The acting career of Michael B. Jordan has been going on for 20 years, starting with guest spots and then lengthy runs on TV shows including “All My Children” and “Friday Night Lights.” When the movie offers came around, he made the right choice to join up with fledgling director Ryan Coogler, who cast him as the protagonist in the gritty and moving “Fruitvale Station.” They would work together again in Coogler’s follow-up films, with Jordan starring as the initially bemused Adonis Johnson in “Creed” and then as the villainous Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther.” Jordan was soon gaining a reputation for turning in terrific performances as well as sometimes having his characters killed off.
That second part is not the case in his newest film, “Just Mercy,” in which he plays the real-life public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson who, through his organization the Equal Justice Initiative has, among other achievements, provided legal assistance to prisoners on death row. The specific story told in “Just Mercy” concerns the case of wrongly accused Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) and how Stevenson ignored the odds stacked against him and fought the good fight.
Jordan, 32, who also served as an executive producer, recently spoke about the film at a Q&A session in Toronto.
Q: Did you know much about Bryan Stevenson and this particular case before signing on to the film?
A: I have to admit I didn’t know that much at the beginning. But then I read his book (“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”) and listened to his (2012) TED talk, and I felt a huge responsibility to run toward the issue and the story and to do whatever I could to use my platform to get the story out to the masses.
Q: You got to meet with Bryan while you were preparing to do the film. What were your conversations like?
A: I was really curious about the space, about being in courtrooms. I think I had the perception that it was a place that you don’t belong in. You know, like if you’re in a court, it’s something bad. So, I was getting used to changing that perception to a place of power. It’s a place of work. I was getting into being comfortable in that space. So, I was just asking him where he would stand, what is his position of attack. Depending on what you’re trying to get from a witness or a judge, what’s your body language? I was getting into the technical aspect of it all. I was trying to keep focused on that but also leaving room for interpretation of that workspace. I think that’s where my mind goes, and I got a chance to talk to him a lot about that.
Q: In the film, Bryan is portrayed as someone who’s as interested in the well being of his clients as he is in the justice system. Did all of that also come up in your discussions?
A: When he was talking to inmates, he made the point of getting close. That’s something that is extremely important - to understand and feel and have that empathy and be able to understand that it’s more than just a name on a piece of paper. These people have lives and families and things that are at stake. And you’re responsible for that. You know, there’s a movie version of this, but there’s a real version of it as well, and we wanted to live more in that space than anything. After I got a chance to get to know Bryan and his story and his work, I felt like I had a great deal of pressure to get it right. So, I was trying to take my time with it, and Bryan was really helpful with that.
Q: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that because your characters die quite often in your earlier films, your parents were having trouble watching them. What was their reaction in this one?
A: My family is everything; my mom and dad shaped me. I am them. Earlier on in my career, I played some stereotypical roles that somehow didn’t seem like stereotypes because the characters had so much emotional currency and really resonated with audiences over time. But I never thought about what my mom went through seeing her son die so many times. She would cry so hard, and it would tear me up. But as I got older and more mature and started looking at things, I said, “Man, I can’t do this anymore.” Which was part of the reason why I refused a lot of roles. I said, “I can’t die anymore. I want people to see me live. I want my character to survive all three acts. I want people to watch me make it to the credits.” (laughs)
“Just Mercy” opens on Jan. 10.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.