It’s getting to the point where Michael B Jordan won’t need his B. Alright, so now he’s got it he’ll probably never lose it, but the time is coming where without it you might no longer only think of the most famous basketball player who ever lived. Michael B Jordan’s big moment is coming. In fact, it might actually already have come.
Last summer, the American actor played the lead in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky spin-off Creed. As Adonis Creed, the conflicted, illegitimate son of the late boxer Apollo, he punched his way into the limelight with a performance of brooding realism that more than justified both his casting and also Stallone’s conviction that the narrative behind his most famous creation still has legs (Creed was Rocky’s seventh outing).
Much of the reason Creed worked was that not unlike like the Rocky story itself, there’s more to Jordan than a fistful of clichés. Yes, he grew up in a rough area (Newark, New Jersey), and yes, he had childhood friends who sold drugs, stole cars and served time – “I was exposed to a lot at a young age,” he says. But sit down with him and it seems any edge his background has given him is much more likely to manifest itself on screen than in person. The man sitting in front of me here in New York’s suave Park Hyatt hotel is clean-cut, engaging, bright-eyed and courteous. Give him a bow-tie and he could be at an Ivy League graduation ceremony.
“I can move in any environment,” he says. “I fall where I’m at – I adapt to my surroundings.” That’s a useful quality for a movie star, particularly one who clearly enjoys landing a right hook and yet, as he says, wants to “find things that need a light shining on them.”
I can move in any environment; I fall where I’m at and I adapt to my surroundings
Those things include the story of the high-profile civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who he’ll play in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, a film Stevenson wrote and produced about his experiences of fighting to free a death row prisoner, and also the story of the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal that will come to cinemas next year in Ryan Coogler’s Wrong Answer.
These are on the back of 2013’s Fruitvale Station, also directed by Coogler, in which he played another real-life character, the unarmed black man Oscar Grant who was shot by a policeman. “I’m still creating my foot-hole in film, but with all that’s going on in the world today, I feel like it would be irresponsible of me to have this platform and not do anything about it,” he says without a hint of the flimsy earnestness Hollywood can engender.
Critical to that ambition will be his blossoming relationship with Coogler, who wrote and directed Creed and at just 30 has the movie world at his feet. The two are fast developing a potent director-star tryst that has drawn comparison with Scorsese and DiCaprio. In July, they confirmed they’ll team up again for Black Panther, another Marvel piece due for release in 2018 that will also star Lupita Nyong’o. “Me and him became really close when we shot Fruitvale Station,” says Jordan. “We just have a shorthand. We’re from similar places, we speak the same language, we get each other – he’s like a brother to me. Whenever we link up and do something together, we’re going to do something that means something. It’s always going to be something that’s important.”
Michael B Jordan's career – in pictures
Now 29 and an LA resident of ten years, Jordan has been acting for half his life. At 14, he was cast as teenage drug dealer Wallace in box-set-binge favourite The Wire, the role that first brought him to the attention of casting directors. The hard-hitting vehicles have since come thick and fast. Was that the plan? “People get the misconception that actors have a choice early in their career,” he says. “And that’s not really what it is. Those were the projects that were in front of me. I booked them, and it just so happened to lead me down this path. And that’s kind of how my whole career’s been. I try to stay out of my own way.”
That approach hasn’t always worked. Although he was praised for his portrayal of Vince in the cult TV drama Friday Night Lights, the puerile frat-boy pratfall rom-com That Awkward Moment of 2014 is best forgotten, and then there was last year’s commercial flop, Fantastic Four, the Marvel blockbuster that reaped a meagre $56m at the US box office against a budget of $120m.
But Fruitvale Station (which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival) and then Creed, not to mention working with Stallone, have launched him into the big time. The roles are no longer choosing him. “After Fruitvale, I became a little bit more strategic about where I wanted to put my time and my messaging,” he says. “The things I care about. You know, sometimes you gotta hide the medicine in the food. You gotta hide it in art to make people think a little differently.”
I couldn't have been a Wall Street trader – my personality's too reserved, I'm too calm
This is the thing about Jordan. His speech is peppered with the confident patter of hip-hop, as well as one or two of its aphorisms, and yet he’s just as comfortable adopting a more middle-class pose. So while the luck of the draw during his early career has “led me down this path,” he says he’s an “ideas guy,” who “likes to see dots and connect them,” adding, “y’know what I’m sayin’”. This doesn’t make him a contradiction, nor does it give him the air of a man trying to figure out who he is. He comes across as well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent, smart, and extremely likeable.
As brands are starting to realise, that makes him very marketable. The reason we’re here in New York is that he’s one of the faces of a new campaign for elite Swiss watchmaker Piaget, a brand that doesn’t take risks when it comes to its image. Sporting the brand’s latest watch beneath the cuff of a crisp white shirt, he looks every bit the luxury ambassador.
It also means we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him. The good news for Creed fans is that he’s back in training. “Those characters are so interesting,” he says, clearly energised by the prospect of revisiting them. “I’m really curious to see what happens next. There’s definitely going to be more of that.”
Details of when the eighth installment of the franchise that began with Stallone’s 1976 Oscar-winning cinema landmark will go into production are still under wraps, but the process of turning his body into a lean, mean fighting machine has begun.
“I knew about it [the first movie] before everybody else did,” he says. “So I was taking boxing lessons and working out secretly and getting in shape about a year and half before we started filming. I wanted to look like a boxer, I didn’t want to look like a defensive man on a football team. And yeah, I’m back working out now, getting in shape,” he adds, exhaling like a man standing at the bottom of a mountain he knows he’s got to climb.
In the first film, he got punched about, trading blows with experienced boxers, suffering for his art, if you will. He certainly looked the part. So has he ever wondered how he’d fair inside the ropes as a professional?
“I think I’d be OK,” he says confidently. “I’m too competitive to not be able to compete. I refuse. I could definitely hold my own.” He wouldn’t be the first young man to believe that with a bit of training they could go toe-to-toe with paid sportsmen, although he has had the benefit of being among a very small group who’ve actually had the opportunity to test the theory out. “But,” he hesitates, leaning forward, “I’m an actor. I am an AC-TOR…”
His next career move is more likely to be into directing and producing, in TV initially, he says. It’s all a far cry from the life that might otherwise have been. “I really wanted to be a marine biologist,” he says. “I like things that come from the smallest cellular level, and then make up this big thing – the smallest piece is so important to the big picture.” Could he have been a Wall Street trader? “Nah. My personality is too reserved. I’m too calm for that. I’d rather be running a company. I’d like to think I know people and human nature.”
And that B? It stands for ‘Bakari’, Swahili for ‘of noble promise’. Michael B Jordan is well on the way to fulfilling it.
Michael B Jordan is an ambassador for Piaget. For more information on the brand and the launch of its new stainless-steel Polo S collection, see piaget.com