Michael B. Jordan was only 15 when he played a memorable part in the first season of one of the most acclaimed television series ever, The Wire. That role, as good-hearted corner kid Wallace, would have been enough to guarantee him a spot in TV fans’ hearts. But after a series of other television projects, Jordan landed in another memorable role in another of the most acclaimed series in recent memory: Friday Night Lights. Jordan’s depiction of troubled-youth-turned-football-hero Vince Howard was a pivotal part of the beloved series’ final two seasons; his character’s arc draws to an emotional, satisfying conclusion in the series finale, which airs July 15 on NBC. (It already aired on DirectTV in February.) Since Friday Night Lights wrapped last year, Jordan has moved on to playing another good guy with a troubled past on the NBC family drama Parenthood—which shares a showrunner, Jason Katims, with Friday Night Lights—but when The A.V. Club spoke with Jordan, he was happy to revisit Vince, as well as some of his other past and future roles.
The A.V. Club: Is Friday Night Lights the first time you’ve been a part of an actual, planned series finale?
Michael B. Jordan: Yes, it is. It was actually my first time coming back for a second season for anything.
AVC: But it was just announced you’re coming back as Alex next season on Parenthood.
MJ: I am coming back for Parenthood, so that will be my second season.
AVC: You’re on a streak.
MJ: Yeah, I gotta keep this up! [Laughs.]
AVC: With Friday Night Lights, was saying goodbye to this show that was important to a lot of people—and that you were a big part of, but not until three seasons in—an odd experience for you?
MJ: It was. It was like getting married to somebody, then going to a funeral for like, an uncle of the woman; you didn’t really know too much, but you had to be there for everybody. [Laughs.] No, I’m just joking. Coming in, they made me feel like a family member as soon as I got there. They made me feel so comfortable and at home that I cared about the show and everybody that worked on it just as much as the person that was there from season one. So to see it go, it was very, very sad. It was kind of hard. But it was easier on the new wave of cast members that came in, because we shot the last two seasons in nine months. It was a straight, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, 26 episodes, let’s knock them out. It was sad to go—I never felt a home like this before. Like I said, I never came back for a second season, so for me to come back and see the same crew members and the same cast members and producers and everything… And Austin was my home. Just the whole atmosphere, it was very, very sad to let go. I still have my apartment there, for the record, because I love that city. I love it.
AVC: It’s been this long, drawn-out farewell, because you filmed it in 2010, then it aired on DirecTV in February, and now it’s airing on NBC. Do you feel like you’re still saying goodbye to it, or like it’s all in the past at this point?
MJ: I feel like I’m officially saying goodbye to it again. I’m letting the coffin into the ground. Before I said goodbye, it was on the way down. Now I’m putting it in the ground and putting the dirt on top of the coffin. Because everybody hasn’t had the chance to see the finale, everybody wasn’t lucky enough to watch it on DirecTV. This is the first time for a lot of people right now. You can’t act like, “Oh yeah, you should have seen it the first time.” I just feel like it’s something I’m so proud of, I don’t mind talking about it at all. It’s so much to cover, you can find new things to talk about within every conversation. It’s something special, it’s one of those special shows that nobody really wants to see go, but at the same time, I’d rather it go out with a bang and people still wanting more rather than it go on for eight or nine seasons and people stop caring about the characters. So it’s one of those bittersweet moments for me.
AVC: How familiar were you with the show before you were cast in it?
MJ: Not familiar with it at all. I’d heard of it. I knew it was another critically acclaimed show, but at the time, I just wasn’t watching a lot of television. I was working a lot. I was in hustle mode. [Laughs.] But I didn’t really get a chance to catch up on it. When I heard about the audition, I caught up, Netflixed the first three seasons, and I was a fan. Not just because I was joining the cast, but because I fell in love with the characters and the storyline. Who doesn’t like Coach Taylor? He’s the man. I was super-excited. Once I saw the show, I was like, “I can’t wait to go there, I can’t wait to do this. It looks so cool. It looks so different. I feel like I’m watching a reality show, documentary, almost kind of fly-on-the-wall.” You never really saw dirty shots like that before, the way the camera moved around in scenes, kind of giving you a bird’s-eye view on things. It was a different look, and it was something that definitely caught my attention, and I was definitely attracted to it.
AVC: The way it’s filmed, with the multiple cameras and a lot of improvising on the actors’ part: Was that intimidating for you to come into?
MJ: It wasn’t intimidating, it was one of those things, like, your mom tells you, “All right, go out and drink and have a great time.” You’re like, “Wait, what? Mom, I can go out and drink? You’re cool with that? I can do this?” It was one of those moments, “Wait, I don’t have to say what’s on the script? I can ad-lib? I don’t have to hit this mark. I can stand where I want to stand, I can move where I want to move. Okay!” [Laughs.] And then Kyle [Chandler] and everybody, they really encouraged it. They sat us down at dinner and told us we were expected to improv, what to bring to the table each day, because that’s just the way the show works. You hear it, you hear it, you hear it, until I actually got on set one day and we moved through it. I went, “Ah man, this is incredible.” I felt so liberated as an actor. I felt like I was just in acting class, like I could try to do anything that I wanted to do. Within reason, of course, but I had the freedom to be my character. I had the key. I know my character; they trust me. It was incredible. Brad Leland [who plays Buddy Garrity] and everybody told me that this was something I’d never experienced before, and words could not do it justice. They couldn’t explain it; you just have to be in it to see exactly what it is. And they never told me wrong.
AVC: And at the beginning, you were mostly playing against Kyle Chandler, who’s like, the veteran, the driving force. Did that help you ease into it?
MJ: Definitely. The captain of the ship. I’m doing one-on-one things with him all the time, and he’s giving me little hints here and there. Just making me comfortable as an actor. At the same time, me and Kyle have an acknowledgement onscreen. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like a tennis match. That’s the best analogy I can come up for it. You’re volleying back and forth with Pete Sampras. I’m playing with the best right now. Like, “Okay, this is cool. I got to return this serve. Oh my God, I can’t be sloppy.” It raised the bar, it steps your game up. I play at the level of my competition. It just brought me up, and I think I walked away a better actor from it. He taught me a lot that he didn’t even know he’d passed on to me. For myself, working with a veteran like him, I’m astonished. I’m soaking up everything. I just wanted to learn as much as I could from him, and that’s what I did.
AVC: In the final season, Vince is dealing with two father figures, Coach Taylor and his actual father, and his loyalty to both of them fluctuates throughout the season. How did you approach those relationships?
MJ: I was like, “Okay, every son needs his father.” Regardless of what it is, or the situation, he needs a dad. And Vince didn’t have that. That’s why he rebels so much against Coach, I think, in the beginning, why they butted heads a lot. It takes a while for him to earn his trust, but once he did, he opened up completely. I think Vince and Coach Taylor were on the same page, and it was awesome. It was a positive light. He was pushing him in the right direction, organized sports. Teaching him to be less selfish, be a team player, to realize that you can trust other people, that you don’t have to carry every burden and all the weight yourself. So when his dad came back, it was a shock, because, who is this man he hasn’t seen in seven years? Who is this guy? But at the same time, he’s my dad, and I need that feeling. The fact that his dad came back around, he couldn’t say no to it. He needed his dad.
So that’s where things kind of start to get tricky for Vince and the decisions he had to make, the choices he had to make. From his real father, the guy who’s there, his mother’s husband, boyfriend, or whatever you want to call him, and then the man who showed him that positive light that really changed Vince’s life. Coach Taylor changes Vince’s life. It’s that toss-up, and I think it was something we had to stay conscious of from episode to episode, had to monitor and really stay on top of it to make it be as real as possible within 13 episodes. Sometimes people were a little critical about how fast some things turned around, as far as relationships go, between my character and my dad. But think about it, 13 episodes that we’re trying to squeeze a lot into. So it’s something we definitely stayed on top of, and we monitored it the best way we could, and I think it turned out great.
AVC: You mentioned how Vince grew a lot over those two seasons. How much of your arc were you aware of from the beginning, and did you have any hand in shaping it?
MJ: I had no hand in that. I can’t take credit for that. I kind of knew a little bit of the first season as it was going on, as far as my arc, where Vince was going. Fifth season was a complete surprise. I had no clue that they planned on giving me that much stuff. It was one of those things where I picked up the script and was like, “Really? Oh man, this is awesome.” Honestly, I think I had one of those moments, just to myself, like, “Oh shit, this is Vince’s show right now. This is kind of cool.” I mean, this is the first time I had that much, you know? And I felt honored that they were giving me that much responsibility, that they trust me enough. It was a great chance. It was a personal high.
AVC: In an interview we did with Friday Night Lights producer/director Michael Waxman for our Pop Pilgrims series, he said you in particular among the cast really enjoyed filming the football scenes. Did you play football before this at all?
MJ: Never played football, but I’m an athlete. I’m a competitor. I love sports. I’ve played basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, track and field growing up. I just never played football. So when I knew I was going to become the quarterback, me and the football coordinator, Justin Riemer, we would get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, go to the football field, and do football drills, quarterback drills for two, three hours before we started filming. Every day, until I got it down pat. There was no reason why I couldn’t do my own stunts. That’s one of the goals I set for myself—I wanted to do all my own stunts. And that’s one of the fun parts of becoming an actor: You can become whoever you want to be. The fact that I’m playing one of the No. 1 recruited high-school quarterbacks in the country, that was pretty freaking cool. So I just took it seriously and worked hard at it, and it came off pretty good. Maybe about 80/20 [percent] I did my own stunts in season five. Season four was more or less 60/40. In the same respect, though, it was like, “Okay, look, guys, if I get hurt, I’m not coming back. Trust me, man!” [Laughs.] Our producer was not—oh my God, they were on the sidelines every take, making sure I wasn’t out there for some of the hits. It was a fun environment to be around.
AVC: Then you went from playing a football star to a fighter pilot in Red Tails, right?
MJ: I did. That was crazy. We shot that in 2009, 2010. Yeah, that was a long time ago. But that was an incredible experience, going to flight school and co-piloting a P-51 World War II plane, a P-51 Mustang. One of the greatest adrenaline rushes I ever had.
AVC: Wait, you piloted an actual plane, or a simulator?
MJ: Co-piloted. I co-piloted an actual P-51. You’re going 500 miles per hour, 100 feet off the ground. It’s crazy. That was definitely an experience. Working with George Lucas and Anthony Hemingway, the director, and the incredible cast that we have, it was a lot of fun. It was a story that needed to be told. It’s a part of history that hasn’t gotten really a lot of attention. So for George to do a film about it and really put it out there to the masses, kudos to him for telling the story. It’s a World War II film about the Tuskegee airmen, a group of African-American fighter pilots that weren’t able to fly, or weren’t able to fight in the war for the first half of it. Until basically the bombers were getting destroyed left and right, we were losing a lot of men, and we had nobody else to fly bomber escorts. So when we got our chance, we never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. We didn’t lose one.
So it’s the story about the squadron of fighter pilots that were one of the main reasons why we won World War II. And we just didn’t really get a lot of credit for it. I play a young pilot, Maurice Wilson, that’s fresh out of flight school. Really eager to become a man. Back in the 1940s, 17, 18, 19 years old, you were a man. You were married; you had a lot of responsibilities at that time. So proving yourself was a big thing to kids, or to the young men at the time. And my character was definitely one of those who really wanted to prove himself. And that’s not really a good attribute to have in war, to always want to prove yourself. I think that’s one of the lessons Maurice learned, because a lot of the older pilots, the veteran pilots, took him under his wing and showed him the ropes and showed him what war is all about. It’s a nice arc, and not to get too specific or whatever, but it’s going to be fun, action-packed. At the same time, it’s going to be a little bit of a history lesson as well. It’s going to be a really good film.
AVC: Regarding The Wire… I was tempted to start this interview by asking, “Where’s Wallace?” over and over again. Do you get people shouting that at you a lot?
MJ: [Laughs.] Yeah. It was so funny, the other day I was walking down the street and somebody said, “Yo dawg, where’s Wallace?” I said, “I’m right here!” [Laughs.] I started laughing, it’s so funny. People love that show. That show has opened up many doors for me.
AVC: That was your first major acting job, right?
MJ: It was. We never knew it was going to be that good. We never knew that it was going to blow up the way it did. It was a slow burn. The first season, we weren’t supposed to come back for a second season. A lot of people didn’t really like the docks. People didn’t really watch as much. But the ones that stuck with it, third, fourth, fifth season, and then the DVDs, and people Netflixed it, and everybody kind of jumped on the bandwagon, and then it blew up to the show that it is today. But David Simon, Ed Burns, everybody over there at HBO, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been blessed to work on so many really, really good shows, and work with some veterans. I’ve been learning from day one. It’s been incredible. I’ve been lucky; I’ve been extremely lucky.
AVC: It seems like you’re also making good choices: Between Friday Night Lights and The Wire, and now Parenthood, you seem to have a knack for picking good television drama. What are you looking for when you pick a role?
MJ: Something with some substance, you know? Sometimes people will look at my roles that I’ve played on television and look at stereotypes, like, “Oh, you get pigeonholed playing the troubled kid,” or whatever. It’s a two-part answer to that. One, these are the roles that are available to myself at the moment. Two, when I see an opportunity to take on a role like that and become this person that represents so many real people out there—there are so many real kids in the inner city, there’s so many Vince Howards that I’ve seen or met or come across in my life, or young Wallaces, or Alex. The bad choices are the obvious ones that people always see, the stereotypes. But if you can give the other reasons or the choices, or the layers why this kid is the way he is, or even to show the positive choices that this kid could make, it makes a difference. Subconsciously, it may break down the stereotypes in other people’s heads as they’re watching. They might never come in contact with a kid like Vince Howard. They might not understand him, or they might think of the negatives that they obviously see. But if I give him a different spin, or if I show another side to this character, it might change their point of view on a person or a certain class. So that’s something I like to go for when I play those type of characters.
The movie I just got finished doing, it’s called Chronicle, a 20th Century Fox movie, comes out February 3. One of the reasons I love this movie and the character I play is because it was meant for a white guy at first. The character’s name was Steve Kazinsky, and when I got it, we changed the name, obviously. [Laughs.] Those are the type of roles I’m eventually trying to go after, the ones that are colorless. It doesn’t matter who it’s for, it’s just a good role, a good character, a good guy to play, that’s what I’m going for.
AVC: That seems to be a running theme with Vince and Wallace and Alex: They’re at heart good guys who just happen to come from difficult backgrounds. You never really play the badass. Is that something you’d like to do?
MJ: Playing a bad guy? Playing a bad guy would be fun, I’m not going to lie. I’d definitely do that in a heartbeat, because it’s so out of my nature. I was worried people weren’t going to like me anymore after Vince got a huge head on the show. I was like, “Oh my God, please don’t hate me. I’m sorry, I know he’s an asshole right now!” [Laughs.]