MICHAEL B. JORDAN is somewhere off the coast of St. Barts, sinking slowly into the depths of the Caribbean Sea while holding a lava stone steady above his head.

When he hits the sandy bottom, he’ll take 20 steps, drop the rock, then rise back to the surface. It’s an aquatic workout and an apt metaphor for how many of us have felt over the past 12 months: head underwater, weighed down by the heaviness of our current times.

It’s early January, and the year is off to a grim start. The coronavirus has reached devastating new milestones just as inoculation efforts begin, and the Trump era has ended with a failed coup attempt—a violent, well-orchestrated storming of the Capitol by white nationalists that played out on social media—and a historic second impeachment for the president. This dizzying turn of events has made a lot of us feel as if we are sinking even deeper into the abyss. Jordan is in the Caribbean with his girlfriend (more on her later) during all this madness, a rare getaway he was able to swing after spending a year sitting still.

When the world slammed to a halt last spring, so did Jordan. The wave of uncertainty that swept every industry seemingly upended Hollywood overnight. He was forced to rethink which film projects he could tackle next—an enviable position to be in, what with the fickle nature of the movie business, but the 34-year-old had just hit a different kind of stride. After the one-two punch of the Creed franchise and Black Panther cemented his leading-man status, Jordan was laying the groundwork for the next phase of his career—one in which he wasn’t just a screen idol but also a Hollywood mogul of his own making, with a slew of films he would star in, produce, and, in the case of the third Creed film, direct. And then the virus disrupted his plans.

“I had three films lined up [for 2020] . . . potential projects that I had been nurturing for a long time,” he says. “I had really tough choices to make on which projects had the most chance at actually getting green-lit . . . based upon the pandemic and where we could shoot. I was trying to get to a place where I could, in my mind, take a slight break. That break just got moved up a little bit.”

Given how fresh his Hollywood omnipresence is, it almost feels unreal that Michael Bakari Jordan has been orbiting our screens for a third of his life now.

Twenty years after his first film role, Jordan is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet—carving a seat for himself at the proverbial table with his production company, Outlier Society, and his eye for projects that either speak to the experiences of Black men in America (like 2019’s critically acclaimed Just Mercy) or expand the perception of the roles Black actors can take on (like his new action-thriller Without Remorse, in which he tackles a popular Tom Clancy character previously brought to the screen by white actors).

Yet there’s something else to be said for this moment he’s in, the gravity of it all. The same year People crowned Jordan the Sexiest Man Alive, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people for his work pushing Hollywood toward better racial diversity onscreen and behind the scenes, both above and below the line. But he is still in uncharted waters. He’s a young man navigating an industry where every choice for Black creatives is one of consequence and responsibility, and he’s stepping into a period in his life when he’s fully aware of his purpose—and calling all the shots.

“[This past year] was just me really becoming a man, you know,” he says. “That’s such a cliché, overused term, and it has a lot of baggage to it. But I think when personal purpose and meaning align, it allows you to be a man. I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years . . . . Now I get the opportunity to lead by example.”

Born in Santa Ana, California, and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Jordan scored his first gig in 1999, as an unnamed bully with two lines on The Sopranos—but you probably first noticed him on The Wire, as a doe-eyed teenage drug dealer whose heartbreaking end was one of those gut punches that shake viewers to their core. Jordan’s star slowly rose with roles on shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood and on the big screen in Red Tails and Chronicle. But it was his performance in the 2013 indie hit Fruitvale Station that really made us pay attention. The film, which traced the last 24 or so hours in the life of Oscar Grant and arrived at the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, was the first collaboration between Jordan and writer-director Ryan Coogler. We’ve watched them flip the Rocky franchise by rebooting it around the son of Apollo Creed, ascend to new heights with the billion-dollar blockbuster that is Black Panther, and become powerful forces that have helped usher in a new Black cultural renaissance in entertainment.

“I’ve always been a person that tried to be present but also live in the future,” he says earnestly when I ask if he’s spent much time reflecting on his recent career breakthrough. “Usually when you shoot projects and movies, when you finish, it’s done and over with. You kind of check out. Then you’re on to the next thing, and you don’t really talk about the past thing until you do a press tour or something like that. You kind of let go of it as an artist [when] you give it to the world. It’s for everybody else now.

“But I think about legacy a lot,” he continues. “What I leave behind is something that I think about a lot. This past year brought a lot of that to the forefront of my brain. Everybody’s had their share of loss in one way or another. I lost a friend in Chadwick [Boseman]. There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish, and I know time is limited and life is short, [so] I try to not take it for granted. It’s really made me focus on that.”

Like most people interacting with other humans these days, I first meet Jordan over Zoom. Though he’s lived in Los Angeles for the past 15 years, he’s calling from New York, which is his temporary home while he shoots the Denzel Washington–helmed Journal for Jordan, one of the few projects he’s been able to keep on the books amid the pandemic. Jordan comes into frame wearing a classic black V-neck that shows how incredibly sculpted his chest is—and why he could most certainly lift lava stones over his head underwater like an Adonis just for fun.