Creed is now in theaters, and the Rocky spinoff film has been as surprising as its underdog protagonist. The film follows Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of the late, great, boxing champ, Apollo Creed. Lost and in need of guidance on his quest to become a champion fighter, Adonis gets taken underwing by none other than Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). But Rocky has a fight of his own to prepare for (failing health), and when Adonis meets a talented aspiring singer named Bianca, he finds that he has two other relentless competitors at his back, pushing him forward towards the greatness of his name.
We attended the Creed press junket in none other than Philadelphia's Front Street Gym, where we met Creed and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, his leading man for both of those films, Michael B. Jordan, Veronica Mars and Dear White People star Tessa Thompson (playing this story's version of Adrian), as well as co-writer Aaron Covington and Rocky franchise (not to mention Raging Bull) producer, Irwin Winkler. Later we got to sit down with Coogler and Thompson one-on-one, and discussion turned to the cultural legacy of "The Italian Stallion," the perceived issue of "race-swapping" in cinema these days, and what the American underdog fantasy means to modern Millennials.
Screen Rant: My first question is…Ryan this is a spinoff. On a personal note, this is a story about you and your father, you said during the press conference. But one of the things I thought was really interesting, which hasn’t come up yet, is the first Rocky wasn’t just about this iconic character from a film. [For Italians in particular], he became this culturally iconic character... And now you’re kind of flipping that formula around. I just wanted to kind of pick your brain about when you guys were making this, were you kind of conscious about the cultural flip and the impact of that?
Ryan Coogler: I think it’s something that kind of came with the territory of me being a black filmmaker, Mike being a black actor, us choosing to tell Creed’s story. That flip kinda came with the territory of it. I thought we were definitely conscious of it, I would say. And for me as a filmmaker, it was very interesting, because I realized in doing research, researching boxing movies and how often they get made, it’s very rare to find…I couldn’t really find a story of a fictional boxer who was black, even though most American boxers tend to be black or Hispanic. So it was a void that I knew was there. We were conscious of filling it and really excited about it.
Look. Growing up, the first time I saw Rocky, when I was watching it, I rooted for Rocky and I rooted for Apollo. I didn’t want either one of them to lose. [laughs] It was kinda that vibe. My dad’s favorite movie was Rocky 2, which was the one when Apollo loses. You’ve got that moment when they both go down. They cuttin’ to Apollo’s wife, they cutting to Adrian. For me, I wanted them both to get up at the same time. Sometimes I found myself cheering for Apollo because that was what I related to.
So I think we were definitely conscious of that. You could tell me if you caught on to any of the other things, but I think that a lot of things Adonis is dealing with is metaphorical for what…
Absolutely. That’s my follow-up, actually. I noticed in the very opening of the film. Beginnings are everything, and the first picture we see was this very kind of powerful imagery that suggests a lot about young black men and where they are and things like that. I thought it was kind of really good how you kind of wove those metaphors in but didn’t take away the genre trope adventure of it. Was that something that you guys had to smooth and revise and do over and over again, or did you guys kinda nail that concept right from the get-go?
Ryan Coogler: It was something that developed. We shot that scene in Atlanta. That wasn’t in Philly, the opening scene. It was something that we shot later. It was always something that we knew we were going to do. But it was something that we did later. Through our process of making the movie and doing that last, it informed it more.
I worked in a juvenile hall in San Francisco back home in the Bay area. My dad worked there my whole life as a counselor with the kids. So that’s something that’s a part of me and a part of our relationship. We worked there together for five years. I worked side-by-side with my dad in a juvenile detention facility. And he’s kinda legendary amongst the kids that have gone through the system. They’ve got incredible fondness for my dad and how even-handed he was in dealing with them.
It’s something that you see. What you see in Adonis you see in a lot of those kids. So that was definitely a part of…we definitely wanted that to be a part of who he is, and this idea how he ended up in there, and what happens to him after. I don’t want to give it away, what happens in the opening of the movie. We’ve been purposefully holding back in showing trailer footage and stuff. We don’t show that part of the film a whole lot because we want it to be a surprise to folks when they come into a boxing movie and it starts like that.
Adonis’s mom, she walks past a lot of other kids when she goes in there to get him out. So, what would happen if those other kids had a chance to get out, or what happened to them because they didn’t? So it was a question that we were interested in when we were doing the photography in that scene, something we thought about.
[Tessa] what’s interesting to me is that you and Michael in particular have both kind of had careers where you’ve done genre things. You’ve done popular things. But you’ve also done stuff that’s hard very big impact - particularly for African Americans and the African American community. And there seem to be shades...of a lot of cultural things that were just kind of implied and danced around in this film. I’m kind of interested in how much of that stuff was initially maybe in the screenplay. Did you guys have to kind of balance it out, or did you find a balance to kind of imply without overshadowing - that’s a bad term, "overshadowing" - but overshadowing the more kind of mainstream genre appeal of this? Because it is a balance.
Tessa Thompson: It is a delicate balance. And I feel like Ryan was able to accomplish that in a way that I hope people respond to. I think the reason why we are really excited about the collaboration—obviously Michael and Ryan have a history—but I feel like they were really excited to get me in there with them because I think we work similar in the sense that we want to make work that reflects the times that we live in and the way that we feel about it. That’s across genre.
I think Mike touched upon this in a recent article and I think it got taken sort of out of context. But for us, for actors of color, I feel like there are so many movies sometimes that become political just because of the color of your skin. So if he, for example, plays a character in a Fantastic Four movie it suddenly becomes a political thing because he’s a black man, and likewise for me, depending on what I do.
So it’s kind of unavoidable. But I think it was important to Ryan in the context of this movie to tell a story about the Philadelphia that he could see himself in because this was such a personal story to him, even though it’s in the Rocky universe. He wrote this movie basically about the experience of watching his father become sick and having someone in his life become a fallen hero and what that’s like when someone passes the torch and how that feels as a young man. And also about what it’s like to be a black man in America.
So I think that those were two things that he knew he wanted to talk about in this film. It was about finding out how to talk about that in the context of the universe of Rocky.
But I don’t think if you asked him he would say that he had to walk any kind of tightrope. I think that it felt seamless for him. And hopefully it feels that way watching it. I don’t know.
I know my impression from sitting in the theater, just kind of looking around and watching people. So far, has that issue just kind of largely been of the table and people just responded to the actual sports drama? Or has it come up?
Tessa Thompson: It hasn’t come up yet. We had this sort of ceremony with the mayor earlier around the steps of…the Rocky steps of Philadelphia Museum. And someone said something about adding color to this franchise. So I think there is a space where people feel like, “Oh my god. It’s 2015. There’s a black Rocky movie now, of course.” There’s that kind of conversations. But it hasn’t…No. this is the first question I’ve been asked that sort of directly points to that, which I think is actually a good thing in ways, because I feel like maybe it indicates that the movie sort of satisfies, for people that are familiar with the Rocky franchise, that feeling, and, at its core, it’s really a story about the underdog and the triumph of the underdog and the people that sort of helped that underdog on its way.
So I think people are hopefully invested in that before they’re aware of any of the politics inherent in it. But it wasn’t something that was lost on us. I mean even in the context of making the movie here in Philadelphia, Ryan did this brilliant thing of adding these dirt bikers, which is a really rich sort of subculture…
Yeah, when I saw that in the trailer I was like, “That’s authentic.”
Tessa Thompson: That’s authentic, yeah. And even for us…I’ll just tell you, like when we were shooting our post-coital love scene, we were like, “How do we tell a story about black love?” It wasn’t just about like: how do we tell the story where she’s telling him to use the name? That makes sense and it functions in the movie. But what does black love look like? What does it look like when a man is helping re-tie a twist that’s bad in the back? And what does a young black woman’s room look like?
So, for us, even in the production design, if you look closely at that scene, there’s a silk scarf on her bedside. There’s a thing of coco butter. I mean when we were shooting that, I was like, “This is black as all…” [laughs] But it was important to us in the context of this movie to tell a story that feels authentic to place and to time. Down to the tiniest details that was something that we were aiming for, was specificity. Because to us, representation is so important. The idea that a Philly girl will go and see that movie and, for the first time…Coming from Philadelphia and these movies that are supposed to be these iconic Philadelphia movies, she’s never seen herself in any of them, ever. So for her to go to a theater and get to see herself in this movie for the first time that tells the story of her city I hope is a powerful thing.
This was like the first real authentic Philly story I think we’ve seen since probably the first Rocky.
Ryan Coogler: Oh, right on. I appreciate it.
They used to say that African-American storytellers can only tell what they call ‘protest’ stories—stories that talk about our experience dealing with oppression and racism - that that’s the only [story we are able to tell]. What I see in this film... is you wove those things in, in implication, but they didn’t become overbearing to kind of distract from the genre story. What was your thematic through line for this, for just this general character in the film?
Ryan Coogler: For Adonis?
Ryan Coogler: I think it was a search for identity. That’s the biggest one, this concept of identity in this day and age. His quest is kind of mythological. He’s kind of the mythological bastard, is kind of what he is—this guy who is…If you look at the mythology, Apollo is kinda like this king in this culture, in this world. Here’s this guy who is trying to figure out who he is in that space. “What am I? Who am I? What am I going to do in this world?” And he’s asking himself that question: “Am I doing what I want to do fulltime? Am I doing what I need to do?”
He wants to know who he is in relationship to what he’s going to be. That’s kind of the theme, is this idea of identity. And I think it relates to millennials, like to us, because we deal with that every day. How many folks you know that’s like, “I’m doing this thing, but I really wish I was doing that”? Do they got the guts to jump off, like just completely jump off the bridge, like what he does when he quits his job and goes to Philly? That’s what he does.
For me, it’s that same thing that I had to do when I stopped playing football and went to film school. One day you decided to become a writer. You kinda had to jump off the bridge and say, “Hey, I’m doing this,” aside from family or whoever in you circle is saying, “Hey, man, you should do something else.” You gotta say, “Nah. This is what makes me happy.” That’s the thing. And it’s the identity. You have to see yourself as a writer before anybody else did. In your mind you say, “This is what I am.”
So I think that that idea of identity is the through line in this film and how we, as millennials, we kinda make our own.
[Tessa], between you, Michael, and Ryan, I mean you guys, in some ways… I don’t want to say you're "lightning rods," but when Fruitvale Station came out, there was definitely attention put on that and Ryan; [Your film] Dear White People? I mean there was definitely discussion when that came out [Laughter]. And even Michael with the superhero thing in Fantastic Four... Do you think this has all taught you guys how to be a little bit…not smart, but how to navigate through these things and kind of be aware of how these discussions about race are going to go?
Tessa Thompson: I think so, yeah. I think so.
Creed is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is 132 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality.