Interview: Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer of Fruitvale Station
We spoke to Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), who plays Oscar in the film, and Octavia Spencer (The Help) who plays Oscar’s mother, Wanda Grant, in a tiny roundtable interview the day after the film’s premiere in Oakland. They spoke to us about their reactions to the shooting, meeting Oscar’s family, learning to curb their expectations in the movie industry, and why the film is able to touch the hearts of people across the globe. Check out the edited transcript below.
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Before you were approached for the project, how knowledgeable were you on the Oscar Grant story?
Octavia Spencer: I did hear about it when it happened, but to put it in context, that was also the year that Barack Obama had been elected, so I was in more of a jubilant state of mind and decided since I was in that celebratory state of mind, I wasn’t really going to allow anything else to permeate that. I didn’t, unfortunately, revisit it until it was brought up as a project.
Michael B. Jordan: Same here. I remember being on my laptop and somebody posted the video on my wall. I remember looking at it and being disgusted by it, watching it over and over again trying to make it make sense, rationalize it, or justify it, but there was no justification. I felt helpless and a little bit angry. It feels like there’s nothing you can do in the moment, so life goes on. Four years later, this project pops up and I had to jump at the opportunity. I felt a certain responsibility to get the story out there.
What attracted you to the project?
Michael B. Jordan: The opportunity to express [myself] as a person of color, as a person from the inner-city who’s been put in situations like that before. Also the opportunity to give this guy some of his humanity back that was kind of lost over the [course of the] trial. To tell this guy’s story and hopefully prevent it from happening again.
Octavia Spencer: It resonated with me as a woman. I’m not a mother, but I have nephews who would be contemporaries of Oscar’s and Michael’s. I almost didn’t take the part because when I saw the video I felt that all I had to offer it was anger. Because the Trayvon Martin case was so topical, I felt like anger was the wrong emotion to associate with it because it was so public and it was so volatile an issue here in the Bay Area. My agent made me read the script and I found it refreshing to learn that Ryan Coogler—who is also an African-American male—could have written a movie that was an indictment of our judicial system, an indictment of our public service, but he didn’t. What he did was choose to—as Michael said—restore some of Oscar’s humanity, showing his flaws and showing him doing regular human interaction with his family. That was really profound.
How did you approach the movie already knowing the fate of Oscar Grant?
Michael B. Jordan: Honestly, you have to put yourself in that position. That’s the last 24 hours of his life. His death is such a small fraction of the film. I think the movie is about this young man who’s trying to do right by the people he loves, trying to figure out this thing called life that nobody seems to have the blueprint to. You have to make mistakes. You have to get to know him through the family—through his daughter, through his mom, through Sophina, his best friends—and kind of live in the moment, honestly. That’s all this movie [is]—Oscar’s moments.
Octavia Spencer: It’s acting 101. You can only deal with the given circumstances. Wanda has no idea that her son is going to die at the end of the day. Neither does he. You have to really immerse yourself in the world.
Neither of you have kids, so what did you channel to portray such loving parents?
Octavia Spencer: I am not a parent, but I do have family members that I love. It’s about the truthfulness of the relationship and the bonds that we feel with our family members. That was the toughest part for me. It’s about being true to the relationship.
Michael B. Jordan: I love kids. I’ve got little cousins running around, so I’m always interacting with younger kids. Honestly, I can’t wait to be a dad one day. Sometimes when you deal with so many adults in this industry with ulterior motives it’s like one big chess match. You’re always trying to figure out somebody’s angle. When you’re around a kid who has no bad habits, still learning good from bad, it’s refreshing to be around that. Playing with that relationship was a lot of fun.
How was it when you met Oscar’s family for the very first time?
Michael B. Jordan: My approach was meeting everybody and getting as much information up front, before I started doing this thing. Then, just building this guy up. You have the skeleton, then you have to keep layering up, layering up. By the time we actually started filming, you have a pretty good idea of who this guy is, and then you just live with him throughout the rest of the film. That was my approach.
Octavia Spencer: I second that. We had different windows of opportunity to do that, for me much more limited, but I’m also not carrying the entire film as Michael is. It was important to meet Wanda because there’s only so much you can gleam from the information provided via the internet. Ryan is a prolific researcher and he viewed her a lot, so I was given those tapes. When I actually had the chance to sit down and meet with her and realize that we were so different…those are things you can’t possibly know. It was about trying to emulate the essence of Wanda because I had a truncated window of prep time. I knew all that I needed to know except for those intangibles, and meeting her filled in the blanks.
Michael, you played a character on Friday Night Lights, Vince, who is, similarly to Oscar, trying to turn his life around. What’s it like creating a character over seasons as opposed to a single day, as in Fruitvale Station?
Michael B. Jordan: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very talented writers that seem to write human relationships so well. With Vince, it’s a different pace because it’s a longer arc. With this movie…I feel like if you spend a day with anybody, from sunup to sundown, through their day to day routine, you can get a pretty good idea of who somebody is. I think that formula works very well with Oscar because that day was so eventful for him. He interacted with a lot of people that he cared about the most and was putting them in a vast number of situations that show different sides of him. You got a chance to see him when nobody was looking…which I think really defines somebody’s character. Then, you see him through different flashbacks and different tools of storytelling. You got a chance to see this guy when he didn’t have such a handle on his temper. You see him in moments with his daughter. You see all these different, complex sides of this guy all compacted into one day. You try to do the best you can to make him as real as possible. You just want to make it real and relatable.
How do you suppress expectations before you begin a project like this?
Octavia Spencer: You don’t have them! You can’t have expectations because the reality of Fruitvale Station, when you look at all the independents that people shoot—usually, they don’t get to go the festival route. Sometimes, they sit in a can and nobody ever gets to see them. You can’t enter into anything like that with expectations. At least, I don’t.
Michael B. Jordan: From a young age of acting, going to auditions and getting your hopes up all the time…you think you did a good job. “I’m going to get it!” When you’re young, you don’t understand that there are so many other things that come into play. When you have a few letdowns, you start to mentally train yourself to not have expectations. You learn how things work in the system. You realize how not in control you are. Once you understand that, it’s easier for you to put your all into [something], walk away and say, “Whatever happens, happens.”
The film is about a specific community, the East Bay Area, that’s generally unfamiliar to people across the country. Why do you think it touches people across the globe, like it did at Cannes?
Michael B. Jordan: It’s universal. Everybody knows what it’s like to lose a loved one, lose life, or to care about somebody, or to love somebody. [Fruitvale Station] is like a love story in so many ways. It’s about Oscar’s love for his family and his family’s love for [him.] Anybody who’s had a best friend or a mom or a daughter who they care about can relate to somebody being taken away from them. I think when [someone’s] taken away in such a fashion that [Oscar] was, it hits people and they’re affected by it. That’s one of the many themes that people relate to no matter what language you speak or where you’re from.
Octavia Spencer: Absolutely. A mother’s love, a father’s love—those are universal themes. Injustice is a universal theme. We all can understand that and I think that’s why the jargon that might not translate into another language…you still see the human emotion on the screen, and it reads.
Was there a particular scene that you read in the script that made you think, “I really have to do this.”
Octavia Spencer: The script as a whole captured my heart. That’s the other thing that you learn as an actor: Don’t fall in love with scenes! It may not make it to the final cut.
Michael B. Jordan: As a whole, I read the script and I was very moved. I cried while reading, which was not an easy thing to do. Favorite scene? There’s a couple, but probably the prison scene. The scene with the dog I had fun reading and shooting at the same time. After shooting, I thought, “That was one of my favorite scenes.” Those two really jumped out at me.
Octavia Spencer: At my second viewing at Cannes I got the profundity of [the dog scene.] I don’t even know if Ryan intended to do this, but the pitbull is a symbol of fear and terror—marginalized. Then, he’s killed and the driver never slows down. It’s not a stretch to say that the character of Oscar Grant was viewed in the same way. It was this beautiful harbinger use of foreshadowing by Ryan. I just thought it was a dog the first time, but when I saw it the second time, I was like, “It’s a pitbull!” It really affected me. You know, I’m an English major, so you always have to look for, “What’s the metaphor?” and all that stuff. I thought that was very profound.
What has the feedback from people in the Bay Area been?
Octavia Spencer: We just got her last night, but I can tell you the feedback in the theater that we were in was very positive. Usually, when you have Q&A’s, a lot of people leave, but they stayed. I guess time will tell, but gauging from the audience last night it was very positive.
Michael B. Jordan: That was the first time anybody from up here had a chance to see it, so we’re curious to see how it affects the community who lost [Oscar.] Time will tell.