Ford has been wildly successful in the movie industry, and he has an acute understanding of it. So when he was told he didn’t fit the part of the role he relished, he solved the problem by doing what he does best. He acted.
“He was persistent and insisted on a meeting,” Helgeland says in a phone conversation. “We met, and he obviously had done his homework and had read the script many times. There was one scene that he asked me about and said, ‘How do you see it playing? Because you could play it in two different ways.’ ”
Ford proceeded to act out the scene, which was a rare experience for Helgeland. How many people are treated to a private performance by Harrison Ford? The impact was exactly what Ford hoped it would be.
“He took on that Branch Rickey voice and he did the whole scene off the top of his head, so he obviously had memorized it,” Helgeland says. “And I was sitting there and saying, ‘Geez. He could really pull this off.’ ”
What Helgeland didn’t know was Ford had gathered as much audio and videotape of Rickey as he could find. Ford had studied Rickey’s mannerisms and practiced his voice and cadence. He had Rickey down pat.
“The decision was the director’s to make,” Ford says, smiling ever so slightly — but confidently. “There was a period of time before he accepted that it was inevitable. He had ideas of his own. But I think I wore him down.”
“One of the things I was struck by when I read the script,” Ford says, “is that we have allowed ourselves to forget to a considerable degree how recently racism was an accepted part of our national character. Without what happened in baseball with Jackie Robinson, the civil-rights movement would have had a harder time. I really think that it was the beginning of the civil-rights movement.”
Some of the scenes depicting the racism of the time are stunning; others are nothing less than brutal. Rickey chose Robinson from an accomplished group of black players in the Negro Leagues because Robinson had an independent streak and considerable athletic skills; Robinson lettered in four sports at UCLA. But in a country where blacks couldn’t sleep or eat at hotels and restaurants that served only whites, Rickey knew the first black player would find a mean-spirited racial environment. He would have to practice nonviolence long before Martin Luther King Jr. preached it because the only way for society to change — and not just baseball society — was to not be threatened.
Ford and Boseman are superb in re-creating the meeting when Ford, as Rickey, explains the abuse that Boseman, as Robinson, surely will receive.
Robinson is puzzled. “You want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” he asks.
Rickey answers: “No, I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”