That changes emphatically with "Fruitvale Station," a Sundance hit that premiered Thursday night at the Cannes Film Festival. In the film, he plays Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old victim of the infamous 2009 police shooting on the Oakland, California, transit system.
To humanize Grant, first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler fashioned the movie around his last day: Jordan hardly leaves the frame.
"When I first saw it, I was like, 'Man, can we cut to something else? I'm tired of looking at myself right now,'" Jordan said in an interview by the beach off the Croisette. "That's when it really sunk in that this is sink or swim. Sink or swim. Hope I'm swimming."
Not only is the 26-year-old Jordan swimming, he might as well be doing swan dives along the Riviera. He utterly commands "Fruitvale Station" with star-quality charisma and an honest naturalism.
"I wanted to show that I could carry a movie," he says. "That's the next step. I want to do films. I want to be a leading man. A lot was riding on this."
"Fruitvale Station," which was simply called "Fruitvale" before the Weinstein Co. picked up the film for release July 16, won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award for a drama at Sundance. Cannes has a tradition of cherry-picking the best of Sundance. Much as "Beasts of the Southern Wild" did last year, "Fruitvale Station" is playing in this year's Un Certain Regard section.
Jordan, who says he was merely hoping the film would make it into Sundance, was excitedly enjoying himself at Cannes on Thursday. He's planning to stay at the festival a few days longer than necessary, "to drink a little more, stay up a little later."
"It's electric," says Jordan. "It's like March Madness. It's that time of year where everyone's just in it, talking about movies."
But he's also trying not to get ahead of himself.
"I don't want to be that ignorant American who comes over here and expects everyone to love it: 'Oh, you got to love it because it's hot over there,'" he says. "I want people to be excited about it because it really affects them."
"Fruitvale Station" has certainly been doing that, with raves for the film continuing at Cannes. Its power owes much to Jordan's performance, as he slowly - through a routine day of running errands, fighting to keep a job, trying to live down an earlier stint in prison, and caring for his daughter - fleshes out Grant beyond the simple posthumous photo in a newspaper.
"Something me and Ryan really wanted to show is spontaneity," he says. "It's about the humanity. It's about how people treat each other, regardless if they're black, white, orange, from wherever, whatever social background, how much money you got - it doesn't matter."
Coogler, a native of the San Francisco Bay area where the film takes place, had Jordan specifically in mind for the part. A moment after meeting him, the director knew he had the magnetism of the sociable Grant.
"In everything that he was in, I wished the camera stayed on him," says Coogler. "He would be in a scene, and on TV, it leaves and goes on (to another character). I would be like, 'Man, we should be following that guy.'"
Jordan has had some memorable roles, including as the tragic, young, drug-dealing Wallace in the first season of "The Wire," and as Vince Howard, the troubled but good-hearted quarterback of "Friday Night Lights." The show, Jordan says, was the first time he got the material to "show what I can do."
The actor says he was "drooling at the bit" to play Grant. But perhaps the greater challenge to seeing his name atop the call sheet every day during shooting "Fruitvale Station" was that Jordan would be playing a real person, one whose family was intimately connected to the production.
"His daughter is going to have to watch this movie one day," he says. "I didn't want to let anybody down. I didn't want to see me up there. That was the biggest thing: I didn't want to see Mike up there."
Jordan has been in talks to play the Human Torch in Twentieth Century Fox's "Fantastic Four" reboot. He acknowledges the possibility, but says, "That's not real yet." The film is to be directed by Josh Trank, who cast Jordan as one of three high school friends who gain superpowers in "Chronicle."
If Jordan were to be cast in "Fantastic Four," he would be the rare black actor to assume a superhero role. Jordan acknowledges that some will prefer the continuity of the Human Torch remaining white, as he is in the comics. But he thinks the character's most identifiable qualities have little to do with race. (Jordan's character in "Chronicle" was also originally scripted as white.)
"I'm all about breaking barriers and changing stuff," says Jordan. "It's 2013. We've got a black president. Times have changed."
But whatever is to come for Jordan, it's clear he has big ambitions: "I want a career like Leo," he says. "I want a career like Ryan Gosling."
Smiling, Jordan says: "It feels good. It feels good to get to a place where I can be creative and selective about certain things I do. I'm really curious to see what's next."