Growing up with the same name as His Airness isn't easy. "That shit was brutal!" says Michael B. Jordan, who's named after his father. "There were a lot of jokes." But the also says that #23 pushed him "to want to be great at something, because when you hear that name, your mind immediately goes to him." Jordan adds, "From an early age, I wanted people to think of myself first when they hear that name – at least sometimes."
This year, the impossible is starting to happen. The 26 year-old, who broke out as the corner kid Wallace on The Wire, earned mainstream fans on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and hit the multiplex in the superhero sleeper-hit Chronicle, is now generating legit Oscar buzz as the star of Ryan Coogler's scrappy Sundance-fave Fruitvale Station, which earned a six-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and opens in theaters today.
Fruitvale traces the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, an Oakland kid who was gunned down at point-blank range by a police officer. "Usually, a victim's character is polarized," says Jordan. "He's either painted as a saint or a monster whose every bad decision led to that moment." Jordan's performance catches the real-life Grant's flaws – his drug-dealing, his rage, his desperate threats – and his tenderness towards the young daughter, girlfriend, and mother he was taken from. It's a wrenching, career-changing performance – one that Oscar maestro Harvey Weinstein believes can propel Jordan into the heat of the Best Actor race.
"We are a Cinderella team in the sense that we're a smaller film," says Jordan. "Not a lot of money, but a lot of heart. Will we make it to the big dance? We'll see." Regardless, Jordan is well-positioned to become a franchise player. He's rumored to be the next Human Torch in an upcoming Fantastic Four reboot directed by Chronicle's Josh Trank. "I can't say much about that one, but Josh and I are best friends," says Jordan. He adds, however, that message-board objections to a black Human Torch are absurd: "Johnny Storm is charismatic, a playboy, and he's American – that's it; the best actor for the role should get it. Period. It's 2013, and if you have an issue with a multicultural cast, that's your problem."