“Fruitvale Station” emerged from this year’s Sundance Film Festival as the indie to beat come awards season thanks to a Weinstein Company pickup, its win of both the festival’s Audience and Grand Jury awards (“Precious” was the last film to do so) and a breakout lead turn from Michael B. Jordan, who’s commanding performance has been generating tons of Oscar chatter (Indiewire has him pegged as the 10th male most likely to land a Best Actor nomination come January). The film, in which he plays Oscar Grant, a young black man who was wrongfully
killed by a police officer at a transit station in Oakland (a true life story that in many ways mirrors the case of Trayvon Martin, whose killer was controversially acquitted this weekend to nationwide outrage), opened to solid numbers this weekend in limited release, further boosting his prospects.
Despite all the breakout talk, Jordan is no newcomer like Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker behind “Fruitvale Station.” On the small screen Jordan has starred in everything from “The
Wire” to “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” Ann the big screen, he got
to fly high in both “Chronicle” and “Red Tails,” and appeared opposite
Keanu Reeves in “Hard Ball.” Indiewire sat down with Jordan a few days before the film’s release to talk about all the buzz, the challenge of portraying a real life figure and what he has in the works.
Let’s briefly address this roller coaster ride you’re on. The film went over so well at both Sundance and Cannes.
Honestly, I’ve never been to Sundance before and I’ve had opportunities to go, you know, as a fan, to go check out some movies which would be cool, but I always wanted to go with my own project. In doing this, reading the script, it’s a pretty good script, so hopefully we can execute and it’ll get in. My biggest thing was just getting in. And going. And then, to get in which was amazing and a great feeling, and then to get you know, the buzz, and the Grand Jury, and the Audience Award, it was mind blowing. From there to go to Cannes and all the traction the film’s been getting is just been kind of overwhelming. Each day is like a dream I’m waiting to wake up from, and it just kind of keeps going. It’s been incredible. It’s been very humbling, and it’s just a great feeling.
The craziest thing about it is that the film hasn’t come out yet.
It’s crazy, right?
You’ve been on a non-stop journey with this film for over six months at this point.
Talking about it all the time, talking with people, and people are like, “I can’t wait to see it! I can’t wait to see it!” So now, finally, on Friday it’s coming out and people can finally just have their own opinion on it, and get a chance to really know what I know in my heart and know what other people who are close to the project and who have seen it how they feel. It’s gonna be pretty cool, man. Pretty special.
And with the Weinstein Company at the helm obviously they’re going to push it all the way into the fall awards season.
How do you prepare yourself mentally to talk about this film for another six months?
I’m tired now. I’m so spent, but no. You just have to take it a day at a time and treat every day like it’s the most important day. That’s kind of been my approach to it, to get through each day. And hopefully it does go along for a while. I want to see this film reach the masses. You know, worldwide. I want it to affect people. I want people to start having conversations between each other about it, and why this keeps happening, and what we can do to prevent it or at least slow it down because I think it happens a little bit too often.
What’s it been like sharing this experience with Oscar Grant’s family, who were involved with the making of the film?
Getting new family members. I feel like I’m just a part of their family now. You know, they’ve embraced me, and I’m honored to be let into their lives like that. I feel like this film gives them a voice and a platform to speak. It gives Oscar Grant a voice and a face. It’s been pretty incredible. Yolanda, Oscar’s mom, is such a strong and powerful woman. It has to be so hard for her, and for her to open up and say kind words and encourage me and thank me and thank us and Ryan and everybody involved for help telling her son’s story, that’s the biggest payoff.
What preparation went into playing him in terms of incorporating what Oscar’s family would tell you about him?
I moved to the Bay about a month before we started filming. Just had to be in the Bay. This was my first time going to the Bay. I’ve never been there before. The Bay is so different from LA. LA is so different from the East Coast. I’m from Jersey. Literally just getting the chance to talk to his daughter for a brief second. We didn’t really spend a lot of time together because it might just be a little too much. What you found out from talking to everybody is you got a different version of Oscar. Everybody had a different perspective. And I feel like they’re all true. I feel like we change ourselves in different settings. Oscar was a social chameleon. He blended in. You know, he was a people pleaser so he took pride in making the people around him, the people he cared about happy. Whether it was telling a white lie or withholding information a little bit here or a little bit there, but he definitely changed himself a lot, and I think that’s a complex thing to do, but coming from the inner city you have to do that. You know, when you’re on the block, in certain situations you have to be tough. You can’t be looked at as weak or you’ll be picked on or singled out or deemed weak. You gotta be able to communicate with people at work. You have your job. You know you have to be a people person. That’s what Oscar was, it’s like his armor.
You and Ryan both don’t portray Oscar as a saint by any means.
Nope. Ryan did his due diligence as far as research. He did a lot of the heavy lifting for me. He definitely went the extra mile, you know, having access to all the public records and having access to the family. Which is very, very important to getting it right. I feel like when there’s an officer involved shooting his character got polarized. Either he got deemed as this perfect person, as this saint, or he got depicted as this monster, you know, this evil guy who got what he deserved. He lost his humanity along the way. So, I feel like, I love Ryan’s approach to it because it’s like a day in the life. Walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you judge him. You know, know what it’s like. Someone who’s never been to the Bay before never got a chance to hang out with somebody like Oscar Grant, like, how can you judge him? We could wake up in the morning, you know, go throughout your day to day routine. I could spend the day with you, and at the end of the day I can get a pretty idea of who you are as person. What you do when nobody’s looking. That’s what a person should be judged on. Oscar Grant’s character got polarized but he was being judged by people who didn’t know him. So that’s why the approach of telling it through the people who knew him the best and even complete strangers was very important to us and Ryan, so it was definitely something we constantly reminded ourselves of.
This marks Ryan’s first feature. What gave you the confidence he was the guy to make this film?
There’s a number of things. Number one, I don’t shy away from first time filmmakers. I was a first time actor once and someone had to give me a chance. I mean look at Josh Trank from “Chronicle,” first time filmmaker. That worked out great.
After reading the script and being thoroughly impressed and after having a conversation with him, within the first five minutes I knew I couldn’t wait to do this movie. Certain people are natural born leaders and that’s what Ryan is. He’s so wise beyond his years. He’s an old soul. We just connected. I felt like I was making a movie with one of my best friends and that’s a good feeling to have. He’s not precious.
You’ve been making a name for yourself in the industry for close to fourteen years now, but this no doubt marks a career highlight for you. Did you see this role as a godsend?
I feel like things just fell into place. I kind of spoke it into existence in a way. When I was doing “Chronicle” I told my agent at the time I wanted to do a gritty independent film that was very character driven and intimate. A month later it kind of manifested itself. Actors go through their whole careers looking for a role like this.
It was definitely a test for me. I want to continue to test myself and continue to grow and learn and improve as the years go on.
What have you seen change post “Fruitvale”?
More phone calls, high level meetings, conversations are different. A lot has changed. A lot. It’s crazy because it happens overnight. But I’ve been working at this for so long, it’s almost insulting (laughs). But it’s all good. I’m just happy that people are being affected by the work.
So that begs the question: what do you have in the works?
I wish I had more to tell you, but I honestly don’t know.
You must have something.
Well I have “Are We Officially Dating?” coming out January 31st, a romantic comedy, something on the other spectrum of this. I’m really just reading a lot of scripts figuring out what I want to do next. That’s something that’s changed — having more options and choices.
Josh Trank is confirmed to direct the Fantastic Four reboot and there’s been rumors you’re suiting up to play the Human Torch. Can you confirm, deny?
You know what? I’ve been hearing these rumors too. What do you know?
I probably know a lot less that you know.
Which is exactly what I know (laughs). If it’s meant to be, it will be. Everybody knows me and Josh are really good friends, so if it becomes real I wouldn’t shy away from it.