"I've always felt like the underdog."
Michael B. Jordan, on the cusp of a major Hollywood takeover, has made a career of playing the underdog—and could certainly be considered one himself, too.
He first got critics' attention playing one of the most tragic characters in HBO's gritty crime drama The Wire, before graduating on to play quarterback Vince Jordan for perennial come-from-behinders the Dillon Panthers on Friday Night Lights. Last year, he arrived fully as one of Hollywood's most promising acting talents, headlining the little-indie-that-could Fruitvale Station—which fell just short of Oscar attention, but managed to get to that point on the back of Jordan's complex, heartbreaking performance.
It's one of the more frustrating facts of Hollywood that TV critics' darlings and indie breakouts don't typically get their due, but against the odds Jordan has become one of the industry's most sought after stars. He's got two huge projects coming up, the kinds that all of Hollywood's young actors storm casting offices to be a part of: he'll play Johnny Storm in the reboot of The Fantastic Four alongside fellow Hollywood It Stars Miles Teller, Kate Mara, and Jamie Bell, and he's got a reboot of the Rocky franchise in development where he will play Apollo Creed's grandson.
"I embrace it," he says, of his underdog status. "Who doesn't love a feel-good story? The unlikely hero? There's something more satisfying about playing characters like that, or getting to a place people didn't expect you to be. But you're here now."
Another place he didn't expect to be: in the director's chair. Jordan also recently made his directorial debut, co-directing a short film for Axe, explaining the science of its newest fragrance, Axe Gold Temptation.
So as he adds another job title to his resume, we chatted with the fledgling director and Hollywood underdog about the weight of his unlikely rise to superstardom, hitting on the significance of his color-blind casting as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four reboot (Chris Evans played the part in the previous franchise), joining one of cinema's most iconic properties with Creed, and his foray behind the camera for Axe.
It seems like we've been waiting forever to see footage from Fantastic Four!
Well they just moved the released date to August 7. We had a great time going to Baton Rouge to film. Josh Trank [the director] is really happy with it. I'm really happy with it. I'm really excited for everyone to see a different take on the franchise. It's a grounded superhero film. You really care and get to know the characters a lot. You get a feeling like you're discovering the characters at the same time they're discovering themselves.
Do you remember the first time you were on set in costume as The Human Torch, and what that feeling was like?
I think it wasn't on set, but it was during the fittings when I put on the full outfit and looked at myself in the mirror, and I was like, "Oh shit. Game on!" It was like, this is it! This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. It felt good.
It made it feel real.
Yeah. You can talk about it and discuss it and what not it. But it's not until you get on set and put on those clothes that you become that person. You kind of check out. Mike checked out. I was playing Johnny Storm. I was doing it. No more talking about it. You gotta be about it.
How will your Johnny Storm be different from Chris Evans's in the last movie?
Besides the obvious physical difference… I don't want to do to much to explain. I just want people to see it.
You mentioned the obvious physical difference. At one point did it dawn on you how big it was to cast an African American actor in that role, and that it was you who was going to do it?
It's a reflection of the times we live in right now. It reflects the world that everyone lives in right now. When it did dawn on me, I was very proud to be that guy. I knew it was a huge responsibility and weight on my shoulders, but at the same time I looked forward to tackling that challenge and doing great work. I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing my whole career: putting the hard work in, doing my homework, and showing up and giving 100 percent.
So in that vein, you've done a lot of hard work. You came up in smaller, grittier TV series like The Wire and Friday Night Lights and made a big splash from your work in a really small, and equally really gritty indie with Fruitvale Station. Do you think your approach, because of that, to starring in a movie like Fantastic Four is different from an actor who may have been doing bigger-budget Hollywood fare this whole time?
I think the approach is still the same, as far as the foundation of just being prepared and coming from a humble space. Working on Fantastic Four is at a much smaller pace. There's more coverage. There'e more angles to get. There's tons more action. It's just a different change of pace. It taught me to stay hungry and be prepared, so when the opportunity presents yourself you're ready for it. That's how I felt when the opportunity came up to play Johnny Storm. It was like, this is what I've been working for. To do something different, on a bigger scale.
Well talking about big movies, you've been cast to play Apollo Creed's grandson in a new Rocky franchise installment. What did feel like to get cast in a part like that, that has so much cinematic history behind it?
Ryan Coogler first pitched me the idea when we were just finishing Fruitvale Station. He pitched it to me and I was like, man that sounds awesome. That's actually a great take on a spin-off, and to get to start my own franchise. So I was excited, as a Rocky fan. Rocky IV was my favorite Rocky. Being able to give the Creed name life. He's oen of the most iconic characters there is. Apollo Creed, Rocky—you have to take that seriously. I'm working out a lot. I'm boxing, training. I'm putting on the weight. I'm working with Sylvester Stallone. We're putting the time in now to get it right.
It must be surreal to be working on a movie in the Rocky franchise and have Sylvester Stallone actually be there.
Yeah! Sly is helping developing it. So we're all working together, and it is kind of mind-blowing. We're sitting down and talking about character stuff and ad-libbing here and there. It felt natural. It felt real. When you work so hard for something for a really long time and things start to pay off, it's a surreal feeling to know that this is where you're at now. It's crazy to know that your hard work paid off.
So have you ever gone to Philly and ran up the museum steps, Rocky-style?
[Laughs] No! But my sister went to Temple University, so I spent a lot of time in Philly. I ate plenty of cheesesteaks. I have not ran the steps yet, but I'm looking forward to doing it for the first time. Have you done it?
Yeah! I mean I was maybe nine years old and it took me forever.
But you did it!
I just played "Eye of the Tiger" in my head the whole time. It carried me through.
I love it. I love it.
Do you remember the first time you watched Rocky?
Hmmm. No. It was something I watched later in life, because I obviously wasn't born when it came out. But as I got older and started getting more into films and movies, I don't remember what age it was, but I remember watching it and being uninspired. It's rooting for the underdog. I've always felt like the underdog, so it was a big deal for me.
Between playing a Dillon Panther on Friday Night Lights and rising from indie film to now these huge blockbusters, being the underdog has been a big part of your career.
I embrace it. And I don't mind that at all. I like it. I always root for the underdog. Who doesn't love a feel-good story? The unlikely hero? There's something more satisfying about playing characters like that, or getting to a place people didn't expect you to be. But you're here now.
Did you wear Axe a lot when you were growing up? I wore Axe when I was in high school. And later on I remember going to visit my little brother who was in high school and walking into his bathroom and seeing the products everywhere, it was like he was sponsored by Axe.
[Laughs] No, as a kid I didn't wear it that much. But as the brand evolved I started to grow up a little bit and started care a little bit more about my grooming habits and things that I wear. Getting girls. Then things changed a little bit, when you start to take those things more seriously, and that's when I started getting into the brand.
Why the name Temptation?
They did a study and found out that the majority of men and women don't know what tempts one another. That was a great starting point for them to do these little experiments to find out what tempts us, whether it's food or working out or a certain fragrance. Certain colors, the way you act when you go on a date, if a girl offers to pay for a meal. Small things about every day that tempt people, we wanted to find out what they were. We shot the video based on the feedback we got from the general public for what tempts them.
What was it like to direct? Was it something you had always wanted to do?
I think acting for such a long time and being on sets, for me I grew and matured and wanted to see what it would be like to be on the other side of the camera and start directing. For me it was a dream come true, because it was such a safe environment to learn in. Then you also realize what really goes into directing, how you have to satisfy so many different people: the talent, yourself, the brand, the agency. There's so many different needs you have to meet, so you learn how it can be really stressful as well. But I can't wait to do it again.
I like to imagine you in Friday Night Lights in the huddle doling out orders to everybody.
Team up! Move it out to the leftI Move it! [Laughs] It was really fun.