Michael B. Jordan--emerging actor discusses his breakout role as the late Oscar Grant in the new drama, Fruitvale Station
ABOVE PHOTO: A scene from Fruitvale Station.
Interview with Kam Williams
Born in Santa Ana on February 9, 1987, Michael B. Jordan is one of Hollywood’s brightest young actors. In 2012, he starred in 20th Century Fox’s box office hit Chronicle, a supernatural thriller that follows three Portland teens as they develop incredible powers after exposure to a mysterious substance. He also had a supporting role in George Lucas’ film Red Tails, a World War II saga recounting the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
Jordan recently completed shooting Are We Officially Dating? opposite Zac Efron, Imogen Poots and Miles Teller. Before embarking on his film career, he was best known for his work in two of the most significant television dramas of the past decade.
First, he received critical acclaim for his portrayal of the hard-shelled, soft-hearted, young urbanite Wallace in the HBO hit dramatic series The Wire. He then went on to star as quarterback Vince Howard on the NBC’s Emmy-winning Friday Night Lights.
He also portrayed recovering alcoholic Alex on the third season of the NBC series Parenthood.
Blessed with the opportunity to begin a professional acting career early in his life, Jordan caught the eye of Bill Cosby and was cast in the recurring role of Michael on the series Cosby in 1999. Almost simultaneously, he appeared on the HBO series The Sopranos opposite the late James Gandolfini.
In 2001, he was selected from hundreds of hopefuls to play Jamal in the feature film Hardball starring Keanu Reeves. A couple years later, he became the youngest African-American actor contracted with ABC’s daytime drama series All My Children where he played Reggie, Susan Lucci’s character’s adopted son.
Jordan later moved to Los Angeles where he soon landed a lead in the independent film Blackout, co-starring Melvin Van Peebles, Jeffrey Wright, and Zoe Saldana. In the fall of 2007, he was cast in the faith-based feature film Pastor Brown.
He has enjoyed guest appearances on “CSI,” “Cold Case,” “Lie to Me,” “Without a Trace,” and “Law & Order,” and garnered NAACP Image Award Nominations for Outstanding Male Actor in a Television Daytime Drama Series in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Here, he talks about starring as the late Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station, a critically-acclaimed picture which has wowed audiences at both the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals earlier this year. The movie recounts the shooting of the 22 year-old Grant in the back by a police officer on a train station platform on New Year’s Day 2009.
Kam Williams: Hi Michael, thanks for the interview.
Michael B. Jordan: What’s up, buddy? Thank you for taking the time.
KW: That’s quite a powerful performance you delivered as Oscar.
MBJ: Thank so much, Kam.
KW: Congratulations on this picture’s winning at Sundance in January and then again at Cannes in June. Did you attend both film festivals?
MBJ: Yes sir, I did.
KW: Where did it get the longer standing ovation?
MBJ: At Cannes. It went on for about 7 or 8 minutes. It was overwhelming. I got chills all over. It was very intense.
KW: What interested you in Fruitvale Station?
MBJ: Honestly, I remember hearing about the incident when it happened, and feeling very angry, upset and frustrated about not being able to do anything about it. I felt very helpless. I was coming off a project at the time, and I really wanted to do an independent film that was more of an intimate, character-driven piece. And it just so happened that what I wanted to do, Ryan’s vision [director Ryan Coogler] and the timing of his project worked out in my favor, man. All of the pieces seemed to fall right into place.
KW: Did you feel any pressure to deliver a great performance given that it’s the biopic of a person who has passed away and who left behind family, including a young daughter who barely got to know him?
MBJ: Of course, and I put a lot of that pressure on myself. I knew that Oscar’s daughter was going to see this film someday, and that was the only pressure I needed to do her father justice. But I felt a huge responsibility not only to his family, but to the whole Bay community, since the story is so important to them, too.
KW: Did you meet with his mother or any of Oscar’s friends and family members in preparing for this role?
MBJ: Yes, I spent time with his mother, his daughter, his girlfriend, Sophina, and his best friends. So, I got a chance to get to know Oscar a little bit better and to understand each of their relationships with him. It was very beneficial to the film.
PHOTO: Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station
KW: Is there anything the family wanted people to know about Oscar?
MBJ: That he was a person, a flawed human being who made some mistakes just like anybody else. That was about it. They really trusted Ryan’s vision and what he wanted to do.
KW: Did you identify with this character at all, given how often young black males are subjected to profile stops and police brutality?
MBJ: Yeah, I’m from Newark, New Jersey, so I’ve been in that sort of situation before. I could relate, since I used to catch the train back and forth between Newark and Manhattan all the time. You’d see transit cops interacting with intoxicated passengers during the holiday season in response to distress calls. It could just as easily have been me, or somebody else with a group of friends going to the city who might have gotten a little rowdy. Oscar was a product of his community. The problem is that people from outside of that community can be quick to judge us based on the way we look, talk and dress.
KW: How was it being directed by Ryan Coogler?
MBJ: He’s an incredible director, extremely talented and a natural born leader. And he was the ideal coach for me, because we’re so close in age. We speak the same language, being from the same generation. The story meant a lot to him because he’s from the Bay area. He’s very close to this project. Everything worked out. It was a perfect storm.
KW: What was it like acting opposite an Oscar-winner in Octavia Spencer?
MBJ: That ain’t bad, either. Not too shabby. I learned a lot from her. She’s one of the most giving actresses I know in terms of getting you there. Whatever you need, she’s very selfless, no ego, and I think it shows.
KW: Is it weird that the cast has actors named Michael Jordan and Kevin Durand? Are you worried that people might mistake the picture for a movie about basketball?
MBJ: Oh man, that was the crazy thing.
KW: What message do you think people will take away from the film?
MBJ: I hope people feel angry, upset, or something that sparks a conversation about how we can be better people. A better father… a better brother… a better mom… a better sister… We have to start with the individual. So, I want people to leave the theater and think, “How can I be a better person?” That’s the only way things are going to improve. It may not happen in my lifetime, but if I can play a part in moving things along, then I feel I’ve done a good job.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
MBJ: Scaring my little brother who is deathly afraid of birds. It’s ridiculous because he’s 6’ 7” and weighs 290 pounds. But he hates birds. If you really want to have a good laugh, all you have to do is send him pictures of geese, ducks and stuff like that randomly. His responses are pretty funny and make me laugh out loud.
KW: What are your favorite dishes to cook?
MBJ: My grilled lamb chops and homemade mashed potatoes. And my barbequed salmon, that’s pretty good, too. I love cooking! The first dish I ever learned to make was rainbow trout with couscous and raisins. It’s pretty incredible. I can cook that with my eyes closed now.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
MBJ: My Japanese animation.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MBJ: [LOL] You’ve got some great questions, dude… No.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
MBJ: Snow Crash.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
MBJ: Memories Back Then by T.I.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
MBJ: Being around like-minded creative people. Watching a really good movie excites me, because it makes we want to get up off the couch and go shoot something and act in a scene. And music excites me because it puts me in a mind state, whatever that may be.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
MBJ: A man trying to figure it all out.
KW: The Mike Pittman question: What was your best career decision?
MBJ: Doing the movie Chronicle.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
MBJ: For more wishes.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
MBJ: I been waiting for that question. That’s one nobody has ever asked me. It was one day when my dad was outside washing the car. My older sister tricked me into sitting in the bucket. I remember getting stuck in the bucket, soggy diaper and all, and not being able to get out. That’s my earliest childhood memory.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Michael, and I look forward to speaking with you again in January when you get that Oscar nomination.
MBJ: I appreciate that, Kam [Chuckles] But don’t jinx me, dude.
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