Michael B. Jordan has been a working actor since 1999, but even though he has had significant roles in "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights" and several films, it wasn't until last year that the 26-year-old Newark native really broke into the big-time. Jordan's performance in "Fruitvale Station" as Oscar Grant, a real-life Oakland, Calif., resident who was murdered by Bay Area transit police, garnered critical acclaim and numerous awards, including an Independent Spirit Award nomination as best actor. In his latest film, "That Awkward Moment," opening Friday, Jordan co-stars with Zac Efron and Miles Teller in a rom-com, playing a doctor with relationship problems. Newsday contributor Lewis Beale recently spoke with Jordan by phone from Los Angeles.
This is your first comedy, after a whole slew of really serious roles. What made you want to do it?
I've known Zac for a few years now, and there's something about doing things with your own generation. And after meeting the director , this being my first comedy, I wanted someone who could help me through the process.
What was the big difference for you between doing comedy and drama?
A sense of timing, then trusting yourself, trusting your instincts; it's a different form of vulnerability. You do dramatic roles, it's comfort for me, but to step out of your comfort zone, you learn to trust your instincts on a different level. You learn that the comedy comes from the situation; it was an overall learning experience.
You've worked on "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights," two critically acclaimed TV shows. How did that influence your career?
"The Wire," I was so young, I was 14 years old. There were so many incredible actors -- Wendell Pierce, Dominic West, Clarke Peters -- it just elevated my taste when I was very young. That's why I fell in love with acting; it was the first time I fell in love with a character -- that opened my mind, that I could do acting as a career. Then, "Friday Night Lights," the show had been on for three seasons; you just don't want to mess things up. And that's also the first time I had had so much material. They told me I was expected to do my job; it was like giving me the keys to the city -- that gave me the confidence in taking risks.
How did you get into acting in the first place?
My mom was coming out of a doctor's appointment, I was sitting on the couch, 11 years old, and the receptionist said, "You should get your kid into modeling." I crashed a few auditions, and it was a snowball effect. It wasn't until I did "The Wire" that I decided this was what I wanted to do. Up until then, I got craft services, I got out of school early -- great. I matured with my age along with my work. I didn't grow up watching movies saying I want to be an actor.
How did growing up in Newark influence you?
I come from nothing, I grew up poor. That gives you a certain hunger. Both my parents are still together; they set an example. Growing up in Newark, looking at the big city , it was far out of reach but still obtainable. It's growing up in a city that's next to a big city, it's like having a sparring partner -- come up to my level.
What kind of effect has the acclaim for "Fruitvale Station" had on your career?
A lot of different things. Bigger projects, bigger indie projects. "Fruitvale" was my calling card. Oscar Grant could have been me, I felt a sense of responsibility to get this story told, but it was also a way to show range, and I looked to see if I could do it or not. It opened up so many doors for me, projects I can't talk about right now, indie films, gritty roles.
About your name. Did you decide to include your middle initial because you were concerned about being confused with a certain basketball player?
It wasn't a concern. It was pretty much "Mike, you have to change your name." Being a little fish in a big pond, that man won that battle.