The best way to tell a complicated story is to simply tell the truth and that’s exactly what Fruitvale Station actors Michael B. Jordan, Melanie Diaz and Oscar Award winner Octavia Spencer do. Opening in theaters across America today, the film recounts the last day of Oakland, Ca native Oscar Grant before he was killed by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009.
I screened the film earlier this week and to say that I was emotionally affected would be an understatement. I left the theater shaking. Grant wasn’t a saint and first-time Fruitvale writer-director Ryan Coogler didn’t write him that way. In a testament to Jordan’s acting chops, honed on The Wire as Wallace and Friday Night Lights as Vince Howard, his portrayal of Grant effortlessly bounces between gentle father, hard-headed son, loving boyfriend, and menacing drug dealer. Similarly, Diaz, who I first saw in 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas, is endearing and tough as she, playing Grant’s girlfriend Sophina Mesa, scrambles to find the love of her life and father to their daughter. And Spencer’s portrayal of Grant’s mother Wanda, who advised her son to take the BART where he’d ultimately be killed, is pure and heart-wrenching.
Parlour chatted with Michael B. Jordan and Melanie Diaz about channeling Grant and Mesa, honestly telling a social justice story and enjoying the wild wave of critical acclaim.
Parlour: How did you two emulate the relationship between Oscar Grant and his girlfriend, Sophina Mesa?
Michael B. Jordan: We spent a lot of time together before we started filming, I cooked dinner for her.
Melanie Diaz: He cooked chicken cacciatore for me and I was drinking wine …
MBJ: We did things that couples would do, that best friends would do because Oscar and Sophina were definitely best friends. The low parts were easier to play, everyone knows [how to act out] conflict, but trying to create those organic, real friendship moments is something that takes more time.
MD: It was really a testament to [director] Ryan Coogler because he knows that casting is 80 percent of what makes [a movie] work. We’re both east coasters, and I felt like I’d known Michael for awhile. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and this was a lucky, unique experience.
What’s the one thing that stands out most to you in Grant’s story?
MBJ: The tragedy of the loss of life and that it happened again; or thinking, ‘What if it wasn’t caught on camera what would’ve happened?’
MD: For me, it’s about second chances, being young and trying to do the right thing. That’s what’s most heartbreaking, Oscar was really going to move forward with his family and try to be a better man, then this happens. I always leave the film thinking, ‘What kind of man would he have been?’
By tackling these heavy roles, will it influence your performances on future projects?
MD: The bar has been set pretty high for me, I usually do more comedy. When I got the script, I didn’t think I could do it. I told Ryan, ‘I’m pretty scared, I don’t know if I can pull off the last 20 minutes of the movie.’ So Fruitvale has made me more excited about drama.
MBJ: Being number one on the call sheet is something every actor dreams of, and this was my first time [shouldering] this type of workload. The bar has been set at a certain place so on the next project, I’m just trying not to have a ceiling.
Melanie, you mentioned that you weren’t sure if you could handle all of that emotion, where did you pull it from?
MD: I don’t know. I was really lucky because that end sequence was supposed to be [filmed] in the beginning [of our shooting schedule], but luckily it was not. I got to know Mike so much more and we’d already done some of the meaty scenes so I had a structured beginning, middle and end. Ryan was also really supportive. I emailed him, like ‘I’m scared’ and he wrote me back this long, great email of why I shouldn’t be. I got to that place knowing that I had a cast and crew that was completely supportive, and had a really great environment to go to that place. When I look at [myself on screen], I’m like ‘Whoa.’ But I think it was the environment, being at the BART and knowing that it happened right there.
Were you able to talk to Grant’s family and friends, what was that like?
MBJ: I was hesitant because I was thinking about what they were thinking about me. I knew that [Grant’s death] is still fresh. I sat down with Grant’s mother Wanda, and [his girlfriend] Sophina, I got to hear about their relationships and how they treated one another. I spoke to all of his best friends. We went to a park, ordered some BBQ, played dominos, drank a little bit and let the stories just flow. It helped that I was on The Wire because they were all Wire fans, so that broke the ice a bit. Then they stepped back and really trusted Ryan to take care of the story.
MD: For me, [meeting Sophina] was really intense. The first meeting was just to get to know her, not talking about the most terrible day of her life. I wanted to earn her trust, then she warmed up and we hung out more. We got our nails done, and went shopping. She opened up and talked about her relationship with Oscar. It was weird because this is a movie but this is also someone’s life and pain, Mike and I were very sensitive to that.
The officer who shot Grant was charged and sentenced to 11 months in jail for involuntary manslaughter, how important do you think this film is now, as we await the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial — especially since the original release date was in October?
MBJ: Harvey [Weinstein, head of the Harvey Weinstein Company that produced Fruitvale Station is] a smart man.
Every actor prays for a breakout, leading role that sets their work about the fray, and this seems to be yours, how does that feel?
MBJ: Everyday is like a dream that I’m waiting to wake up from. You work at your craft constantly and wait for roles like this to come around, so it’s humbling. I’m excited, I’m happy and very nervous. Every project, I give it my all and then I have to walk away. Right now, being on this journey with Melanie, Ryan and Octavia, I’m just enjoying the process. Where I’ll end up, who knows.
MD: I remember I was with Ryan on set one day, and some guy asked ‘Where can I see the movie?’ and Ryan said ‘Oh, maybe like on DVD.’ I looked at him, and said ‘Ryan don’t say that!’ It made me so sad to think that that could actually happen, cut to here [on a press junket in New York, winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Festival] and that’s what Mike and I are both feeling. It’s this disbelief that when you make a movie for 20 days for the amount of money we made it for, to get this far is humbling and incredible.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your career?
MBJ: Don’t pretend to know everything.
MD: If you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
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