Having a mentor, an advisor and a sponsor, someone who uses his or her influence to help advance another’s career, is critical in every profession — including acting and directing.
Years before Chadwick Boseman starred in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster film “Black Panther” as T’Challa, King of the fictional African nation Wakanda, he was a student at Howard University, where renowned actress Phylicia Rashad took him under her wing, then helped him fly.
Boseman, 40, who has starred in films about Black icons including Thurgood Marshall (“Marshall”), Jackie Robinson (“42”) and James Brown (“Get On Up”), first learned his acting techniques at Howard, located in Washington, D.C.
“At a historically Black college, you’re getting turned on to all these things — the pantheon of our culture,” Boseman said in an interview with Rolling Stone published on Sunday. “It’s John Coltrane, it’s James Baldwin. And it’s ‘Black Panther.’”
About 20 years ago, as an undergrad studying directing, Boseman took extra acting classes to improve his skills, and Rashad was one of his instructors. Also a Howard grad, she is known by many for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”
But in addition to her TV success, Rashad made theatrical history. In 2004, she became the first Black actress to win a Tony Award for “Best Actress in a Play” for her role in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.” The Houston native is also a singer and stage director.
Rashad quickly became Boseman’s mentor.
“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 said. “‘How you eating? You look too skinny. You need a pork chop.’ We were just trying to aspire to her excellence.”
Rashad said she saw unlimited potential in Boseman, who graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in directing.
“Chad was this lanky young man with big eyes and an endearing smile and a very gentle way,” she told Rolling Stone. “What I saw in him was the sky was the limit. He never asked me to introduce him to anyone — that’s not his way. He was going to make it on his own merits.”
The former first lady took to Twitter to rave about the record-breaking movie.
Several of Rashad’s students, including Boseman, applied for a summer theater program at the prestigious University of Oxford in England and were accepted. However, they lacked the funds to attend. Rashad then became the sponsor in the room for the students.
“She pushed for us,” Boseman said. “She essentially got some celebrity friends to pay for us to go.”
At first he was reluctant to reveal to Rolling Stone the name of the celebrity, but said, “No, it’s not Bill Cosby.”
Later in the interview he disclosed that it was Denzel Washington who paid the students’ way.
“I’m sure he has no idea,” Boseman said. “It was random.”
He said he wrote Washington a thank-you letter when he found out that the Oscar-winning actor supplied the funds.
“I’ve been waiting to meet him, so I can tell him,” Boseman said.
“This Is Us” star Susan Kelechi Watson, 36, was also a Howard student who benefitted from Washington’s generosity and went to study Shakespeare at Oxford.
“They didn’t have any minority students, much less [people] from a historically Black university,” Watson said on “Live with Kelly and Ryan” on Jan. 22.
“None of us had the money to go, and it was like $5,000 per person. I remember a friend of mine reached out to Phylicia Rashad. They got on the phone with Phylicia and she said, ‘Oh, no. You are going.’
“The next thing you know she calls back and says, ‘Denzel and I are paying for you to go.’
“I’m happy to say he paid for my scholarship. And we went and had this amazing summer that changed all of our lives.”
When Watson met Washington years later, she told him about what he did for her.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, you paid for my scholarship,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, you’re welcome.’”