Director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan working on Creed
Barry Wetcher

Fruitvale Station, the painful glimpse into the life of Oscar Grant, who was killed in 2009 by a transit cop in the Bay Area, put both director-writer Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan on the Hollywood fast track. Already a Sundance darling, Fruitvale Station got even more attention because its theatrical release in 2013 coincided with the George Zimmerman trial for the death of Trayvon Martin. The film cast Jordan, who was then most memorable from The Wire, in a new light, transforming him into a potential leading man and helping to generate excitement for subsequent roles in such mainstream fare as Fantastic Four.

Creed, a spin on the iconic Rocky franchise, featuring the son of Apollo Creed—whom Carl Weathers played in four Rocky films, including the very first one, released back in 1976—may be lighter fare than Fruitvale Station, but it’s still refreshing and impactful. The Root caught up with Coogler and Jordan to discuss what prompted Coogler to revive the franchise that most believed ended in 2006 with Rocky Balboa, its sixth installment; how Jordan’s personal experiences growing up sharing the name of basketball great Michael Jordan connected him to Adonis Creed; and working with Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone.

The Root: You actually started Creed before Fruitvale Station?

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Ryan Coogler: I had the idea for it around the time I was gearing up to start shooting Fruitvale. It really just came from my relationship with my dad. It was really inspired by our relationship. He was a big Rocky fan. I would watch the movies with him while growing up, and he would get real emotional at different times in the movie.

I always wondered why he was so into him, and I found out it was because of his relationship with his mom; they would watch him [together]. She passed away when he was real young, and he was trying to pass that on to me and my little brothers, and then he got sick right around the time I was getting ready to make Fruitvale, and watching him go through that kind of gave me the idea to write this movie.

TR: So Mike, when Ryan shared this idea with you, what were your thoughts?

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Michael B. Jordan: Cool.

TR: That’s it?

MBJ: That’s it. Let’s do it. It was real simple. I wish I had like a more profound answer, but we were so focused on shooting Fruitvale at the moment, I didn’t really have a chance to really let it sink in that much. So when he asked me if I wanted to do it, I was like, “Cool, let’s just get to it.” And once things started to become a little bit more real moving forward with Sly [Stallone], and the other pieces of the puzzle kind of coming together, it came together, like, really fast, but it was an easy answer from the beginning.

TR: Ryan, with Creed, what did you want to portray in the story itself and then as a director?

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RC: My main thing with it is the sense of identity. Adonis is a character who is not really sure who he is. He knows a few things about himself—like, the main thing is that fighting makes him happy, for whatever reason—but he got a lot of issues as it relates to identity. When I went through almost losing my dad, I thought about what I would be like if I didn’t have him. That was a big question that I had, and I realized that, in my father, I kind of had almost, like, a goal or an idea of what I would be like in the next few years.

My dad had me kind of young. He was, like, in his early 20s when he had me, so I always kind of knew what I would look like when I got a little older, what I would be like, what kind of stuff he liked. I would learn more about myself. So, with Adonis, he’s mad, like so many people [because he doesn’t have that]. There are lots of things about himself that he’s not sure about it. A metaphor for that is his name.

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During the movie, he is constantly called different things. Everybody called him something different. It’s Adonis or it’s Donnie or it’s Johnson or it’s Little Creed or it’s Fake Creed. The whole movie, this dude doesn’t really have a name.

TR: Also in Los Angeles, he didn’t have any friends.

MBJ: [Laughs.] We were trying to think of what majestic creature represented Donnie. With Rocky, everybody thinks “Eye of the Tiger.” With Donnie, we thought of him as a lone wolf. He was just used to doing everything on his own. He was used to being by himself. He was just on a solo mission to try [to] figure some things out. And I think a lot of where he came from or how he was conceived [through an extramarital affair] kind of led to his exile, led to him being alone. He has a brother and sister, but they don’t look at him as that because he represents that mistake. So he has kind of had to do everything on his own.

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TR: As an actor, what does this role mean to you, especially in representing black masculinity on screen and in terms of displaying such a range of emotions?

MBJ: I think it’s more of a people thing. I think anybody growing up in a situation living in somebody else’s shadow, not really knowing who their dad was, [can relate]. In this particular case, his dad happened to be the most famous fighter in the world. So you don’t know him but everybody else does, and I think that’s a little complex.

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Even for myself, my name is Michael Jordan and there’s another Michael Jordan out there, so, for a long time, I resented my name. I didn’t like it growing up as a kid being teased. I was into sports and basketball and stuff like that. I wanted to change my name for a really long time until I came to terms with it. It kind of gave me a healthy chip, though, to kind of want to compete and want to be great at things and try to have my own name. I wanted people to think of me, not that guy.

But my dad’s name is Michael Jordan, and so I had to accept that, that my dad named me after himself, and it kind of motivated me and I embraced it after a while. So, as far as Adonis, people are more layered, and regardless of where they come from, everybody has goals and dreams and things they want to achieve. It’s like boxing. It seems so solo. It’s just you in that ring, but as you dive deeper into it, they’re so strong, but they rely on so many people to get through battle.

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Like Ryan always tells me, a boxer can’t even use his hands; he can’t even get himself a drink of water if he really wanted to. He relies on his corner. There are a lot of themes in this film that I think we really tried to convey through Donnie, through his family relationships or the lack thereof, and what he was longing for and looking for and, especially as a father figure, finding Rocky.

RC: I think black men will definitely relate to him on a whole ’nother level because you look at all his struggles, and they are very similar to the struggles that we have as a people, even down to having issues with our name, even us not really knowing what to call ourselves. I think a lot of that came from me and Michael. A lot of it kind of happened by happenstance, just going through the work. We would work on a scene and I would realize, “Aw, yeah, this is saying something about us, too,” which is awesome. This is my first time working on something that young people can see legally without their mom or their dad sneaking them in, so I’m excited to see kids watching it and …

MBJ: … getting inspired.

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RC: Yeah, I didn’t really have that. In all the pictures, there are no boxing characters that exist that really look like Mike.   

TR: Mike, you and Stallone have a really nice rapport. Your relationship is believable.

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MBJ: Because he’s such a cool dude. He reminds me of one of my uncles.

RC: He got that vibe.

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MBJ: Yeah, you go in there and we start talking sports, and the next thing you know, we might be in there roughhousing.

RC: He’s, like, super well-meaning. He’s got a great sense of humor. He and Mike are very similar in many ways, just personalitywise. Sly was very apprehensive up front. I was the only person meeting with him. Sly was very cautious about Mike, I eventually realized. He was saying, “Man, is he ready to do all this work? Is he ready to put the emotional work in and the physical work in; is he ready to go? Is he ready to do everything that I had to do while I was doing this?”

He was concerned that maybe that wasn’t the case, and rightfully so. It’s not a lot of people with a work ethic like Mike’s, especially in this industry. It’s very few, and I was reassuring him that “Man, if there is anybody that’s able to do this part, it’s Mike.” I knew, once I got them both to sit down in the same room and meet each other and spend time together, it would be magic, and it was.

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Editor's note: Creed opens nationwide Nov. 25, in time for Thanksgiving.

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.