Award-Worthy

07.11.13

Michael B. Jordan of ‘Fruitvale Station,’ Hollywood’s New Leading Man

After roles on ‘The Wire’ and ‘Friday Night Lights,’ Michael B. Jordan delivers an award-worthy turn as real-life shooting victim Oscar Grant in ‘Fruitvale Station.’ The actor opens up to Marlow Stern about the role, his journey, and race.

Back in January 2008, HBO held a premiere party for the fifth and final season of its critically acclaimed series The Wire. The show, created by David Simon, was set in Baltimore and examined every facet of the city’s war on drugs, from inner city dealers and the cops on their tail to politicians and members of the press. At one point during the fête, Simon took over the microphone. He proceeded to rattle off the names of dozens of notable cast members, urging them to stand for an ovation.

“The loudest cheers came for Michael B. Jordan,” reported New York magazine.

In The Wire’s first season, Jordan played Wallace, a sympathetic teen drug dealer for the Barksdale Organization who wants out of “the game.” The 16-year-old’s demise is arguably the most devastating moment in the series.

More than a decade after that fateful scene aired, Jordan is back as another tragic hero. In Fruitvale Station, he plays Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, was fatally shot in the back while being restrained by white BART police officers at a transit station in Oakland, Calif. The incident was caught on video by cellphone-wielding passers-by and immediately went viral, inciting protests and riots.

Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler, recreates the last day of Grant’s life, including the time he spent with his mother, Wanda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and infant daughter. And Jordan, who appears in virtually every scene of the film, delivers a riveting, devastating performance. The Hollywood Reporter likened him to “a young Denzel Washington.”

“The first time I ever lost myself in a role was on The Wire, when Wallace was sniffing coke for the first time, and I’ve tried to find that again,” Jordan told The Daily Beast. “That’s a high that I can’t describe. In Fruitvale Station, I had that feeling a lot. About 90 percent of the time, I was somewhere else.”

The first time Jordan saw the video of Grant’s shooting, he says, was back in 2009. He was at home, sitting in front of his computer, and a friend posted it on his Facebook wall.

“I watched it 10, 12 times—way more than I should,” he says. “But I was just sitting there and couldn’t believe it. I was trying to find a reason in it or justification in it. What did he do that he deserved to die? I didn’t find one. I was pissed off, emotionally disturbed, frustrated, sad, and hopeless. There was nothing you could do to make a difference.”

While Grant was restrained on the ground, Officer Johannes Mehserle grabbed his handgun and fired off a shot into Grant’s back. He said he was reaching for his Taser but accidentally grabbed his gun instead. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison—11 months total, with time served. Many, including Jordan, say justice wasn’t served.

“Eleven months! That was a slap on the wrist,” says Jordan. “I don’t think a life equals 11 months, man. And the excuse was so lame. He mistook his gun for his Taser? You’re a professional, and you know what you’re doing. I’m a professional, and I know the difference between a script and a stage light. I’ve been on enough sets to know. So if you’re an officer, you know the difference between a handgun and a different-handled, different-weighted Taser.”

He adds, “And thank god for technology and cellphone cameras. There are thousands of Oscar Grants and Trayvon Martins throughout the world, but the story is not getting told.”

Four years after Grant’s death, Coogler’s script was passed to Jordan, who says he felt “a certain responsibility to play the role and take it seriously.” He moved to the Bay Area a month before shooting began and got involved in the community, befriending Grant’s mother, daughter, girlfriend, and all his pals. Every day of filming, Jordan wore Grant’s real clothes—he had to gain “7 or 8 pounds” to fit in them—and grew out his hair.

“As we were walking out, the audience followed us out with applause. We got in our cars and the driver couldn’t drive because people had swarmed the car and were still applauding.”

Fruitvale Station has been on an absolute tear since its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. It was immediately snatched up by Harvey Weinstein and then traveled to the Côte d’Azur for the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best First Film.

Jordan says the film’s premiere screening at the Palais was “mind-blowing” and “probably the best time I’ve had.” It got a seven-minute standing ovation. But what happened after was even more memorable.

“It was raining that night, and as we were walking out, the audience followed us out with applause,” recalls Jordan. “We got in our cars and the driver couldn’t drive because people had swarmed the car and were still applauding. Ryan [Coogler] is in the car, and he calls Wanda, Oscar’s mom, and they talk for a little bit, and then he passed the phone to me and I talked to her. Her words were so sweet, telling me everything is going to be OK, and I’m just bawling.”

“Oh, and Harvey’s yacht was pretty cool too, man,” he adds. “I ran into Keanu Reeves, and I hadn’t seen him since I was 13.”

Jordan appeared alongside Reeves in the 2001 film Hardball as Jamal, an inner city kid who finds an outlet playing Little League baseball. It was the first of several roles as a street tough, including his memorable turn as Wallace on The Wire, and as Reggie Montgomery, a reluctant gang member, on the daytime soap All My Children. Then he broke down some barriers, portraying a star high school quarterback on the final seasons of Friday Night Lights and a teen gifted with superpowers in the motion picture Chronicle. But Jordan says he realizes he’s an exception and feels there should be a broader range of roles available to black actors.

“There just aren’t that many,” he says. “We have to start creating more sophisticated material across the board for African-Americans and other people of color, as well as women.”

And it’s about damn time for a black superhero. Jordan, who is rumored to be up for the role of The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot, says he’s “been in the conversation” before, having read for Harry Osborne in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (he lost it to Chronicle costar Dane Dehaan) and for The Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Anthony Mackie was eventually cast).

“With superheroes, a lot of those comics were created before the 1960s, so they weren’t going to have a black man save America,” says Jordan. “So I think it’s more of a continuity thing now. With more generic superheroes, why can’t you have a black, Asian, Hispanic actor play the role? Hopefully, in my lifetime, we’ll see more black superheroes.”

But for now, Jordan couldn’t be more in demand. In addition to The Human Torch rumors, he’s attached to star as one of three leads entangled in a love triangle in the 1980s-set Pretenders. He also says he’s “writing a few TV shows, features, and trying to option some novels” to “take my career in my own hands”—advice he got from Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg. And he's still riding the wave of Fruitvale Station, which may take him all the way through awards season where he could once again find himself pitted against Idris Elba, a.k.a. Stringer Bell—the very man who ordered the hit on Wallace in The Wire. Elba will be starring as Nelson Mandela in another Weinstein Co. film out in the fall, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. When I mention this scenario to Jordan, he bursts out laughing.

“He did get me killed, didn’t he?”