I didn’t recognize the voice at first. We were supposed to be on Zoom, but Michael B. Jordan is a busy man these days. I can’t imagine there’s much time to sit still when you’re editing your first major motion picture, Creed III, for a legacy movie studio.
He dialed in on his phone from his home in California, so all I saw when he jumped on the call was a black box with the name “Bruce Leroy,” the hero of the 1985 cult classic, The Last Dragon.
It’s important you understand The Last Dragon: a blaxploitation kung fu comedy about a Bruce Lee-obsessed young Black man with dreams of becoming the greatest martial artist as he’s forced to grow up and discover himself. He’s trying to master the final level known as “the glow,” while rescuing the girl of his dreams and giving the business to a villain named Sho’nuff. It’s actually really great.
And it’s apparently a favorite of Michael B. Jordan’s, who introduces himself to me — now sufficiently embarrassed — after I’ve had to ask who I was speaking with.
That’s my bad, but it’s not unusual to talk with a publicist or two before the filmmaker you’re interviewing comes online — plus Jordan’s voice was deeper than I’d expected. Perhaps he was still getting over whatever bug he had that forced us to reschedule the conversation, initially set for earlier in the week. Or maybe, as a symptom of not being able to see him, I was still somewhat envisioning a younger Michael B. Jordan. You know, the baby-faced, charming kid we’ve watched come of age on screen.
The easy-going and lovable smile, the movie-star twinkle in the eye. You’ve seen it — suggestions of a glow.
It feels virtually impossible to consider Jordan at this stage in his career without being reminded of that endearing and heartbreaking kid from The Wire and Hardball — my mother would say All My Children is where she first saw him. Regardless, we’ve watched him grow up in roles in Parenthood and Friday Night Lights and then officially announce himself after breaking through Ryan Coogler’s lens in Fruitvale Station before then chiseling down his craft and cementing his veritable icon status in Creed and Black Panther.
All that to say, Michael B. Jordan isn’t that kid anymore. He doesn’t look like a kid, and definitely doesn’t sound like a kid. Dude is grown — 35 years grown, actually. And with Creed III marking Jordan’s directorial debut, he’s working to show audiences just how much growing up he’s done. He’s solidifying his grown man status. He’s in search of that final level of mastery. He’s on a journey for “the glow.”
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far,” Jordan says, which is a lot considering the guy trained like a Navy Seal for his 2021 film Without Remorse and has done all of his own stunts throughout the Creed franchise — and yeah, he very much let me know that includes still taking shots to the head even while directing Creed III.
“It’s a learning curve. This is the first time I’m going through this, so every day I’m learning something new. Every day you’re finding new limits,” he says. “Limitations in terms of fucking bandwidth, limitations on thought, limitations on patience, on decision making, decisiveness — limitations on pure bodily strength to get up in the morning and do it every day.”
In many ways, Jordan set out on his own this time around to continue Adonis Creed’s journey. Though he never lacked for support throughout the process, he says, Creed III is the first in the trilogy (or the Creed-verse, as Jordan calls it) to part ways with its Rocky roots. There was no Sylvester Stallone or Ryan Coogler in his corner on set, though Coogler and his Proximity Media team serve as producers on the film.
Stallone, on the other hand, has been in a public bare-knuckle fight with producer Irwin Winkler over losing the rights to the Rocky Balboa character. Stallone isn’t in Creed III, and he told The Hollywood Reporter in November that it’s a “regretful situation,” while not really jiving with the direction the film is taking.
But sometimes — whether it’s for Jordan or the character he’s spent so much of the last seven years getting inside of — growing up ain’t easy.
“It’s important to have Adonis grow up. Adonis had to grow up, man,” Jordan says, though not in direct response to Stallone’s absence.
“I felt like with Creed III, it was knowing that I had the best handle and insight on this character and this world because I lived with it the longest,” he says. “And where I was in my life, the things that I was going through just being 35 years old — 32 at the time; shit I guess I was 32 — I wanted to tell this story.
“I know where I want the Creed family to go and I have ideas and thoughts of where the franchise can go and how to expand the Creed-verse as we call it. I wanted to take this IP and these characters on a ride and expand that universe.”
The way he sees it, Michael B. Jordan was groomed for this moment. Everything in his life and career to this point has been leading up to this directorial debut, whether he knew it or not.
But directing wasn’t always the goal. When Jordan was young, and falling in love with the industry — about 11 or 12 years old — he wanted to be a cinematographer or a camera operator.
“I loved lighting,” he says, in addition to working with the camera to figure out how to “get the shot.” It was the wonder and the true cinematic movement of the camera that infatuated him.
Now he’s directed the first sports film shot with IMAX film cameras.
“I’m so excited for people to see it on the big screen,” he wrote in an email follow up after our initial talk. “We really wanted to make it feel like you’re in the ring with these guys — to see every bead of sweat and every impact. To hear the sounds of the footsteps and punches. It’s an incredible way to really immerse yourself into Adonis’ world.”
Jordan established his bar for taste at a young age, as a 14-year-old working on The Wire, being on set with the likes of David Simon and Ed Burns and the award-winning filmmakers and directors who put their stamp on episodes of the show.
Films like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the 1988 poker drama Rounders are inspirations, he says. But nothing and no one has had quite the impact that Ryan Coogler has.
“When I first met him we would always talk about actors he admired,” says Coogler. “We would talk about Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Ben Affleck, a lot of the guys — Bradley Cooper is one of them — a lot of the people he admired eventually became directors, and very good ones, so I figured it was always in his path.”
Coogler and Jordan met more than a decade ago when the two linked up for Coogler’s feature film debut, 2013’s Fruitvale Station. The film nabbed both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, won best first film at Cannes, and immediately established Coogler as one the greatest directors of his generation.
The film also introduced Hollywood to a duo that soon not only successfully revived Rocky but also gave the most powerful franchise in cinematic history arguably its best villain, Killmonger, in 2018’s Black Panther. The two teamed up again for a Killmonger cameo in the sort of goodbye to actor Chadwick Boseman that was Wakanda Forever.
Wakanda Forever and Creed III were in production at the same time, but Jordan and Coogler still managed to be there for one another: Jordan to reprise his role and honor an important figure in Black Hollywood, and Coogler to make sure his friend and collaborator got everything he needed for his first film.
“I tried to be there for him as much as I could,” Coogler says, adding that “me producing for him, I think, that’s the height” of their continuing working relationship.
“What I like about producing is serving filmmakers’ visions and delivering on something for the studio that both the filmmaker and the studio are excited about and delivering that to audiences,” he continued. “Doing that with Mike, that’s what we’ve been doing since we first got started and this is just another variation of that… We’ve come up together in this industry so it’s been great to see him achieve goals that he set for himself when we first met over a decade ago.”
Director Be Jordan
Michael B. Jordan has been in the game a surprisingly long time. While he left an indelible mark in The Wire, his first role came in another HBO mainstay, The Sopranos. In the Season 1 episode “Down Neck,” he played one of three young Black kids who chase a child Tony after he tosses a candy wrapper on the ground.
It took a while though to really make a name for himself. It’s one of those careers where now you look back and say to yourself, surprised, “oh dang, Michael B. Jordan was in that?”
2018 was especially busy: He starred in four films, including Creed II and the original Black Panther, that year’s highest-grossing domestic film. At the time he told GQ writer Allison P. Davis he wanted to be worldwide — a capital-M movie star like Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith.
It’s not necessarily been a linear path without bumps and bruises. Not every movie has been an undeniable success, but he’s managed to hold on to some of the on-screen magic that first captured The Wire audiences. There’s simply something that makes you want to root for him, even when he’s yelling “Is this your king?,” and especially when he’s the only thing to keep the flame alive in a Fantastic Four film that’s burned to ash.
The man is a movie star; he’s all-but glowing. His 18 lead or supporting roles in films have grossed $2.2 billion worldwide, and he’s still got plenty of time to amass the legacy of Cruise, DiCaprio and Smith. Though none of those guys have directed a movie.
It was while making Creed II, directed by Steven Caple Jr. (who’s gone on to helm the new Transformers movie, Rise of the Beast) that Jordan took seriously the idea of getting behind the camera.
“As an actor, you’re being told what to do a lot, you’re given direction a lot, and as I got older and started to grow, my opinions and thoughts and my wants grew as well,” he says. “You start thinking, ‘Well, what about this movie? What about this story? Do you want to produce? OK, cool. Now I gotta direct this because I have a point of view.’
“And being around young filmmakers that look like me — starting off my movie career in a real way with Ryan Coogler — us being so close in age and seeing the responsibilities and the projects that he took on early let me know that I could do it,” he continues. “I finally had to just do it and not wait around for the perfect time, but I think this is the one for me.”
When Jordan was in his early 20s, he says director Peter Berg, who executive produced Friday Night Lights, told him there would come a time when he’d get tired of waiting for his phone to ring and that he had better start creating his own opportunities to take control of his creative destiny.
“It’s something that has stuck with me ever since,” Jordan wrote via email. “I started my production company, Outlier Society, out of the desire to create opportunities and be able to create and tell stories I wanted to tell.”
Both Denzel Washington and Bradley Cooper, two actors he’s looked up to throughout his career, offered Jordan advice on directing for the first time. Jordan told Empire Magazine they said to just find his groove with his first assistant director and the actors, but that being able to direct your own performance was a liberating experience.
Of course it’s not just him on the screen. His on-camera partner Tessa Thompson is back, as is Phylicia Rashad. Maybe most exciting, though, is the addition of Hollywood’s hottest actor of the moment, Jonathan Majors, who broke onto the scene in 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Majors plays Damian Anderson, a childhood friend of Adonis, and a former boxing prodigy who comes back into Adonis’ life after serving time in prison, eager to prove he deserves to be atop the boxing world.
That’s the logline through which Adonis, and maybe Jordan too, finds himself having to grow up. The pandemic helped give Jordan, a self-described introvert, the time to fully ruminate on what Creed III would be about. Identity and family, sure, but he also wanted to tackle adulthood, what it means to have to compromise and prioritize. He wanted to take on mental health, childhood trauma, fathers and daughters, brotherhood, guilt and imposter syndrome.
“I’m trying to find ways to start the conversation for other people to finish,” Jordan says.
“Obviously it’s art, so nothing’s on the nose for my taste, but yeah — I’ve experienced self-doubt, shit, imposter syndrome; a little bit of all that stuff at one point or another,” he continues. “That’s the vulnerability of creating art. You put a piece of yourself in your projects, and I’ve been doing that from an actor’s perspective. Now I can create the character. I can create the vessel for the emotions and for the delivery of the themes. So inherently you put a little bit of yourself in your projects, even without you realizing.”
One of the things that impressed him most about Majors was how ready he was to put in the work. Talk of Majors’ physique took over the internet for a week, when he popped up appearing Hulkish in set photos.
“Having a guy that’s willing to put in the time and the work to physically dedicate himself to a role and a character, to show up and put himself through that type of torture… Yeah that boy was a workhorse,” Jordan says.
Jordan would lose himself at times watching Majors work, he says.
“Some scenes I was like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s right, I gotta shoot my side,’” Jordan jokes. “I just wanted to shoot everybody like they were number one on a call sheet.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to witness this man with his hard work and dedication to his craft and his talent getting his flowers, because it doesn’t always happen like that. He’s having his moment, and I hope this moment is as long as humanly possible. To play a small part in that and be a part of his journey as I’ve gotten to know him and grow to have a relationship and a friendship and a brotherhood with him, I want nothing but the best for this man.”
Majors says it felt like they were just two friends making a movie, and that there was little to no hierarchy of director vs. actor. He knew what Jordan wanted and expected from him, and they collaborated.
It’s a busy time for Majors: In November he starred alongside Top Gun: Maverick actor Glen Powell in the true story Korean War drama Devotion. February brings his biggest film to date, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. March marks the release of Creed III.
While it worked out that his physical training suited both his role in Creed III and Quantumania, he would have been interested in anything Jordan was directing, Majors says.
“In our chat, it was so clear to me that this brother was one, ready, and two, had a vision that was going to not just move this franchise forward, but move the culture forward. And I just felt: How can I help?” Majors says. “He was so vulnerable about his ambition, and the way he approached me was just so open-hearted. He told me the premise of it, but I wasn’t listening to that. I was just feeling him out and trying to figure out if this was something that he could actually accomplish.
“And quite early on in our conversations it became clear to me that he was going to transcend what a directorial debut looks like.”
That’s the glow sho’nuff.
Creed III arrives in theaters March 3, from MGM.
Main image: Director Michael B. Jordan on the set of his film Creed III, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Eli Ade,
© 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.