NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with actor Michael B. Jordan as he bookends his year in movies with a return as boxer Adonis Johnson in the sequel Creed II.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This year, Michael B. Jordan has clearly brought his A game. He stole the show in “Black Panther” with his charismatic turn as Erik Killmonger, the villain in a superhero movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BLACK PANTHER”)
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Erik Killmonger) Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage.
CORNISH: And now he’s taking another swing at the box office with “Creed II.” It’s the follow-up to the “Rocky” movie franchise.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “CREED II”)
JORDAN: (As Adonis Johnson) You want to talk about smart decisions, Rock. You in this house all alone. Who been taking care of you? Me. I’ve been here for you.
CORNISH: In this film, his character, Adonis Creed, is a champion boxer with a chip on his shoulder. The son of Apollo Creed of the “Rocky” films, Adonis is trying to define his own legacy. Jordan says, at one point, he too had a chip on his shoulder but for a different reason.
JORDAN: Being named Michael Jordan – I think growing up playing sports and having a name like Michael Jordan, and I was extremely competitive, I used to get teased a lot. But it made me want to strive for greatness and be able to compete at whatever I decided to do. So…
CORNISH: That seems like a good kind of teasing, though. Like, how did it play in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?
JORDAN: I mean, I wanted to change my name, at one point.
CORNISH: Oh, really?
JORDAN: I mean, kids are brutal. You know, I think – you know, it seems like the world is crashing down around you when you were – you know, when you’re 11 years old or 12 years old and you’re getting, like – you know, you’re teased about your name. Like, I didn’t develop that self-confidence just yet.
CORNISH: He’s since made up for it. He goes by Michael B Jordan. The B is for Bakari, and he’s no longer content with just mastering the world of acting. The 31-year-old has been working in the industry since he was a preteen, appearing in everything from “All My Children” to “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights.” Now he has his own production company, Outlier Society Productions. I asked him what is his ultimate goal – mogul, movie star, what?
JORDAN: Oh, man – world domination.
CORNISH: Yeah, I believe it. That’s why I’m asking (laughter).
JORDAN: Yeah, it’s something like that. I never use my age as a handicap, you know? It’s like, oh, you’re too young to do this or, you know, you haven’t had enough experience to do that. And, you know, I did “Friday Night Lights” and I got a chance to really spend a lot of time with the producers and directors and the showrunner and just learning the inner workings of a show, you know, the production, how to put things together. And once I saw the formula, I was like, oh, I could do that.
And then I just started spending time with friends that were like-minded and believed in the same thing. And we just started to develop things. I started to accumulate IP, whether it’d be a newspaper article or a graphic novel or a book or something. You know, I was always just acquiring things, waiting for the moment of somebody to ask me, well, what do you want to do next? And like, oh, wow…
CORNISH: And this is intellectual property that – meaning that the source of story ideas that people use for movies.
JORDAN: Oh, I’m sorry.
CORNISH: No, now we’re getting into the real good stuff because you’re speaking your natural language, which is business.
JORDAN: Yeah. It’s a question I always ask myself. You know, growing up into this industry, auditioning for projects when I was younger and always seeing the usual suspects, we almost felt like we were pitted against each other like it was a competition when it shouldn’t be…
CORNISH: Meaning you’d see the same actors over and over, and you guys are competing for, you know, troubled teen three.
JORDAN: For one role – exactly – for the same role. And then, you know, if you’re booking, then you’re becoming successful, but everybody else is looking at you like, oh, man. Like, you’re taking, you know, almost food out my mouth, and it shouldn’t be like that, you know? It’s because there’s a lack of roles. There’s just not enough out there. So I’ve always had the notion of create the roles, you know, not the stereotypical roles. You know, I told my agency at a younger age earlier in my career, like, I only wanted to go out for roles that were written for Caucasian males because I knew the roles had no bias on it. It was just…
CORNISH: But how’d that go? When you showed up to the room, was the casting agent doing a double take or what was the deal?
JORDAN: No, it was so welcomed, you know. It was almost like some people I think were almost shocked that I was taking that position. My agency always kind of backed me and believed in what I was doing and knew and understood the strategy behind it. You know, I’ve been extremely blessed. Man, it’s – everything that I’ve ever wanted has happened. And I know it’s not usually like that, so I understand, you know, the fortunate position that I’m in.
CORNISH: I – one other thing I want to ask about. You announced last year that you would adopt inclusion riders on your projects. And people may have heard about this from Frances McDormand, the actress who gave this really impassioned speech at the Academy Awards where she talked about this idea that you can put a clause in your contract that says there needs to be diversity in hiring on the project that I am in. I don’t know if other people answered the call, but for you as someone who owns a production company, what’s been the reality of trying to make that happen?
JORDAN: People have been very receptive. I think taking the moment that I have and the heat that I’m generating right now in demanding things – and that’s the confidence that – it’s new, you know, in the last year or so. But, yeah, you know, my first project, you know, under the inclusion rider was “Just Mercy,” the story of Bryan Stevenson. I just got finished filming in Atlanta. And it looked and felt like a set that I’ve always wanted to have, you know, before there was an inclusion rider.
Like, that would have been second nature for me. I would have hired women. I would’ve hired, you know, people with disabilities. I would’ve hired people of color. As a black man, that’s not something that we needed to have on paper. And being able to partner up with Warner Brothers media and help work and build that policy for them is a major deal for me. You know, it’s part of entertainment history. You know, to have that so early in my career, so early in my life is a big deal for me.
CORNISH: I grew up like you around the same period, ’80s and ’90s, and I feel like I grew up with the hip-hop mogul. And this is probably the first time I’ve heard of an actor really thinking in that same way.
JORDAN: That’s powerful.
CORNISH: You know what I mean?
JORDAN: No, I know exactly what you’re saying.
CORNISH: Like, those guys were like, we need to own our content. We need to own our thing. We need to control whatever aspects of it we can control. But you didn’t really hear that that much in acting because there was always just, like, one guy who was the famous black guy at any given time.
JORDAN: Well because there – we’re still very much so the minority, you know? I think with music, we dictate culture. I think with sports, we dictate culture. I think with film and television, we’re still defining ourselves. We still have, you know, getting out of thinking of a black cinema, black films – no, film. You know what I’m saying? Like, I’m trying to get to the point where it’s the norm. We don’t have to classify it as just black this, black that. You don’t hear anybody saying white film. And I’m just taking the steps that I see that I feel like are the right moves in order to get there. It may not happen in my lifetime and I’m cool with that because I’m working on a blueprint, a foundation. That’s what legacy is about. You’re defined by who you put on, what opportunities have you given to somebody else. Because I’m not going to be in every movie. I’m not that guy. I enjoy putting other people on. I enjoy creating roles and opportunities for people. Like, that’s just my thing.
I look at the first to do things, you know, and I see what went wrong. What did they do? What was the approach? What was the social climate like? What other things are happening on in the world that allowed that to happen that supported that change? And what are things – what was the pushback? What was the resistance around that change? And I try to tweak it as much as I can. That’s probably why I don’t sleep. I have all these…
JORDAN: I’m always…
CORNISH: I believe that. I can picture you lying in bed saying all of these things plotting world domination.
JORDAN: Because I’m willing to sacrifice right now. I told myself that my 20s would be sacrificed for work and the 30s I was going to chill out, but I was like no. I still got things to do. I can’t let up off the gas.
CORNISH: Well, Michael B. Jordan, this was fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
JORDAN: Oh, very smart questions. I love your conversation – any time.
CORNISH: Michael B. Jordan – his new film, “Creed II,” opens today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE FIRE”)
THE ROOTS: (Singing) There’s something in your heart, and it’s in your eyes. It’s the fire inside you.