Where’s Wallace at? It’s hard not to think of that famous line from HBO’s The Wire on this rainy afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival while waiting, and waiting, for Michael B. Jordan, the 26-year-old actor still best known for playing that show’s sweet, cornrowed teenage drug dealer Wallace, who was—spoiler alert—heartbreakingly offed in season one. Jordan is “delayed,” says the publicist for his new movie, Fruitvale Station, even though he’s staying at the hotel where we’re supposed to be having lunch. All becomes clear when he finally materializes, a half-hour later, and buries his head in the publicist’s shoulder. “I’m hurting,” he groans, making no attempt to hide his hang-over. “What are you making me do now?”
Jordan still bears traces of the kid who played Wallace: He’s wide-eyed and affectless, but now also handsome, buff, and a decade older. He laughs hard when he realizes I saw his entrance, and again when I tell him I saw him the previous night, partying past midnight at a Boy George beach concert, which he left to see a rap show. “I didn’t sleep at all,” he says, scanning the menu for something “safe,” like a cheeseburger. “I was partying like it was my job, and I take my work very seriously. Is it a bad thing that I’m hung-over right now?” He groans again, horrified at the impression he’s making. “Please, I’m not an alcoholic. It’s only because I’m in Cannes. When in Cannes …”
Who could begrudge him for celebrating? Fruitvale Station’s showing at Cannes feels like a victory lap after January’s Sundance Film Festival, where the movie sold to the Weinstein Company in a bidding war and won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. In it, Jordan has his first starring role, as Oscar Grant III, the real-life former drug dealer whose shooting death at the hands of a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer sparked riots in 2009. The movie is named after the BART stop where an unarmed Grant, 22, was shot in the back, lying facedown on the platform. (For anyone keeping count, this is the fifth time Jordan has played a sensitive, troubled soul who dies tragically onscreen; the others were in—again, spoiler alert—Blackout, Red Tails, and 2012’s surprise hit Chronicle, in which he played a telekinetic high schooler struck by lightning.)
Promoting Fruitvale Station requires a tricky balancing act for Jordan, who’s trying to honor Grant’s memory while also enjoying his own big moment. Suddenly, the former child model from Newark has his own entourage. “It’s like, ‘Oh, this is how they do it,’ ” says Jordan, “when you see more established artists and wonder how they get so many things done.” The other night, he ate caviar at the Hotel du Cap, where he met Michael Douglas and Justin Timberlake. At the Boy George party, Benicio del Toro told Jordan he saw Fruitvale Station and wants to find a project they can act in together.
Casting Jordan in the film was a risk for 27-year-old first-time director Ryan Coogler. “I needed someone immensely talented,” says Coogler, “because he would be onscreen for 98 percent of the movie.” And since they only had three weeks to shoot, with many novice actors in the cast, Coogler needed a star accustomed to working fast, preferably in TV. Jordan checked those boxes, but he’d never carried a project on his own. Coogler trusted his instincts. “Everything he was in, he played supporting characters,” says the director, “but I’d always wish the camera would stay on him.”
Jordan threw himself into the role, moving to the Bay Area from L.A. a month before the shoot to meet Grant’s friends and family and soak up the vibe. He knew every crew member’s name, Coogler says, and would cheer them on. Between takes, he’d do his own hair. They shot the scene in the BART station late at night when the train wasn’t running, with Jordan’s face pressed against the very cement where Grant was shot. “I prayed to Oscar a lot,” says Jordan. “I asked him to be around me, to give me his essence. When I was shooting that scene, I felt like I could’ve lost my life. I was scared, and I think that’s how Oscar felt.”
Jordan says he felt a deep connection to Grant, who would have been roughly the same age as him if he’d lived. They grew up in similar neighborhoods, too. “Newark isn’t a playground,” says Jordan. “I had friends that sold drugs, stole cars.” He stayed out of trouble, but police harassed him anyway, especially for driving a BMW at 16. “Being African-American and driving a nicer car than cops thought I should gave me problems,” he says. He was outraged by footage of Grant’s shooting and at what many thought was a slap on the wrist for the BART officer who shot him. “I was like, ‘This is bullshit. Bullshit.’ ” he says. “He was sentenced to two years and got out in eleven months. Eleven months for taking a life?”
At Fruitvale Station’s Sundance premiere, Jordan sat behind Grant’s family as they watched for the first time. Everybody cried, Jordan included. “It was very, very heavy,” he says. So heavy that he almost skipped the Cannes screening. The only time he cried in France, though, was while talking to his parents on the phone while suiting up in his first-ever tuxedo. “It really affected me, not having the people that always supported me around at this moment.”
It was during a doctor’s visit with his mom that a receptionist suggested that a young Jordan take head shots. He quickly booked print ads for CVS and Toys ’R’ Us and took a bit part on The Sopranos as a bully. Later, he joined The Wire, then All My Children as a delinquent teen, Friday Night Lights as a quarterback who takes up football to avoid juvie, and Parenthood as a formerly homeless recovering alcoholic. If it seems like Jordan’s been typecast as a troubled inner-city kid so far, that’s because he has, and he knows it. “Unfortunately, you’ve got to play the game and play the roles that are written for, they say, the black guy,” he says. “But I had to go through those necessary steps to get to where I am, to get to do things that are more unconventional.”
Those things include a role as a doctor opposite Zac Efron in the 2014 comedy Are We Officially Dating? and Jordan’s rumored part in Chronicle director Josh Trank’s planned Fantastic Four reboot as the Human Torch, whose human alter ego is blond-haired and blue-eyed in the comics. “If the opportunity came up, why would I say no?” says Jordan, who won’t confirm his casting as the superhero. “Why would I be like, ‘No, I’m black, guys. I can’t play that’?”
But for now, he’d be happy just to play a character that lives to see the end of a movie. “I gotta switch that up. I keep getting taken out!” he says, laughing. “My mom has seen me die way too much. I gotta give her a break. Hopefully, moving forward, I’ll make it through the third act.”
*This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.