Denzel Washington and Michael B Jordan were in New York last night for the premiere of A Journal for Jordan, which opens on Christmas Day. Denzel directs, MBJ stars, it’s a blockbuster combination of two artists who for years have been culturally connected as king and successor and who also happen to have both been PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive – Denzel in 1996, the first Black man to hold the title, and MBJ just last year.
This isn’t the only project that Denzel is promoting this season. He’s Macbeth opposite Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a film currently sitting at a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, also opening in limited release on Christmas Day. To the surprise of no one, most Oscar experts are predicting multiple Oscar nominations including one for Denzel for his performance. This is Shakespeare, this is Joel Coen working with two acting legends – and where Denzel is concerned, in particular, this is the actor the NY Times named the Greatest Actor of the 21st Century (so far). And he is revered by Hollywood, not just those who are coming up behind him but his contemporaries.
Denzel was profiled by the NYT’s Maureen Dowd last week and the piece features quote after quote by those who’ve worked with him speaking in awe about his craft, his commitment, his expectations, what it’s like to be in a scene opposite him.
Ethan Hawke: “It was like playing music with Miles Davis or baseball with Babe Ruth. Denzel changed my life. To be 30 and get to work with one of the greats of all time? I’ve never seen anybody be a flat-out better storyteller. He knows what the audience is thinking. He knows how to surprise them. His imagination is so thorough. The greats can play offense and defense, and most people can’t. Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and Denzel manage to be equally compelling as protagonist and antagonist.”
Tom Hanks: “I sat beside him for three weeks shooting the trial [in Philadelphia]. I had no dialogue. It was a thriller of an acting class. He follows no rules but pursues the moment. No nonsense, but a looseness that can’t be faked. A one-on-one scene with him is a game of hardball catch — he is both daring you to keep up and propelling you to do more. He is our Brando. Nicholson. Olivier. And, like me, he steals office supplies and notebooks from the set dressing.”
It was also in the NYT back in 2018 that Denzel and MBJ were interviewed together for a feature that was titled “Passing the Torch”, making official what many had been observing since MBJ announced himself as a generational talent with his performance in Fruitvale Station. Interestingly enough, though, in MBJ’s recent cover story for The Hollywood Reporter, both seem to slightly back off the comparisons with Denzel giving MBJ space to continue on his own path, as he should, and MBJ actually pulling another name into the conversation in terms of who he might be modelling his career after: Will Smith.
“Denzel perfected ‘leading man.’ He was like, ‘I’m going to f-cking dominate this one thing and master it’ — the specificity of that got him to the point where he is universal and can do anything,” says Jordan. But as much as he admires Washington, he identifies more with another generational icon. “Will [Smith] took an enterprise approach, and that’s something I connect with. He says all the time that he doesn’t feel like he’s the most talented, but he works the hardest. It’s work ethic, big vision, marketability.”
MBJ is out to create an empire with his production company and endorsements and other business deals. He engages with the public in a way that Denzel has never been interested in but that’s more in the Will Smith lane. That said, it’s not a one or the other approach – instead, MBJ’s been able to forge a hybrid path between these two predecessors, one of the few actors of his cohort who can seamlessly swing from blockbuster to independent prestige movies and model in fashion campaigns and set thirst traps on Instagram.
He’s also expanding his skill set. Right now, MBJ is in pre-production for Creed III, in which he will star AND direct. That’s one of the reasons he agreed to be in A Journal for Jordan, stepping into the role of romantic lead for the first time in his career.
I know, right? It’s a fact, but it is surprising, that MBJ, once the Sexiest Man Alive, after all, has never done a romance?! There aren’t too many leading actors who can avoid that on the way the position that MBJ occupies now. And it probably would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for Denzel – not just because Denzel asked him to but, always, for MBJ it was strategic.
He wanted to learn from Denzel. Specifically, he wanted to study Denzel as a director, knowing that he would be taking on directorial duties himself for Creed III. So with one project, he gets to absorb knowledge from Denzel in two ways – in front of and behind the camera.
Speaking of romance though, MBJ also notes that he may not have been ready to be romantic onscreen until he understood it offscreen. As he tells THR:
“There are roles that I passed on that I knew I didn’t have enough life experience to play. I was like, ‘What can I pull from?’” Jordan says. “But I finally found what love was.”
That’s the power of Lori Harvey.
And while MBJ doesn’t share a whole lot about his relationship with Lori, the most gossipy part is his perspective on not hiding from the public. Which is what is most commonly heard when celebrities discuss their love lives – or don’t discuss them. The usual go-to is that privacy protects their love. For MBJ, however, privacy can also sometimes take the fun out of love?
“When I was younger, I don’t know if I could have handled the onslaught of opinions and being picked apart, and also being conscious of what the other person’s going to go through,” says Jordan of why he finally went public with his dating life. “It takes a special person to deal with that.”
But also, he says, “the situation for me was real enough” to share. “There’s a premeditated planning of staying out of the way [of the public eye] that sometimes kills spontaneity and intimacy. I wanted to take that away and give this the best chance it had, in this weird world that we live in, to be somewhat normal.” Jordan’s uncharacteristic effusiveness is the giddiness of a man in love for the first time, who also has just given himself the freedom to double-tap his girlfriend’s pictures without overthinking it.
This doesn’t mean that MBJ and Lori are out there in our faces all the time. But they’re also not making themselves a comet either. And it’s not that one way is better than the other, and that his and Lori’s is the best privacy-public version of celebrity love. What I find noteworthy is simply that his take on it isn’t the usual one.
As for Lori, I was wondering recently if she and MBJ would make their first red carpet appearance together during the press tour for A Journal for Jordan. Didn’t happen last night at the NY premiere. But if there’s an LA premiere, maybe she shows up for that?
In the meantime, MBJ before the premiere was on the talk show circuit yesterday in New York, with multiple outfit changes. During his interview with Stephen Colbert, he talked about his ass. A Journal for Jordan, after all, is a love story. So there’s a love scene. And Denzel hired a female DP for this film so that this romance could be shot in service of the female gaze. When it came time to shoot the love scene, then, he asked Maryse Alberti where the camera should be. She gave the right answer. It is where we all want and need it to be: on MBJ’s ass. He calls it a “career decision”, LOL.