‘Fruitvale Station’ Star on Playing Oscar Grant

As the Zimmerman trial concludes, Michael B. Jordan talks with The Root about playing another black male killed in America.

Screenshot from Fruitvale Station
Screenshot from Fruitvale Station

(The Root) —  Fruitvale Station — a film chronicling the final day of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Oakland, Calif., native who was shot and killed by a transit-police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009 — opens on Friday. Originally slated for an October release, distributor the Weinstein Co. and Executive Producer Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions pushed up the film’s opening night, which now coincides with the closing statements in George Zimmerman’s murder trial. Perfect timing, if the events themselves weren’t so heartbreaking.

Still, against the backdrop of the Zimmerman proceedings, first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station emits an eerie glow. The film, which stars Michael B. Jordan, Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Melanie Diaz, is brilliant in its simplicity. Grant, played by Jordan, goes about his day interacting with his girlfriend, Sophina, played by Diaz; his daughter, Tatiana; and mother, played by Spencer.

Coogler acknowledges that most of the script was culled from public trial testimony and personal interviews with Grant’s surviving family and friends. But the film’s heart and grit is delivered by its leading man, Jordan. Through roles on critically acclaimed television shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Jordan has proved to be one of the special ones.

Raised in Newark, N.J., he’s been acting since he was a child, and he has shown his skills as he deftly shifts between roles as a helpful stranger and a cornered criminal. And in this day and age, when small-budget, independent films like Beasts of the Southern Wild garner multiple Academy Award nominations, it’s highly possible that Jordan might find himself on the academy’s shortlist.

The Root sat down with Jordan on a steamy summer day in New York City, where he chatted about channeling Grant and being a rising star.

The Root: How did you and your co-star Melanie Diaz emulate the relationship between Oscar Grant and his girlfriend, Sophina?

Michael B. Jordan: We spent a lot of time together before we started filming. I cooked dinner for her. We did things that couples would do, that best friends would do, because Oscar and Sophina were definitely best friends. The low parts were easier to play — everyone knows [how to act out] conflict — but trying to create those organic, real friendship moments is something that takes more time.

TR: What’s the one thing that stands out most to you in Grant’s story?

MBJ: The tragedy of the loss of life and that it happened again. Or maybe thinking, “What if it wasn’t caught on camera? What would’ve happened? Would it have ever been a thing?”

TR: Will tackling this heavy role influence how you perform in other projects?

MBJ: Being No. 1 on the call sheet is something every actor dreams of, and this was my first time [shouldering] this type of workload. The bar has been set at a certain place, so on the next project I’m just trying not to have a ceiling. 

TR: On Friday Night Lights you delivered moving work as quarterback Vince Howard. What was it like working with Kyle Chandler, who played Coach Taylor?

MBJ: It’s a different pace working over a couple of seasons. The writing on that show was amazing. [Friday Night Lights head writer] Jason Katims wrote family and those characters so well, and he still gave us room to play. I learned so much from Kyle Chandler; being in a scene with him was like not working at all. We were having so much fun that we’d forget [that we were filming]. They’d yell “cut” and we’d still be going.

TR: For Fruitvale Station, were you able to talk to Oscar Grant’s family and friends? What was that like?