Chadwick Boseman: A Lesson in Acting

Let me tell you something you all missed while catching your breath in shock at the loss of an accomplished actor. You really didn’t think about what it takes to go to work as an actor, did you? I need you to understand this part. Because then you might look at your child who’s trying to become an actor and gain a whole new level of respect for them. Whether they make money from acting or not.

So listen. You know how a surgeon can’t operate without a scalpel? How a teacher can’t write on the board without a piece of chalk? How a plumber can’t fix pipes without a wrench? You get the idea. Every professional needs their tool or else they accomplish nothing. Well, an actor cannot go to work without their body. It’s their primary tool.

Broken tools-

One of the first lessons you will get as an actor is that your 3 basic tools are your body, voice and imagination. The voice and imagination are expressed through the body. So you see, even the voice actors behind animation cannot work without their body. The body is truly an actor’s temple, vehicle and chisel that they must carry to work.

Now imagine that body being riddled with disease. Say metastasized cancer. And you have to carry that same disease-ridden body to chemo, then to the gym to tone it, then to the set or stage. And in between, you watch it retch and scream and sag and shrink and demand that it must look like a superhero, it must stand larger-than-life. Because the audience is watching, and they can be vicious and mean if that body is not just right for the part.

The Sacrifice-

When an actor gets on set or stage, they have to surrender that body to someone else. They sacrifice it to a character who must come alive so that the audience can see that someone else and not you. They do not want to see Chadwick; they want to see Thurgood Marshall, T’challa, James Brown. And cry, laugh, gasp, feel inspired.

Your body, voice and imagination have to pull off this impossible act of transformation, nay, transfiguration. You’re not getting this part. Follow me carefully: An actor dies on stage. They offer up their bodies as a living sacrifice to be occupied by someone else.


Acting is a sacred act. In ancient society, acting and spirituality were one and the same. The Greek theatre which forms the basis of modern theatre industry developed from dithyrambic hymns that a performer did in veneration to the god Dionysus… Skip this Theatre 101 stuff.

The first worshiper who broke away from worship to stage was called Thespis, hence the word thespians. Africans still have this connection between actor/performer and worship (ritual theatre) but that’s a lesson for another day. The thing is, history shows us that the actor’s body is in fact a temple.

That Feeling of Emptiness-

What has never been lost is that act of sacrifice an actor makes. Acting empties an actor. At the end of a show or an intense shoot, the actor is emotionally spent needing to withdraw until their Self returns to them. That is why actors do not like being surrounded by people immediately after a show.

Some (especially if you’re playing an emotionally demanding role) cry backstage after every show. I know this place. Some drink in the adulation from fans and fall apart when they get home. Someone from the pages of a script occupied their body, squeezed every bit of being out of it, and now the actor needs time to reoccupy it.


Now, imagine doing this with a body that decides to go off on its own journey of extreme trauma. And still, within 4 years of that continuous battling with the body, you make it produce 7 movies.

I try to wrap my mind around this – stepping in into the most fierce and private battlefield, and then stepping out to the most public work space with that same crumbling body, because an actor cannot leave their tool behind. And you build up a trail of monumental tales, like pyramids where audiences look up and ask- how did he build those with the body he had? It’s what actors do. Mr. Boseman, may the ancestors lay out a stage of warm soil beneath your feet where it will never hurt to dance a dithyrumb.

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