At 26, Michael B. Jordan is still recognized for a role he played as a teenager — young drug dealer Wallace on HBO's "The Wire." He's had a fair share of other "troubled black youth" roles since then — on "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" — but none had resonated quite so much as his work on "The Wire." But now, when he's greeted by fans on the street, he's just as likely to be called Oscar as Wallace.
That's from his summer film "Fruitvale Station," based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old who was fatally shot in the back when he was detained and handcuffed facedown by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in an Oakland train station on Jan. 1, 2009. Rather than focus on the outrage that surrounded Grant's death, the film looks at the last 24 hours of Grant's life. The ordinary day, spent largely with family and friends, starkly underscores the tragedy that follows. Jordan's indelible performance was immediately singled out for critical praise.
The actor met up for an interview on a rare cold, rainy day in L.A., where the only space at a Larchmont cafe was outside, but he waved off the weather. "I'm from New Jersey. This is nothing."
This is your first starring role in a feature, and you've received fantastic reviews. And yet it's about a real person, a real tragedy. How do you reconcile that combination?
From an actor's perspective, it's the moment I've wanted to happen for a long time — to be able to be the lead of a film, to go to Sundance, to prove yourself with the material. I'm getting all this attention and all this success off of this tragic event. It's a bittersweet type of feeling.
You went up to Oakland for a month before filming to meet Grant's friends and family. What was that like?
Getting to know them — and getting to know Oscar through them — was very awkward at first, very hard, very sad. But then it started to loosen up. It became almost a healing process for them to talk about it. They gained a bigger voice. To be a part of that was an honor.
With all his best friends, we went to a park, ordered some barbecue, played dominoes, drank a little bit, shot the.... Just like things I would do with my boys back home in Jersey. And I listened to stories. You get a sense of who Oscar was in certain environments. He was a chameleon; he used to blend in. No matter where he was, he was somebody different, depending on what group of people he was around. So that was something that was very interesting to play through the movie.
Did you stay in character between takes, or did you try to keep it light?
I got out of it a lot. When it was heavy I was in it, but it was so much more than that. It was a love story, it was so many moments of him showing love to people he cared about. There was always the constant struggle between good and evil with him, he was always at a fork in the road, "Do I go left or do I go right?" and he would try to make the right decision, so playing that indecisiveness was really cool.
How did you feel watching it for the first time?
I was like, "OK, can we cut to something else?" I was tired of looking at my face.... I was like, this is it, if this goes bad, it's all on me, there's nothing else on the screen! That was a weird moment for me. But once we were at Sundance opening night and his family saw it, their response to it, that's when the weight lifted off my shoulders. I was, like, these are the people that knew him, and if they are OK with it, then I'm good with it. Everything else is icing on the cake.
As to the icing, what have auditions been like since the film came out?
Studio heads, executives, writers and directors that are so talented, that I'm a fan of, are saying, "Well, what do you want to do? Let's find something to do together." It changed the conversation.
What's your answer?
I want to do everything. I'm a producer at heart. Eventually, when I can produce the way I want to, my acting's going to help fuel that. And not just vehicles for myself — I'm a member of this film society, and I want to contribute. If you're in the industry, you can't just take from it; you have to deposit something back to keep it going for the next generation.
You are the next generation.
I'm an old man. I am. I love to iron. My next investment is a steamer.
OK, old man, what's your next movie?
"That Awkward Moment," coming out Jan. 31. It's a romantic comedy — my first one. I shot it right after "Fruitvale." I wanted to do something lighter, where I could live. I'm tired of dying onscreen.