With the mega-success of Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan has suddenly become one of the world’s biggest leading men. Quite an achievement, sure, but the aspiring mogul is aiming way, way higher than mere movie star.
“I want to be worldwide,” Michael B. Jordan tells me, describing his movie-star aspirations: like Tom Cruise, like Leonardo DiCaprio, like Will Smith.
We’d been talking about the kinds of opportunities given to the very biggest male stars at the very top of the upper echelons of Hollywood. I ask him, why Tom Cruise
“Great actor, movie star. Everywhere, hard worker,” Jordan replies.
Why Will Smith?
“Great actor. Extremely hard worker. Focused, business-savvy movie star that can open up all over the world. Those are things I want.”
“Why Leo? The Pussy Posse?” I ask.
“Pussy Posse? Woooooooow,” he drawls. “That’s…your words not mine, man,” Jordan says, putting his hands up, professing zero awareness of DiCaprio’s once lascivious circle of ’90s-era pals. “I didn’t even know that existed. Cool name,” he says with a laugh, revealing a dimple as deep and dangerous as a sinkhole in Florida pavement. “Leo,” he continues. “Patient. Makes great choices. Has an air of elusiveness.”
Jordan wants to be the sort of star who is unimpeachable, and he’s found himself, at this stage in his career, suddenly in a place where he can express those lofty ambitions without anyone suggesting he has delusions of grandeur.
He’s telling me all this in an empty tapas restaurant in an Atlanta hotel. He’s a little tightly wound, even though he’s dressed to relax—Adidas pool slides, socks, Nike joggers, and a gray Stadium Goods hoodie that wants to be loose but can’t. He’s got less than 12 hours to learn lines and get some decent sleep before a 5 a.m. call time on the set of Just Mercy, the new film he’s starring in alongside Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx. The biopic, centered on death-row lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling memoir, is one of the first projects Jordan’s new company, Outlier Society Productions, is putting out into the world. Hollywood, Jordan says, is getting better for creators of color, “because we’re starting to realize our worth more and what we bring to the table.”
It was just over a year ago that he was here in Atlanta, filming Black Panther—the film that completed his journey from wiry child star to soap-opera actor to full-on celluloid idol. If it was 2013’s Fruitvale Station that made everyone realize, damn, that kid can act, and Creed, two years later, that made everyone realize, damn, that kid’s a star, it was Black Panther that catapulted him to new heights.
We take it for granted now that the Wakanda salute is as recognizable as a peace sign, but Hollywood executives were never sure Black Panther would do what it has. That’s because the industry had never seen anything like it before: a Marvel movie with a predominantly black cast, a story rooted in Afro-centric mythology, a film with a full-blown Kendrick Lamar album for a soundtrack. And Jordan was different, too, cast to play against type as Killmonger, a hotheaded Malcolm X–like antihero who had his hair in strategically emulatable twists.
When its director, Ryan Coogler, who had previously teamed up with Jordan on Fruitvale Station and Creed, was given a budget of $200 million, he was also given the burden of proof: Show us what a “black film” can do. Black Panther became a cultural revolution. Wakanda is now part of the lexicon; children throw Black Panther–themed birthday parties and clutch action figures. More important to the suits, it was a financial win. The movie made $1.3 billion and is the only Marvel project earning genuine Oscar whispers. Jordan quickly rap-rap-raps on the wood table when I mention it. “Let’s not jinx it,” he says.
When Jordan was filming the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, creator Peter Berg pulled him aside. “You’re going to get tired of waiting for the phone to ring and being told what to do and being on set and listening to a director all the time,” Jordan remembers Berg telling him, encouraging him to take control. “You got to write your own stories. You got to create your own properties. You gotta create your own I.P., and then you can dictate how things go.”
Berg’s advice stuck with him, says Jordan, who knew he wanted to dictate the course of his career from the very beginning. When he was 11, Jordan was told by a receptionist in his doctor’s office that he should model. And with the support of his parents—his father, Michael, a former Marine; and his mother, Donna, an artist and a social worker—he did. From there, he spent chunks of his childhood in the car, driving with his parents to acting auditions.
By 14, Jordan had landed on The Wire, playing Wallace, a baby-faced drug dealer with cornrows and a heart so good that David Simon, the show’s creator, knew killing him off would be the most emotional gut punch the series could deliver in its first season.
“Everybody liked me too much,” Jordan recalls with a cocky smile. Nobody expected the death, and everyone was destroyed, Jordan remembers: the cast, the crew, the audience. Devastating, yes, but actually a fairly good indication of how he’s become a film star. He was so likable, he had to get a bullet in the chest. And in the roles he took next—Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights; Alex, a love interest with a heartbreaking backstory, on Parenthood; Oscar Grant, an innocent Oakland man gunned down in an act of police brutality, in Fruitvale Station; even a blind patient with a mysterious illness on a single episode of House—Jordan showed a talent for worming his way into hearts and building a little nest there so that viewers couldn’t bear to watch him die or suffer the tiniest bit. That remains a superpower of his, he suggests, “just making people feel.”
When he was 19, Jordan moved to Los Angeles. Eventually, the whole family did, too. Very early on, he resolved that he wouldn’t just accept the stereotypical roles on offer to young black actors. Before he got Fruitvale, it was a struggle: He was frequently offered auditions for parts that felt at best like variations on Wallace and at worst like stereotypical “thug” roles.
When there were good parts, he disliked auditioning and seeing kids—his friends—all going up for the same roles. He hated the feeling that the rule of one—there can be only one successful P.O.C. at a time in a white-dominated industry—was at play. “You feel like you’re pitted against each other, in hindsight. I was like, ‘Damn! Everybody should be able to, like, work and grow and eat together. We’re not. Well, then, I guess there’s not enough roles.’ ” Even then, the solution seemed obvious to Jordan: “I guess the only logical thing to do is to create more roles.”
Hollywood is getting better for creators of color, “because we’re starting to realize our worth more.”
These days, Jordan is in the DiCaprio-ian position to make choices about roles—specifically the ability to turn things down. He and his agent, Phillip Sun, say they now take a color-blind approach to choosing Jordan’s projects, which may sound like a naive post-racial platitude, but they’ve been using it to underwrite a smart business plan for Michael, Inc. “Obviously, there are certain roles in film and television that are specifically African-American, usually period pieces,” Sun tells me. “But why, if he were just an actor, why would he be limited to only those roles? He was like, ‘Why should other people be held back like that? Why shouldn’t stories from different points of view be told more frequently? What is holding people back from doing that?’ And at the end of the day, we all know in Hollywood: It’s star power. If you have the star that wants to lead the way in that way, they’re going to do it.”
Jordan took roles that were originally written as white, like the Human Torch in Fantastic Four. Creed put him at the heart of a franchise that had previously been a star vehicle for a white actor. Coming up, he’s got a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, in which he’ll play the titular character previously portrayed by Pierce Brosnan and Steve McQueen.
Jordan is doing more than expanding Hollywood’s perceptions; he’s created a new template. “I remember when it used to be like, ‘He’s the next Will Smith,’ ” Jordan says. “Now I’m the example of the next—they’re looking for the next me.”
Jordan makes much of Operation Worldwide look easy. But there are certain elements of fame that remain a struggle. He doesn’t have a multistep plan for being good at celebrity. He finds it tricky, especially in the post–Black Panther glow.
For a long time, Jordan’s best method for staying above criticism was to just be remote, he says. A tactic borrowed from the insight of another actor he emulates, Denzel Washington.
“One of his famous quotes is, like, ‘Why would I pay to see you on the weekend if I can see you every day during the week?’ ” Jordan is paraphrasing Washington, who was actually paraphrasing Sidney Poitier, but the point is simple: A star ought to cultivate a sense of inaccessibility. “I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, there’s Mike again.’ I want it to be like, ‘Oh shit—Mike’s here.’ ”
Leave them wanting more (which they always do) became his line of defense. Often when he opened up, or tweeted, or was photographed in a club, it became grist for interpretation—and for a stretch there, seemingly everything he did was misinterpreted, he suggests.
It doesn’t matter whom he’s actually dating; the world has its own ideas. He can be friendly with his Black Panther co-star Lupita Nyong’o and tweet at her, and if the tweets seem suggestive, the two must be dating. It happened last February, when he tweeted, “Bring them chocolate cakes back. You ready for round 2? #youknowyouwantthis.”
The flirtation turned out to be part of an MTV game show called SafeWord, not an indecent proposal, as fans had hoped and were determined to make true. (In our defense, those tweets were basically erotica.) He’s found it difficult to navigate the expectations—for what he says, for whom he dates—that his fans place on him.
Which is why a question about his relationship status drives Jordan inside his sweatshirt. “I don’t even know how you’re going to write this. I’m so nervous even talking like this,” he says through a layer of cotton.
These days, Jordan insists he’s single. “My career is awesome. It is going great. There’s other places in my life that I’m fucking lacking at. I’m very mature and advanced in a lot of areas of life. Dating may not be one of ’em. My personal life is not. I don’t really know what dating is.” He pauses, cuts himself off.
“How do you go anywhere normal, chill, just getting to know somebody?” Jordan asks, trying to describe the scrutiny he deals with. “That part of dating is tough.”
He tries a different approach. “But it’s like, I could meet you, right now, boom, right here. Me and you sitting here chilling, whatever. Meal, whatever. Somebody could be over there, see this. And all of a sudden, you’re my girl now.”
I wouldn’t mind this, I say. My personal stock would rise.
“Let it rise, girl, let it rise,” he says generously, then is instantly serious again. “So then they’re going to talk about you, they’re going to find out who you are. They’re gonna find out what your Instagram is, they’re going to find us in that. And all the fan club and everybody else is going to find out who you are, and now you and I are forever associated with one another. So now, how do you go anywhere normal, chill, just getting to know somebody that you just met, that you may not—may or may not—hit it off at all? That part of dating is tough.”
Jordan quickly adds, “Now, I’m not saying options aren’t there. I’m not saying that. But as far as, like, the nuance of dating, it’s just not the same. I’m just going to keep trying to work on myself and build this empire.”
The constant romantic speculation frustrates him. As does the impression among some of his black fans that he spends an inordinate amount of time with white women. He’s always a bit surprised when he seems to disappoint his core group of fans. “Like, damn,” he says. “Of all the places that I’m getting this, it’s coming from here?”
One example: This past summer, Jordan went on vacation. He was bouncing around Europe. He went to Italy. He got on a boat with childhood friend Sterling Brim, the co-host of MTV’s Ridiculousness, and a bunch of women. A bunch of white women. A picture popped up online; headlines called it a “Milky Mayo-y Boat Tour,” a “Beckies Only Boat Party.” For fans who felt that Jordan represented black culture, it seemed like a betrayal.
“Michael wouldn’t say this,” Brim tells me over the phone. “I will. He was getting on the boat, but that was my girlfriend. I have a white girlfriend,” vaguely suggesting that all the white women on the boat in Italy were friends with his girlfriend.
Either way, the response over the summer upset Jordan, and as we talk about it now, it upsets him again: “Did you know whose boat it was? No. Was it a yacht? Nah. If you knew what a yacht was, you’d know that wasn’t a yacht. It’s a boat. It’s a boat. Have you ever been to Italy before? Do you know how that works? Sometimes you get on a boat, you go and meet people you’ve never met before, enjoy some stuff. It’s vacation, it’s life. Then it just turned into this whole other thing that it wasn’t. It just wasn’t that. I felt like I needed to say something in that moment.
He went on Instagram Live to offer an explanation and really committed to an extended women-as-types-of-milk metaphor: “I like milk. I like chocolate milk. I love chocolate milk. I like almond milk, strawberry milk. You know the Cinnamon Toast Crunch? You know what I’m saying, the milk after that? I like that, too. That’s pretty good.”
It didn’t help.
He sighs, sits up, slides his hands into the kangaroo pouch of his sweatshirt. “In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have. As I was doing it, all my boys, everyone, were just like, ‘Mike, put the phone down.’ But I was like, ‘Nah, I need to get this off my chest.’ I just felt like it was unfair, I guess. I just felt emotional at the time.”
He’s learning to practice some restraint now. Earlier this fall, a quote he’d given Vanity Fair was poorly received. “We don’t have any mythology, black mythology, or folklore,” he told the magazine. “Is this your king?” asked several tweets, turning Killmonger’s most famous line back on him. Jordan read those tweets. Instead of responding, he just stayed quiet.
“I want to make this thing so my family ain’t gotta worry about nothing. I want intergenerational wealth. I’m going to have fun writing my will.”
“I meant we don’t have black mythologies and folklore that’s on the big screen and small screen, period,” he tells me, emphasizing the part of the quote that was missing when it went viral. “And I want to help bring those to the masses, the same stories, bedtime stories, that I was being told of Anansi the Spider and the story of Hannibal and Mansa Musa and all these historical figures!”
Why does it bother him so much? Why does he even read the comments? He shrugs. “I’m human. I’ve got people, friends or whatever, in my life that always want to give me the news and the scoop,” he says.
Recently he announced a purposeful course correction regarding his carefully curated inaccessibility. He’s changing strategies. “I wanna start to connect with you guys on a more personal level so challenging myself to give MORE of me,” he wrote in a caption on Instagram, promising us the gift of himself, raw and unfiltered.
“I’ve been inspired by Will and what he’s done with his social media as of late,” Jordan says, referring to Smith’s recent and explosive commitment to taking part in dance challenges and embarrassing his kids across social media—to the delight of millions upon millions of rapt fans. “Before that, you didn’t know that much about him. That’s why we’re looking at his posts like it’s the best thing since, like, Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, because we haven’t seen this side of him, ever. He’s earned that reveal.”
He admits he’s still trying to figure out his personal formula for fame: “How much to give, how much not to give. What’s off-limits, what’s cool to share, what’s not.”
For all the milestones Jordan has been notching, he’s left one item conspicuously undone since he moved to Hollywood. He never got a place of his own. So, a few weeks after we meet, he’ll finally be moving out of the home he shares with his parents, into a not-yet-selected bachelor pad that will have a pool, he promises.
For the foreseeable future, he’ll have little time to enjoy it, though. The promotional tour for Creed II looms large on his calendar. It’s a movie he’s proud of and a project he’s worked hard for. Reprising his role as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, Jordan endured a grueling training schedule to get his body to new levels of objectification-bait for the film. “I wanted to be bigger than I was in the first Creed. More shredded than I was in Black Panther. I just wanted to see evolution,” he explains. “When I look at Creed now, I’m like, ‘I look like a kid.’ I look like a 20-year-old punk.”
I admit to Jordan that I had to hide my eyes in a pillow during all of the fight scenes during Creed, I was so concerned about his face.
“You didn’t watch the fights? That’s the best part!” he exclaims, pushing back his hood. He loved playing Adonis, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, and loved being back in the ring for the sequel and having fists fly at him. “If you’ve never hit someone in the face,” he jokes, “you should do that one time, just to get it out your system.” He punched four people in the face during the making of Creed II.
Beyond the ring, Adonis is dealing with a lot. The film questions relationships. Parenthood. Compromise. What does young love look like nowadays? What do you sacrifice in building a legacy?
When it comes to his own legacy—a word that’s on Jordan’s mind a lot these days—he seems far less concerned with the sacrifices and way more excited about the upside of what he’s building. “I want to make this thing so my family ain’t gotta worry about nothing,” Jordan says of his empire. “My mom and dad, my brother and sister, my nieces, my future nieces and nephews, my future kids—everybody is going to be good. I want intergenerational wealth. I’m going to have fun writing my will. Oh, my God. It’s going to be so much fun.”
Allison P. Davis is a senior writer at The Cut.
This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 issue with the title “Is This Your King?”
Note: Michael B. Jordan shares this years title of Men of the Year with fellow Actors Jonah Hill, named ‘Director of the Year, and the break out star of, the highly successful movie, “Crazy Rich Asians”, Henry Golding, who was named ‘Star of the Year’! GQ also introduced their first ‘Woman of the Year’, the incomprable Serena Williams. As GQ has previously done, they each have their own separate cover for this issue.