Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler’s film based on the true story of the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, proved to be a watershed for 29-year-old actor Melonie Diaz. The native New Yorker wasn’t familiar with Grant, who was shot by a police officer at Fruitvale transit station in Oakland, California, in the early hours of New Year’s Day. But when she read the script depicting the last day of his life, she immediately felt obliged to take on the project. “I had no idea this had even happened,” says Diaz, who plays Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina, in a performance that is as heartbreaking as it is compelling. “That was even more reason for me to make sure this movie was seen.” The actual footage of Grant’s arrest and death, caught on bystanders’ cellphone cameras, sparked local protests against police brutality and outrage around the country. “I’ve never played a real-life person before, so there was a certain kind of weight and responsibility,” says Diaz, who traveled with costar Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant, to meet the woman she portrays. “We went shopping together. We got our nails done. I wanted her to pick out my nail color and be happy with the way I looked.” Though Fruitvale Station took home both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at Sundance, Diaz, who’s also had roles in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind, Rewind and Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown, hesitates to indulge Oscar buzz. “This is somebody’s life, somebody’s story, somebody’s pain,” she says. “I just hope I did a good job showing how tough Sophina is and how lovely she is. She’s such a dynamic person.”
When did you first know you wanted to act?
My mom always tells me the story about how when I was a kid she knew from this one moment that I was going to be a performer of some kind. I didn’t know it was the movies. She said we went to a party and I was break dancing on the floor, just dancing on the floor with my legs up. So I think I’ve always liked performing and making people happy.
You went to performing arts school here in New York. When did you get your first role?
I was fifteen. I had never been to an audition, it was an open call for a film. It’s called Double Whammy by Tom DiCillo. After that I did Raising Victor Vargas, but that came naturally to me because my best friend is in it, Judy Marte. It was all very effortless, my journey to be an actress. But nobody in my family is an artist.
You’ve worked consistently. Back in 2008 you had four films at Sundance. What’s the coolest thing about Sundance?
I always say it’s like show and tell. People are so excited. Everybody is so happy and has worked so hard up until this point and this is the time to share one’s work. There’s a definite feeling, a really warm feeling. That’s why I like going because you see familiar faces.
When you got the script for Fruitvale Station, what was your first impression?
It was weird because I had no idea that this even happened. That was kind of upsetting, which made me want to do it even more. I was like, okay this is even more reason to get on the train to let this movie be seen. It blows my mind that people are not aware of Oscar’s death and other people like him.
So you got the script and you auditioned for the role?
I skyped with Ryan. It was like a meeting and then it just happened.
It felt like such a lived in performance, from both you and Michael. It really seemed like you guys had known each other for a long time. Were any of the scenes or dialogue improvised?
No, it was all written. But Mike and I are hella tight.
Had you known him before?
No. I met him maybe three weeks before we started shooting. He’s great. That’s where Ryan is so cool because he knew we were going to get along and that we were going to have chemistry. Ryan is really smart because he knew that we would butt heads at the right time and make love at the right time.
What sort of research did you do?
Well, Sophina is a real person. So Mike and I met with her.
What was that like?
I’ve never played a real life person before, so there was a certain kind of weight and responsibility. It’s not like I can just go on set and create something, this is somebody’s life and somebody’s story and somebody’s pain. When I met her I didn’t want to have to revisit the things that have hurt her. It was nerve wracking. But she’s a really amazing person. I hope I did a good job showing how tough she is and how lovely she is. She’s such a dynamic person.
Did she have any reservations about the film being made?
At the point that I met her she was on board. She trusted Ryan and I think she was happy that I was going to be playing the part. She’s protective of her personal life, as she should be, but after hanging out with her, we really hit it off. I hope I did right by her.
It’s difficult to even fathom taking on a role of a real life person. What do you think was the hardest part about doing that?
I think it’s the scene where he comes out of the train on the gurney, because I’ve never lost anybody like that. But I’ve loved somebody as much as she has. To go to that place of thinking, what if that happened, that was the most difficult thing about it.
You do give a really intense powerful performance, especially in those last scenes of the film after Oscar is shot. Where did your mind go to conjure the tears and to conjure that passion and fury?
That’s research. It takes time. We shot that at the end of the shoot, which was great because I had been thinking about it so much and thinking about ways to get there that it was so panned up that it was easy. It was a lot of talking to Ryan, Ryan is really supportive, and having a cast and crew that’s also really aware of what’s happening.
I’m wondering, were there any creative licenses taken with the film as far as accuracy is concerned?
From my understanding it’s pretty on point.
So the sequence of events was accurate?
From what I understand, yeah. Even talking to Sophina, she said they were at this point where they were really going to try and be together. They really were going to try and work things out and be a family. It’s crazy to think about, they were on board to be happy.
Why do you think she stayed with him? Because he certainly wasn’t perfect. He’d been in trouble and unfaithful.
First loves? There’s something about a first love. They can throw you down a flight of stairs. I think for as fucked up as he was in a lot of ways, they were best friends. Sophina said, “that was my best friend, before we were together we were best friends.” So Mike and I always had in mind that they were homies. I think Sophina is also a really loyal person, and once you choose to love someone you love them forever. That’s how I thought about it in my mind, once you decide to care about someone, it’s unconditional.
Were you surprised at all by the praise the film received?
We all knew it was a good film, but we didn’t expect to win both awards. That never happens.
You were studying film. Did you finish?
No, I just kept working as an actress so I couldn’t finish. But I have a year left. It’s NYU Tisch.
Do you have a specialty or a film movement you really like?
I’ve always been a fan of the French New Wave. In college I just wanted to do everything handheld.
What’s your favorite film?
400 Blows. It’s my favorite movie of all time. I want to make movies like that, if I’m so lucky. I like very European, chic movies.
Do you have a favorite director?
I have a couple. I really like Alfonso Cuaron. He’s really different. He can do a Harry Potter and then he can do Great Expectations. I really want to work with Sofia Coppola, so bad, so bad. I think David O. Russell is amazing, I feel it would be a good experience to work with him.
After this film, that could happen.
I don’t know. Everybody’s been saying, this is going to change your life. But you can’t think of it like that.
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