what’s most important about this version of it. There’s a thing in film that I’m always railing against, and that’s when the characters ‘talk’ about the story. I call it ‘talk speak.’ What I want in the writing and the film – if I have an influence over it – is to allow behavior to express the character’s feelings, rather than the character talking about how they feel about something. I want the audience to not be told what’s coming, but to have the opportunity through emotional continuity with the people on the screen to what it felt like to be there. And this film does that in a really important way.

Q: There’s a spiritual nature in the story that Rickey and Robinson bond over. Rickey would quote the bible often in the film. What was it about that aspect of Rickey and how faith and religion played into what he was about?
He was brought up in a very religious family, never went to games on Sunday, never traveled with the team so he could have dinner with Mrs. Rickey each night. He was a man very concerned about faith and personal responsibility. That sustained him, I’m sure. He’s very vocal about it. But there’s also a personal experience he talks about in the film of failing to do as much as he could in a certain point in his life – I don’t want to give the details as a bit of a spoiler. Faith was very important to him.

Q: When you’re getting into character to play the role, you probably studied Branch Rickey’s voice and mannerisms. Was that important for you to imitate and reproduce on the screen?
When we talked about his faith, the style of his speech wasn’t based on just where he came from – rural Ohio – but his manner and his bit of  dramatic ways come from his experience of listening to country preachers. The quality of his language and the his voice were one of the things I felt were important. I walk down the street and people as often as not recognize my voice as compared to my face. I thought it would not be of any value to the audience, or to the film, to have Harrison Ford in it in a recognizable way. I wanted to characterize his voice. There was more audio tape available of him and it was revealing to me his sense of drama and his courtliness.

Warner Bros. photo

Q: How did you feel about the way Chadwick portrayed Jackie on the screen?
A: Talk about respect, I do have that for him as an actor and human being, but it’s nothing compared to my respect for how hard he worked to gain the skills of a baseball player. He didn’t act. He actually had those skills. He came from five hours a day of working with big-league coaches and they were merciless with him. That was impressive to me.
He’s relatively new to the kinds of responsibilities he faces in this film and I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure it was to have him as a partner in this storytelling. His commitment to the character and to the work was equal in the area of acting as what he put into the physical training. He was always there – in a remarkably vulnerable way to the emotions of any scene.

Q: Is Jackie Robinson a hero to you?
You know, I don’t deal in heroes myself. I deal in people and their opportunities and strengths and values. Hero is a kind of irksome label for  me. When I was making films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was often asked, ‘Why is it you always play heroes?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not playing a hero, it’s a doctor or a CIA man or whatever the job. If you happen to think his behavior was heroic, maybe you were getting popcorn when he was thinking about saving his ass.’ There’s more to it than that. Chad didn’t play hero, he played a man in extraordinary circumstances who behaved in a complex and interesting and evocative way and it changed history.

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