Michael B. Jordan Punches His Way Into a New Weight Class With Creed

6 minute read

Michael B. Jordan can relate to what his character Adonis faces in Creed, the seventh chapter of the Rocky saga, out Nov. 25. Son of the late Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s old boxing rival, Adonis struggles with whether to use his father’s name as he tries to forge his own legacy, training for the light-heavyweight championship under–who else?–Sylvester Stallone as Balboa himself. Jordan has similarly endeavored to emerge from the shadow of Michael Jordan, the iconic basketball player–though the two are not related. The actor spent his childhood being taunted on the court and off.

“I hated my name. I wanted to change it,” Jordan, 28, says. “But it gave me a healthy chip on my shoulder. One of my goals is when people hear ‘Michael Jordan,’ it’s not clear which one’s being talked about–because I can’t be the guy who was almost the famous Michael Jordan.”

As if the name weren’t pressure enough, the actor’s middle initial stands for Bakari, which means “of noble promise” in Swahili. But that name may prove prescient now that Jordan stands on the precipice of stardom. He’s earned raves for his roles in critically acclaimed TV dramas The Wire and Friday Night Lights, as well as director Ryan Coogler’s award-winning indie Fruitvale Station–the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed black man killed by a white officer in Oakland, Calif.

Coogler tapped Jordan again for Creed, the actor’s first solo lead in a mainstream film–and his big shot at the title. “It’d be foolish of me not to realize that there’s this pressure from everybody. And I feel that, but I also welcome it,” he says, breaking into a smile.

Coogler, 29, wrote the story when his Rocky-loving father got sick, in the hope that it would motivate his dad to get better. (It did.) He pitched Stallone, but Sly was hesitant. So Coogler turned to his first feature film, Fruitvale Station, where he and Jordan immediately clicked: both grew up athletes with close-knit families in downtrodden cities–Oakland for Coogler and Newark, N.J., for Jordan. “We talk every day,” says Jordan. “I might wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and have an idea, and I’ll just call him. His fiancée will pick up, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta talk to Ryan.'”

Only when Stallone saw Fruitvale, a year after Coogler’s first pitch, did he grant the younger filmmaker full autonomy over the franchise. Coogler reframed the story from the perspective of a black millennial–including a new neighborhood in Philadelphia, hip-hop music and a love interest (Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson) who has her own career ambitions, as a musician. “For our parents, it was about stable jobs, surviving,” Coogler says. “For us, it’s about passion.” Rocky’s always pulled into the ring. Adonis can’t be held back from it.

That’s not to say Stallone wasn’t involved. “During a fight scene, I hear this noise from the corner,” says Jordan. “I go, ‘What’s up, Sly?’ And Stallone goes, ‘You’ve got to take the hit.’ I was like, ‘For real?’ But he knew that to get the shot, I had to actually take a punch. So I did.”

Jordan was willing to do just about anything to make sure the film was a winner. He had already made a bid for stardom earlier this year as the Human Torch in the superhero movie Fantastic Four. But despite a promising young cast that included Whiplash’s Miles Teller and House of Cards’ Kate Mara, the movie flopped when it premiered in August, the second-worst-performing film based on a Marvel comic in the past decade. When asked about it, Jordan mock screams. “It was my first real, you know, failure,” he says. “But, man, it gave me such motivation to make sure that never happens again.”

For Creed, he spent a year bulking up, resigning himself to a diet of chicken breast, steamed broccoli and brown rice. For some of his training sessions, he visited the gyms of boxing legends like Floyd Mayweather Jr. It worked. Under his blue long-sleeved shirt, Jordan looks as if he’s wearing a muscle suit. “I’m going to try to keep this as long as I can,” he says, laughing as he gestures at his torso. “Even in a role that doesn’t call for it–giving a cross-examination, unbuttoning a few buttons, and I’m just, like, chiseled.”

Behind his jovial exterior, Jordan is unabashedly ambitious. He carefully studies the work of actors he admires: Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Edward Norton. “I look at their résumés–when did they do this blockbuster, that indie? There’s a loose science to it, a basic template you can tailor to yourself,” he says. “I always thought about what I would say when someone finally asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ Tom Cruise, he’s doing it. People all over the world come out to see art he’s made. That’s my aspiration.”

And not getting stuck in clichéd roles. After playing a “troubled black youth” in procedurals like CSI and being killed in almost every one of his early films, Jordan instructed his agents to look for roles written for white men–or in the case of Creed and his next movie, Just Mercy, in which he plays civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, black men who don’t get shot.

“Fruitvale came at a time when it was really important to African-American people. But I was like, Whoa, I’m not just about this,” Jordan says. “I want to play the characters everybody wants to play. Why limit myself to just one type of role?”

That’s why he’ll team up with Coogler again for Wrong Answer, about a school testing scandal in Atlanta, which may further his quest to earn his own place in the firmament. “In Newark, the New York skyline is right there, and I think that visual is important,” he says. “I always found myself on one side looking at the other, thinking, I’ve got to get over there.”

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com