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Michael B. Jordan earned his first producing credit on HBO’s Fahrenheit 451, a modern adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book of the same name. For the actor, who stars in the movie as protagonist Guy Montag, it’s a project that he couldn’t be more excited about.
But that wasn’t always the case. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Fahrenheit 451‘s debut on the premium cable channel, Jordan reveals why his commitment to fair and positive representations of the black community onscreen made him think twice about signing on to the Ramin Bahrani-directed film.
According to Jordan, he initially thought that the optics of a black man playing Montag — a “fireman” who uses his position of power to oppress the “Eels,” a disenfranchised group of people in a dystopian world desperate to preserve government-banned books — could be problematic.
“Montag is the poster boy for the fire department. He’s snatching up Eels, he’s burning their books and breaking their art, destroying their technology. He’s controlling of information,” Jordan tells THR, admitting, “I couldn’t help but visualize, as I was reading the script, the Eels being black and brown faces. I didn’t want to be an authoritative figure. I didn’t want to play an oppressor.”
After playing villain Erik Killmonger in this year’s Marvel Studios blockbuster Black Panther — what many revere as a groundbreaking celebration of black culture — the actor was especially nervous about stepping into Montag’s shoes.
“It was around that time and I didn’t feel like I wanted to do [Fahrenheit 451] next, and the whole reason behind that is I want to do what’s right for my community,” he continues. “Particularly because there’s been so much police brutality and police shootings, so many things going on within my community that it didn’t sit right with me.”
However, Jordan’s trepidations subsided after director Bahrani assured him that the story’s marginalized Eels included people of all racial backgrounds.
“He was like, ‘Mike, the Eels aren’t just black and brown. They’re people, not just people within your community.’ And that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I’ve been brainwashed.’ We’re so used to seeing that on news and in the media that I just assumed they were black,” Jordan says, adding that Bahrani’s revelation made him more eager to give Montag a go.
“That alone made me say, ‘You know what? I want to take this part. Now I want to do it even more,'” the Wire alum says. “Because if I can somehow portray this character in a way that the arc means something, makes people think and can change perspectives, then it’s worth it.”
Montag was first played onscreen by white actor Oskar Werner in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 interpretation of Bradbury’s politically charged novel. Bahrani, who has championed diverse talent throughout his career in such films as Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, tells THR that Jordan “couldn’t have been more perfect” for the role.
“The most rewarding part of this whole experience was watching Jordan in scenes. Just sitting back and watching him do it, making Montag come to life in his own way, his own interpretation was incredible,” the helmer recounts. “This turned out better than I ever imagined.”
Jordan agrees. “I’m so glad I ended up saying yes,” he says. “And I hope we see more black talent, actors of color, being cast in roles not necessarily written for them. That’s naturally something that we always want. I just want things to be real. I want them to be a reflection of the world that we live in. If it’s not detrimental to the character, then I feel like all parts should be up for grabs.”
Fahrenheit 451 premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.