Phylicia Rashad remembers former student Chadwick Boseman: “He was so intelligent”

They met at Howard University in the late '90s, where the actress taught a class of theatre hopefuls

Phylicia Rashad’s impressive acting career spans 50 years. From playing Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show to her emotive performance in Creed, Rashad has always picked diverse and challenging roles. Her latest film, horror thriller Black Box, is another tricky part to add to her collection.

“There were levels of it that I just found absolutely fascinating and unbelievable,” Rashad says of the film in which she plays Dr Lilian Brooks – a doctor who pioneers a groundbreaking treatment to help a patient (Mamoudou Athie) recover from amnesia. “I needed to know what I was talking about because she knows what she’s talking about it!”

We caught up with the acclaimed actress via Zoom to learn more about the thought-provoking new movie – and to hear Rashad’s memories of Chadwick Boseman, her former student at Howard University, Washington D.C.

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Hi Phylicia, how have you coped with the ‘new normal’?

Phylicia Rashad: “We’ve been out of lockdown for a little while here, but I still stay home! I’m fine with that, there’s been a lot to do… Zoom this and Zoom that, so I have not been idle! Creativity is always a good thing [and it] keeps me in a good space.”

Chadwick Boseman was a former student of yours – did his death come as a shock?

“It did, it really did. There are some things are just very difficult to process initially; you don’t know where to put that. It was unimaginable and yet the unimaginable happens every day: it happens to people all over the world, every minute of every day.

“I do hope that the young people will come to know and understand what he really cared about. He was so intelligent. He wanted to know every single thing there was to know about theatre – all of it – and he did not refuse instruction or information from any source or sector. He was so completely open and he loved working with young people.”

Phylicia Rashad and Chadwick Boseman. Credit: Getty

Tell us about your new film, ‘Black Box’…

“I don’t want to give everything away but [I play] Dr Brooks, who is an expert in her field. She’s a leading research scientist and practicing psychologist and she has created something that should be very, very useful to people…”

But she uses it for some dubious purposes?

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“It’s a very personal agenda, m-hmmm!”

Black Box
‘Black Box’ stars Phylicia Rashad alongside rising actor Mamoudou Athie. Credit: Prime Video

How modern tech and responsibility interact is a central theme in the film, isn’t it?

“We must be responsible. Technology is a wonder… in the late ’50s, early ’60s, Walt Disney used to do this whole thing on technology and what it would mean for people and how it would enhance life. We have to be conscious and responsible for how it is used, otherwise it goes another way.”

Dr Brooks is a morally questionable character but she’s also empathetic as a mother. Was it hard to get that balance right?

“You know, this is what we do [as actors]. You get in the moment, you have to play what’s happening in the moment and not judge any of it because if you judge it, you’re going to put limitations on yourself as an artist and what you can understand [about the character]. Then you limit the entire experience of the character and the work itself.”

Phylicia Rashad in ‘The Cosby Show’ – Credit: Alamy

You are most well known for playing a mother, Claire Huxtable, on ‘The Cosby Show’ – could you draw on any of that experience here?

“For the experience of love I just draw on my relationship and love from my own children. I always felt it was because of my son that I was cast in The Cosby Show. I once asked Mr Cosby, ‘Why did you cast me?’ And he said ‘You wanna know why?’ He said it was because of the look in my eye: he said only a mother has that look.”

What was it like working with such a talented young cast?

“It was really wonderful. We had 19 days to film – and that’s not a lot. Yet everybody pulled together – and it wasn’t just the actors, the crew as well you know because you need your crew, without your crew nothing’s gonna happen. I think that some of the editing was going on after the lockdown began but we managed to get the filming done before.”

‘Black Box’ is available on Amazon Prime from October 6

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