Actor Michael B. Jordan, 25, is not new to Hollywood. His face is recognizable from some of the most beloved television shows in recent memory –- "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood." Now, however, it's Jordan's leading role in "Fruitvale,", the film that took over Sundance, that has all heads turning.
The Sundance breakout hit tells the story of Oscar Grant (Jordan), who was shot and killed at age 22 by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, Calif. on New Year's Day in 2009. The violence was caught on cell phone videos and sparked outrage across the Bay Area and the country. First-time director Ryan Coogler, 26, is the same age that Grant would be today, and he brings a raw and emotional eye to the tragedy that rocked Oakland. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (as Grant's mother) and Melonie Diaz (as his girlfriend) flesh out the supporting cast.
After an emotional premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week, The Weinstein Company purchased the film for $2 million, and it's easy to see why: Many, including a prominent entertainment lawyer who shoved her way past me to sing her praises to Michael at a Sundance party, are already whispering Academy Award. The Huffington Post caught up with star Jordan on a cross-country phone call to learn about the pressures of playing Oscar Grant and how he was personally requested for the role.
The Huffington Post: Hey Michael, what’s going on?
Michael B. Jordan: I'm actually working out right now [laughs].
Like now now, as we speak? Do I only have you for three minutes in between sets?
Like right now I just finished putting down the bench press. I needed a break anyway. No, you have the whole interview, as long as you need!
Are you still in Sundance or are you back in L.A.?
I'm in New York right now finishing up this movie "Are We Officially Dating?" for about four more days and then I'm back to LA.
Congrats on The Weinstein Company buying "Fruitvale" -– that makes me feel very confident that lots of people will see this film. How did the project come to you?
That definitely helps out a lot. The script came across my agent's desk at United Talent Agency.
My first job was at UTA. I worked in the mailroom and then was an assistant there.
I think everyone starts in the mailroom at some point! It's a right of passage. Your boss has to throw something at you and order you around for at least two years [laughs]. But we had literally just been talking about what I wanted to do next, and I said I want to do a huge movie and then I want to do gritty independent film. I booked "Chronicle" and as soon as I got back, "Fruitvale" came across my agent's desk. I sat down with [writer/director] Ryan Coogler, had a conversation with him and it was a no-brainer. Ryan is amazing.
I heard that he asked for you specifically for this role. Is that true?
Yes, he did. As a matter of fact, there was someone else, a friend of Ryan's, who was at the Sundance Film Lab where they were working on this project and she also works at UTA. I guess they were talking about who he wanted for Oscar and he said me, so she made sure the script made its way to my agent.
Is that the first time someone has asked for you specifically?
For a film, yes.
That's pretty cool.
It's awesome! I was like, really, me? Do you know who I am? That kind of caught me off guard. Everything has just honestly fallen into place with this project.
Did you spend a lot of time with Oscar Grant's family?
I spent a lot of time with his best friends, more than anything. Just hanging out with them. Because that’s where I was going to get the real Oscar, you know? Like when he was with his boys. I spent time with his mom, his daughter and his fiancé. That’s how I was going to get the best version of Oscar and just blend all those different descriptions together to make up my version of him. Because I couldn’t imitate him. There's no video of him so I had nothing to go off of. I just needed to get all perspectives and try to find the common denominator that threaded its way through his life.
What is it like playing a character that existed in real life? Did you feel a pressure to portray him accurately? Is that stressful?
Definitely. The pressure of playing a real person is 100-times greater. One day, his daughter is going to watch this movie. That was something I constantly thought about. His mom is going to watch this movie. I didn’t want to let anybody down. At the premiere in Sundance on Saturday, his aunt stood up and said, "You know, Mike, there were certain times in the movie where I couldn't tell Oscar from you," and that’s the biggest compliment I ever could have gotten.
I didn’t want to imitate Oscar. I just wanted to represent him for what he stood for. He was the Bay Area. He lived it and breathed it. I wanted to soak that up. Spending time with his friends and family was important. Having barbeques and just letting them talk and reminisce.
How did they feel about this film being made? Was it something they were ready for, something they looking forward to? I imagine it was painful for them to remember some of it.
It was a range of emotions. At first they were pretty reserved. They were approached several times by a lot of people to make this story. Some are trying to take advantage, there are lawsuits, people want to exploit them. They were cautious at first. But I think what really helped out is that Ryan, the filmmaker, is from the area. He is really close to this story. That put them at ease. And it was good that they were fans of "The Wire" too. I think that helped out [laughs].
They loosened up after a while. With a couple drinks and just talking, boys will be boys. The stories just started coming.
You grew up in Southern California didn't you?
I was born in Orange County –- in Santa Ana. My dad is from California. I was raised on the East Coast. My first two years were in California, but I claim East Coast. I'm sorry, I don’t rep California.
Do you like living in Los Angeles now?
L.A. is cool. If I could have the rest of my family out there I think it would make it that much better for me. As far as work and the weather, you can't really beat it. I just wish they had the New York social life out there. That would make it perfect.
I overheard a lot of people already talking Academy Award buzz for you and this film at Sundance. How do you feel about that?
Don’t start! I try not to hear it at all. It's one of those things where you can kid yourself and act like you're not excited or it doesn’t pique your interest a little bit, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to get my hopes up. What is meant to happen will happen organically. I've never been the kind of guy to hype myself up. It's just not my thing. If people are appreciating the work and that leads to being in such company with the Academy, then I won't try to stop it. Was that a good answer [laughs]?
That was a good answer. Very diplomatic.
But it would be great ...
Have you always wanted to be an actor?
It was something that my mom and my dad got me into when I was younger, maybe around 11 years old. Honestly I was just doing it get out of school early and get free food. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that age -- I was doing everything, playing basketball, acting, tap dancing ...
Wait, did you just say tap dancing?
Do not quote me. She made me take tap dancing!
They not only named you after the most famous athlete of all time, but they also made you do tap dancing?
No, no, no. Correction. They did not name me after the most famous athlete of all time. I am named after my father, Michael Jordan. He had the name first. If you're going to throw me under the bus with tap dancing, you better get that sh-t straight!
Oh come on, it's so good.
I knew I should have kept my mouth shut. Literally as it was coming out I thought don't say this. You know what, you can have this one but you're using your get out of jail free card now.
My mom got me started on lots of things and it just snowballed. They wanted to cater to my talents or find out the things that I liked or didn't like. And I just started booking at a really young age; little small modeling jobs, to extra work, to background, to little commercials. And then I booked "The Cosby Show" and "The Sopranos" and just kept going. I fell in love with it when I was probably around 14. It was the first time I really lost myself in a character and I was like, "Wow what is that feeling? Is that what acting is?"
What character was it?
It was Jamal in the movie "Hard Ball" in 2001 with Keanu Reeves and Diane Lane. It was a scene where director Brian Robbins coached me through it telling me to imagine something I wanted so bad and I couldn't have it anymore, and I just started crying and balling. We started rolling and we took the take and I remember crying like 30 minutes afterwards and I couldn't stop. From then on, I was just searching for that feeling again. I had it a couple other times like on "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights" and then again on this movie, "Fruitvale."
I read a recent review that compared you to a young Denzel Washington. Who are some actors you look up to?
Honestly, Ryan Gosling. I definitely look up to the usual suspects -– Denzel for sure. Will Smith, definitely. Forest Whitaker helped me out so much on this project [Whitaker is a producer on "Fruitvale"]. Giovanni Ribisi is an actor I really like a lot. Also Sam Rockwell, Paul Giamatti. The people who make it look easy. Meryl Streep makes it look so easy.
What was your biggest hope in making "Fruitvale"?
Not failing. And being able to carry a movie. This was my first time being number one on a call sheet. Sometimes actors get in their own head and are like, "Oh, I'm a great actor, I'm this, I'm that, I've done five years at Juilliard and I graduated from Tisch." But until you actually get the work and the material to sink your teeth into, then it's like your opinion versus someone else's.
This was the first time in a feature where I had the material to really dive into and give it everything I had. And I didn’t want that opportunity to pass me by. I took it very, very seriously. I really wanted to make Oscar's family proud and represent him the right way. It’s a different kind of responsibility you have when you have real people involved who are going to watch it. And lastly, I wanted to get into Sundance.
Was this your first time at Sundance?
I've never been before and I have always wanted to be there. You have to make certain pit stops as an actor. And Sundance was one of them for me. We got in and it was a dream come true when I found out.
Yeah you got in, let alone it was the best film at the festival.
The icing on the cake! I never would have expected it.
Thank you for taking time in between sit-ups and push-ups to talk.
I'm actually doing sit-ups right now.
Wow, you're not even out of breath, it's amazing!
I've been breathing in between sentences.
Very impressive, you are multi-talented.