There’s a moment in Creed, the new Rocky spin-off of sorts, where Adonis Johnson knocks the living daylights out of a local rapper who mocks him by calling him Baby Creed.
The up-and-coming boxer is the son of legend Apollo Creed — who had an affair with Adonis's mother — but Adonis is pissed. He’s worked hard to get to where he is, to make a name for himself, and to keep the name of his father (who died in the ring fighting an unsympathetic Russian contender in Rocky IV) a secret. So when some guy — who, like the rest of the world at this point in the film, has learned of his heritage — tries to belittle Adonis’s accomplishments, as if he’d be comfortable riding on someone else’s coattails (or stars-and-stripes shorts), he decides to start the fight before the fight.
That scene, in many ways, parallels where the actor who portrays Adonis, Michael B. Jordan, is in his career right now: He is ready for his own battle.
By all accounts, Hollywood insiders consider 28-year-old Jordan the heir apparent to the thrones that Denzel Washington and Will Smith have built. For decades, those actors have established themselves as box office champions and they’re in a very small and exclusive fraternity — black men who can land leading roles in successful, high-profile feature films.
Creed is a continuation of the beloved, long-running Rocky franchise that made Sylvester Stallone famous in the title role, and now it’s about to do the same for Jordan.
But no matter how hungry we are for the next Washington or Smith, Jordan isn’t quite ready to raise his hand for that part.
He’s got other plans.
“I don’t think I have the pressure to be the next anybody,” he said, after tossing the idea around in his head for a few minutes. “I don’t put that on myself. I need to be the best version of myself. I put that pressure on myself to be the best version of Michael B. Jordan. And whoever that person is going to be, I’m still growing. I’m not even 30 yet.” He paused to slightly laugh at himself. “So I’m going to be a different person two years from now. I’m a different person now than I was a year ago: same core values, same person on the inside, but just growing to the next stage of my life of being a man. Will and Denzel have such phenomenal careers that anybody would be in awe of. [But] I think the time has changed. I think they came up in a different era, a different generation of film and cinema, which was molded and shaped by that as well. I think now, the timing, the platform is there for me to be able to be a version of what they had at their time.”
Jordan’s heard plenty of times that Creed could catapult him into a superstar stratosphere. After Warner Bros. screened the film for journalists, the consensus was unanimous: the film — and most importantly, Jordan — was fantastic. Jordan offers “the best all-around performance of his young career,” reads a USA Today review.
Creed is Jordan’s first leading role in big feature film, a victory tantamount to Adonis nabbing his first taste of certifiable respect and getting dapped up by an opponent for being the real deal, not just a flash-in-the-pan wannabe boxer hoping to score off daddy’s name. Jordan has been working to get to this moment since making his debut in a 1999 episode of The Sopranos, before finally landing his big break on HBO’s The Wire in 2002 as teen drug dealer Wallace. Since then, he’s had roles in TV series like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, been a part of ensembles in films like 2012’s Chronicle, and showed his dramatic chops in 2013’s Fruitvale Station, also directed by Creed’s Ryan Coogler.
Creed could also mean that Jordan has found a franchise that he can star in for years to come, an effort that didn’t exactly work out with the Fantastic Four reboot earlier this year. He won the part of the Human Torch — who has previously been portrayed as white, which sparked some controversy and a ton of conversation — but the movie was critically panned and a box office failure. But Creed? Critics already love it; if fans turn out, it could fall right in line with its predecessors, giving him a stability he’s yet to experience.
“This is something that I’m super proud of, and I feel like, as an origin story it could become a franchise and have success, and have multiple films. You have to be strategic,” Jordan said of Creed. “After Fruitvale Station, I started to be a little more selective. That was the first opportunity I had to think about my career moves, and really have real control over the projects that I was doing. Up until that point … with The Wire, it's not like I had a choice between six different roles. Those were the auditions that I went in for and I got.”
Coogler told BuzzFeed News earlier this summer that Jordan is “kind of like a LeBron James," saying, "Not only is this dude the perfect size, the perfect build, but he's come along at the perfect time and he has a crazy work ethic. He’s the perfect storm.”
And now, the actor is starting to work on his strategy, gearing himself to perhaps, like Adonis, defy the odds of a newly minted contender. Next up, he and Coogler will team up again for Wrong Answer, a film about the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools. Jordan also wants to return to his television roots to develop and produce, and he said he wouldn’t mind giving the comic book world another go-round. “I'm interested in producing and developing a film, and a novel, a comic book, animation,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s finally at a point now where he can say “no” — a first in his career — and that means staying away from roles where his character dies, because it upsets his mother too much.
“She would be bawling, she used to be crying. Like, Mom, stop it! Nobody wants to see their mom cry; that’s not a good feeling, regardless of the performance. It was just traumatizing over a period of time. It’s something that people don’t think about, but a mom can’t be seeing her son die over and over and over again, in dramatic ways. I’m not going out on a hospital bed in a dramatic fashion,” he said, referencing the fact that nearly all of his onscreen deaths have been violent, starting with young Wallace on The Wire. “I need a break. And I want people to see me live, to evolve into a leading man that survives some accident. That’s very important. Audiences get the chance to see this character live and try and be victorious and have some type of closure without ending his life.”
He paused and then added: “I’m trying to break those stereotypes [of black men].”
Like he tried to do earlier this year when he played the Human Torch. Even though the film didn’t do what he’d hoped it would, he still challenged what audiences thought a superhero looked like. And now, he’s actively looking for similar opportunities to be cast in a role traditionally reserved for a white actor.
It’s a notion Jordan first mentioned in a GQ article this past September, in which he said he wanted “roles that were written for white characters.” His intention, he told BuzzFeed News, was to challenge Hollywood on its race issue and get decision-makers to think outside of the box with more color-blind castings. But readers’ negative reaction to the quote forced Jordan to clarify his words in an open letter in Essence. Jordan also felt the need to come out strong in support of #BlackLivesMatter in the same letter in an effort to debunk a bogus Snapchat about him supporting #AllLivesMatter.
He wants to be clear that he’s not shying away from his blackness or onscreen stories that feel black. If anything, he plans to go harder as his career continues and make sure that the stories he signs up for feel more universal, diverse, and, yes, black.
“There’s a lack of a black perspective in cinema. And I think it starts from perception, from the point of view of where the content is being created. You have more black writers and creators, and new developers in content that aren’t just the stereotypes that we’re used to being created or portrayed. The African-American experience is different. There are more genuine portrayals in characters that are diverse that somebody from any walk of life can play,” Jordan said. “I think that’s very important to the growth and progression of black cinema — matter of fact, people of color in film generally. The more opportunities, the more roles that are created, the more of those things you start to see, then you will start to see black actors in cinema, in movies, in television.”
It’s a platform he’s taken on not just because his recent success affords him the opportunity to have that kind of power; it’s also an undeniable fact that as his star rises, more eyes are on Jordan’s every move.
And he’s well aware.
“It’s overwhelming at times,” Jordan said of his new level of fame. “Day by day you see it: Your privacy is stripped away. You start to move differently; you’re cautious. Oh man, I can’t go to the mall today. What day is it? Saturday? Ooh. Lot of people. No, I’m not going to go to the mall. No, I’m not going out. That's something that I'm getting used to, and it's happening pretty fast. I'm going to make mistakes; I’m going to learn some lessons — some things that I used to do that I can't do anymore. I have to learn how to separate Michael Jordan, the actor, and Michael Jordan, the person. There are no guidelines that exist how to navigate this journey that I’m on.”
His compass is the same circle he’s looked to for years. “I definitely rely and lean on people: my family, my friends, my mom, my parents. They are people that tell me straight; they’ll call bullshit when they see it,” he said before adding with a laugh, “I just got to meditate more.”
Of course, that gets harder when you’re on the verge of the world seeing a movie like Creed. But Jordan is ready to knuckle up and take this big step in his career — and just like Adonis, it’ll be on his own terms.
“A film this size, man … it changed the chessboard. The pieces got rearranged. I just got to sit back and look at the board and figure out what’s the best move,” he said. “I’m in a very fortunate situation. It doesn’t come around a lot.” He offers another pregnant pause, then speaks again after a few silent beats.
“I’m still working, you know? I feel like I still have so much to do. As successful as I’ve been so far, and the blessings that I know I’ve had — and I acknowledge my blessings — I’ve still got so much more that I want to do and accomplish. I just want to put myself in a position to be able to create and expand and grow and be progressive, period.”