Fans of Michael B. Jordan have watched him grow from teenage drug dealer (on The Wire) to leading man, receiving recent festival praise for his work in Fruitvale Station. In the film Jordan plays 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Grant’s death resulted in major riots in the Bay Area, but Jordan and first time writer-director Ryan Coogler don’t try to villanize the institution or point the finger. Instead, what you get is a rich, layered depiction of a life that’s no more.
It’s no secret Jordan’s body of work predominantly consists of dramatic roles (tearjerkers, even) and Fruitvale Station is no exception. VH1 spoke with MBJ about what it’s like to be No. 1 on the call sheet, being a self-described “old soul,” and, of course, Texas football.
VH1: Ryan Coogler said he had you in mind for the role of Oscar from the very beginning of this process. How does it feel to have a role written for you?
It’s an honor. I’ve never had a role given to me before, so for someone to tell me they had me in mind since Day One, it was a cool feeling but then I started thinking about it, like, “Wow, this is a lot of pressure.” I feel like I have to live up to someone’s expectations–the expectations that they put on me. But it was the kind of pressure that I needed and wanted to push me to work harder.
It’s your first leading role in a film—you’re in almost every scene–and it’s Ryan’s first feature length film. Do you think people thought you two could handle the project? In the end, do you think you defied expectations?
Honestly I didn’t know. The first time I saw it I was like, “God damn!” I was tired of looking at my face–it was overwhelming. It is on me at the end of the day, and that’s that fear; that gift and curse, the yin and yang. Every actor wants the opportunity to be a lead in a film and to carry a film, to show he can do it, to show he’s a good actor. But at the same time, if it doesn’t go well people can easily pin it on you and blame you for it, and you might not get that opportunity again. And that’s why I just decided to focus all anxiety and nervous energy into doing the homework and doing the best I can.
In addition to playing Oscar, you’ve played a number of young men who go through really tough things at a very early age. Do you feel like you’ve been forced to grow up fast because of the roles you’ve played?
I think the industry itself grows you up too fast. When you’re around adults and you have to be professional when you’re young, I think that it gives you a maturity. I’ve always felt like an old soul–I’ve always felt a little older, period. It’s something that I don’t think about much, but now that you’re asking: growing up too fast? Maybe a little bit? Maybe a little too fast? [Pause] No, no. I think everything happens right on time.
As viewers we’ve had emotional responses to all of your roles, from television to film. As an actor, what was the hardest scene for you to get through?
There’s a couple that come to mind, but it’s probably not the things you would find interesting. For technical reasons, in Fruitvale Station, laying in the morgue on that slab and being dead. Being there with all those real bodies? That was a pretty tough scene. I just tried to go to sleep, but it was so weird laying on a slab for one take, ultimately you feel like you’re dying like they were.
There was another scene on Friday Night Lights–which was my opening scene–where I’m running down an alley in Texas, and it is SO hot. It is so HOT in Texas, it was straight up hot. Hot, hot, hot, hot. I was running down this alley full-force maybe seven or eight times, running after this truck with the camera–I remember damn near passing out. The cops tackled me and I get wrestled to the ground. This cop was struggling with me, and I accidentally hit my head on the ground and I had to get four or five stitches. I had this huge lump on my forehead and I was just like, “They’re gonna recast me, they’re gonna recast me, they’re gonna recast me!” Day One and I get hurt? I just thought that was it. But it worked out.
On the show, your character Vince Howard and Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) evolve from having a volatile/nonexistent relationship to something that resembles that of a father and son. What’s the best advice Kyle has given you?
Stay humble and keep working hard. And have fun–he would say have fun, remember why you’re doing it, [and] have a good time. Whenever you stop having fun you’re either doing something wrong or it’s not for you anymore.
Based on your body of work, do people expect you to be very, very serious when they meet you?
I don’t know [laughs]! What did you expect?
Well from your roles: serious, mature, well-spoken, but I was hoping—and it’s been confirmed—that you’d be nice, affable, and not so serious.
[Laughs] Not so serious? I’m a grown boy, I have my moments. I think everyone has their moments, but I know to be serious when it’s time to be serious. The roles are clearly dramatic and have serious tones to them, but I like acting, I like jumping out of my comfort zone and playing people that aren’t me so it’s a different, fun portrayal.
Do you fear that you’re being typecast at all? Are you looking at roles that can go against what you’ve previously done?
I have a film coming out January 31, which is a romantic comedy called Are We Officially Dating? with Miles Teller and Zac Efron–I think that’s very different than what I’ve ever done before. Not really scared of being typecast at all, it’s ultimately my choice at the end of the day in what I’m doing. I want to do things that show range; I want to do all types of work. I would not like to be typecast, so I’m looking for things that are all over the place just to try to find my different sides and personalities.
How was it working on a comedy?
It was a little nerve-wracking, but it was fun. It was fun getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new for the first time.
You star alongside with Zac Efron, who’s also been in the business for a long time, albeit in projects that are very different from what you’ve done. Did he teach you any dance moves from his High School Musical days?
Oh come on, girl, you’re reaching [laughs]. You think guys get together on the phone at night and say, “Let me see the routine!”? [Sings] “And bend, and snap, and spin!” No, I didn’t do any “kumbaya” [laughs].
I’m a woman, I don’t know what guys do when they hang out.
[Laughs] No, we didn’t do that. We hung out, we ran the streets of New York, we had a good time. I’ve known Zac, being out here in L.A., so he was a buddy of mine walking into it. It was like shooting with one of my good friends and that always works out for the best.
Is there a genre you haven’t done that you’re looking to explore next?
I really want to get into action-adventure stuff, maybe some thrillers, some fantasy, everything. I don’t know what’s next to tell you the truth, but I just want to move forward into all different types of genres. Maybe not comedy so much, I’m not sure.
Did you find filming a comedy scary? It’s difficult to go out there and tell a joke, hoping people will laugh.
Yeah, for sure. I have a new respect for comedic films and actors because it is different, it’s difficult. That’s not the reason why I’m shying away from it–it’s a personal preference. There’s a lot of genres that I’m more interested in.
Garfield recently said that the superhero’s sexuality is open to interpretation, and he named you as someone he’d want to play his gay lover in the film, should Marc Webb choose to go that route.
No thoughts on that, but I am a fan of Andrew. He’s a talented actor, I admire his work, and I’d definitely love to work with him in the future. He’s a funny guy–he’s got a sense of humor and I love people that won’t take themselves too seriously all the time, so it’s cool for him to come out and say how he felt or joke around or whatever. It was fun, I laughed at it.
Superheroes are such iconic characters in pop culture, and many fans maintain a specific vision of what they feel a character should look or act like. What do you think about taking a more open interpretation to these characters so many hold dear?
That was the smoothest question to ask me without asking, that was pretty good. I think a lot of times with comic books, there’s a continuity issue with people.I think with any kind of show, if you have a character you grew up with that gets recast, sometimes people feel a certain way about it. If it’s specific to race or other characteristics that can’t change and would be detrimental to the character, then I feel like they shouldn’t be changed. But just a generic “He’s American, he’s smart, he’s funny, his name is XYZ”? Then I feel like anybody could be able to play that role. Hopefully moving forward people will be able to be a little bit more open-minded. It’s 2013, you have to be able to illustrate that.