They display an easy rapport that manifests as attentiveness, affirmation, and gentle ribbing, as well as friendly hand-holding, which the costars maintain throughout the chat. That chemistry was evident on screen in 2015’s Creed, the blockbuster spin-off from the Rocky franchise, which pivoted the point of view from Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa to that of fiery boxer Adonis, son of Rocky’s rival-turned-BFF Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). (Stallone, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and won the Golden Globe for Creed, co-wrote the sequel screenplay and returns as the aging but still vital trainer Balboa.)
Creed II takes some of its cues from 1985’s Rocky IV, during which Apollo was killed in the ring by Soviet superfighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in what was supposed to be a friendly, publicity-building exhibition match. The new film also has echoes of 1979’s Rocky II, with a deepening romantic relationship and an expanding family. But the new branch of the franchise resolutely retains its own contemporary flavor, from the music to the attitude. While the younger Creed’s preparation for and fight with Viktor “son of Ivan” Drago (played by man-mountain Florian Munteanu) is given ample screen time, the dramatic stakes are also raised outside of the ring.
“It felt good to collaborate with two people who knew what I was trying to do but also were in this world before,” says director Steven Caple Jr. (The Land), who was handed the reins to the sequel by Creed director Ryan Coogler. (Coogler remained an executive producer on the sequel.) “I had a lot of freedom to play with them because they already knew their characters.”
EW chatted with Jordan, 31, and Thompson, 35, about rising up, straight to the top, and making sure their voices are heard.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You must have been excited to get back into this world. Did you go back and watch Rocky IV to brush up on the Drago drama?
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: Yeah, Rocky IV is one of my favorites, so I was familiar with the whole beef that they had. Just getting back into that definitely got me amped up to play this part.
TESSA THOMPSON: You know what I did go back and watch was Rocky II, just to get a sense of what they did with [Rocky’s wife] Adrian in that film, and how those characters started their family and how their relationship transitioned from the first [film] to the second. I thought there was an opportunity to do something nice with ours in terms of an homage to that.
And there’s much more meat to your character this time, Tessa.
THOMPSON: Yes, I think for me, more important than the actual page space is just that it felt like the character was developing. What we were able to do in the first Creed was create a character that felt very singular, a woman that felt like she had her own agency, that felt like she had a rich enough inner life that she could occupy her own narrative entirely. We were trying not to be precious, but I wanted to continue that in this next part of the journey. We both have grown since we made the first film, and at a certain point you don’t want to be just a cog in something moving, you want to be instrumental to the organism of it. Mike is producing on this one. We’ve always had skin in the game, but we’re both hitting a point in our careers where we want to really…
JORDAN: …be involved in the process.
There’s something quietly revolutionary about these movies: You’ve taken a globally beloved, mass-appeal franchise and transitioned to a black protagonist without making a big deal about that. But you’ve also added touches that will resonate specifically with black audiences. I’m thinking of the moment in the first film when Creed is helping Bianca with her hair, or in the new film when he’s giving Rocky a hard time about his baby-name suggestions. Was that intentional?
JORDAN: Yes. One thousand percent intentional. As broad as we want it to be and as accessible to everybody, we try to find moments to make it very specific for us. We deserve that. You know, what black love would be like, what are the things that we would be doing? Like, if she needed help taking out her hair, that’s what I would do. That’s what I did for my sister, my mother, what I would do for my girlfriend, wife. We tried to do it as much as we could.
THOMPSON: For me, it felt very powerful in the first Creed to go on those steps in Philly and to be promoting this movie that, in my estimation, is black as hell. And the folks that were engaging were all sorts of people. To me, that does a tremendous amount to humanize our experience.
You worked with a new director on this one, Steven Caple Jr. He says that you all were very helpful bringing him into this world, but also really collaborative in terms of him putting his own stamp on it. Were you excited by his ideas?
JORDAN: We definitely were excited to see him do his thing and put his own twist on it. I think it would be pretty stale just to repeat what somebody else did. He had to bring his own spin and flair to it, and make it unique and build off the characters from the first movie.
You’ve had interesting career parallels. You both first gained notice on critically acclaimed TV series — Michael on The Wire and Tessa on Veronica Mars — and then steadily built toward this peak by balancing provocative indie projects like Fruitvale Station and Dear White People with the giant Marvel movies Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok…
JORDAN: It’s crazy. We’re adulting now! [Laughs] We sit amongst each other like, “Yo, ain’t it crazy how we’re adults now? Like, how weird is this?”
THOMPSON: Except our characters are a skosh ahead of us in terms of adulting. ’Cause they’re actually, like, parents. They’re really committing to each other. [Laughs]
Was that mix of big and small a specific career choice?
JORDAN: Intentional. In the beginning, I always wanted to do independent films. I felt like that was gonna be my calling card to the industry — “Oh, this guy can connect, he can lead a movie.” Even to myself, I just wanted to know if I could carry a film, back when we did Fruitvale. And then, afterwards, you start to think about the bigger picture: How do you become a leading man? How do you become international? And for me, it’s always been bigger project, smaller project, remind people why you’re here —become a household name and then always go back to the smaller films, the heartfelt projects with a message. It’s a good balance.
THOMPSON: [Laughs] Says the mini-mogul. I make fun of him because I admire it. And that sort of forward thinking and ownership over destiny and legacy. [To Jordan] It’s something I’m inspired by in you. I never thought about making big movies because I just couldn’t see myself inside of them. That’s been broken open, but I couldn’t imagine myself inside of a huge franchise because, with the exception of a few women of color, it just didn’t exist. And then, it was with some level of trepidation that I took on Thor. I thought of Creed — because it wasn’t a franchise at the time — as an indie film. I was working with two indie filmmakers, Ryan [Coogler] and Michael. So that’s been the thing for me: How do you marry something that does give people access to you in a global space but also do things that you care about that are rooted in something? Because to me, that’s the future. I really love going in between each.
Have you taken a moment to soak up the success of the past couple of years?
THOMPSON: To be honest, I feel a great amount of gratitude for having made the first Creed because I think it did a lot for us. Not just in terms of other jobs. I mean, it’s no surprise that we went on to do Marvel movies; I know that [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige and those guys loved that film, so I think it probably put us on certain people’s radar. But then also in terms of the process of getting to make a movie that you work so hard on and you’re incredibly proud of and the experience of making it with collaborators that understand you. That you can push each other — that, to me, sets a bar in a new way. So, after making that movie, I had a real idea of the kinds of films that I wanted to make. And also make something that could be for everyone but also specific, that expands our ideas of the humanity of all people on a huge scale.
There are few film franchises like this, spanning over 40 years. The perspective has switched, but Rocky remains constant. How does it feel to be part of that? Why do you think it continues to thrive?
THOMPSON: What’s so interesting, I think, is that there’s this enduring thing with it being about the underdog. I feel like, in each of the movies, there’s always someone behind the lens or in front of the camera that has something to prove just like the central character of the film. That’s sort of embedded into the DNA of the movie and is something that resonates with audiences.
It may sound corny, but a lot of people who have loved the Rocky movies and now love the Creed movies find them very inspirational when they are going through tough times. Have fans relayed those stories to you?
JORDAN: Yes. It’s not corny at all. I think the power of cinema and movies and storytelling — that’s what it’s for, it’s for healing, it’s for inspiration. It’s to help people dream, to get over hard times, as an escape from their reality. The Rocky films, they did that. If the Creed franchise can have that same effect, I think we’ve done our job. I’ve had kids and older adults — men, women — come up to me and say, “You motivated me to get up in the morning and go to the gym.” “You motivated me to stick to this diet.” So, yeah, I’ve experienced that, for sure. It’s incredible.
THOMPSON: I think something that’s really inspiring about the film too is the central idea of “Who’s in your corner?” And the power of family and community. To think of friends and family — whether it’s related by blood or your chosen family — going to see the film around the time when we’re all together [at the holidays] is really exciting. I know this does sound cheesy, but I’m going to own it. I don’t care, because I think it’s really important.
Are you guys game for Creed 3? 4? 5? Rocky has to die in there somewhere, right, just like Mickey did?
JORDAN: You know, I just ran into Paulie [actor Burt Young from the original films] yesterday!
THOMPSON: Did you really? Where?
JORDAN: At one of the press things for [Black] Panther. I was like, ”Oh s—, what’s up?”
JORDAN: Anyway, side note. Paulie’s alive.
So are you guys up for more sequels?
JORDAN: Yeah, if people still enjoy it and it’s still a hit. This is like my baby, in a sense, this is my first franchise.
You all have such strong chemistry. Have you thought of doing anything outside of the world of Creed?
JORDAN: Me and her working together? No hesitation here.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I would like it. It’d be interesting to see us play something that’s against our dynamic. We have such a lovely [rapport], I would be curious to see us have to be in conflict.
JORDAN: We have a natural kind of chemistry.
THOMPSON: We lean into that pretty easily, I mean, it’s been that way since the moment we met each other. So it would be a good challenge to have to find something…
JORDAN: …to have more tension.
Both of you have action figures of your characters Killmonger and Valkyrie. Tell the truth, have you played with your toys?
JORDAN: Oh, yes. Yes.
THOMPSON: Mm-hmm. I have mine in my kitchen above the sink. I also have some other [action figures] of women friends of mine.
JORDAN: It’s a posse sitting around waiting for you.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I have Lupita [Nyong’o’s character from Black Panther]…. Evan Rachel Wood from Westworld. There’s, like, a funny little mash-up of women just chilling there when I wash the dishes. [To Jordan] I don’t have Killmonger, I’m so sorry.
Michael, do you have Valkyrie?
JORDAN: I don’t. I don’t have a lot, though. I’ll get it.
THOMPSON: [With a smile] I’ll give it to you. I have an extra one.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)