This week, The Source Magazine sat down with “Fruitvale Station” stars Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz. The Weinstein Company film, which hit theaters this weekend, tells the true story of the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life, when unarmed, he was fatally shot by a police officer in the Bay Area.
Q: How were you able to portray Oscar’s anger issues, but still maintain his likability?
Michael: I think he’s a human being. I think humans are flawed. He has human emotions. Anger is one of those. He had a quick switch. He had a temper, for sure. And I think it was something that he constantly tried to keep in check, he was fighting to keep it in check. Me and Ryan tried to find moments in the script where we could show the thought process of him trying to keep a lid on it…in the grocery store scene, we wanted to show as many layers as we could in that scene…when he’s interacting with different people. And at the train station, he was fighting to get home to his daughter. He didn’t want to fight. He didn’t want to fight physically with anybody that night. He was tired, it was a long day, he just wanted to get home to his daughter. That quickly turned into him fighting for his life. That was the one fight that he lost. And I think he won all of his fights as far as trying to keep his anger in check for the most part. We saw little flashes of it here and there, in the prison, fighting to keep that under control, but I think that was the last fight that he lost.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about getting to know Oscar through his family and friends and what was the most unexpected part of the experience?
Michael: I don’t think there were many unexpected things. Just listening a lot to his mom, whatever she had to say as far as their relationship, how they treated one another, I think that was the gist of a lot of conversations that I had with his mom and with Sophina, his interactions…Me and Melonie got a chance to hear how they were with one another especially on that last day – where they were at in their relationship because of course there were ups and downs. And spending time with his best friends, that was also very important. Those reminiscent of stories where you had a barbecue at a park, played dominoes, just listening to them tell stories…They reminded me a lot of me and friends back home. I’m from New Jersey…Everybody had a different version of Oscar. He was different around everybody and he was a very complex and layered young man, so we just tried to get all those perspectives, all those different versions and just find moments throughout the day to kind of show those layers in different social settings because he was a social chameleon. He blended in no matter where he went for the most part.
Q: For both of you, how much of your characters are exact replicas of the real people and where did you change it to make it more general?
Melonie: We didn’t want to imitate a person. It is more like a representation of who Sophina is. And we have a lot of things in common. We’re both young women, we’re both incredibly strong and opinionated, but I’m not a mother and I don’t have a kid. In terms of like physicality she’s really different from me — the way she chooses to wear her hair, her nails. That’s a big difference there.
Michael: I think me and Oscar…have a lot of similarities. I think he was a people-pleaser. He wanted to make everybody around him and people that he cared about happy. It was a good juggling act all the time with him and I think he just got kind of tired after a while. Me personally, I’m kind of the same way when I’m out with my family and friends. Or sometimes you overextend yourself. You put yourself last a lot and I think that’s what happened with Oscar. He put himself last a lot. I do have a quick temper, too. It takes a lot to get me mad, but when I’m there, I’m there. I think that’s kind of the same for Oscar as well. We just had different circumstances.
Q: Why did this story resonate with you?
Michael: Because he could have been me. Oscar would have been 27, I’m 26. He’s from Oakland, I’m from North New Jersey. Oakland has the same kind of relationship to San Francisco, big city as you know, northeast of Manhattan. I used to catch the PATH train over here all the time for auditions for West Indian Day Parade, Puerto Rican Day Parade, different functions and stuff like that. The transit police I used to see them come in contact with passengers all the time, hold them up. And those situations could have easily escalated into an incident like Oscar Grant. So I saw a lot of similarities at that age where we used to do our routine for the most part, minus all the drug dealing and all that stuff. And then the loss of life, you get tired of seeing those incidents happen over and over again and sometimes as an actor you’re not allowed express yourself and have an opinion on certain controversial matters like that. This was an opportunity for me to step away…and I could just step into somebody else and express myself through my work. I was waiting for the perfect opportunity to kind of express myself the way I wanted and not be completely judged.
Q: How do you feel this relates to what’s currently going on right now with the Trayvon Martin case?
Melonie: In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and even like the repeal of DOMA there apparently is an issue with how we choose to perceive and judge each other based on the color of our skin or even our sexual orientation. There’s a lot of hatred and unkindness that’s happening right now and I think this movie is a step-forward in terms of bringing these social issues to the forefront of the people’s mind. Cause clearly we all want to talk about it and that’s what’s so interesting about this movie is they’re like, “We’ll take it to Cannes or Sundance and everywhere,” and the response is all the same. And I think that there is something really special about that.
Q: Just as a woman, I feel like the woman’s story a lot of times gets left out of that situation – whether it’s a man going to jail or this man dying. Can you speak about that?
Melonie: Something that really resonated with me…was I think Sophina is an example of the many women who are left behind to raise their family and tell their kids about their father or loved one. That to me is upsetting because that’s another tragedy. It’s like this hatred and then it just rolls out to all this pain and loss, and that was something that I’m really connected to and I wanted to play a woman that kind of goes through that journey. And even so on the page, Ryan did such a good job in terms of structure, of how Oscar’s affected by the three women in his life and that’s what kind of makes him who he was. And Sophina is like a lot of girls that I know. I grew up with girls like Sophina. She’s a great mom and she’s tough and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. It was really refreshing to me that Ryan chose to shed light on her because she knew him best. And I think that there’s a lot of women out there like that and I think that people are going to watch this movie. They’re going to be like, “Yeah, I know that girl!”