Based on true and tragic events, “Fruitvale Station” tells the story of a young man named Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) who was shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. The film turns the clock back and relives the last day of Oscar’s life as he spends most of his day trying to spend some time with his young daughter (Ariana Neal), his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). Directed by first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale Station” made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. I had the opportunity to speak with Diaz about spending time with her co-stars, the difficulties of playing a non-fictional character and the buzz the movie has been getting since January.
What was your first encounter with this project?
Melonie Diaz: Ryan’s agent sent me the script. I read it and it was the first time I ever heard about this incident. I Skyped with Ryan over the computer and we had the same ideas about what we wanted to say. We had the same feelings about how felt about Oscar Grant and his death.
Before shooting the movie, were you able spend some time with Michael and Ariana?
Diaz: Yes. We were able to come down to the Bay Area weeks before production began and a part of our process was to hang out with each other. We went to a basketball game and we cooked together. It’s a really simple thing to just hang out with them, but when you are a couple like Sophina and Oscar. They were people who knew each other for a long time. We just wanted to spend time with each other and get to know what we like or what we don’t like in order to know Mike’s character and vice-versa.
As someone who is playing someone based on a real person, how does that process in terms of spending time with the real Sophina?
Diaz: There is a responsibility when you are playing a real-life person, but I didn’t want to mimic her. I wanted to be a representation of who she is. In meeting her, it was very clear to me in their relationship that she loved him very much. She was his best friend and the mother of his child. I think she knew him best out of everyone. The thing that was important to me was to understand the dynamics of their relationship, especially when you are a young couple and you have a child. I think that make things more complicated especially when we first enter the movie. They are having a problematic situation and he has been unfaithful. In meeting her, it was more understanding about the feelings of infidelity and the feelings of trying to keep this family together. That is what I wanted to understand and I felt like that’s how I rooted her character.
Did you put any of your own personal characteristics traits into this character?
Diaz: For sure. I hate when actors say like “I am a method actor.” I just feel like you are yourself, but in a different light. For me, I think I am equally as strong and opinionated. Our difference is that I am not a mom and I haven’t been in a relationship like that. I am not sure I would take someone back if they did that to me. We are very different people. She’s from the East Bay and I’m from the East Coast. I feel like I know that girl. She is a very faithful person.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot for you?
Diaz: It would definitely be the scenes at the train station where I am downstairs and not sure what is going on. I can never imagine being in that situation. I try to think about how I got there, but it was extremely painful to do.
It also must have been somewhat surreal to shoot those scenes at the actual station where the incident happened?
Diaz: For sure. What people didn’t know about that location was that BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) gave us four hours to shoot that and we were under a time crunch. We only had a limited amount of time to shoot these emotional, high-tension scenes. In a weird way, despite not having enough time, it added to spontaneity and tension of the shoot.
The footage at the beginning of the movie acts like a dark cloud hanging over the story and when it actually happens, it is just heartbreaking.
Diaz: Yeah. I think we know that death in inevitable, but because of Mike’s performance, you want him to live, but you know that is not going to happen. I think why people are affected by this movie because we are humanizing Oscar. We are giving him a voice and we are giving him a chance to defend himself. I feel like this stuff happens all the time. You see something on the news and you change the channel. I think this movie is an attempt to think twice. We should think twice about these people. He’s a human being and he has a family. Ryan is a really special director and he has a unique voice in wanting to give life to people who he grew up with.
As an actress, how do you feel about the buzz that this movie has been getting?
Diaz: It’s exciting. It’s obviously a topical subject that deals with a lot of issues that are happening right now. I am really excited about. It’s proof that people want to have a conversation and that people are invested in these kinds of topics. When I first got the script, I thought it was great, but I wasn’t sure if people were ready to be open to dialogue and to talk about this subject. It has the potential to reach a platform where we can have a wider discussion and that’s what I most excited about.
“Fruitvale Station” is now playing in Hialeah theaters. Click here for showtimes.