Following critical acclaim after it’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station”, premiered in Europe at the Cannes Film Festival amid a lot of hype and anticipation. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz, the film takes a look at 24 hours in the life of Bay Area man Oscar Grant, a young man who was subjected to police brutality in the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, and we were pleased to add to the acclaim, calling for the Academy to take early consideration of Jordan, whose performance carries the film.
During a sunny afternoon back in May, we sat down with Jordan and co-star Diaz, who plays Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina, and discussed their casting process, working with a first time director and those “Fantastic Four” rumours …
What drew you to “Fruitvale Station”, and how was it working with Ryan Coogler, a first time director?
Melonie Diaz: I got the script from Ryan’s agent who I’d worked with before, and he said you have to read this. I read it and then I enjoyed it and Ryan and I skyped, it was easy, a no-brainer. In terms of working with him, he doesn’t feel like a first time director. He’s an old soul that you feel like has been through so much. He’s very special, and it’s nice working with someone as passionate as he is.
Michael B. Jordan: I got the script from a colleague of Ryan’s who worked with a former agency of mine. I had just got finished doing “Chronicle” and I always wanted to do something gritty and independent, something more character driven and intimate, When I read it I weeped, I’ve still got the tear stains on the original script, I will never get rid of it. And then I read it again and I was like, I’ve gotta talk to this guy, I’ve gotta meet him, and within the first five minutes … you just talk to him, he’s a special guy and he has a vision, and he’s so passionate about it because it represents him and his community. Especially being part of someone of my generation of filmmaking. You want to be a part of it, you want that de Niro/Scorsese relationship. It was like all the ingredients came together for something special. Everybody had a “whatever it takes to get the job done” mentality and I think when you’ve got that, you’ve got people who want the story to be told.
How do you approach playing real characters who have gone through extreme trauma, and did you know Oscar’s story before you started filming?
MBJ: There’s no audio or video on Oscar, which was a blessing in disguise as there was nothing to imitate, I think if I had imitated him it maybe wouldn’t have come off as real. This is more of a representation of who he is, a Bay Area resident and how much that gave to his personality. Getting to know him through the people who knew him the best – his daughter, girlfriend, his Mom, best friends. We’re all different around our loved ones, and he was definitely a chameleon, wanted to make everyone happy, but he couldn’t keep up the juggling act anymore. When a person’s character is on trial they need to paint him as this perfect person or a monster, and I think the family helped fill in the grey area, and that’s the approach Ryan and I took to give him his personality throughout the film. I was in Los Angeles when it happened, but it trickled down through Facebook and Youtube, and I felt very upset, very helpless, I couldn’t do anything. Someone that looked like, with a similar background, family situations, it could have been me easily, catching a train from Jersey to Manhattan. I felt a certain sense of responsibility when the role came up to dive in and do the best I could.
MD: I didn’t even know about it until I had to get the script, but I had to be part of it for many reasons but mostly because I wanted to be part of a story that could get attention, and get people talking.
Were you filming when the Trayvon Martin shooting happened in Flordia?
MBJ: It was just before filming was beginning. But there are lots of Oscar Grant’s. The stories never get told, maybe it pops up on a local news feed but it gets swept under the rug because it becomes more and more common. You walk down the street in New York and Los Angeles, you don’t even noticed homeless people because it’s so common, that’s what it’s starting to feel like. No-one brings emotion anymore because it’s so common.
But the fact that for Oscar, the entire incident was caught on an iPhone and uploaded to Youtube, that makes his story worldwide, it’s easier for others to find it and get the word out.
MBJ: Yeah it’s not limited, it’s out there and you can’t take it back and control it, information cant be controlled like that so when people in other parts of the world see it, it’s going to trickle down. And it doesn’t have anything to do with him being black, but as long as there’s an Us vs. Them mentality, as long as there are guns and good and bad there will be controversy, because we’re flawed. When greed and power all come in effect, race comes up but we need to strip that aside and get down to what the problem is, which starts with the individual. You have to look in the mirror and start seeing how you can be a better person, a better father, brother, husband, wife … that’s where it has to start. It may not happen anytime soon, not while I’m here, but if we can lay the foundation as best we can then later on, it’s all about the next generation, progress. We take it as far as we can go and leave it in a better place than we came into it, and hopefully the next generation can pick up on that and take it a little further. That’s evolution. And that’s what I hope this film sparks.
MD: New York is a cultural melting pot and you’re forced into everyone’s faces, but I drove cross-country and I drove through Arizona and thought I was going to get deported! This is what racism feels like, it’s not okay. But it is weird, it’s hard to believe people still have this mentality, that people can still think that way.
MBJ: It’s a generational thing, a baby doesn’t know how to hate, it’s born and has no bad habits. Hopefully over time these narrow-minded thinking people will filter out and hopefully progress, that’s the only way I see it happening.
How does it feel to be an American in Cannes – it’s still pretty rare to have films like these here.
MBJ: It feels good. One of my biggest fears was having people see the film at first glance, just take a look at it, look at the cast, the subject matter, and see it as just a black film, a community based film. But it’s about humanity, and that translates to any country or language, and the premiere meant so much at Cannes because people who hardly speak English are looking at me saying “thank you”, tears in their eyes. If our little movie can touch people like that all across the world …
MD: If you were to turn off the sound and just watch the movie it hits on basic emotions. We’ve all loved someone, we’ve all lost someone, when someone we love is hurt we hurt, which is why it connects to a wide audience. It’s about a person who is trying to do right by his family, making changes, and he fails, that’s upsetting, but it’s a common theme.
How was the premiere, and has it crossed your mind that Steven Spielberg will have seen this film?
MBJ: Yeah! To be in that company with someone like him who I look up to so much, who inspired me to come and do what I do, it’s mind blowing that I’m even here. It’s a crazy experience, one of my biggest dreams come true.
MD: I couldn’t have dreamt a better dream. I’ve been at Sundance for many years and that’s an American stage. But this is a world stage and the best directors come here to show their work, and to be part of that family is incredible. It’s Cannes! The premiere was really incredible – standing ovation! But it wasn’t even the clapping, just looking at people’s faces and everyone was really moved. It was emotional for so many reasons.
What’s your biggest ambition as an actor?
MD: I want to own my own production company. I want to NYU Film School and that’s what I really wanted to do but somehow I kept acting! But I want to produce and write, write my own material, and Ryan is a perfect example of that.
MBJ: I dream big, I’m a big dreamer. We’re only on this earth a short time, and if I could leave a legacy behind that makes it easier for the next generation of film makers, that’s something I want to be a part of it. Put messages out, themes and ideas about people being more open minded. My biggest goal as a contributor to the entertainment industry, as an actor, I think you have a certain responsibility to contribute, give back, help and create, push this industry forward. As I get older I’m beginning to understand how things work, and maturing as a man, you start to realise what matters and what doesn’t and you want to leave your imprint on this earth while you’re here.
How much did Forrest Whittaker have to do with the film?
MD: He’s Uncle Forrest! But he was super supportive, not on set all the time but very present, guiding Ryan through his first feature film.
MBJ: He was always very accessible, he always called back if you had questions, concerns. Playing a real life person, he always told me not to imitate but to represent. He held our hand.
Moving forward, can you talk about your future projects, maybe “Fantastic Four”?
MBJ: [laughs] No.
How about “Pretenders”?
MBJ: “Pretenders” is a script I’m really excited about, there’s nothing set in stone but it’s a project I’m excited about. It’s a love triangle, set in the early 80s about a photographer, director and actress and their relationship and how it intertwines over time and a lot of lies, deceit, best friends going behind their backs. It’s a lot like Blow.”