A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read my review of “42,” click here.
Ryan Merriman hits a home run with role in ‘42’
The Choctaw native plays Dixie Walker, one of Brooklyn Dodgers players who opposed Jackie Robinson joining the team, in the new film.
For the Choctaw native, the film offered a chance to play a challenging role in a movie that would not just be the biggest of his career to date but also the most important. After all, “42” has been endorsed by none other than Barack and Michelle Obama.
“It really is a great story. You know, Jackie’s story, it needed to be a feature film: what he went through and the things he accomplished. Every ballplayer who played with him, in the end, just through his character on and off the field, they all grew to respect him. And the color barrier was broken,” Merriman said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he now lives and works.
Taking its title from Robinson’s number, which has been retired by every Major League Baseball team, “42” chronicles Robinson’s historic 1947 rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which blazed the trail for other black players.
In the process, though, the ballplayer faced terrible prejudice. from death threats against his family to appalling slurs hurled by spectators, opponents and even from his own teammates. Merriman, who turned 30 on Wednesday, portrays one of Robinson’s primary antagonists on the Dodgers, right fielder Dixie Walker.
“It’s tough to watch, but I also think it’s important to show how hard it was on him, how hard it was for him to play in that era. But to be honest, what Jackie went through and what we show in the movie, it was even worse for him (in reality),” he said. adding the movie had to work within the confines of a PG-13 rating.
“That’s what made him such a great athlete and such a great a man is for him to be surrounded by all that hatred and everyone wanting him to fail and to have all that riding on his shoulders every time he was at the plate and to still come out with class and integrity.”
Although Robinson played himself in 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” he has been written about far more often than he has been depicted on the big screen. Spike Lee tried to make a biopic back in 1995 with Denzel Washington, according to IMDB, but the project never made it to bat.
Brian Helgeland, whose credits include “A Knight’s Tale,” “Payback” and the Oscar-winning screenplay for “L.A. Confidential,” wrote and directed “42,” with Chadwick Boseman playing Robinson, Nicole Beharie portraying the player’s wife, Rachel, and Harrison Ford in the role of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who deliberately sought out a black player to integrate the sport he loved.
Merriman, who started acting when he was 8 years old, was thrilled to act opposite Ford in one scene, which unfortunately was cut from the final film.
“He was such a nice guy. I think he’s one of those guys that he kind of shows up and does his job. You’ll see when you watch the movie how deep he was into the character,” You know, he became Branch Rickey and I would definitely say he’s going to get some sort of award action off of this,” he said.
“Once he works with you and sees that you’re serious and not some just young punk trying to get famous, he respects you. And he told me, he said, ‘You’re a great young actor.’ And it was just like, ‘Oh my God, thank you, sir. Thank you.’ It’s not every day you get to hear that, so that was quite the amazing thing to hear.”
The Oklahoma native, who turned 30 on Wednesday, also got the opportunity to meet Robinson’s widow on the set.
“I think it added more weight to the situation. I don’t think it was pressure. You know, obviously, we want to make her proud, but I wouldn’t say pressure. But “You definitely wanted to honor her husband’s story when you met her and (learned about) what they went through,” he said.
Merriman had to set aside his own moral code when it came to portraying Walker, who is depicted helping other players circulate a petition vowing not to play with Robinson. The popular player owned a hardware store in Alabama and feared losing business because of his association with Robinson, Merriman said.
“Dixie Walker was in this situation because of how good he was. “He was the team captain, he was ‘The People’s Choice’ before Jackie showed up, so I think that raised a lot of his questions to having Jackie on the team. In the movie, I say ‘I’m a ballplayer, I’m here to play ball,’ and it seems like as soon as Jackie shows up, we’re having to deal with fights during games and we’re having to deal with not getting into hotels. … So I think it was more the change in baseball that Dixie hated. He never really says racial slurs. He was a very educated man and he was an amazing ballplayer. I don’t think his racism came from ignorance; I think it came from being scared of the change,” he said.
“But you can either go with it, or say ‘You know what, this is wrong and I’m gonna change it.’”
While many of their teammates grew to respect and support Robinson during his rookie season, Walker opposed the future legend until much later in life.
“He did change his tune later on and apologized and said, ‘I wish I’d never signed that damn thing. … I wish I’d never been a part of it. Jackie was an amazing baseball player and an amazing man.’ So they all learned their lesson in the end, I guess you could say,” Merriman said.
“It truly is a beautiful story. They really made it fun. There’s a lot of comic relief in it. It’s a nice balance. It’s a great film and it’s an important film for everyone. … It’s a good way to show what people went through, what Jackie went through, what people in that crucible of time went through, and where we are now.”