One’s a big name, and one’s about to be. But to get along on ‘Creed III,’ they had to let go of ego and trust each other to pull no punches.
Michael B. Jordan, right, said he worked to persuade Jonathan Majors to sign on. The co-star had his concerns: “There was nothing historically that said an actor was going to look after another Black actor.”Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times
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By Kyle Buchanan
“Creed III” offers two well-matched face-offs — one onscreen, one off.
In this corner of the big screen is our hero boxer, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), who’s outgrown his old trainer, Rocky Balboa, and achieved so many professional goals that he’s looking to retire in his mid-30s, a contented father and husband to his wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). But who’s that walking into the arena? It’s Creed’s childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), a former boxing prodigy who has just been released from prison and is ready to take what he feels he’s owed, even if that payment must be extracted in the ring from Creed himself.
Behind the scenes, the matchup of Jordan and Majors proved every bit as dynamic. Jordan, 36, has been working in Hollywood since he was a teenager and is a bona fide movie star off the back of the “Creed” franchise and two “Black Panther” films in which he played the charismatic villain Erik Killmonger. On a recent Saturday morning in the courtyard of a Beverly Hills restaurant, Jordan spoke with the precision of someone who has spent years in the public eye and who, like his character, had met so many professional goals that he became restless for a new challenge. He found it by moving behind the camera to make his directorial debut on “Creed III,” though as he put the film together, Jordan knew he’d only be as good as the man he chose to play his foil.
Enter Majors, 33, who rolled up to the interview carrying a packet of dried mango slices and a portable speaker softly playing Kanye West’s “Real Friends.” After appearing in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019), an impressive breakout role that led to a starring stint on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” the red-hot Majors is poised for a banner 2023: “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” presented him as Kang, the crafty villain who’ll continue battling Marvel’s Avengers in a variety of movies and shows, while the buzzy Sundance title “Magazine Dreams,” likely to be released in the next awards season, cast Majors as a troubled bodybuilder and serves as an Oscar-ready showcase for his custom don’t-you-dare-look-away intensity.
Would the established A-lister and the ambitious up-and-comer get along, or would each man jostle to be top dog? Even as he signed on to “Creed III,” Majors had his doubts: “There was nothing historically that said an actor was going to look after another Black actor,” he said. But Jordan was willing to be honest and vulnerable in a way that made Majors respond in turn, and their chemistry proved so potent that both men are eager for a rematch.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Michael, what did you think when Jonathan first came on the scene as an actor?
MICHAEL B. JORDAN I knew he had range. I didn’t know his education, but I knew he studied. And he had layers behind him, you could tell. Then you’re kind of curious, like, “He’s one to watch. I wonder what the choices are going to be next. I know how I would move.”
What could you tell about him from the choices he made?
JORDAN That it was only a matter of time. And if I was a betting man, I would have been rich.
JONATHAN MAJORS You will be!
JORDAN I was like, “Oh, I could work with him.” Especially for me, as I’m thinking about movies and scripts that I have in development, I’m always thinking about other cats that I want to put into the film.
MAJORS Nobody else does that. Nobody else is thinking about the other guy.
Because they’re too busy thinking about themselves?
MAJORS Hell yeah. They’re so insecure, so scared, and the game is set up so it makes it feel like feast or famine.
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Michael, tell me about that first FaceTime call where you pitched Jonathan on joining the movie.
JORDAN I was all in my head, like, “OK, what are the things I would want to hear? This dude can do a million different things right now. What’s going to make him take a chance on this actor-director who hasn’t directed [anything]?” I knew I had to be truthful about what this project means to me, and I wanted to make sure he knew: “I want to glorify you. I want to give you the space and room to do your thing.”
MAJORS Which was mind-altering to me. I just thought, “There’s no way.” I was already doing my risk analysis on the film when I got the call. I was thinking, “What’s worth it? How much am I going to eat?”
JORDAN You mean how much real estate is there?
MAJORS No, literally, how much do I got to eat? [Laughs.] I’m in the movie for fight scenes, and I’m going to put my ass in. But to be truthful, I was moving on faith. Two alphas? No, bro, we both cannot survive. Somebody’s got to die. That’s the game I thought I was entering into, and he just kept saying, “I got you, bro.” I was like, “Boy, all right.”
JORDAN I wanted to make sure he was always excited about what he was doing, because I was. After having a conversation with him, I was like, “This is my teammate right here, somebody that I could push, and something tells me he’s going to push me, too.”
So how do two alphas not just survive but thrive when working together?
JORDAN By understanding that we’re both alphas but not having the ego, and allowing everybody to eat. And let’s be clear: When it’s action, and we’re in the scene, we’re both trying to take each other’s heads off. But if you’re both walking in your character’s truth, then that’s how it has to be.
Jonathan, how do you go from wanting to take his head off to letting him give you notes?
MAJORS It’s a great deal of gamesmanship because that’s respect. Like, “I’m going to hit you hard and you’re going to hit me hard, and if you don’t hit me hard, we will no longer be friends.” There’s an agreement. There were days we were fighting, and the last two hours, I could not feel my arms. I never said it to him.
JORDAN Now is the first time I’m hearing this.
MAJORS I would look over at him like, “I’m doing this for you now. I’m doing this for us.”
JORDAN My biggest thing was just gaining his trust. I’m the director, so with certain things, I got to get options. That may not necessarily be us swinging as hard as we have to swing, and he has to trust and not think, “Wait, is he trying to trick me and set me up?” But those are mental gymnastics that I might have been doing on my own, driving myself crazy.
MAJORS No, I think we were both doing that. It’s a unique dynamic because we crafted things together, but then when we got going, I played it like I’m your leading man: “You’re the director, and there is a ghost leading man around here that looks a lot like you. But when he’s not here, I’m the leading man.” Talking to me as a director to an actor, I watched you gain confidence. He learned very quickly [that] if you softball it, I’m not taking it, but tell me what it is you want me to do, and I won’t even question it. I described him as a cutman: He literally was like, “Here’s your nutritionist, here’s the gym, here’s who you’re going to fight. Go, and I’ll see you on the day.” All right, wicked.
So what did you do to build Damian up in the meantime?
MAJORS The psychology of a character manifests itself in the body, and the amount of body language that Damian demanded was so great because of the context. I’m playing someone that’s connected to Adonis. We’ve got probably four and a half hours worth of Adonis Creed in the world that everybody has seen, and I’ve got to be as dense as those four hours up until this film to make it seem like we’re actually a part of each other’s lives. The way [Damian] walks, the way he fights, I was trying to give as much information as possible. And then the idea of him being a world heavyweight champion who had been incarcerated, the characterization of all of that, I completely changed my wardrobe playing that guy. These guys don’t show their bodies, and as I began to train, my clothes got bigger and bigger.
JORDAN I wanted him wrapped up as much as possible before that reveal [of his body] when he first got into the ring. I want people to be like, “Oh, this is different.”
Something else that’s different are the fight scenes, which have a lot of heightened visual touches that feel influenced by anime.
JORDAN Anime, I watch it all the time. I was watching it when I rolled up here.
MAJORS He really does love it. He watches it on the plane. I’ll look over like, “Oh. …”
JORDAN It has some of the stuff that I love about storytelling: heart, relationships, friendships, even the outcast that is banished from society but is usually the one that comes back and saves everybody (he doesn’t hold a grudge, he does the morally right thing even when it’s a really hard decision to make). I like those type of characters, so anime has always been a place for me to get that wish fulfillment and escapism in a world that doesn’t have that much of it.
Those things tied into so many of the natural characteristics that we have in our movie. I was like, “How do I take enough of anime and blend it in? How can I retain that feeling that I get when I watch ‘Dragon Ball Z’ or ‘Hajime no Ippo’ or ‘My Hero Academia’?” In anime, when two characters clash at certain moments, they go into a void where they’re emotionally able to talk and communicate — it’s usually a calm, all-white space or all-black space. So I was like, “Man, it really makes sense to take these two guys to a place where they’re having a private conversation but words aren’t enough. They have to fight.”
That’s the most striking part of the movie, when the fight between your characters becomes so intense that the world drops away and they appear to be battling in a void.
JORDAN Back when we would go through our first choreo, every punch would be a line: “What are we saying in this fight?” That idea always stuck with me, and I just put that on steroids and infused it with anime. There was even a moment where I put subtitles in the void.
So we could hear their thoughts?
JORDAN Yeah, there was no sound: It was completely silent and just subtitles. I was like, “All right, that’s my artistic side coming out too strong! I got to remember what kind of movie I’m making, that invisible contract that I signed with the audience.” I watched anime all my life, so I could watch and read subtitles at the same time, but a lot of people can’t do that. So I took that away and made it more primal, more about grunts and efforts and posturing. It became more like impressionistic body art.
Whose reaction to this film will mean the most to you?
JORDAN My mother and father. My mom’s seen it, and my dad just got back from Ghana, so I’m going to show it to him.
Whose reaction means the most to you, Jonathan?
JORDAN Oh, Mike’s. I care most about what he thinks.
The way you two talk about each other, it sounds like this is the first of many collaborations to come.
JORDAN It is. We plan on it.
MAJORS De Niro and Pacino.
JORDAN We’re excited about that, and I have those conversations with him. Acting is such a solo journey, where you’re fighting for your place on that call sheet for such a long time. So when you’ve got somebody that doesn’t care as much about that stuff, it’s like, “Let’s go. How much damage can we do together?”
MAJORS All of it.
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