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sundance 2013

Michael B. Jordan on His Breakout Sundance Hit, Fruitvale

By this time last year, Beasts of the Southern Wild had already emerged as the clear darling of the Sundance Film Festival, the one movie attendees just had to watch. This year's breakout film has been a little slower coming, but it's now abundantly clear that it is Fruitvale. The title comes from the name of the BART train station in Oakland where, at 2:15 a.m. on January 1, 2009, 22-year-old father Oscar Grant III, coming back from celebrating New Year's Eve in San Francisco with his girlfriend and friends, was pulled by BART police from the train along with a number of other young African-American males, forced to lie face down on the platform, and shot in the back by one of the BART officers*. He died seven hours later in a hospital, as videos shot by other riders on the train made the local news, sparking both violent riots and peaceful protests. The officer, Johannes Mehserle, spent just eighteen months in prison for involuntary manslaughter — he claimed he'd mistaken his gun for his taser — and was released on parole in July 2011.

The movie, directed and written by 26-year-old Bay Area native Ryan Coogler and starring Friday Night Lights alum Michael B. Jordan in a performance that has brought screening audiences to audible sobs, follows Grant through the mundane 24 hours leading up to his shooting. It's a gritty, unsentimental, humanist take on a former drug dealer who wasn't perfect but was trying to straighten out his life in various ways, including taking the train into the city on New Year’s Eve instead of driving in order to ease the worried mind of his mother (played by Octavia Spencer). Yesterday, the Weinstein Company bought the rights for a reported $2 million after a heated bidding war. I caught up with Jordan the day after the premiere and talked about the film's teary response, police harassment he's experienced, as well as who of the Wire alumni he keeps up with.

What made you want to play Oscar Grant?
Sometimes when you’re a victim of a shooting, you know, with a police officer involved, the media and everybody wants to take your character and pull it in a million different directions. Somebody wants to portray him to be this monster. They want to pull up every traffic ticket, every class you ditched in elementary school, you know, every piece of gum that you might have stole, so they can make you out to be this monster. Then you have people that are on the complete opposite spectrum that want to paint you to be this perfect saint, and that wasn’t true either. So in that process, sometimes, I feel like Oscar’s humanity was lost. And through this project, through his relationships with the people that knew him the best, his mom, his daughter, his fiancée, and his best friends, we just want to give him a bit of his humanity back.

Were you aware of the case?
Yeah. I mean, I heard about it. It was up in the Bay, and I was living in L.A. at the time, and it trickled down. You hear about it and you get enraged, you know? It’s something that gets you upset. It could’ve been me. It could’ve been my brother. It could’ve been one of my friends. It could’ve been anybody. It makes you feel a certain type of way, and sometimes you can’t always win. So what I tried to do was to voice my opinion through my work and through the film and through Oscar, so that was my homage. That was my way of giving back.

Have you experienced police harassment before?
Yeah. I’m from Newark, New Jersey, you know what I’m saying? Can’t get a break. I’ve had my fair share of [encounters with the] police that, you know, I felt was a little excessive or did a little profiling or made assumptions and handled things the wrong way. For sure. A lot of times ... It’s one of those things where I get my first car, my first car is a BMW. It’s kind of a nice car at that age. I’m 16. I had a cool car, driving places, and I’d get pulled over a lot. You know, “Whose car is this? Who’s Donna Jordan?” “That’s my mom. It’s my mom’s car.” “Okay, cool, get out of the car.” Stuff like that ... How can you say no in that situation? Little things like that when you’re not able to voice your opinion. It could happen to a white guy; it could happen to a Hispanic dude. But it just so happens that it happens a little bit more often to black folks.

Do you get that even now that you’re recognizable, at least to people who watch The Wire?
Yeah, it still happens for sure. I’ve had a few, few times where a cop was a little bit of an asshole and then recognized me for something, or his partner recognized me for something, and he’d be like, “Oh, sorry,” and they’d let me go. And that pisses me off I think even more. Because it’s like, “Really? So if I was just some sort of regular Joe Schmo I’d be going through it right now.”

What do cops recognize you for?
Friday Night Lights, The Wire, Hardball
. Shit, soap operas. All My Children. Just randomly. My body of work.

Cops recognize you for soaps?
Surprisingly, a lot of cops probably do watch All My Children. I mean, I’ve been working for thirteen years, so it kind of shocks me sometimes that people recognize me for some of my earlier stuff. I feel like I grew up and look a little bit different, but whatever.

How did you feel about the movie’s reception at its premiere?
It was crazy. Standing ovation. Everybody’s crying. It was pretty intense. It was heavy, very heavy.

Have you cried watching it?
Yeah, I cried actually last night. I think it was a combination of a lot of things. I sat right behind [Oscar]’s family. Just hearing everybody else cry, it gets to you. It doesn’t get old. It’s not any easier the second or third time you watch it. That was my third time seeing it. I’m not gonna watch it anymore. But yeah, it gets to you.

Is it hard for you to watch yourself, especially in this?
Nah, I don’t see myself that often in the movies. Which is good. It feels different. I look different. And I’ve never seen myself that much onscreen, like in the whole movie. It’s like, “Can you guys cut to something else?” Like, “I’m tired of looking at myself.” [Laughs.] Actor-drama shit. Like, whatever. Ego crazy actor shit. [Laughs.] But, um, yeah, I don’t need to sit there and ogle at myself, you know. 

Kyle Chandler has a movie here, The Spectacular Now. Did you see him?
He didn’t make it out. He was supposed to. I really want to see it. I think tomorrow’s going to be my day to go see movies. My boy Miles Teller is in Spectacular Now, and I hear he does a fucking killer job. I want to go check that out.

Are you in touch with your FNL crew?
Not everybody, but most. Like, Derek Phillips, who played Billy Riggins; [Taylor] Kitsch every once in a while. Stacey Oristano, who played Billy’s wife. Connie [Britton] all the time. Kyle when I see him. For sure. I mean, we’re a tight family. We’re very tight. So there’s always love.

What do you want to do after this at Sundance? Any snowboarding?
[Laughs.] I’m a tropical weather cruiser. I like surfing, you know. I like being on the beach. Probably hot tub. Chill. Maybe go out later. Get some free stuff. But next I’m going back to New York to shoot this romantic comedy that I’m finishing up with Miles Teller and Zac Efron called Are We Officially Dating? We’ve got, like, another four days left of shooting, so I’m going to go back there and finish that up. 

Have you ever watched The Good Wife? It seems like everyone on The Wire has been a guest star.
Nice! They keep us working.

You ever hang out in Baltimore?
I don’t, but I was hanging out with Omar, Michael K. Williams, and Felicia, who plays Snoop, last night. That was kind of cool.

I met Kima Greggs at the last inauguration, and she was able to hop all the lines because the cops recognized her.
Yeah! We get perks every once in a while.

* This post has been changed to correct the spelling of Johannes Mehserle and to note that he was a BART officer, not a police officer.

Photo: Getty Images