Is Chadwick Boseman the new Denzel? Actor swaps Marvel universe for NYPD in '21 Bridges'
The 'Black Panther' star reveals how he got into the mind of a police detective for a film that offers a compelling alternative to superhero movies and reboots
When Brian Kirk was approached by producers Anthony and Joe Russo to direct 21 Bridges it didn’t take long for the trio to pinpoint the actor they wanted to lead the movie. “When we talked, we were like, ‘Who is the new Denzel Washington? Where can we find that guy?’ It was a pretty obvious answer,” Kirk tells The National.
The indisputable choice was Chadwick Boseman, the titular star of Black Panther, who the Russo brothers worked with on Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Kirk was convinced the actor would be perfect to star in 21 Bridges as Andre Davis, an expert NYPD detective who takes the decision to close all of the bridges into Manhattan in an effort to quickly catch two cop killers who have also stolen millions of dollars worth of cocaine.
Boseman was eager to take on the role, although, he admits the six weeks of night shoots, a demanding schedule that was required because the film is set over one night, took a huge toll on him.
“We were up all night. In a movie sense it is five hours, but in real life it was a month and a half,” he said during a round-table discussion about the film. “So it wears on you. That schedule, six days a week, a day off, but you can’t have a day off because you need to stay on the night schedule. It’s just real. You are playing the circumstances of the scene, but you are tired for real.”
There was another good reason why Boseman was tired during filming. Having shot countless fight scenes and done plenty of running for his Marvel adventures, Boseman actually envisioned much less demanding action sequences for 21 Bridges. But during his first running scenes with co-star Sienna Miller, who plays a detective trying to help Davis find the cop killers, the actress immediately established a pace that Boseman struggled to keep up with.
“We were running to the car in one scene,” recalls Boseman. “I thought we’d jog because I’m always looking for when I don’t have to run. Because I run so much in other movies and I knew I had to run later in the movie. So I wanted to jog to the car. But then she took off and I was like, ‘I can’t get beaten.’ So I had to kick into gear. It put the fire into me because I knew she could beat me. We were pushing each other.”
But while he might have had to endure a more taxing shoot than he originally anticipated, the appeal of 21 Bridges was clear. Not only did Kirk promise to give Boseman the freedom to alter the film and the character so he had “space to discover himself in a new way as an actor,” but the director says he also vowed to honour the things that audiences love about Boseman on screen.
What exactly was it about him that Kirk wanted to tap into with 21 Bridges? “After Black Panther, Chadwick already has quite an iconic presence,” Kirk says. “He is very singular and definitely plays very strong men that exist in their own space. Plus, he has this inherent nobility. He has a built-in safety net that means viewers want to stick with this guy. He has a reason. He has a code. He is one of the few actors that you inherently trust on a moral level.”
That was perfect for this project because, as Kirk admits, “everyone in this film does bad things for good reasons”. Before filming, Boseman set out to research his role, a process that resulted in him spending several nights with NYPD detectives. This provided “great insight to the state of mind of a person who has to solve something,” the actor explains.
One thing he learnt that was particularly useful for his preparation was how to quickly examine and analyse images and murder scenes that he describes as “hard to look at” in the same way that a regular person would look at a painting, something that made him acquire a deeper respect for police detectives and the mindset they need to develop. But while Boseman went on a few ride-alongs, his preparation actually meant spending more time with the detectives at their precinct. Because, as Boseman is keen to stress, being a detective “isn’t just about going on shoot-outs”.
What makes Davis such a compelling detective and character is how he is able to meticulously look at a murder scene, notice certain details and figure out that something simply isn’t right. That’s exactly what happens as 21 Bridges unfolds, with Kirk saying he wanted to “make a manhunt movie where the hunter discovers his kinship with his prey”.
Over the course of the crime action thriller, we see Davis strike up this dynamic with Stephan James’s criminal – the other cop killer is played by Taylor Kitsch – as the detective furiously tries to track him down in lower Manhattan, which provides the perfect, breathtaking backdrop for such a morally ambiguous tale. “In New York City crazy stuff happens all the time,” Boseman says.
But while Kirk says the “core concept” of 21 Bridges has a “strength and clarity” that is easy “to sell” and for audiences to wrap their heads around, he says it was still a challenge to get a “middle budget” because it was an original story. Perhaps that had something to do with Hollywood appearing to be more interested in rebooting franchises or making movies about superheroes.
As a result, it is particularly ironic that it was the creative influence of the Russo brothers and the star appeal of Boseman that helped to ensure that 21 Bridges was made. We’ll find out whether the three men have shown audiences that there’s an alternative to the superhero dominance they helped create with Marvel.
21 Bridges will be screened in cinemas across the UAE from tomorrow
Updated: November 20, 2019 04:07 PM