How Michael B. Jordan Became Hollywood's Newest Breakout Star
The 26-year-old actor looks back on the chance encounter that launched his career and the jobs that led him to a life-changing role in Fruitvale Station.
Even though he'd already been working for a few hours on this particularly early and chilly December morning in New York City, Michael B. Jordan was brimming with energy and there was a shine to his inimitable smile. The newly minted star was home on the East Coast, back where it all started for him and where so much that matters still remains.
The Newark, N.J., native had flown in from L.A. a few days earlier to celebrate Thanksgiving and, more importantly, his mom's birthday. Jordan's been experiencing a breakthrough year as the star of Fruitvale Station, but he laughed at the suggestion that he's become a new hometown hero. "I thought that was Cory Booker," he joked. Still, just a night earlier, he sat in the celebrity row while taking in a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, earning the sort of attention he could have only dreamed of when he was a preteen looking for open casting calls in Backstage magazine (which he's now appeared on the cover of) at Penn Station, just a few floors below the court. At 26, Jordan is both a seasoned veteran and a rising star, a self-made success whose magnetism got him noticed, but whose hustle cemented his career.
It all began in the early '90s at a doctor's office, of all places, where Jordan was sitting in the waiting room with his mother; when they got up to leave, the receptionist flagged them down and advised, unsolicited, him to give modeling a whirl. "I was a weird-looking kid, so it was kind of like, Ahh, whatever. I guess I'll try," he remembered, laughing while stretched out across a booth at a Midtown pub. The receptionist, it turned out, was also the mother of two children who'd done local advertisements already, so Jordan took time out of his busy schedule (tap dancing, soccer, amateur culinary pursuits) to head to some auditions.
And he booked the jobs, which kicked off a lucrative period of immortalizing his awkward pubescent years in ads for Toys "R" Us and other national brands, photos at which Jordan still blanches, thanks to his hair.
"Everybody had dreadlocks in Newark, and it started with braids, so I was like, OK, I wanna grow my hair out," he explained, shaking his now neatly cropped head. "So there's this stage where you go from this to this weird fro ... Those modeling pictures were not kind."
Of course, very few people look back on those years of their lives with anything but a cringe, and Jordan's sighing laugh acknowledges that, as far as awkward middle school phases go, his was pretty painless. Casting directors can back him up on that; at 12 years old, Jordan was given his first big TV roles: guest spots on HBO's landmark Jersey drama, The Sopranos, and on Bill Cosby's eponymous CBS sitcom, which coincidentally also starred his future Friday Night Lights co-star Jurnee Smollett. Those 1999 gigs led to a part in the 2001 Keanu Reeves-as-urban-Little-League-coach movie Hard Ball, and then came the real springboard: the role of Wallace, the young drug dealer on HBO's critical hit The Wire in 2002.
That 13-episode stint was followed by one of the most formative experiences of Jordan's career — leaving school early to get on the PATH train from Newark to midtown Manhattan to play Erica Kane's (Susan Lucci) adopted son Reggie on All My Children from 2003–2006.
Though his classmates would poke fun at his role in the show — and his cult-famous TV mom — the bustle of the daytime drama lifestyle provided a real education for the burgeoning actor.
"I learned so much on that show. My work ethic, I got so much from that — that pace of being on a soap opera, doing 100-plus pages a day, watching Susan Lucci day in and day out," Jordan said. "She's such a hard worker, and I learned so much from her. Yeah, soap operas. I don't know where I would be without it."
The paycheck didn't hurt, either. And instead of splashing the cash that came with a national TV gig on parties and other teen-star traps, Jordan decided to invest in an apartment complex in his hometown.
"Me and my dad, we saw it as an investment, and it was a great idea in theory. And then, of course, there were the struggles of a first-time investment," he explained, ruing what became a sunk cost. "Our broker definitely screwed us over 100%. We ended up having to foreclose on it. It ended up being a hassle. It ended up draining me, just draining me at a young age."
"It's so crazy because I remember when Sirius Radio was at $3.10 a share, and I had an option, either to go into stock or to go into real estate, and in my head it was like, Hey, God's not making any more land. I might as well go in on something that's right here instead of playing the whole stock market thing," Jordan added, now able to laugh at his early entrepreneurial decision-making. "I should have gone with Sirius."
Luckily, the real estate setback didn't do anything to alter the rising star's trajectory. He just kept his head down and continued to shuttle between school and his second home on the set of All My Children.
After 52 episodes of the soap, Jordan graduated and was released from his contract in 2006 — not enough screen time — and headed west to L.A., an experience he equates to a college education, living on "a 7-Eleven diet" and hustling for gigs, "going broke until you get a job, and hopefully, you're not losing yourself and your integrity and you're doing projects you really care about, not just working just to work."
As we know now, the lean years were pretty short-lived; there were episodes of TV procedurals, like Without a Trace, Cold Case, and Burn Notice, and then a short run on a Nickelodeon teen series called The Assistants in 2009. The next breakout role came later that year in the form Jason Katims' Friday Night Lights. Jordan joined the show in its fourth season playing Vince Howard, a troubled kid with a dad in jail and a mom who gets sent to rehab, who turned his natural athleticism into football stardom. And then, on top of everything, Vince had to grapple with the attention that came with being a star quarterback in Texas. It was the kind of critically adored primetime drama that puts an actor on the industry's radar, and after FNL came to a close, things really began to roll.
Jordan teamed up with Katims again for a 16-episode arc on his follow-up drama Parenthood from 2010–2011, and then, the actor scored one of three leading roles in 2012's Chronicle, playing Steve Montgomery, a fun-loving teen who stumbles into crazy superpowers.
Which brings us to the 2013 Sundance hit Fruitvale Station.
The movie — a dramatic recounting of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 23-year-old Oakland man who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in the wee hours after New Year's Eve 2009 — started as an under-the-radar project from a novice director named Ryan Coogler. And it won Jordan the first full-on leading role of his career.
With a script developed at the Sundance Institute and an Oscar-winning producer in Forest Whitaker, Fruitvale Station carried with it an immediate credibility that is rare for projects from first-time filmmakers.
Jordan is just a year younger than Coogler, and both were roughly the same age as Grant when he was gunned down while being pinned to the ground by the BART officer. Coogler, a Bay Area native himself, was home from school when the shooting took place, and channeled his frustration and despair into the film.
Considering the way his eyes focus and his smile dissipates when he talks about Fruitvale Station, it's clear it was an intensely personal project for Jordan too. His infectious laugh, which was stoked by discussion of the Knicks' futility, hushed in an instant, the kind of turn-on-a-dime mood shift that he employed so well while playing the magnetic and troubled Grant.
"It could have been me," he said, reflecting on Grant's story. "I used to catch the train back and forth between Newark and the city; he used to catch them from Oakland to San Francisco. It was the same thing growing up. I'm pretty sure I was judged a million times by transit police here, going through turn stops. West Indian Day Parade, Puerto Rican Day Parade, different events that are going on out here in New York. I'm pretty sure me hanging out with my friends could have gotten into a similar altercation."
Making Fruitvale Station was a unique experience because of both Coogler's proximity to the situation — in addition to living close to where the film takes place, he cast his own friends and brother as Grant's loved ones — and the access Jordan had to those who knew the man he was playing. Melonie Diaz played Sophina, Grant's girlfriend and the mother of his young child, and the two spent much of pre-production trying to figure out the couple's complicated relationship. Sophina herself went into great detail with the actors about the "blurred lines" and frequent difficulties of what was ultimately a very loving relationship between two stubborn individuals.
The film, which features Jordan in just about every scene, was a careful and moving examination of the last day in the life of a young man who was working so hard to turn it all around. At last year's Sundance Film Festival, Fruitvale Station won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards, the first two of many prizes on the festival circuit.
Then, the film's opening weekend wound up coinciding with the not-guilty verdict delivered in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Outrage at the verdict led to protests nationwide and a deftly improvised marketing campaign by the film's distributor, The Weinstein Company, which positioned Fruitvale Station as part of a campaign for social justice.
The spotlight was soon on Jordan and Coogler, who gave Q&As to audiences in support of the movie's limited release.
"It was crazy," Jordan marveled. "You couldn't plan that. Me and Ryan, we never wanted to get attention that way. We wanted to be clear that that was not our intention. But, it made it something special. I think it was a message that needed to be heard at that time, the time of everyone hurting and feeling some type of way about the way the verdict came out. I think this film really gave them an outlet. Instead of going into the streets and being destructive, doing things that make the situation worse, let's just go and sit in the theater and let me think. Let me go see a film that's going to play on my emotions a little bit and make me think about how we treat one another that we deem different."
And of all the things that Jordan said he took away from the experience — and this includes awards from the organizations like the National Board of Review and a pending Indie Spirit nomination — it's the conversations the film has prompted with mothers across the country that mean the most to him.
"When mothers come to me and say, 'I want to thank you so much for doing this movie because my son really needed to see that,' that's what's memorable," Jordan reflected. "It's a real fear for moms out there, especially of color, that their sons might not make it back to them. And to have so many different moms come up to me and say that they were moved and touched and, 'Thank you so much for telling this story,' that's kind of what resonates with me the most out of this year — all the moms I've been able to speak to and affect."
There have been other ancillary benefits to starring in one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, as well. Jordan is now a certified leading man and will next co-star alongside Zac Efron and Miles Teller in the upcoming R-rated comedy That Awkward Moment. He's also rumored to be reteaming with Chronicle director Josh Trank on a reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four, and he is reportedly being eyed to play a young Richard Pryor in a biopic from Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels. Meanwhile, he'll soon get to work with Coogler again on a spin-off of the Rocky franchise, playing the grandson of Apollo Creed.
Having been in the game for over half his life, though, Jordan has seen enough to not let the sudden surge in fame get to his head. When he's back home in Newark, people come out of the woodwork, old acquaintances from middle school who want to catch up and lay a retroactive claim to their now famous "friend." Most of it is "showing love and support," Jordan said, but even if it does get awkward every once in a while, that's mostly because people expect Hollywood to have changed him in ways he clearly hasn't.
"It's a weird transition. Everybody says once you get a certain level of celebrity success, you start to change," Jordan reasoned. "I don't necessarily agree with that. It's the anticipation — other people around you anticipate you're going to change, so they change for you. Coming back to my city, I dunno, it feels good, man. It feels good to be home. It's where my heart is."