'Love never dies': Michael B. Jordan, Denzel Washington talk making 'A Journal for Jordan'

Anika Reed
USA TODAY

Michael B. Jordan slipped on the dog tags, praying for guidance. He knows the importance of telling a story about someone real.

Based on the 2008 memoir of the same name by Dana Canedy and directed by Denzel Washington, "A Journal for Jordan" (in theaters Christmas Day) tells the true romance of Dana (Chanté Adams) and Army 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King (Jordan), woven together by passages from a 200-page journal he wrote with life lessons for their infant son, Jordan. King was killed in 2006 when an IED detonated near his armored vehicle in Iraq.

On the first day of filming, Canedy, now a publishing executive at Simon & Schuster, brought a duffel bag to the set with King's dog tags, the original journal and "the outfit that Jordan wore to his father's funeral, to make this real." 

Dana Canedy (Chanté Adams) and Charles Monroe King (Michael B. Jordan) fall in love in "A Journal for Jordan."

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The significance of being entrusted to wear the tags wasn't lost on the film's star.

"When the love of his life says, 'That was Charles,' or his son said, 'That was my dad up there,' " Jordan says. "That approval means more than anything." 

Washington understood the gravity of their story.

"Some people on this planet have what I call a concentrated dose of life. They're here for a short period of time, they burn brighter than most and then you look up and they're gone," Washington says.

Both Jordan and Washington have taken on real-life retellings many times in their careers, from Washington playing "Malcolm X" to Jordan as Bryan Stevenson in "Just Mercy," though it was Jordan's turn as Oscar Grant in "Fruitvale Station" that caught Washington's attention for "Journal." 

"Journal" has been in the works for years, with Washington signing on as producer in 2013.

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"When I was younger, I didn't think I was old enough. I didn't think I had enough life experience to really bring to a role like this. … Everything just kind of came to fruition where I'm at in my life right now personally (and) professionally," Michael B. Jordan says of his role as Charles in "A Journal for Jordan."

The movie captures the heartache of King's death. Canedy says she was "shaking and hyperventilating and crying" while they filmed a pivotal scene at Arlington Cemetery.

"The day Charles died was the hardest day of my life. The second hardest was his funeral, and that was the third hardest day of my life," she says. "However, I'm glad I was there. It just reminded me that even though things are painful, it doesn't mean you shouldn't do them." 

Faith guided the creators during filming. Washington had prayer circles on the set and often called on the spirit of the fallen soldier. 

"I woke up every morning wanting to please Charles, saying, 'C'mon Charles, be with us today,' and 'What do you want me to do?' " Washington says, adding with a hearty laugh, "And some days he'd say, 'Get out the way, leave that boy alone.' "

Michael B. Jordan and Denzel Washington attend the world premiere of "A Journal for Jordan" in New York on Dec. 9, 2021.

For the leading man, who's traversed through Hollywood with Marvel's "Black Panther" and earned the title of People's Sexiest Man Alive in 2020, "Journal" marks his first romantic drama.

"When I was younger, I didn't think I was old enough. I didn't think I had enough life experience to really bring to a role like this. Charles was a grown man.  Everything just kind of came to fruition where I'm at in my life right now personally (and) professionally," says Jordan, 34, who took his relationship with Lori Harvey public early this year.

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The real Dana and Charles with their young son, Jordan.

Though Jordan acknowledges having natural chemistry with Adams, whose star has been on the rise with roles in "The Photograph" and "Roxanne Roxanne," he says starring in a love story is "almost like an arranged marriage," though Adams was "down to earth" and a "goofball."

Jordan chooses his words carefully to describe filming the movie's love scenes, but with intimacy coordinators and a closed set, he says, "it's not what you think."

The tenderly shot scenes include a prime view of Jordan's behind. 

"I knew that I wanted a woman to shoot the film," Washington says, "because I wanted that perspective" for the story of the relationship. He asked cinematographer Maryse Alberti where she would put the camera as the characters made love. 

"She's like, 'Michael B. Jordan's butt,' " Washington says through chuckles. "I'm like 'Well, I didn't think of that.' "

"A Journal for Jordan" stars Michael B. Jordan as a soldier deployed to Iraq who keeps a journal of love and advice for his infant son while his fiancee (Chanté Adams) back home reflects on her unlikely, life-altering relationship with him.

As Washington sees it, "there is no simple answer" when it comes to creating lasting relationships.

"But love never dies," he says of the movie. And of his own love story with wife Pauletta: "We're still here getting stronger. But we're also just moving out of the way and letting our youth, our children and this next generation (take) their turn."

Jordan Canedy is part of that up-and-coming generation, and he's finding new moments in life to connect with his father. At the New York premiere of the film, Canedy's 15-year-old son showed off his shoes to the film's star and director. "I say 'What's up with your shoes?' " Jordan says. "And he's like, 'These are my dad's shoes.' Literally grew into his father's shoes."  

Dana Canedy and her son, Jordan, attend the "A Journal for Jordan" premiere in New York. Jordan wore his dad's dress shoes for the occasion.

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The film's release coincides with Christmas Day celebrations, though Jordan says his "unconventional" holiday will be spent with his "extended work family" while he films the third installment of his Adonis Creed boxing story "Creed III," which will be his directorial debut. 

Denzel Washington on the set with Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams.

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Washington, who stars opposite Frances McDormand in Joel Coen's "Tragedy of Macbeth" (also out Christmas Day in select theaters), says he's learned from the masters in directing and knows Jordan can take on the challenge: "You learn from the best, and you steal from the best, and you share what you learn."

What Adams learned from Washington's direction was that "we weren't making a documentary about Dana," with whom Adams plans to celebrate Christmas Day. 

"This was a biopic about the love that Dana and Charles shared," Adams says.

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