Michael B. Jordan is pacing this HBO conference room like a boxer stalking the ring. “I gotta stand man,” he says, swinging his arms back and forth to loosen up his back. “I’ve been sitting down all day. I gotta move!”
Occasionally as we discuss his role in the new HBO film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, life in the Trump administration, Donald Glover’s “This Is America” video, and more, he’ll unconsciously start juking his fists to punctuate his thoughts: an uppercut to make a point about gaslighting, some jabs as he monologues about police brutality.
If his nervous energy didn’t already suggest it, the Jupiter-sized biceps barely contained in his crisp polo shirt confirm what he tells me next. He’s feeling a bit crazed, he says.
He’s on a brief break from shooting Ryan Coogler’s boxing sequel Creed 2 to attend the Met Gala, which he did the night before we meet, and attend Fahrenheit 451’s New York City premiere later that day. He’s never done press for one film in the middle of production for another before, but such is the life of a star who, 16 years after stunning critics as a young actor on The Wire, has become one of the most in-demand men in Hollywood.
“These are the things I’ve been working my whole life for, to have these crazy moments,” he says, scripting himself the kind of pep talk we could imagine him reciting in Creed 2. “So I’m enjoying it and trying not to complain.”
Those crazy moments have been building for a while—critically cheered performances in NBC’s Friday Night Lights and the Sundance breakout Fruitvale Station, a blockbuster turn in the first Creed film—but have arrived by deluge in the three months since the premiere of Marvel’s Black Panther.
The film was a superhero movie turbo-boosted by its cultural moment: the first comic-book film starring an almost entirely black cast, the first by a black director (Coogler), and the biggest box-office ever in both categories. In it, Jordan played tortured villain Erik Killmonger, a terrorist as much at battle with his own demons as he was with the titular spandexed Good Guy. As has become the pattern, critics raved over Jordan’s complex—not to mention muscular—performance.
Jordan was still shooting Black Panther when HBO and writer-director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) approached him about starring in Fahrenheit 451. It would be the first time in over 50 years that Ray Bradbury’s 1953 cautionary tale, about a dystopian government that burns books and controls all knowledge and information, was being adapted for screen. At a time when the story’s warning bells clang louder than ever, Jordan’s color-blind casting as Guy Montag, the firefighter and government enforcer who eventually rebels, would be historic.
But Jordan said no.
“Because I was still filming Black Panther when this came about and I was still in that mindset and the mindset of that character,” he tells me.
He had never read Bradbury’s book, so his first introduction was Bahrani’s script, which updates the original story to be especially harrowing for our modern digital age. It also recharacterizes Montag a bit. In the beginning of the film, he is a ruthless hammer, violently rounding up dissidents and revolutionaries (called “eels”) before becoming “woke,” if you will, and becoming a part of the resistance himself.
“Reading Montag dragging eels to the ground, manhandling them, and beating them up—not to mention burning the books—I couldn’t help but see the eels as black and brown faces,” he says. “My mind immediately went there as I was reading it. I thought, man, I don’t want to be part of this oppression.”
But then Bahrani explained that the eels are not just people of color. The revolutionaries are all people, of all ages. Everyone is oppressed by the government in Fahrenheit 451, and they’re all complicit in it. They may have even wanted it.
“I was like, ‘Oh shit,’” Jordan says. “I, Mike, am so programmed and desensitized and trained to feel and think that way because it’s so relevant, with the police brutality in my community, and the shootings. I was so conditioned to think and feel that way, I was like, man, that’s even more reason why I need to take this role.”
Now that he knows more about Bradbury’s original work versus Bahrani’s script, he thinks the way it’s been updated is clever. “If I burned any of your favorite books today, you’d laugh in my face and then go home and download them,” he says. And the conceit that Montag and the rest of the citizens are victims of gaslighting, told that Ben Franklin created the first fire department not to put out fires, but to burn books: “That was the first fake news.”
Bradbury’s themes have stayed relevant throughout American history, though Fahrenheit 451 was written in part as a response to McCarthyism in the ’50s. But it goes without saying that, ever since January 20, 2017, the immediacy of these themes has accelerated.
“Those things may have always been present, but we have somebody, our current tenant, who is very vulgar,” Jordan says, refusing to refer to Trump by name. “So now it’s more in your face.”
Because of its on-the-nose subject matter, Fahrenheit 451 falls in line behind The Handmaid’s Tale, The Good Fight, and a TV Guide’s worth of series and movies that comment on, dig into, and mirror the dark realities of the times we live in. So, too, it enters the debate over whether people are invigorated by programs that resonate so profoundly against the news, or whether they’re put off by them completely.
“My thing is always hide the medicine in the food,” Jordan says. “Put the medicine in a little bit of sugar and it’s easier to digest. Then later on, you’re walking out of the movie theater and you start talking about it. You start having a conversation. Then at home you’re lying in bed and maybe thinking about it a little more. Then you see some of the change of thought. That’s the hardest thing to try to unravel or alter.”
On the subject of cautionary tales and commentary about the state of the country, our conversation turns Childish Gambino’s song and music video, “This Is America,” in which Gambino—the stage name for actor and Atlanta creator Donald Glover—dances whimsically around a soundstage to distract from the ghastly racial violence and gun trauma happening behind him.
At the mere mention of Gambino and the video, Jordan stops pacing and smiles. No, he beams. Radiates, really. He leans on the conference table and cheeses so wide I swear a sparkle flashed off one of his teeth and a bell rung, like in a toothpaste commercial.
“Didn’t you think it was DOPE?!” He practically explodes, transitioning from actor to fan. “So spot-on. So much symbolism all over the place.” He then begins to literally list off the video’s symbols one by one, like a veritable Childish Gambino scholar, bragging that he can’t count how many times he’s watched the video. “I just think it’s right on time. It’s going to be legendary.”
We tell him that Gambino, or, rather, Glover, reminds us of the line that stuck with us from Bahrani’s 451 script the most. When Montag is about to rebel against the government and risk it all for the revolution, an eel warns him, “The revolution is not a dinner party.” There are people who want there to be action, but are afraid to be like Montag, like Glover, and do something to lead it.
“I mean, the world is 97 percent followers, 3 percent leadership,” he says, starting to pace the room again. “Everybody can’t get up from the table right away.”
“But there is a sense of solidarity,” he says. “There’s a unification that has to happen, and I’m not just talking about race. I’m talking in general, people believing in one thing. You get enough people believing in one thing, it’s a powerful thing. You get enough leaders together, you might see some real revolution, some real movement.”
For the last time, he stops. He smiles at himself, seemingly satisfied with the commentary he’s made and the message he articulated. The interview is over. TKO.