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“I still haven’t fully processed it all,” says Michael B. Jordan as we sit down to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast just a few weeks after the unveiling of Ryan Coogler‘s Creed, the critically celebrated and commercially tremendous film for which the 28-year-old has received the most acclaim of his career. “It’s a really, really warm, good feeling.” Jordan is the first person other than Sylvester Stallone to play a lead in the 40-year-old Rocky franchise — and might well follow in Stallone’s footsteps by landing a best actor nom for his installment.
(You can play and read the conversation below, or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes. Recent guests include Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Charlotte Rampling, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde, Benicio Del Toro, Lily Tomlin and Eddie Redmayne.)
Jordan, who was raised in Newark, N.J., stumbled into the public eye at a young age — and quite by accident. At age 10, a receptionist at a doctor’s office encouraged his mother to get him into modeling; he quickly landed work. Not long after, he picked up a copy of Backstage magazine out of a trash bin and auditioned for a part; he landed it. And thus began a string of appearances on widely revered — but not always widely seen — TV shows, including Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and, most famously, The Wire. On that Baltimore-set drug drama, he played a young dealer named Wallace, and recalls it being “the first time I lost myself in a character and really fell in love with that euphoric feeling of just not being yourself, not thinking like you would normally think.” (He credits the actor who played “Bubbles,” Andre Royo, “with my falling in love with acting.”)
After Jordan’s Wire character met his end — prompting a line of dialogue that Jordan can’t go a day without hearing quoted back to him — he was at a frightening crossroads. “I thought it was over,” he says of his career. To his chagrin, his next job was on the soap opera All My Children — although he came to realize that doing 90-plus pages per day was “great training,” and he sought to emulate the “work ethic” of Susan Lucci and others on the show.
He eventually moved out west to Los Angeles, hoping to try his hand at film. He had mapped out a “loose formula” for his career: “to be a guy that can open a film overseas and here at home,” like his role models Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington. And 2014 was the year in which he laid the foundation for that. He starred in the rom-com That Awkward Moment and, because he had sought “a gritty independent to show people what I can do,” Fruitvale Station. The latter film was written and was to be directed by Coogler, a first-time feature filmmaker whose work greatly impressed the actor. “I read it and I was like, ‘This is it. It’s perfect.'”
The story of the killing of a young black man, Oscar Grant III, by an overly aggressive white Oakland cop, was among the first of its kind to be captured on a smartphone. As a result, Coogler and Jordan both saw it and were deeply impacted by it. “That was very personal,” Jordan says. “I mean, it could have been me, it could have been any one of my friends growing up, it could have been my little brother, it could have been anybody. That’s the fear and that’s the reality for myself and people within my community who look like me all over.”
Making the film proved to be “an intense process,” not least when the City of Oakland allowed the production to film the aforementioned incident in the very same BART station where it actually happened. “I literally laid over the exact spot that he was shot in — like, the bullet hole was still in the ground,” says Jordan, who was shaken by the whole thing. The part of the film of which he’s proudest, though, was one in which he comforts a dying dog — the resolution of which he and Coogler passionately debated. “That’s probably one of my favorite scenes of mine, period.”
Jordan’s 2015 proved to be a year of major ups and downs. The big down was the critical and commercial failure of his first superhero vehicle, Fantastic Four, which was directed by the same filmmaker with whom he’d worked on 2012’s Chronicle, Josh Trank. The experience of making the film was more positive than the result, he says. “Everybody set out to do a great movie,” he vents, “but sometimes things just fall apart and they don’t turn out the way you want them to.” He continues, “It just didn’t work out. I mean, it was rough for a while — my first real, for me, total failure. I mean, when you look at it, it was kind of bad.” He adds, “For me, it was a slice of humble pie.”
Creed, however, was a much happier experience. Coogler had spoken to Jordan about his ideas for a new Rocky installment — in which Jordan would play Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky Balboa’s late rival — even before Fruitvale Station was completed and put both of them firmly on the map. Now, having finally attained Stallone‘s blessing and participation, Coogler was ready to go — if Jordan was. That meant transforming his body into that of a boxer, which required serious boxing, intense physical training and strict dieting for 18 months, which the actor embraced for “fear of being called out for being a fake or not looking good.”
“To be able to act opposite Rocky,” he says of Stallone, was the thrill of a lifetime. “Getting to know him and really working on the script and developing the characters before we started filming” enabled them to focus entirely on each other in their scenes together. (“I thought Sly knocked it out of the park,” he says of his co-star’s performance.) Well, perhaps not entirely, since Adonis’ love interest was played by the “beautiful” Tessa Thompson. “We really challenged each other,” Jordan says of his scenes with the 32-year-old up-and-comer.
There are so many scenes in the film of which Jordan’s proud. “That whole fight sequence [at the end of the film] was intense, man, and it pushed me to the limits physically,” he says, calling its production “eight straight days of just hell.” No more fun was “the knockout” scene in which Jordan takes an unchallenged punch in slow motion, which Stallone told him was a rite of passage for anyone involved with the franchise; he went through it twice. But the most badass scene — one that Jordan says “felt so right” — was the one in which Adonis outruns a bunch of ATVs on the streets of Philadelphia.
Coogler and Jordan already have plans to make a third film together — Wrong Answer, about the recent cheating scandal in the Atlanta school system — and perhaps some other “joint ventures” as well, including “possibly a production company. We’re trying to figure out the mechanics of that.” Jordan says of their relationship, “We’re similar guys, we care about the same things, we’re from similar places, we have similar tastes, and our communication and our shorthand is there on set, so there’s the mixture of all that. Then I just look at him as one of my closest friends. And then work-wise, professionally, I’m in awe — he’s a really smart guy, he knows film and the work is fun.”
Creed was released by Warner Bros. on Nov. 25. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Jordan for best actor.
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