MBJ: It was a little awkward at first. I was hesitant because I was thinking about what they were thinking about me. I knew that [Grant’s death] is only four years old, and it’s still fresh. I wouldn’t be over it.
I sat down with Grant’s mother, Wanda, and Sophina. I got to hear about their relationship and how they treated one another. I spoke to all of his best friends. We went to a park, ordered some BBQ, played dominoes, drank a little bit and let the stories just flow.
It helped that I was on The Wire because they were all Wire fans, so that broke the ice a bit. It was cool because then they stepped back and really trusted [Fruitvale Station director] Ryan to take care of the story.
TR: Did you pull conversations from the family and friends and bring them to Ryan as notes?
MBJ: Ryan was with me every step of the way, at the park and when we met with Sophina and Wanda. For me, I can’t talk to Oscar, so I had to hear the different perspectives of Oscar, and he was different with everybody. And with Ryan’s due diligence, he did a lot of the heavy lifting for us — the story was on the page. It was up to us to connect the dots and make it make sense to us.
TR: The officer who shot Grant served 11 months in jail for involuntary manslaughter. How important do you think this film is now as we await the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial — especially since the original release date was in October?
MBJ: Harvey [Weinstein’s] a smart man.
TR: Are you surprised by the critical acclaim the film’s received?
MBJ: My biggest expectation for this film was to get into Sundance. I’d never been before, and I wanted to go with my own project. I was happy to get in; then to win the Grand Jury [Prize] and Audience Award was mind-blowing.
TR: Every actor prays for a breakout, leading role that sets his or her work above the fray, and this seems to be yours. How does that feel?
MBJ: Every day is like a dream that I’m waiting to wake up from. You work at your craft constantly and wait for roles like this to come around, so it’s humbling. I’m excited, I’m happy and very nervous.
At a young age, you train yourself, go on auditions, do a good job and expect to get it, and when you don’t, you’re let down. That disappointment sits with you, so you tell yourself to do the work and disconnect because you have no control over the outcome.
Every project, I give it my all, and then I have to walk away. Right now, being on this journey with Melanie, Ryan and Octavia, I’m just enjoying the process. Where I’ll end up, who knows.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.