Interview: Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors on Creed III, Excavating the Past, and the Film’s Anime Inspirations

Sometimes you get advanced notice on an interview that gives you weeks to prepare and fine-tune your questions; sometimes, you get about 24 hours notice to see the movie, prep your questions, and do the interview. Such was the case with this in-person sit down I did recently with Creed III star/first-time director Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station) and co-star Jonathan Majors (Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantamania, Devotion). The two star as childhood best friends who lost touch when young, would-be boxing champion Damian (Majors) was thrown into prison at age 18. That leaves his younger best friend Adonis Creed (Jordan), son of a boxing legend (in the first few Rocky movies), to fend for himself and make himself the champion with the help of his father’s old friend, Rocky Balboa—a relationship focused on quite intently in the first two Creed movies. 

This time around, Adonis must deal with his own troubled past, including his relationship with Damian, who is released from prison at the beginning of the movie and is laser-focused on becoming the champion he believes was meant to be his 18 years earlier. Naturally, Damian wants his old friend’s help, but it turns out, he wants to use his old friend to jump the line and basically carry out a coup for the championship. Also returning in Creed III is Tessa Thompson as Adonis’s singer wife Bianca, Wood Harris as Creed’s trainer, and Phylicia Rashad as his ailing mother. The entire endeavor leads to an in-the-ring face-off between the two old friends, and it’s as brutal as any of the other matches in the Creed films. But it’s also smart and gives us some sense of the strategy behind the way a boxer thinks during a bout.

I first interviewed Jordan about 10 years ago for Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler (who also directed and co-wrote the first Creed film, as well as the two Black Panther movies) and talked to him on the phone once more after that. But this was my first time with Majors, an actor I have admired deeply since first seeing him in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and then later in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and Netflix’s great The Harder They Fall. Just the day before we sat down, Majors had appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” so he’d gotten in late the night before. Regardless, this was a terrific conversation that got fairly deep into the nature of their characters’ relationship and Jordan’s choices as a director. Considering I didn’t know I’d be talking to them 24 hours earlier, this turned out all right. Please enjoy…

You’ve been playing this character for eight years now—a significant portion of your life. In order for you to say yes to returning to Adonis Creed one more time, what kind of progression or evolution in this character did you want to see happen?

Michael B. Jordan: It was more or less a reflection of where I was at in my life. Every time I checked into Adonis, I was going through a certain thing personally, or I was trying to make the character relatable to me in some type of way, so you get this natural evolution of the character and the franchise that somewhat mirrors what I’m going through or thinking about or working through in my life as well. This was a lot about bonds, relationships, friendships, survivor’s guilt, imposter syndrome, communication, whether that be with your family or friends or yourself and being honest with yourself, looking back at transformative years and taking weight off, stepping into your own self. That was something I really wanted to thread into this movie organically that made sense for the Creeds, but would also be my therapy as well.

This is also the first Creed movie where he’s moving out from under the shadow of his father and Rocky, and dealing with something that is uniquely from his own past. Was that important to you?

MBJ: Yes, it was crucial to the franchise. If we didn’t do that, I don’t think the movie would have a chance to have its own identity and really remove itself and stand on its own two feet. I wanted this to feel like an origin story, a sequel, and a trilogy all in one. In order to do that, we had to go back to those transformative years, where we meet Damian, his first protector, his best friend, his big brother, who taught him how to fight. Where to we get that? We saw a little bit of that in the first Creed, but we didn’t really go back; we jumped around. The first film was about Adonis accepting his own name and not feeling like a mistake, and that was really about Rocky and Apollo. The second film was about Adonis really stepping out from Apollo’s shadow and becoming his own man, with his own family, etc. So with the third one, we had to move forward in a real way to move the franchise forward and introduce other family members of Adonis, so he can have his own world.

Jonathan, this is the third movie I’ve seen you in in the last month, and I’m not even talking about Devotion—I saw Magazine Dreams at Sundance. These three characters have this very single-minded, goal-oriented drive. Every waking moment is obsessed with this one thing, albeit very different things with each character. How do you play someone who is that intense about one thing in their life and not be completely spent playing that person at that level of intensity?

Jonathan Majors: It’s quite energizing, actually, primarily because of the roles and what they’re after and who I’m doing it with. Specifically for Damian, this is a man who is fighting for freedom and self-actualization. Dame has worked so hard to get where he needed to, to get freedom of mind. We were exploring the idea of incarceration. Freedom is a very high-stakes goal; you can’t really focus on anything else outside of that. In prepping for it, there’s an emotional drive to it, and my heart’s connected to it. Yes, you’re tired; your body does tell you to take a nap, but the spirit of the character and what it was he was going for and what Mike and I were building and working on was definitely worth it.

How much input did you have into some of Damian’s specifics, backstory?

JM: As photographed? One hundred percent. What’s on the inside of him? That’s the collaboration. It’s my body, it’s my instrument, but the inner working of him and what we wanted him to represent was definitely a team effort.

MBJ: Dame represents so many people that we know, and honoring those stories and that pathway and that struggle was important to Ryan Coogler , but it was also a lot of my childhood friends. We know an Adonis and we know a Damian, and we want to put those characters on screen so people can examine that on a lot of different levels.

Actor Jonathan Majors and director Michael B. Jordan on the set of their film CREED III Photo credit: Eli Ade © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

You make a boxing movie your first film as a director, so you have to have the training montage—you have two here. Tell me how you wanted to present them because each one has a very different style to the training. I love the way Damian trains in public so often, like he wants to be the people’s champ, and Adonis is more methodical.

MBJ: In hindsight, the montage was one of the more challenging things to shoot and get right, only because it’s right before the main event. And how we leave the montage and how audiences feel about these characters going into that final fight is so crucial to how we lay out the final moments between Adonis and Damian. I had the guy , so for me, I was like, “I’m shooting this motherfucker like it’s his movie.” He’s the man! There were times in the edit room where we were like “Hey Mike, maybe you could have kept the camera on you a little longer. We might need to go back and shoot something else. This is Dame’s montage right now.”

JM: Wow!

MBJ: Him coming where he’s coming from as a character, being locked up, he’s getting all the things he ever wanted, which is to be champ. That’s part of his goal. So he’s going to take advantage of putting on a show. Our references were Floyd Mayweather and all these other cats who have people in the gym, watching him train. Dame is loving that; he’s using that energy as power. He wanted to be outside. Calisthenics is his thing. That’s how he worked out in jail for such a long time, so I wanted to give him exercises that felt like he would naturally be doing, and also shoot him in a really superhero-type of way. That was one layer of the approach to Damian’s montage. Then there’s the attitude, the tenacity, the aggression, moments of him, the antagonistic nature that makes him think that anyone in front of him is a step along the way to get to the guy I need to get to.

On the other hand, Adonis has had the glory, he’s had the magazines, he’s been on billboards, he feels like he doesn’t deserve those things, so he needed to go away in private to transform, to rebuild himself. So I wanted him to be secluded, rusty, old and broken, as much I could . People are looking at me like “There’s no way Adonis can look old and broken and retired.” So I was playing with this idea of retiring at such a young age, which is a real thing. Look at LeBron JAmes, he’s not even 40 yet and he’s talking about how he’s old and ready to retire. But the idea of what it is to be a young athlete these days and all the pressures that come with that, and when do you expire?

JM: That leans into a lot of the things you have in the film with Adonis, the momental things. Look at the Olympics, that’s a big thing now and it leads to early retirement. The mind begins to do something different in this society after you achieve certain goals, so it makes sense to me that Adonis would go away and try that Zen and that quiet to come back to that personal battle.

MBJ: To come back to that personal battle, yeah. The physical thing is one thing, but now he’s got to be prepared to fight his brother, somebody he’s never beaten, ever. Think about it: your older brother has been whipping your ass all your life, and he comes back and now you have to fight him in front of everybody? Part of you feels like “Yeah, I’m the champ,” but there’s another side of you that says, “He knows everything about me. He know that one spot right here that if he gets me there…”

JM: He taught you most of your best moves. That was really our conversation too: where does Adonis become Adonis, the new version of Adonis? Where’s his growth? It happens in the match.

MBJ: In real time!

The Rumble in the Jungle is brought up a couple times in the movie. When We Were Kings was the first movie I ever saw where I understood boxing strategy, and how winning a fight was a combination of brains and braun. I think this is the second film where I really saw strategy being key. The way you shot this is incredible. Can you talk about conveying that on film?

JM: We went back and got other takes of just that to make sure we hit it.

MBJ: That was one of the first movies me and him sat down and watched.

JM: It was THE first one.

MBJ: Yep. The movie is what it is and came out when it came out, but in the development process, there are a lot of ideas about doing other things and being other places, but the essence of When We Were Kings spilled over into this project. The strategy of it…I love Japanese animation, I love the way they build drama with the physical form and get inside the mentality of the hero or antagonist, because boxing is not just a brutal sport, as you know, but a lot of people think that it’s just violent and there’s not a lot of thought to it, but it’s hyper-intelligent, it’s playing chess, laying traps. Yes, there’s a brutal side to it, but it’s a violent ballet, and we wanted to show that grace and the thought process to it. I had to make these fights different. There have been eight other movies that show boxing a million different ways, and to be able to make this one look and feel bigger and still intimate…

JM: It’s the most intimate, in my opinion.

The whole movie is. It feels like there are only five or six characters in it. So tell me about the part of the fight where everything disappears outside of the ring. I’ve never seen that done. That’s a risk, taking away the crowd from a boxing movie.

JM: That was literally the moment where I went “Okay, Mike is making some moves. This guy’s crazy.” I was like, “You sure?” Yeah, I had the same thought. Break it down, Mike!

MBJ: My producer and everybody was like “Okay! I kind of get what you’re saying but not really.” But I think we earned it; we built up to it. And the technical side of it comes from anime. When two guys are going after each other trying to kill each other, trying to beat each other to death, in a warriors language, when you connect, emotionally you’re some place quiet and still, and these two guys are talking about how they feel. There was no real talking to him anymore, there’s nothing that words could fucking say so we can understand one another. We had to fight, so I wanted to go to a place where it was just me and him, and it wasn’t about anybody else. It was that tunnel vision, that void; that’s where these two guys had to go fight so we could earn the right to come back and have this moment when they come back. They had to have an understanding. There was a moment when I had subtitles during that part of the fight, in the void. There was no music, no nothing, completely silent, and all you had were subtitles, and each series of punches was a phrase of them going back and forth. But I felt like it was too distraction. I watch anime, so I can watch and read in a foreign film, but honoring the commercial size of this movie, I didn’t.

That’s some art-house shit right there.

MBJ: That’s another version, yeah.

JM: But you don’t want to explain the poem either. When you watch it, it’s truthful. If we were to write what was under there, we’re telling you what to think. There are many doors to the truth. People can come at it from many angles and still carry on the emotional argument that they’re having. I thought it was a brilliant choice.

And the soundscape you create in the entire match is unbelievable.

MBJ: The sound design was by Aaron Glascock, he’s amazing. He did Creed II and came onto this one. He’s phenomenal, and from the beginning, having an ASL family and what that means for sound throughout, I wanted to make sure sound design was done in a way that we haven’t really heard before in these films. Shooting in IMAX, and what that extra layer of sound does and gives us the ability to play with sound in those moments, I thought it was all really important. It needed to be still, so we could earn those action-packed moments. When we’re with Amara sometimes, we’ll sometimes drop out the score and just let things breathe; that was super important, so when we get to this artistic swings we were talking about, you feel each punch, you can hear the sweat, you hear their boots against the canvas, against the ropes, I really wanted to earn those moments, so that was something we needed to carve out and make sure we landed.

Thanks so much to both of you. Best of luck on this.

MBJ: Thanks, man.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.