Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
July 16, 2013
You can’t blame “Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan for being tempted.
“I was actually thinking about calling up Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse [today] and just getting dinner reservations,” the 26-year-old actor says. “Just to see what kind of table I would get.”
In the Sundance Award-winning, real life-based drama opening Friday, Jordan—who's named after his dad, not the Bulls legend--continues to establish his name on his own. The film depicts the last 24 hours lived by Oscar Grant (Jordan) before a San Francisco Bay Area train officer shot and killed him on a platform. (The officer claimed he meant to use his Taser, not his gun.)
At NoMi in the Park Hyatt, Jordan (best known for memorable small-screen turns on “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” and on the big screen in “Chronicle”) and writer-director Ryan Coogler, 27, talked about unjust treatment by cops, uncertainty about the real-life incident and why Jordan's goal of following Ryan Gosling's career has its limits.
Michael, you’ve talked about incidents that helped you relate to Oscar feeling targeted by cops, such as when you were pulled over in your BMW at 16. What did the cops say to you in those instances that gave you something you could use for this movie?
Michael B. Jordan: Just being pre-judged. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Oscar’s first time getting harassed or held-up by authorities. And over time you start to feel some type of way when you get pulled over. “Oh, I gotta go through this. Again.”
What do they say?
MBJ: The usual: “License and registration.” That’s usually how it starts off. Or sometimes it doesn’t. It starts off with, “Whose car is this?” It’s an automatic assumption that it’s not mine or I don’t belong in it. Or, “How’d you get this car?” Or, “Who’s Donna Jordan?” “Here’s my ID. It’s my mother’s name. It’s my mother’s car; it’s in my mom’s name.”
There’s nothing suspicious about that.
MBJ: Nothing at all. But you see somebody like me, as young as I was at the time, driving around the inner city of Newark, and to them it doesn’t make sense. I’ve been illegally searched [and had] my car illegally searched. [I’ve] been handcuffed for no reason. You get in enough of those situations … it’s not hard for [me] to pull from those experiences when I came in to play this role.
Ryan, what do you think about in terms of your parallels to the film?
Ryan Coogler: The parallels for me stem from Oscar’s family—having a close relationship with his mom, with his grandmother, with his friends. And just being in the Bay area. We were born in the same year, so coming up in that environment I’ve got too many parallels really to count. In terms of experience with the police, everybody got those. Unfortunately, it’s—
MJB: It’s common.
RC: It’s such a reality.
Did you guys talk to any of the cops who were on the scene when this happened to get that side of the story? I know you spent a lot of time with Oscar’s family.
RC: We talked to BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and the chief of the BART police who’s there now. The one that was there then had been fired. It was basically a large trial, so I had access to everything that was publicly available about the trial. Every police officer that was there took the stand and because it was a criminal trial they were [questioned by prosecutors], so just about every question that could have been asked to them in terms of what their mind state was, what they were doing, where they came from before, the history was all available there. So there’s no need to [go into that further].
Having that as a resource, why do you think this happened?
RC: You mean, why did Oscar die? I think that’s a question that’s too large to answer. You can make speculation ... I think there’s so many different things feeding these types of situations when it happens and why they happen so frequently, so it’s tough to just sum up why.
What do you think Michael?
MBJ: I kinda agree. It’s something that’s so broad. Every situation is different. That’s a tough question to answer. Human error, human nature … Judgment …
RC: The officer that shot Oscar was from Napa County. That’s an area that’s mostly white. It’s outside the Bay area. He was born in Germany. I talked to some people in Chicago PD last night actually when we were doing the screening, and Chicago PD has a rule that if you work in Chicago you have to live in Chicago. Some areas don’t have that rule. The transit authority at that time in the Bay area didn’t have that rule. So oftentimes you get people from different environments that get thrown into environments with people that they never spent time with before in they life. On a daily basis or in their personal life. The only access they had to these type of people was through the media. How are people who are young and look like Oscar portrayed in the media? You gotta think about that. And somebody given a badge and a gun and told to go police in those communities, all of a sudden they got to protect and serve and talk to people they never even spent time with [and] they might have formed opinions about.
I was curious if you thought this was a mistake or racially motivated. The movie’s all about Oscar, who’s made a lot of mistakes, but we’re seeing how he has moved on and recovered. I was wondering if you saw what happened as a mistake from the cop’s perspective too.
MBJ: I look at it as people being professionals. I’m a professional at what I do. I’m an actor. I’ve been on enough movie sets to know the difference between a stage light and an apple box. I know the difference. Why? Because I’ve been around it long enough and I know. I’m a professional at what I do. As a police officer you’re a professional at what you’re supposed to do. You should know your equipment well. You should know the difference between a taser and a handgun.
RC: For me the movie wasn’t about that. The movie’s about this guy’s life. And what happens on the platform is a very short part of the film. It’s from Oscar’s perspective. From the perspectives of the relationships that he’s involved with. To be honest, the answer to that question only one person knows. You’d have to ask that person. What I was interested in was one guy and his life and how that related to all of our lives and the fact that it ended unnecessarily and what the fallout from that was.
Michael, when you had to cry in “Hardball,” director Brian Robbins told you to imagine something you wanted and couldn’t have. What did you imagine to get yourself to that point?
MBJ: He had me think about my mom. My mom not being there. My mother’s in my life, but at the time you imagine your mom passing away, not being there … as a kid you try to think of something that hurts you the most … It was just a tool. It was something I could use. You substitute certain things from your own personal life to get you to that mental place and that emotional state. At that time [Robbins] went for the home run, the grand slam. [Laughs] He went for the one that hurt me the most. [Laughs] That’s probably why my face was looking so crazy when I was crying because it was some real—
Yeah, he wasn’t just saying, “You’re not allowed to have dessert tonight.”
MBJ: Nah, nah, that wasn’t it. [Laughs] He went for what really mattered.
How much do you use that technique now to get to that place, or is it not necessary?
MBJ: It depends honestly on the project … Now I like to think that I’m in my character’s head so much that I don’t have to substitute. I’m in the moment; I’m living in the moment. And if it’s genuine, it’s real, and if it comes out it comes out. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to force it. At that time I felt like it probably was forced for sure; but now if I cry on screen I think it’s mint. Because I think that’s how that person would feel at that time. And if it doesn’t, then it just doesn’t happen.
You mentioned wanting to model your career in some way after Ryan Gosling, Michael. How much do you wish you could go back and be part of “The Mickey Mouse Club”?
MBJ: Oh, man. I can’t sing worth a lick, so I don’t know if I would be allowed in the club.
You can’t sing?
MBJ: No! No.
Can you dance?
MBJ: I mean, I was born with rhythm but I don’t know if—I’m not a break dancer or …
I feel like there’s always that member who’s in the back mouthing along and dancing.
MBJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, and he just got by because he’s a cute kid? Yeah. I was an ugly kid; “The Mickey Mouse Club” wasn’t for me.
You’ve both talked about the types of parts out there for African-American actors. Michael, people say, “He’s a young Denzel Washington,” but at the same time you say, “That’s great, but why do you have to compare me to Denzel?” Respectfully, do you feel like there’s a double-edged sword that comes with that being proud to be compared to someone like that but at the same time--
MBJ: I mean, I’ve been living with that all my life. My name is Michael Jordan, so I’m always being compared to a person of greatness. I think everybody wants to be their own person and be an individual. And being compared to that man, who has accomplished so much in his lifetime and is known as one of the greatest ever, is an amazing compliment, but I still want to be looked at as an individual and have my own lane and my own career and looked at as “That’s Mike.” “That’ s Michael B.” I think it’s just easier for people to put you in a box or a lane because you look similar. I think that’s unfair for anybody in any situation.
RC: I think what you’re asking about is, “Why doesn’t that happen with white actors?” In that situation where there’s only one person to really point to. Because there’s not [with white actors]. There’s so many different ones. In many ways for black actors there’s been two leading guys: It’s Will Smith vs. Denzel. If somebody comes up and they’re African American as Mike is, and they’re extremely talented as Mike is, they say, “Oh, yeah, he’s the next …” I think that it points to disparity. The fact that there aren’t an abundance of African-American males that are getting lead roles [and] that are getting roles that have prominence on the big screen. [It’s] the same thing from behind the camera; maybe even worse. Coming up, when you’re black and you want to direct somebody says, “Oh, you’re Spike Lee” or “You’re John Singleton.” … When I hear people comparing Mike’s work to Denzel I think it’s amazing.. Because Denzel is such an amazing, textured actor. And I think that that comes with Mike too. I’m not thinking about how they look, though; I’m thinking about what they’re able to accomplish.
What Jordan wants to do in Chicago: “I haven’t been down to Navy Pier in such a long time. I know that’s probably the touristy thing to do, but it just reminds me so much of 2000 when I was here shooting [“Hardball”]. I just want to go back just to reminisce a little bit. And definitely the pizza puffs. [Ed. Note: A spot had been recommended to him for pizza puffs in Chicago that does not seem to exist.] I have to get one before I leave ... We were shooting this movie called “Hardball,” you know with Keanu Reeves. We shot in the city, and I just remember I couldn’t really do too much. At 13 or 14, you couldn’t go out to any nightlife. ESPN Zone was probably the coolest thing I could do. But Navy Pier was the other thing. I’d take my bicycle and ride down to Navy Pier and just hang out. Try to get a phone number or something. That was my thing.”
What stuck with Jordan from working with Kyle Chandler/Coach Taylor on “Friday Night Lights”: “Working with him in the scene was like playing tennis. You work with really talented actors, I think they make other actors look really, really good. He definitely helped me out a lot, stepped up my game. Just like the volleying back and forth. Listening. He taught me how to listen very well and reacting. There’s a lot of improv. And to be able to do that on the spot you really have to be in tune with what the other person is saying instead of just waiting for your cue line or waiting for a word for you to deliver your next line.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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