Among the many great films premiering this week at Sundance Film Festival is Ryan Coogler’s drama Fruitvale. The writer/director brings us his representation of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Bay Area resident who was shot by a police officer in the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Eve, 2008. Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, Redtails) plays the man who was a father, a fiancé, a son and a friend whose life was tragically ended that fateful day. The film also stars Melonie Diaz as Grant’s fiancé and Octavia Spencer (The Help, Smashed) as his mother.
Shortly after the film’s premiere, I was able to chat with star Michael B. Jordan about his portrayal of main character and real-life person Oscar Grant. Jordan told me how he prepared to tackle this role, including research and time spent with Grant’s real family and friends. He told me all about the pressure he felt to do the character justice and what he hopes people will take away from the film. Finally, I got the scoop on his upcoming projects (Are We Officially Dating? with Miles Teller and Zac Efron) and his plans to branch out in the industry. Click after the jump to read the whole interview.
For people who are not going to see this film for a while, tell me a little bit in your own words, about what it’s about and about your character.
Jordan: The story is about Oscar Grant, it’s based on a true story, he’s a Bay Area resident that was shot and killed by the BART Transit Police. And it’s, the movie takes place over the last 24 hours of his life and pretty much gives audiences a look of his true character, kind of. Who he was as a father, as a brother, as a son, as a best friend. Um, and just really takes you through a last day of his life.
And so how did you get involved in the project?
Jordan: Honestly, my agent you know, gave me the script. We were talking about kind of what I wanted to do, and I told him I want to do a big film and that I want to do a gritty, independent film. And I was blessed to get Chronicle and then right after that he gave me Fruitvale to read. And I read it and started crying, like tears on the page, like it was pretty, it was pretty heavy. And I was like, oh man, I gotta meet this guy, who wrote it? And he was like, Ryan Coogler. And I was like ok cool, let’s, we gotta, we gotta talk. And we had a cup of coffee, and we chopped it up and talked for a few, and it was just like…there was no doubt in my mind that I wasn’t doing it.
You do play a real person.
How did you prepare to do that?
Jordan: I mean it’s hard to play, I mean it’s my first time playing a real person. And it’s hard because he’s not around, and also because there’s not that many, there’s not, there isn’t any video or audio on him whatsoever. So it’s really hard to kind of, you know, get a clear understanding so, what you had to do, what I had to do is, spend time with the people who knew him the best. Which is his mom, his daughter, his fiancée, his best friends. And really just get a good description of you know, who he was and how he…and you get different answers from everybody, you get different…answers, you just get different…it seems like this one is telling me ‘Oscar was very good at being a social chameleon. He can blend into whatever environment he was in.’ So, you know, when he was with his boys, he was with his boys. When he was with his daughter, he was a father. When he was with his fiancé, he was a great husband, a great boyfriend. With his mom he was his mother’s son. And there was a, we really tried to show that as much as we could. That’s kind of how I prepped. I literally went up to the Bay maybe a month before we started shooting and I started hanging out with his friends, and just, you know, the Bay Area is so different from L.A., and L.A. is so different from New York. I’m from the East Coast. I just really wanted to soak up whatever that Bay vibe was. And just, you know, cause I was Oscar. And I was just trying to do that.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to his family and his friends?
Jordan: Definitely, 100 percent. That was the biggest pressure I think I’ve had in doing this movie and waiting for it to come out was what would the mom, what would Wanda think, what would the family think. You know, are we gonna get a stamp of approval? Are we gonna, are they gonna think it’s crap? I didn’t know what to expect so, you know, last night at the premiere his aunt stood up and said ‘you know there was points of the movie where I couldn’t tell whether it was Oscar or you’. I was like oh man, that’s crazy, like that’s the biggest compliment, that just made it worth it for me. I don’t care what the critics or anybody else says about it. If the family, who had to live through that, and watch it again and live through it and said it was good then it’s ok with me.
What do you hope that people take away from this film? What do you hope that it is going to accomplish?
Jordan: I hope that it will get the audiences and the people to think, I want the movie to piss them off. I want it to get them upset and angry, to ask questions, to be more inquisitive about the way things are being done and the way they’re being handled. How the situations are being handled. I want people to look at each other and say damn are we treating each other like that? I want people to look at themselves sin the mirror, you know like it’s not about where you come from, it’s not about how much money you got, or your gender, black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter. Oscar was a person. He was human. He was flawed. And everybody makes mistakes, we don’t want to paint him as a saint or as this monster.
Sometimes when you have an incident where an officers shooting is involved, during the media, during the trial everybody wants to pull his character in a hundred different ways, they want to make him to be this monster and then other people want to portray him to be this perfect person and that’s just not true either. So we really wanted to just make him as human as possible. And show the relationships that he had with everybody. Show the relationships he had with his mom and the significant people in his life. And yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question.
No, it does. How was acting opposite Octavia Spencer [who plays Wanda, Oscar’s mother]?
Jodan: Octavia is awesome. She’s a really giving actress, you know, she’s very funny. She can bring, definitely lighten the mood when everybody’s all sobbing and we had an emotionally draining day she’ll lighten the mood and say something to get everybody smiling again and get us in a good mood. So, Octavia’s awesome, she’s like, as an actor, you really want people to give you what you need in the scene so you can move forward in your character. Like, just non-selfish actors. And she’s just not selfish at all. She’s very giving, so it was a lot of fun. Melonie Diaz [who plays Oscar’s fiancée] is amazing as well too. Like she was really fun to work with, you know, the chemistry was really good.
What was the general atmosphere like on set? Was it kind of somber because of the subject?
Jordan: No, not at all. I mean the only somber moments honestly are like the really heavy stuff, was probably doing the emotional stuff. Like it was fun when it was supposed to be fun, when it was supposed to be intense, when we were on the train obviously at the Fruitvale station when all that stuff went down with the police, very intense, very emotionally charged, high emotionally charged. The scene with the dog was very, very emotional because it symbolizes a lot of different things. That was very heavy. Obviously the stuff with Wanda’s birthday and the gumbo and everything, everybody’s at the house, having a good time, I thought that was great moments. We knew what we were doing, we knew the overall tone of the film as far as what the story was about but we, you couldn’t hold onto that depression or that emotional low while you’re shooting everything because it just wouldn’t fit.
How much of the film was written, how much did you stick to the script on set and how much was felt in the moment?
Jordan: It was pretty true to the script, it was very like, everything was pretty much on the page. He gave us moments where we could improv, I mean he encouraged it. As long as we were getting what we needed to get, obviously, we didn’t stray too far from what was on the page. He wanted us to be natural enough and say how we felt and what we felt in the moment. And he trusted us as actors, you know, he told us that all the time, ‘I trust you’. You know, ‘you’re here for a reason, don’t second guess yourself’. It was cool.
How does it feel to be premiering this at Sundance right now?
Jordan: It’s pretty crazy. Dream come true. First Sundance. I’ve always wanted to go with my own movie, the fact that I’m here with it is very, very humbling. It’s like yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I have a big smile on my face all the time. So, I’m just very thankful for being here, for sharing my work with people, you know?
Yeah. And what’s coming up next for you?
Jordan: Next? [aside] Scott? What’s next? Uh, we’re working on it! Nah, I just like giving him shit. I’m getting ready to go back to New York and finish shooting this movie Are We Officially Dating? with Miles Teller and Zac Efron. It’s a romantic comedy so it’s completely different than this. Lot of laughs. Lot of smiling. Having a good time. And when I’m finished with that I’m heading back to L.A. and continue to be creatively active and producing and developing projects and scripts and television shows and all that good stuff. And figuring out what role I want to do next.
Do you think you want to stay acting? You just said producing, do you see yourself in another role?
Jordan: Yeah, I mean, definitely as I get older and my taste buds change I want to do different things. I’m not ready for directing yet, you know, maybe when I get my big boy voice, I don’t have that yet but right now definitely producing for sure. Creating the opportunities for other people and you know, solid projects, things that I like, for sure, definitely. Acting I’ll do forever, but I want to produce and stuff as well.