Boxing legend George Foreman’s wife, Mary Joan, made it clear in the early filming stages of Big George Foreman that she wanted minimal involvement. Jasmine Mathews, who plays her in the Sony Pictures biopic, knew this wouldn’t be stance Mary Joan would reconsider.
“This is George’s story, not mine,” actress Jasmine Mathews recalls Mary Joan saying.
This stance offered a dual challenge and opportunity for Mathews — to reimagine the character’s complexities but also remain true to the historical realities of her life as a partner to one of the greatest comebacks in sports history when Foreman regained the heavyweight title at 45 years old.
In working with director George Tillman, Mathews also focused on making sure the script presented Mary Joan as a three-dimensional character and not relegated to a stock cheerleader role for George.
“That was always my biggest concern going into it,” Mathews told BeatsBoxingMayhem. “One thing I appreciated about our director George Tillman is that he did not see Mary Joan Foreman as a supportive character. He saw her as integral to Mr. Foreman’s story and his legacy. We had a lot of talks of what she was able to bring to Mr. Foreman in terms of being a spiritual guide and a nurturer and disciplinarian. But also, what were her own inner conflicts?
“She’s still a human being — a complex human being. What was it like for him to tell her that he’s going back to boxing? At 45 years old and 325 pounds overweight? She knew nothing about his boxing career before. Only what she’d heard and it wasn’t good. So there was a lot of fear that came with that and having to struggle with that fear.”
Mary Joan’s influence is first spotlighted during Foreman’s late 1970s boxing retirement and early stages as a preacher in Texas. Her support was crucial in Foreman’s decision to resume his boxing career, making much of the movie’s redemption arc centering on the chemistry between Mathews and star Khris Davis. To obtain it, Mathews stressed the importance of vulnerability and treating their initial interactions as genuine first dates.
“Khris Davis was wonderful!” Mathews raved. “It was so natural. He was a great leader and artist in general on that set. He brought so much heart and nuance to the role of George Foreman. In between takes we just talked and were very vulnerable with each other. Any time you allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone there’s that instant connection and it’s going to translate on-screen.
“We stayed at that table the whole time they were setting up cameras and we just talked. In a sense, it was kind of like a first date and it really helped us create this intimacy in the moment of getting to know each other as the characters.”
Appearance-wise, a striking and unique feature of Jasmine Mathew’s Mary Joan protrayal is her vibrant natural hair. Mathews reveals this is a non-negotiable condition for all her roles which goes back to her matriculation through Spelman College.
“I grew up conditioned to believe straight hair and permed hair was better and more beautiful,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I went to Spelman College where I reprogramed my brain and saw all these beautiful black woman wearing their natural hair proudly.
“I got into Hollywood in 2016 and my natural hair wasn’t well received at all. I was actually told I needed a makeover. But in that, I knew I couldn’t go back to weaves or perms because it felt like I was not living in my truth. When I play these characters, my biggest thing is saying I’m going to wear my natural hair. I talk with the director and they know this beforehand. I come up with hairstyles and expos.
“I think it’s important for young black girls to see that their hair is beautiful and can be worn in so many different styles and embrace who they are. So I’m very firm about rocking my natural hair in all of its glory howeverwe can make it work for that particular character.”
Big George Foreman is in theaters this Friday, April 28. Watch the full interview with Jasmine Mathews below.