Michael B. Jordan began studying Bryan Stevenson the first time they met, sneaking glances at the noted civil rights attorney whom he now plays in the true-life drama “Just Mercy.” How he spoke, how he drank his tea, any detail he could take in to better understand what makes Stevenson the person he is, a lawyer and activist devoted to righting systemic injustices and bringing humanity and change to the prison system.
“I was sizing him up the whole time,” Jordan said, flashing a megawatt smile at Stevenson as they sat, reunited, on a September day in Toronto, earning an amused grin in return. “I thought I was doing it without him noticing, but he told me he kind of felt it.”
They laughed, falling into an easy rhythm — the movie star and the lawyer, whose personal missions intertwine in “Just Mercy,” which opens nationwide Friday after a limited Christmas berth.
“It just opened your heart and your mind and your eyes to the needs of other people,” he said. “Once, as Michael says, you’re open to that, you can’t really turn it off. And I don’t want to turn it off. Some people try hard to turn it off because it feels so challenging.
“You do see things you wish you didn’t have to see,” Stevenson continued. “You do feel things you wish you didn’t have to feel. But the flip side of that is, you get to see beauty. You get to see love and you get to see hope, and you get to see triumph. You get to see what human beings can do, even if they don’t have all the things that they want, and that’s what really makes the work achievable.”
To prepare for the role, Jordan traveled to Alabama to spend time with Stevenson at the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, founded by the Equal Justice Initiative to preserve and educate the public on the history of enslavement, lynching and racial oppression in America. He found himself not asking questions so much as listening to Stevenson.
“You’re almost in awe of him when he speaks,” said Jordan. “It was more me just trying to soak up everything he was saying. Everything he says has so much weight to it and meaning. I was just trying to catalog it all.”
Stevenson was a resource for Jordan and Cretton as they re-created specifics from his cases and milestones from his early days, working out of a ramshackle office with collaborator Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), and portrayed the stories of McMillian (Foxx) and his fellow death row incarcerees Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, in a standout supporting turn).
“Everything I needed to know was already there,” said Jordan. “It was identifying with our hearts being similar, and our spirits and our intentions and our morals aligned. It was cool to see a little bit of myself in him. And once that part connected for me, I felt a little more comfortable about taking on this challenge.”
What he found more difficult was suppressing his own emotional reactions to situations the real Stevenson had to endure for the sake of his clients. In one scene involving a child prisoner, sentenced as an adult, who has been abused by fellow prisoners behind bars, Jordan played the moment with the restraint the real Stevenson had to maintain but asked for alternate takes in which he could unburden his own feelings.
“I just wanted to do it. ‘I don’t care if you don’t use it, I’ve got to get it off of my chest. I’ve got to get it out of my heart, because my personal feelings are coming in.’ Keeping that in check was a new restraint,” said Jordan. Stevenson praised Jordan’s work in that moment, one in which he felt his own emotional journey was understood.
“There are times when you’re trying to figure out how much frustration you can manage because you just get overwhelmed,” Stevenson admitted. “But the idea that you’re there for someone else is something you try to always hold onto. And for me it’s the difference between being an effective advocate, and just being an advocate.”
“I — we — always have to do what they need you to do to deal with that, and it’s really hard,” said Stevenson. “Particularly if you care. But that’s also the heart of what we’re trying to show people in this film: that we need to think about other people. We need to think about other people a lot more than we do.”