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Michael B. Jordan, aka Killmonger, talks #BlackPanther — and why sports stories matter

Up next is a new boxing movie and — possibly — a Detroit basketball series

Before Michael B. Jordan speaks, most times before he says a word, he breaks into a knowing smile. It’s charismatic, to be sure, but it’s more than that. It’s as if he’s about to let you in on a secret — the secret, the one you didn’t know you’ve been dying to know until the exact moment you realize he’s about to spill something delicious. Truth is, it’s just bliss. Because he’s evolved into a Hollywood power broker who can push a project toward green light just by his name being attached.

In 2015 there was the hugely successful Creed, Jordan and director Ryan Coogler‘s revamp of Rocky, the most successful sports film franchise of all time. The duo turned it on its head in a way that left critics and fans wanting more. Fresh off that triumph, Jordan was announced as a leading character, Killmonger, in the hotly anticipated Black Panther. So Jordan’s smile is an exclamation point on just how electric this period feels for him as actor, producer and now director. And soon he’ll step back into the ring as Adonis Johnson, son of the fictional Apollo Creed, the best boxer Rocky Balboa ever encountered.

We talk.

L to R: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

Matt Kennedy..©Marvel Studios 2018

You’ve never played a baddie before! How does that happen? What made you say yes?

How does that happen?! It just kinda worked out that way. Me and Ryan, we finished shooting Creed and he was like, ‘This is something that I’m getting ready to do. Do you want to play a villain?!’ He kind of asked, but at the same time was like, basically, I think you should do it. Ryan has a direct line. It’s one of those things … I rarely say no.

What boxes were you looking to check off?

I wanted to do something different. Like you said, I’m always being the nice guy, playing characters that you have a lot of empathy for. And obviously this character … we did a lot of work to create a 360-degree character … that really showed a lot of different sides of a complicated man that just so happened to be … the protagonist in this one. Technically he’s a villain, but hopefully we can get the audiences and people to understand where he’s coming from and see his point of view.

There’s a lot of pressure that comes with this film. Were you feeling that when you were shooting it?

No. Me and Ryan, we keep the same process. We lock, tunnel vision, and just focus on what we’re doing. Obviously, the hype and the expectation and the pressure — that’s kind of for everybody else to put on the project before us. We didn’t feel it because we always put our best foot forward and we give 120 percent … always holding each other accountable, being true, showing up day in, day out. … Afterwards, you start hearing the chirping and you start to sit back after you get out of the forest a little bit and get a chance to actually look at the things that you were doing, or the two years that led up to shooting this film. And then it starts to hit you … like, wow, OK, people are excited for this, they’re hopeful. I hope we didn’t let them down. I hope I did a good job.

“Being super competitive at team sports, and just being athletic, I think it had a lot to do with the shaping of who I am.”

It must have been fun shooting this too, though. Being on set, it just felt like a family barbecue at times. Chaka Khan was playing at one point. What was it like for you … especially in Atlanta?

It’s funny you said that because, honestly, that’s just a Ryan Coogler film. When we’re on set, we’re comfortable. Sometimes you need some music playing to get everybody in a good mood. We want to feel good, so we’ll play things to get us comfortable. It’s interesting that you came on set and heard Chaka Khan playing! So when it’s time to get down to business, if it’s a locked-in scene, we might play music that’s motivating the characters that are in that scene. It’s definitely something that’s unique to Ryan and something that I’m familiar with, but I know for an outsider coming in, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is how you guys get down?!’ It’s definitely refreshing. And for me, just being on set with that many black people?! You know what I’m saying?! Different departments? Everybody at the head of their field, working hard, putting this thing together? Just the feeling. Especially down in Atlanta as well?! It was real surreal. [You’d] sometimes come on set and you’re like, ‘This is my work environment for the next few months.’ And you felt inspired.

What stands out about this film are the optics. One is that we have both you and Chadwick Boseman together on-screen at the same time. Usually, there can only be one. We’re told there can only be one. But not in Black Panther. I don’t think we’ve seen that a great deal over time — the two best-known working young black male actors in the same big-budget movie at the same time.

To put us both on-screen, and have us go toe-to-toe, is just a testament of the times. Opportunity. And I think within success — because this is a business also, and studios are putting up hundreds of millions of dollars for these projects — they want to make sure that they’re going to get a return. So, with success, I feel like you’ll see a lot more of these projects that are more expensive. Higher budgets that are taking chances on more eclectic endeavors and diverse casts. For me, it was a lot of fun … working with him. A friendly competition, but at the same time, it was inspiring to go toe-to-toe with my brother.

So, what did you do to get into Killmonger shape?

I think for Creed, I wanted to specifically be a boxer. So that’s what I did. I lived like a fighter for as much and as long as I could. For Killmonger, he’s like a Swiss army knife. A little bit of everything. Weapons training, martial arts, hand-to-hand combat. He’s a tactician, so I learned a lot of different things, and I lifted a lot of weights. I got broader, and a little bigger — less defined and shredded like a boxer would be. … I physically tried to be a little bit bigger than the Black Panther just for story’s sake. I lifted a lot. I ate a lot, put on about 15 to 20 pounds.

You went deep with Killmonger, and you’ve said it took more than usual to pull you out of him.

He’s coming from a different place. He has a controlled rage to him that no other character that I’ve ever played … called for. I never had to go to that place. And for him, it was justifiable to tap into that and let it go. There are moments where it’s totally not like myself, which is cool. … It was cool to dive into a different side.

How did being a part of this film change you?

I got a second go at Marvel, which is awesome … a chance to really get it right. I got a chance to grow as an actor, grow as a man, grow as a person. Being a part of this movie just changed me for the better. I had just turned 30, coming into myself. Feeling more like a man. A few new chest hairs came out! No, I felt good. I felt good.

And right after Black Panther, you’re about to go back into production for Creed II

After we go overseas to do the international press tour … I start getting ready for Creed II. I’m in the process of doing that now, getting back into shape. It’s so tough, it’s so unrealistic to stay in that shape 24/7, 365. So in between projects, I definitely have my moments of cheeseburgers, In-N-Out, cheesesteaks, pasta, pizza — it’s crazy. [But] I’m in the process … of bringing back Adonis.

How do you get back into Adonis after leaving Erik Killmonger behind? Where do you start?

Go to therapy. I’m not even joking. I definitely took some time to reset for a little bit. But now it’s more or less starting to live like a fighter again. It starts in the gym, start living that lifestyle, fighting and then … deciding where our story’s going and where our character’s arcing. Picking a character up the second time around, for me, isn’t that often. … I’m paying close attention to make sure you guys see the same guy. But at the same time, a little bit further along in his career, his life.

What is it about sports stories that you find so compelling?

Being supercompetitive at team sports, and just being athletic, I think it had a lot to do with the shaping of who I am. My personality, my work ethic. Being able to collaborate, work with other members and players on the team, as far as on set — for me, it’s a part of my life.

You’re in the most anticipated film of the year, and you also have an HBO series coming.

Black Panther is going to do what it’s going to do. At this point, my hands are off. It’s a living, breathing thing that’s getting ready to go. Same thing with Fahrenheit. Creating opportunities for more people. Telling stories from a different perspective. That’s really important to me. I think for this year, my first year, I had a goal in mind with projects that I want to produce and I want to see actually make it to air and be in development.

Are we getting a Detroit basketball TV series coming? I read a while ago that you wanted to create one. Still in the works?

It’s a show me and a buddy of mine created about eight years ago. We sat and created this show over an entire summer, and we developed it slowly. But, it’s going to find its place when it’s time. It’s one of those things that has to be right. You haven’t really seen a sports drama done on a basketball court. So it’s like White Shadow, and Survivor’s Remorse is its own thing. That show’s dope. But being on more of a grittier, The Wire meets Friday Night Lights type of feel. It’s gotta be right, so I’m just making sure that project’s going to get done the right way. All in due time.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment writer at The Undefeated. She can act out every episode of the U.S version of "The Office," she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.