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‘One of the Greatest Actors Ever’: Phylicia Rashad Remembers Her Student Chadwick Boseman

“He was just beginning to do the things that he had intended to do,” Rashad says of mentee

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images, Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Phylicia Rashad repeats the name of her former student like a chant. At first, there’s a sad devastation in the repetition, before it morphs into something closer to awe. Rashad then says his name one final time, but adds an additional word to underline the gravity of this loss: “Chadwick Boseman, forever.”

On August 28th, Boseman died of cancer at the age of 43. To fans around the world, he was a hero gone much too soon. To Rashad, he was the former student whom she watched grow from a “lanky young man with big eyes and an endearing smile” into one of his generation’s defining actors. When words escape her, she simply says he was “marvelous.”

It began in the late 1990s at Howard University, where Boseman was studying to become a director. Rashad was six years removed from her role as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and teaching a class of young actors the likes of which she’d never seen (another student at the time was Susan Kelechi Watson of NBC’s This Is Us). Years later, Boseman remembered how Rashad mentored them: “She would do a play in D.C. and you’d go see it, and she’d drive you home and talk to you,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018. “‘How you eating? You look too skinny. You need a pork chop.’ We were just trying to aspire to her excellence.”

Over the next 20 years, Rashad saw her pupil embody a barrier-shattering baseball player in 42, a once-in-a-lifetime musician in Get On Up and eventually a box-office-demolishing superhero. The world may have been surprised at the heights Boseman scaled, but Rashad never was. “I expected it,” Rashad says fiercely. “I didn’t expect anything other than that from him or any of them. Why shouldn’t they do that?” Rashad recounted her experiences with Boseman for Rolling Stone.

I met Chadwick the year that I taught at Howard University. He was thoughtful. I think back on it now, [he was] always studying. In preparation and performance, he was specific, detailed, and thorough, and that required thought. He was always very respectful, very polite, very courteous. That has to do with his parents; the way in which he grew.

It was an unusual class. It was an exceptional class. I have not seen one like that before or since. I’ve had good classes — a lot of good people I’ve worked with — but there was something very, very special about that particular class, and it was their levels of fearlessness. They were not at all ambivalent or reluctant or hesitant to jump right in the deeper part of the pool and swim. They approached work that went beyond their years and understanding and found within themselves that space that does exist, within all of us. They found things within themselves that were beautiful to see. It was amazing to watch.

They were handling very sophisticated work. It was Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, the Greeks, Tennessee Williams. They were going for the deepest understanding of the psychological makeup of every character that they presented. One of the people who auditioned them for the British Academy of Dramatic Arts Midsummer’s program whom I met, a year or two after that — when I met this person who auditioned that [class], she said to me she had never seen students like this. Her words were, “They were fearless.”

[Editor’s Note: Some students from the class were offered the chance to study at a prestigious Oxford summer program for acting, but many couldn’t afford the tuition. One of the celebrity benefactors Rashad turned to for help was Denzel Washington, who paid for Boseman.]

Denzel and I are friends, and we had worked on the same stage together years before, when no one knew his name or my name. You know the heart of a person. You know the mind of a person. I just called him to talk about it. We spoke for maybe five minutes and he said, “OK. I can do this.” I made a little list and found some people. Throughout his career, he has helped a number of great causes, and this one was really one of the greatest.

When Chadwick came out of college, he called me one day. He was living in New York City. He was so excited about what he was doing. “Oh, Ms. Rashad, you got to come.” You would have thought he was in a Broadway play. What was he doing? He was working in Harlem at the Schomburg library. That’s what he was doing. He was so excited about it. It was the world to him. It meant everything in the world to him to be working with those young people.

He cared about the pieces, and he cared about the young people who would see it. He was very conscientious. I saw little children of all ethnicities running around wanting to be T’Challa, just like when I was a little girl, people were running around with towels tied around their neck, trying to pretend to be Superman. Little children think differently. Little children are so much more open. Then these racial concepts of limitations, all that stuff gets laid on children, but little children’s minds are open and free.

He was the one to deliver that, and he did. He was the one to do that, because that’s where his thinking was all the time. Not just that he should shine as an actor — he didn’t care about fluff and excess and fame. He didn’t care about that, but he did care about the impressions that work leaves in the minds of people who see it. He was very passionate about that. He wanted his work to be of service to humanity.

I watch his movies every time they come on television and I marvel at his work. Everything he does is completely different. And it isn’t because he’s manipulating things. It isn’t because he’s consciously trying to make a thing different than the things he did before. It’s because he goes so deeply into whatever it is he’s doing. It’s like butter: whatever he is, it’s that smooth.

He is one of the greatest actors ever. He was just beginning to do the things that he had intended to do, because he was a great storyteller. I love Black Panther. He’s the king. It’s eternal and all of that. But I marvel at his portrayal of James Brown. Chadwick was trained in theater. To be able to capture a voice, a cadence of speech, physical posture, and movement, and dance like that — that’s theater training. There are some people who have that and never trained in theater, but not a lot. There are people who trained in theater who have not achieved that level of in-depth inquiry and sophistication and presentation.

If you want to know his heart and his mind, look at the way he delivered those last lines in Black Panther, when he’s talking to those people. And they’re looking at him like, “What could you possibly offer?” And he’s not blasting that kind of limited perception, but he is talking about the importance and the necessity for us to take care of each other.

I listened to those lines last night. I said, “Yeah, that’s you.” You go back and look at that final scene where he is getting ready to share the wealth of Wakanda with the world and says how important it is that we begin to learn ways to take care of each other. That’s Chadwick.

As told to Charles Holmes

From Rolling Stone US