The Oscar race has officially begun! Since it premiered at Sundance, critics having been raving about Fruitvale Station and its stars, Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz.
The film tells the true story of Oscar Grant on the day before he was murdered by police at a San Francisco train station in 2009. “Indie darling” Melonie Diaz (Be Kind Rewind, Lords of Dogtown, Raising Victor Vargas) gives a beautiful and heartbreaking performance as Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of his daughter.
We got a chance to sit down with Diaz (who, it was just announced, will soon be appearing on season three of Girls) about the film, attending a performing arts high school, and being in a Mary J. Blige music video.
VH1: What is your favorite thing about Fruitvale Station and about your character, Sophina?
Melonie Diaz: My favorite scene in the movie is the scene in the kitchen when we’re all cooking. It’s one of the lighter moments in the whole entire film, and I think it really shows the chemistry between the cast and how much of a family we are off screen.
VH1: You have such outstanding chemistry with Michael B. Jordan, and you both give such beautiful performances. What was it like delving into Oscar and Sophina’s relationship?
MD: Well, we just spent a lot of time hanging out. You know, that was really important to us. Like, one of my biggest pet peeves is whenever I get on set and they’re like, “You’re supposed to be married with a child.” It’s like, “I don’t even know you.” That’s like not realistic.
You know, conflict is easy because we’ve all had conflict, but to really bond with someone and to have a genuine connection, it needs to come from a place by knowing them.
So, we just hung out. We went to basketball games, and he cooked for me, we drank a lot, we hung out. And you know, we’re lucky. Sometimes there isn’t an easy chemistry, but [director] Ryan [Coogler]’s smart and he knows that casting is an important part of the movie.
VH1: You mentioned the family aspect. You play a mother in this. Did you guys also bond with the little girl who played your daughter off set?
MD: That was hard for me. I’m not a mom, and although I’m maternal, I think being a mother is something completely different. It’s something I’m obviously not familiar with.
But that little girl is smarter than all of us. She knew all of her lines and was far more professional. So it was easy to work with an actress of that age who was so on it.
VH1: Sophina is a real woman, and I know from our red carpet interview with you that you’ve met her in real life. Does knowing her personally make it more daunting for you as an actress to portray her?
MD: I didn’t want to imitate her. It was more about a representation of who she was, is, and who she was at that point in the last day of Oscar’s life. And it is daunting because if I were her, I wouldn’t want to watch a movie about myself and be like, “I don’t know who that person is.” This is a movie and this is entertainment, but this is also someone’s life story, and also there’s the daughter that’s involved. You want to make sure that one day when the kid’s going to watch it that she’s going to be happy with how her mother’s portrayed. So that’s a lot of pressure obviously, but we hit it off. The first day we hung out it was more about just like getting to know each other, and you know, she had a lot of opinions about how I pick out my nail color, and we went shopping. We went to a carnival.
I really just wanted to get a sense of who she was as a mother, and the day we went to the carnival was pretty telling. You know, she’s just like raising this little girl on her own and she’s just doing it so graciously despite the trauma that she’s experienced and I was really moved by that.
The next week we began shooting and I was like, “You know, Sophina’s a really strong woman and she’s also unconditional.” We spoke about her relationship with Oscar and how tumultuous it was. How hard it is to take a person back when you know what they’ve done.
VH1: What made you want to become an actress?
MD: Well, what’s odd is that nobody in my family is an artist. My cousins are like secretaries at law firms or nurses or just more blue collar. And I was in a baseball team. I used to be like a really big tomboy. The mother of one of the sons [on the team] was like, “You should take Mel to this acting class at Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side.” She just kind of like saw something in me and I was like, “Sure. Like, why not?” And then it kind of just opened up this new portal of expression. You know from baseball to acting…I don’t know how that happened.
VH1: I know you’re often referred to as an “indie darling.” Do you like that term?
MD: I do like that term! Fricking Parker Posey is an “indie darling!” I want to be like Parker Posey! Somebody called me that. “An indie darling.” And I was like, (in a cute voice) “Like Parker Posey?” I’m good with it.
VH1: You attended Professional Performing Arts School. I know that’s not the Fame school, because that’s LaGuardia, but was it like Fame?
MD: I mean, it’s the same thing. Actually, I applied for “Fame” and I didn’t get in, but now I’m like, “Hehe…”
It’s exactly like what you think it’s “going to be. I went to school with like ABT dancers, and there’s another portion of the school that’s like Alvin Ailey, so you would like walk down the hallways and there’d be like ballerinas. And there was also a vocal department and a musical theater department and a drama department.
[Some] people hated high school. I loved high school. I had the best high school experience of all time. I know that’s not a common feeling, but it’s the best. You’re like, you know, 14 and expressing yourself on a daily basis creatively? That’s pretty incredible.
VH1: I also read that you studied film at NYU. Do you want to direct?
MD: I would love to. I’m working on a treatment for a feature that I want to write and I wrote a pilot. I kind of want to learn how to direct TV. It’s interesting. I went to high school for acting, and then I went to film school because I didn’t want to act anymore, and now I’m acting again, but I think that’s something somewhere in my journey, but not right now.
VH1: Octavia Spencer is also in this film. She’s such an extraordinary and beautiful actress. Did she have any advice for you?
Oh my God. I mean, when she won the Oscar, I wanted to cry because I was so full of emotion because she, too, was a woman of color and she’s not like a normal…in terms of Hollywood standards…she’s really unique. And the fact that she’s been able to do what she’s done and made a name for [herself] is so amazing.
You know, I struggle, too, being Latina. There’s like certain stereotypes that we both fall into that suck. Like, why are we playing these people? Like, they’re not real women. They’re just ideas of what the world thinks we are.
But she’s been great. She’ll call me and be like, “Are you coming to the Q&A?” or just letting me know what this year might be…just being like really supportive. She just tells me to just like be strong, and commit, and keep going, and fight.
The cloth that she’s made out of is really special and everybody who meets her feels that way.
You’re gorgeous, and I couldn’t help but notice as a woman watching the film that Sophina has a body type that you don’t see very much in film. It’s beautiful and wonderful to see. Was that a subject that came up in the filming?
Yeah, Sophina is a bigger girl than I am. There’s more to hold onto, which is always a good thing. So, that was a choice to look more like her.
Do you know what’s funny is that the day before we were going to shoot that scene [where Sophina and Oscar have sex], I called Ryan and was like, “I don’t want to do this. I feel fat. Can I keep my shirt on?” And he’s like, “Really, Mel?” And I’m like, “No.” But all this fear is like…who wants to be in their bra and panties in front of strangers? I mean as a person, but I also felt kind of gross. And then, I was like, “You know, this is not about me.”
The way he explained it was when you’re with somebody for that long, there’s a certain comfort level that you have with them and that’s being in your bra and panties. There’s no barrier. You’re not nervous. You’re not uncomfortable because they see you that way every day. That was a conscious choice to be in a bra and panty with Mike.
VH1: One last question. You were in a Mary J. Blige music video…
MD: Yes, I was!
VH1: How did that happen?
MD: It was so random. My friend is the director. Nothing interesting there. He was like, “Yeah. Be in my music video.” I didn’t know that I was going to get a title card. I was like, “You gave me a title card with Mary J. Blige and Trey Songz?” That’s funny.
Fruitvale Station opens in limited release today, July 13.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images & The Weinstein Company]