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Melonie Diaz, 'Fruitvale Station' Star, On Her Breakout Role & Why She Does Indie Films

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Melonie Diaz attends the 'Fruitvale Station' screening at the Museum of Modern Art on July 8, 2013 in New York City.
Melonie Diaz attends the 'Fruitvale Station' screening at the Museum of Modern Art on July 8, 2013 in New York City.

Michael B. Jordan has received deserved praise for his incredible lead performance in "Fruitvale Station," but it's Melonie Diaz who stands as the film's breakout star.

The 29-year-old New York native, best known for supporting roles in "Be Kind Rewind" and "Raising Victor Vargas," plays Jordan's onscreen girlfriend in the new film, and does a job worthy of the actress's current professional heroes: Michelle Williams, Marion Cotillard and Jessica Chastain. ("I think they all make great choices," Diaz said about the trio of Oscar-caliber stars.)

"Fruitvale Station" won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The film, from first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler, tells the story of Oscar Grant, a Bay Area resident who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer on New Year's Day in 2009. Diaz stars as Grant's loving girlfriend, a no-nonsense woman who possesses a fierce loyalty to both Grant and their young daughter.

Before the film's limited release last week, HuffPost Entertainment caught up with Diaz to discuss the emotional project, her immediate future (beyond a guest appearance on the next season of "Girls") and what she thinks of the specter of awards season, which looms in the fall.

Did you talk with Oscar's girlfriend Sophina to prepare for the role?
Yes. The first meeting was more gaining her trust. I didn't want to talk about things that were going to be upsetting; I didn't want her to revisit painful memories. It was more just talking about random things -- like Oakland versus New York, where I'm from -- just to build up a rapport. The second time, we got our nails done together and I wanted her to pick the color out. For me, the worst thing would be for her to look at the movie -- I don't think she'll ever watch it; I know she won't watch it -- and not recognize herself.

Does it take a weight off your shoulders knowing that she won't watch the movie?
It's not about me. I would love for her to watch it. I would love to get her stamp of approval. But it's not really about that. I think she would be proud of the movie and the depiction of Oscar, but I think she doesn't want to go back. She wants to move forward.

Oscar's story is one that maybe a lot of people weren't aware of. Did you know about the case before signing on?
No. I was really upset. I couldn't believe that something like this could go under the rug and not receive a lot of media coverage. The fact that there's a YouTube video of Oscar being murdered on the internet is crazy to me. This is a social media obsessed time, and the fact that this didn't come across my lap makes me question what, as a society, we're concerned about. What are we choosing not to think about?

The relationship between Sophina and Oscar is the key to the film, and you don't have a lot of time to set it up. Was it hard to create so much history between two people without a lot of set-up?
That's what we really wanted to get across. Sophina knew him the best out of everyone. That was something that was really important to Ryan, in terms of Mike and I's relationship. Ryan's smart: He knows that casting is 80 percent of the movie. So I think he cast people who he knew were going to both connect and bounce off each other. We cooked together. We went to a basketball game. We ate. We drank a lot. To me, it always blows my mind when you walk on set and they're like, "OK, that's your husband. You have a child." The best way to build a relationship and learn about what makes people tick is just to spend time with them. We had the luxury of doing that for a week or so. Then we stayed in contact. Mike and I are East Coasters, so I think we get each other.

Your onscreen relationship with Ariana Neal, who plays Sophina's daughter, is also very natural. The way the movie ends, with Sophina trying to tell her child what happened, is one of the best scenes in the entire film.
There was a big long scene, actually. There was a bunch of dialogue where she's asking me about what happened. I think the line was like, "God needs an angel. So he needed to take daddy to heaven." It was a big, long beautiful scene that Ryan wrote, but I think it was stronger by cutting it [short before any of that is said]. After it happened in real life, Sophina didn't want to go home to tell her daughter. What do you possibly say? That's another thing, really, that's a tribute to the character and the relationship: Sophina is a victim, too. She's an example of the many women who have to pick up the pieces and raise their families and tell their daughters how their father was lost. There's so much tragedy in the aftermath that is infuriating.

This is a high profile film, released by The Weinstein Company, and your performance is tremendous. Have you given any thought yet to awards season and what could wind up happening for you?
To be what? Nominated for an Oscar?

Yes.
[Long pause] No. I can't even. You're making me nervous. I'm having an anxiety attack. Give me a Xanax. Oh my God. Honestly, we made this movie in 20 days. We didn't even know we were going to get bought. Ryan made a joke -- we were shooting somewhere and someone was like, "Oh, so where can I see the movie?" Ryan said, "Maybe it'll be on a DVD somewhere." I looked at him and was like, "Ryan, don't say that!" Out of fear that was actually going to happen. "Don't put that out in the universe. That's bad." Now that I'm here and talking to you ... not to be overly emotional, but this is really cool. This is a really big deal. It's the little train that could. I think good things happen to good people. I think Ryan is one of them. I think this is an important story. I think the world is ready to talk about these issues and have a conversation. That's all we wanted.

You do a lot of indie films, is that a conscious choice?
I'm not going to lie: I try to do studio films, but they don't like me.

Why not?
I don't know. I think there's no imagination anymore. There's a lack of imagination in that system. Not to talk bad about it, but for me, indie films are usually character driven and story driven and they shed light on the corners of people's lives that aren't seen. I like slice of life films. I like to watch things.

Do you have the option to be choosey about the things you do?
I joke about this. I'm tired of playing freaking cha-chas, the sassy CIA agent, the best friend homegirl. I'm tired of that! So when I read this script, I was like, "Wow. I know that girl." I grew up with girls like this. I know women like that. I grew up in a family of predominantly female bread winners who are strong and are fierce and opinionated. There's not enough women like that on the screen. So, yes it was a real-life story, but it was also really refreshing to read a character like this that I knew.

Have you noticed "Fruitvale Station" opening a lot of doors thus far?
It's weird. Everybody is like, "You must be getting scripts thrown at you." Not yet! Not yet, but hopefully soon. It's hard. I don't know. This is like my first drama. Usually I do a lot of comedies. I think the world can be my oyster.

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