Stars lie all the time. They sign up for a $200 million summer movie and then insist that they feel conflicted about fame. They swear during lunch that they just want to ”focus on the work” and then get a DUI after dinner. So you can go years without meeting a young actor who will tell you something as unguarded, and as honest, as this: ”I want to do something great. I want to leave something behind that, after I’m gone, people will say, ‘He changed the game.’ I want to do something that lasts forever. I want to do that so bad, bro. So bad, so bad.”
Michael B. Jordan is not a star yet, but because of his performance in a small firestorm of a film, Fruitvale Station, he has earned something that every actor in Hollywood craves and few ever receive: a moment. Think Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise. Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Ryan Gosling in The Believer. It is the instant when a performer bolts from the pack and the industry leans forward and asks, ”Whoa, who is that?”
Fruitvale, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, is based on the true story of Oscar Grant III (Jordan), a 22-year-old committed father and son and itinerant pot dealer who was fatally shot in the back, while lying facedown, by a transit officer in the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. The film, which follows Grant through his final day, scored the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. It was snagged by The Weinstein Company for more than $2 million after a bidding war, and won the Un Certain Regard Prize of the Future in Cannes in May. Fruitvale (not yet rated) is now poised for an awards-season run after it opens in select theaters on July 12.
The critical success of the film rests in large part on Jordan’s skill in synthesizing Grant’s contradictions. ”When an incident like this happens, a guy like Oscar gets painted as either a saint or a monster,” says the actor, sitting in one of his favorite L.A. cafés in early June. ”But he loses his humanity in that. He was a kid, and he wanted to make everybody happy. He was the center of attention around his friends. He was the best possible son when he was with his mother. The best possible father when he was with his daughter. Yet he lied, he did drugs, he had a temper. He was a juggling act.” Jordan, 26, captures it all, as well as the underlying vulnerability and hunger. In his hands, Grant becomes a young man desperate to be better than who he is, even when he’s blocking his own way. ”I’m pretty sure everybody in his early 20s has done something stupid,” Jordan says. ”Fortunately, we get a chance to grow and reflect and make better decisions. Oscar’s life was taken before he got that chance.”
Jordan has leavened almost every character he’s played with that same empathy and emotional nakedness, from teen drug dealer Wallace on HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire to troubled quarterback Vince Howard in the final seasons of Friday Night Lights — and even senior-class-president-with-superpowers Steve Montgomery in the 2012 sleeper hit Chronicle. ”It’s kind of like his secret weapon,” says Jason Katims, exec producer of FNL. ”No matter what scene Michael’s playing, you feel that it’s coming from a very deep place.” Jordan doesn’t keep his shield up much in real life, either. ”He isn’t ashamed to say that he’s scared,” says Andre Royo, who costarred with Jordan on The Wire, and whom Jordan credits with helping him find his character on that show. A year or so after Jordan was off the series, Royo says, ”I’d run into him at a party and he’d be sad and nervous, going, ‘I haven’t booked anything in a while; I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and you’d see his eyes fill up with tears a bit, and I’d be like, ‘You’re, like, what, 17? Shut the f— up.’ But I’d walk away from that saying, ‘Wow, that’s great. That kid does not put on a mask.”’
Jordan, who grew up in Newark, started modeling as a boy and then, encouraged by his mother, transitioned to acting. After The Wire he had a three-year run on All My Children during high school, and he has rarely been unemployed since. His parents and his work kept him from careering off course, but he knows it could have been otherwise. ”I’ve been in stolen cars before, joyriding, because that was the cool thing to do,” he says. ”Where I’m from, it was common. In hindsight, that was the stupidest s— I could have done. One wrong turn and we could have been dead or locked up.” Unlike his Fruitvale character, he was lucky. ”I used to catch the train from Newark to Manhattan all the time,” he says. ”It could have easily been me.”
In person Jordan is all loose shoulders and easy smiles, but when he starts talking about his career, his voice surges like Seabiscuit at the starting gate. ”I’ve got so much I want to do,” he says. ”Everybody’s out clubbing all night, but for the most part I’m in the house reading, getting my mind right, plotting chess moves.” He’s looking for novels to adapt into screenplays. He’s written a TV script. And, like all actors with grand plans, he eventually wants to produce and direct. ”I’m working on my big-boy voice,” he says, grinning. What he seems to want most, really, is to matter. ”That’s exactly it,” says Monica Potter, who starred opposite Jordan in a two-season arc on NBC’s Parenthood. ”He’s focused on what he wants, but he isn’t taking himself so seriously that it’s going to inhibit him.” Plus, she says, ”I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. He’d make a great husband or boyfriend. I wish I had a daughter his age. I’m not kidding.” She’s not the only one with a soft spot for him. ”You see his face,” Royo says, ”and you just want to hug the motherf—er.”
All of which is nice, but none of it guarantees Jordan a spot on the A list. For every Matt Damon who uses his ”moment” as a catapult, there are five Stephen Dorffs who whiff it. The next two film decisions Jordan makes will be critical to his future, and he knows it. ”People think that you have a movie at Sundance and suddenly you have eight movies lined up,” he says. ”It’s not like that. I’m trying to figure out the best choice for me. I don’t want to work just to work, playing ‘the black guy’ in some ensemble cast. That’s not my future.”
When Jordan says he wants to help shatter the white ceiling that still keeps the majority of black actors shackled to roles as thugs, athletes, and sidekicks, it’s hard not to wince a little at the gung ho optimism (and mild hubris) of it. ”I want the scripts that Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t do, or that Ben Affleck or Joseph Gordon-Levitt couldn’t do,” he says. But who knows? He may get there. He’s already broken the color barrier once, starring in Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, in a role originally written for a white actor. And he may be about to do it again: Jordan has hinted that he’s on the short list to play the Human Torch in Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four.
For now, though, Michael B. Jordan has his moment, his talent, and his drive. It’s not everything, but it’s a start, and that may be all he needs.