Creed: Interview with Director Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler’s new sports melodrama, Creed, reunites the gifted director with his Fruitvale Station star, Michael B. Jordan, as the son of the legendary figure, Apollo Creed.

It’s a pleasure to report that both director and actors have made a smooth transition from low budget indies to more mainstream (if also conventional) Hollywood fare.

The tale explores a new chapter in the long-enduring “Rocky” story, starring Sylvester Stallone in his iconic role, offering him the best acting opportunities in decades.  With some luck, the Academy voters will grant him an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) never knew his famous father, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died before he was born. Still, there’s no denying that boxing is in his blood, so Adonis heads to Philadelphia, the site of Apollo Creed’s legendary match with a tough upstart named Rocky Balboa.
Once in the City of Brotherly Love, Adonis tracks Rocky (Stallone) down and asks him to be his trainer. Despite his insistence that he is out of the fight game for good, Rocky sees in Adonis the strength and determination he had known in Apollo—the fierce rival who became his closest friend. Agreeing to take him on, Rocky trains the young fighter, even as the former champ is battling an opponent more deadly than any he faced in the ring.
With Rocky in his corner, it isn’t long before Adonis gets his own shot at the title…but can he develop not only the drive but also the heart of a true fighter, in time to get into the ring?
“Creed” also stars Tessa Thompson (“Selma,” “Dear White People”) as Bianca, a local singer-songwriter who becomes involved with Adonis; Phylicia Rashad (Lifetime’s “Steel Magnolias”) as Mary Anne Creed, Apollo’s widow; and English pro boxer and former three-time ABA Heavyweight Champion Anthony Bellew as boxing champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan.
Ryan Coogler directed from a screenplay he wrote with Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler. The film is being produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Kevin King-Templeton and Sylvester Stallone, with Nicolas Stern executive producing.
Joining Coogler behind the scenes were director of photography Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”) and costume designers Emma Potter (“Song One”) and Antoinette Messam (“Orphan”), as well as his “Fruitvale Station” team: editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Castello; production designer Hannah Beachler; and composer Ludwig Goransson.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present, in association with New Line Cinema, a Chartoff Winkler Production, “Creed.” The film will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, with select international territories as well as all television distribution being handled by MGM.

Rocky Balboa tells Adonis Johnson that his toughest opponent isn’t the other guy in the match, but the guy looking back at him in the mirror—something Rocky knows from his own experience in boxing, and in life. He also knows that because the younger man is fighting to get out from under the long shadow of his famous father, one of the greatest boxers to have ever graced the ring, he will have to teach him that boxing is as much a mental game as a physical one. Adonis may feel ready to make a name for himself, but is he ready to live up to his father’s name?

Coogler states, “I knew I wanted to follow Apollo Creed’s family, because he was my favorite character from the ‘Rocky’ franchise, and Carl Weathers’ performance was so incredible; he played him with the same confidence that Ali had. I liked how intellectual, how in control of his own destiny that character was always shown to be.”

Taking on the mantle of the up-and-comer with a lot to live up to, Jordan says that Adonis “has always struggled with his sense of identity, not knowing his dad growing up, losing his mom. He was small for his age, talked a big game, and was always getting into fights. He bounced around from foster home to foster home in L.A., and wound up in some not-so-good places before he was adopted by Mary Anne Creed.
“Suddenly, he was living in a really nice place,” the actor continues. “But inside, he didn’t really fit in there either. He still had that urge to lash out, not really understanding who he was.”

Mary Anne appeared alongside her husband in the “Rocky” films, and is played in “Creed” by the venerable Phylicia Rashad, who says, “The moment Mary Anne looks at Adonis she knows it is her husband’s son. He’s a feisty little bundle of anger, cute as can be but just mad at the world. And she understands him. So she takes him home and rears him as her own. He’s a part of Apollo so to her mind that makes him a part of her, too—the part that she’s been missing.”

“Mary Anne gave him stability, pushed him toward a better life, a greater understanding of the world,” Jordan adds. “But he still has a hole he’s trying to fill inside, and he’s trying to figure it out. When he’s boxing, things make sense. He feels alive. It feels right.”

One of Adonis’s struggles, Jordan allows, stems from him being an illegitimate son. “There’s a weight that comes along with that. He wants to hide that part of himself. He hasn’t learned that until you embrace all the parts of yourself, you can’t grow and discover who you are. Part of his journey is to accept what he’s thought of as an embarrassment for a really long time.”

“Mike and I talked about the anger inside of Adonis that he can’t really verbalize but that he gets out when he pushes himself to the brink physically,” Coogler adds. “And people are inclined to do things they have success at, and he’s incredibly gifted at boxing. Whether he knows it or not, he’s trying to connect with his father, and that’s when he feels the closest to him.”

The director had no doubt Jordan would explore the subtleties of Adonis’s inner turmoil while also taking on the physical rigors required of the part. “I always knew that if I ever made this film, I’d want Mike in the role. He’s so talented, he’s got a crazy work ethic, he’s committed and dedicated, and takes a lot of pride in his work. He’s one of those guys that, if he’s interested in doing something, you do it with him.”

“Ryan is very humble and doesn’t like the spotlight at all, and hates it when anybody says anything nice about him or gives him compliments,” Jordan reveals, smiling. “But he’s an amazing talent, and so on top of everything. He’s so honest, and he’s always helping you find the real moments that people can relate to in a scene and bring them to life. We really clicked on our first project together and working with him again has helped me realize the importance of the actor-director relationship, that communication. Once you have it, the shooting process is that much easier.”

If Adonis wants to quit fighting across the border in Mexico, and if, out of respect for Mary Anne, no one in Los Angeles will train him, he figures he can do the next best thing. He leaves the comfort of the Creed mansion in Baldwin Hills for Philadelphia…and Rocky Balboa.
“He thinks that because Rocky was close to Apollo, he might be the only other person who could understand what he’s going through, and that because of his history with the father, he’ll be willing to train the son,” Jordan offers. “But that’s not the case.”

Rocky makes it clear he’s not interested in going back to that world, and, Jordan says, “that just because his father’s Apollo Creed doesn’t mean he’ll become a world champion. It takes a lot of hard work.”
But the wholly self-trained Adonis doesn’t shy away from hard work; he’s ready to knuckle down. That says a lot to someone like Rocky, who decides to take him on despite his misgivings.

“I was very interested in seeing how time had affected Rocky,” Coogler says. “How somebody known to be this heroic figure, who can withstand all of these physical tests of time…to see what that has done to him in other ways.” The filmmaker likens the character’s current status to that of another favorite of his, Rocky’s first trainer, Mickey. “I always thought it was interesting that when we meet Mickey in ‘Rocky,’ there’s no reference to his family, to a wife, kids. He’s just Mickey, he’s got this gym and his fighters and that’s it. When we meet Rocky now, he’s kind of like Mickey was; the only difference is we know his history. We know who isn’t around anymore, so it hits us even harder when we see him just biding time, and when we see him let this kid into his life, even though it’s hard for him to do.”

Having created Rocky Balboa and played him in six prior incarnations, Stallone slipped easily back into the role, eager to explore the character in this phase of his life, when he’s presented with this unexpected opportunity. “Even though the character comes out of me, I wish I was able to be more like him,” Stallone laughs. “He’s the epitome of patience, there’s not a mean bone in his body and, though he’s very competitive, he fights for pride.”

“Sly knows Rocky better than anybody, and he knows more about the sport of boxing and how to make a movie about it than I ever could,” Coogler says. “We’d be writing scenes and I’d call and ask him, ‘What would Rocky do here?’ If I had ideas, he’d be the first person I’d call. If he had an idea, he’d call me. He was so generous. It was a great collaboration.”

“Boxing, probably like most sports, is about 80 percent in your head,” Stallone surmises. “You can be defeated before you walk out of the dressing room. That’s why a good corner man has to be a psychoanalyst, right on the spot. He’s got to hold his guy together. It’s a pretty extraordinary occupation, and I thought it was a great place for Rocky to go—to take everything he’s known from all his years as a fighter and give it to this kid.”

Having been in and around the boxing arena—both fictional and real—for so long, Stallone has had ample opportunity to examine what makes a boxer tick. “Why fight when you don’t have to? What drives the fighter? It’s a very unique personality who wants to challenge himself in that way. Even Rocky, who is so gentle; when he’s in the ring there’s a primal thing that kicks in. It’s about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, testing yourself in this ultimate, mano a mano fashion that most people wouldn’t do.”

Coogler was keen to show not only the mentor-mentee aspects of Rocky and Adonis’s relationship, but also the parallel nature of their characters’ situations as young hopefuls—one who is and one who once was. “In ‘Rocky,’ he’s a pretty lonely guy when we first meet him,” the director observes. “He’s trying to be a fighter, trying to form a relationship with Adrian, he’s got Paulie, but he goes home by himself at night. And after all he reached out for—and got—in his life, he’s right back there now, all alone. And Adonis shows up, and Rocky sees himself when it all started, when he had nothing, but had everything ahead of him.”

Stallone adds that, in addition to the emotions that come with the highs and lows of Rocky’s own life story, when confronted with Apollo’s son, “he’s suddenly faced with the grief of losing Apollo again, and feeling responsible for that death. He’s never really come to terms with it. Now he’s not only reminded, but he sees this kid, who looks so much like his friend, looking back at him, wanting to step into this dangerous arena and wanting Rocky to take him there. And Rocky doesn’t want to; he doesn’t want to feel responsible for Apollo’s kid getting hurt, too. But he knows if he doesn’t do it, someone else will, and Donnie may really get hurt. If Rocky does his best, maybe he can keep him safe, and make up for what happened all those years ago.”

In “Creed,” Rocky’s also facing a serious health issue that he’s reluctant to deal with, in light of the fact that he has no family left. But Adonis’s presence forces him to rethink if that’s true, and whether or not he’s got any fight left in him.

Off the set, Stallone quickly formed a close relationship with Jordan. “I love Michael, he’s a fantastic actor,” the veteran states. “He’s so dedicated. Even after he’s finished a scene and he’s done well, he may come back 20 minutes later and say, ‘You know, there’s something brewing inside, do you mind if I take one more shot at it?’ And sure enough, something even better rises to the top.”
“That means a lot coming from the big guy,” Jordan acknowledges. “Honestly, I connected with him on an acting level and a personal level more than I ever thought I would. I mean, he’s a legend, which can be intimidating. But he’s just so real. Ryan, as a director, he lets the actors go through and find the scene, and Sly and I had some really intense scenes to play. We definitely pushed each other. He got me to a level of emotion that I haven’t been to in a really long time with another actor.”
Despite taking place in the male-dominated world of boxing, “Creed” isn’t strictly about the guys. Just as Rocky found love with Adrian, Adonis is finding something like it with his neighbor, Bianca. “We knew we needed a strong female character,” screenwriter Covington says, “because everybody knows Adrian. When you think of Rocky, you can’t help but think of her. Like Rocky, Adonis needed a counterbalance for all his aggression, somebody to bring him back to Earth.”
The role of the singer/songwriter, which required the actress playing her to also perform, proved a difficult one to cast, but ultimately went to Tessa Thompson. Coogler expounds, “We needed somebody to hold her own with Sly and Mike, and who was really a musician, who could perform and record the music Bianca makes. And as soon as Tessa was cast, she immediately got to work with our composer, Ludwig Goransson, and started making songs that we needed to use in the movie. And she was just perfect, absolutely incredible.”
“When I first heard about this project, all I knew was that it was Ryan Coogler’s next movie,” Thompson relates. “I was so enamored with his other work, and by him as a person, that I really wanted to be in the movie before I even knew if there was anything in it for me. Then when I read the script, I discovered this wonderful story of finding family in unexpected places, which is something I think people can relate to. In fact, what I’ve always thought to be so special about the ‘Rocky’ movies is that they’re not really about boxing; they’re about love, about self-belief, endurance, perseverance, following your dreams. Those are things I think everybody can get behind, whether you watch boxing or not.”
Like Adonis, Bianca is also following her dreams. “In both Adonis and Bianca, you see two people who really like each other, but who are trying to figure out their own paths, and the dedication that takes,” Thompson says. “Bianca is a Philly-based singer in a town with a great musical history, so I worked with Ryan to find Bianca’s artistic influences and to get an idea of what her sound would be. I spent some time in the city with local musicians. There’s a great camaraderie there and it was a lot of fun. And getting to play opposite Mike wasn’t too shabby, either.”
Jordan grins. “Tessa’s awesome. A joy to work with—honestly, it didn’t feel like work, which is always a good sign you’re doing something real. Bianca is a very strong, independent woman with her own goals, her own morals. She’s a North Philly girl who’s used to being very up-front, very blunt. Adonis is caught off guard by her and he likes that.”
“In the film, even though she’s young, Bianca represents a self-assuredness and honesty and acceptance that Adonis gravitates to,” Coogler explains. “She knows who she is, what she wants and where she’s going. All things he’s trying to achieve for himself.”
If Adonis struggles with his identity, it isn’t for a lack of love at home, at least not in the last several years. Pulled from juvenile detention as a boy, he spent his teen years, into adulthood, with Mary Anne, whom he looks on as a mother.
“When I get a chance to work with brilliant young people, I take it, and I was interested in working with Ryan and Michael,” Rashad asserts. “I also loved playing this smart, sophisticated, grounded, forgiving woman. Mary Anne loved her husband very much, enough to not only overlook his indiscretion, but to take in his son.”
“Phylicia was so graceful and elegant and has such a presence in a scene,” Jordan says. “She reminded me of my mom, actually, which just brought out those emotions and helped our relationship on camera.”
Though Mary Anne recognizes Adonis’s passion for boxing and comprehends the reasons behind it, she nevertheless wishes he would take another road. But she knows her hopes are futile when he tells her he’s leaving. “Every human being is born to walk a path, to choose their way,” Rashad says. “So the question for Mary Anne is not, ‘Does he love me enough not to do this thing he chooses to do?’ The question becomes, ‘Do I love him enough to allow him to make this choice, and support him in it because of what it means to him?’”
“This is something that happens in relationships, in communities, it’s a very real thing,” Coogler notes. “And Phylicia did a really amazing job of capturing how complex that is to deal with in a family.”