Angelique Jackson | Variety
Over the next two years, Jonathan Majors will play a cowboy, a flyboy, a boxer and Marvel’s newest supervillain.
With a resume that includes working with Spike Lee and earning a lead actor Emmy nod for “Lovecraft Country,” it’s hard to imagine Majors’ career getting any bigger. But this quartet of roles — portraying the real-life outlaw Nat Love in Netflix’s all-star western “The Harder They Fall,” history-making naval pilot Jesse Brown in “Devotion,” Adonis Creed’s opponent in “Creed 3” and Kang the Conqueror in Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” — just might mark the biggest break in the 32-year-old actor’s career to date.
But on this mid-October afternoon, while walking to a restaurant in West Hollywood for this sit-down with Variety, the star on the rise took a tumble — literally.
It’d been a hectic 40 minutes as Majors hung up an interview and hit the street to make the short walk from his hotel. With his earbuds in and on the phone with his publicist organizing a flight back to London, where he’s filming “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a man approached asking if he’s “the actor guy” from “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” After they snapped a picture, the man turned to the passengers riding on a homes of the stars van and proclaimed about Majors, “He’s so humble, though.”
“It’s like he cursed me,” the actor tells Variety, recounting the story with a chuckle in his voice. “Because I walked down the street, and maybe because I had the fucking earbud in, I like tripped in the median. Stay humble, you know?”
“But that was really beautiful to me,” he adds, explaining that the short interaction meant a great deal. “Cuz I was … I’m feeling a little tight right now, because I’m ready to go. I’ve still got a job to do with ‘Ant-Man,’ so I’m like, let me go home and finish.”
Majors is a pretty private and relatively introverted person, calling himself a “peculiar cat,” preferring to stick to the work on the set versus engaging in the celebrity of things. But when he’s approached by someone like the man in the median, or the young man who stopped him on the walk to our table to share his excitement for Majors’ take on Kang, or when our server couldn’t help but mention how much she loved Atticus in “Lovecraft Country” (she did not mention the ’60s-style tight t-shirts the character wore, and I won’t put words in her mouth, but also…), that’s proof his work is resonating.
“I always feel a great deal of respect from people when they address me,” he says. “And that’s kind of beautiful, because they don’t respect me, because they don’t know me. But they know the work and that work touched them or entertained them in a certain way. And they can fuck with that.”
The restaurant on Sunset Blvd. is also just a few hundred yards away from two dueling billboards featuring his Nat Love Gang and the Idris Elba-led Rufus Buck Gang. Majors spotted the giant ads during another walk, where they took him by surprise.
“But I never think, “Oh, there I am!” I go, “There’s Nat,” that’s nice — he deserves that. The film deserves that,” Majors recalls. “But no, I kind of keep my head down.”
It was our third meeting in the last 72 hours. The first came during a late-night Q&A with Majors and “The Harder They Fall” director Jeymes Samuel, reliving the making of the wild Western in front of a rapt crowd at a screening room in Hollywood. During the final 30 minutes of the movie, the actor snuck into the theater to watch along with the audience. It’s a habit he’s adopted recently, noting that it’s a good way to gauge how the audience is receiving the film.
“By that point, they’ve locked into the characters, they understand,” Majors explains. “They can pick out Nat, they can pick out Bass Reeves, so they’re following them in a different way. [With] a chuckle on a line, you could know where they were 20 minutes ago. You wouldn’t laugh at that or gasp at that if you weren’t connected way over there.”
He particularly enjoys taking in the film’s final sequence, which he describes as “a war zone.” He also relishes that emotional ending, where Love, an orphan bent on revenge against the man who killed his parents (Elba’s Rufus Buck), finally faces off against his destiny as the two men come face to face with each other and some hard truths about themselves. By and large, he’s not the type of actor who’s self-conscious about seeing himself on screen, but sometimes prefers not to relieve the experience because of the weight of it.
“When I do watch, I feel what Nat was feeling. I feel what Atticus was feeling. I feel what my guys are feeling,” he shares. “It’s just an interesting thing. It’s like a secret. You kind of feel like, ‘Ah, you put my man’s shit in the street.’”
The second meeting came on the electric blue carpet for the movie’s Los Angeles premiere at the Shrine Auditorium, where the star posed on the red carpet with Samuel, his co-stars Oscar winner Regina King and Deon Cole, and producer Jay-Z. He also shared a quiet moment with Samuel’s brother, Grammy winner Seal, before he made his way down the line of journalists to answer questions about roping and riding for the role.
Speaking to the groundbreaking nature of “The Harder They Fall’s” take on the Western genre, Majors noted the importance of putting these images of Black people from the 1890s on screen.
“It’s something we haven’t seen before; we’ve not seen it with this much aggression, with this much grace, with this much Blackness, we’ve just not seen it,” he said. “And it’s on Netflix, so the entire world is gonna see it, and you can see it again and again and again and again and again and again and again.”
“It’s not just Nat Love, but he’s at the forefront in this movie, so it means a great deal for me, for the homies, for my people where I come from,” the Texas-bred actor added.
Instead of sitting through that night’s screening, Majors headed for The Palm, where he enjoyed a steak and a baked potato. He’s in training to face off against Michael B. Jordan in “Creed 3” and trying to gain weight (already adding 10 lbs. of muscle in two months), so he has to eat often — which is why we’ve just ordered two fried chicken sandwiches instead of the coffee meeting we’d planned. (He also got a latte, both of us marveling at the design on top of the foam which looked like drinkable art.)
For the premiere, Majors had invited “White Boy Rick” director Yann Demange, “Lovecraft Country” creator Misha Green, “Devotion” director J.D. Dillard and “Loki” producer Kevin Wright as his guests, opting to share the big moment with the people who’d supported him most over the years. The actor often becomes close with his collaborators, sharing a mantra of sorts when describing their relationship: “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you wanna go far, go with somebody else. Those are my people — they’ve helped me go far.”
But that didn’t mean he stuck around fielding congratulations or partying until the bitter end of the event. While Jay-Z and Samuel wrapped up their jam session at nearly 2 a.m., Majors was in bed by midnight. He’s just that disciplined.
During filming, the actor really leaned into the Western vibes, with Samuel saying that Majors “turned the entire environment outside of the production into the Old West.” The filmmaker explains: “This guy came to my house and changed my cutlery. Like the cup that I’d drink out of is like an Old West, a vintage clay cup. He lived it and he made me live it.”
What Majors finds so seductive about the Western environment is the “simplicity” of it.
“In the West, everything is simple, it’s life or death, and there’s no fear of death,” he says. “And your morals are exposed at all times. It’s a very naked society that you’re living in, and therefore has a lot of truth. I really like that.”
So, when the production was delayed due to the pandemic, Majors stayed put in Santa Fe, riding out the pause until work resumed, and he believes that dedication paid off on screen. Even when talking about playing Love, he’s so fully immersed in the character that his natural Southern drawl seems just slightly more prominent.
“We just showed the Western genre, that there’s a whole ‘nother side to this shit,” he explains. “And we could only do that through collaboration, through really deep support and sacrifice. Whether that be living in New Mexico for a year, staying up late riding horses, freezing your boots off, all that stuff. [With] sacrifice, support and teamwork, we can all really make something great, and that greatness will have universal and international response and recognition.”
Raised in Texas, the actor was already good with horses, but this production came with a few other learning lessons. The movie was only his second time leading a project, after “Lovecraft Country,” and this one boasts an ensemble made up of King, Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, RJ Cyler, Edi Gathegi and Delroy Lindo.
Majors had a hand in recruiting Lindo to play Bass Reeves, the legendary lawman who is considered to be an inspiration for the Lone Ranger. The duo had just played father and son in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” forming a close bond.
“One of the reasons he wanted to come [onto ‘The Harder They Fall’] was so we could do it again,” Majors explains. “We had such a great time in our collaboration as David and Paul and now here we were as Nat and Bass. We just have a dope dynamic.”
And when it comes to the lead of a cast that star-studded, Majors says that you try not to think about it.
“You also can’t let your ego get involved in it. Because you’re there because you’re serving the job,” he explains. Number one on the call sheet, or the hero, or the protagonists, they’re actually the janitor — they’ve got to go into every classroom. It’s a very humble thing.”
As the de facto star, Majors also learned that it’s just as important to have the shoulders to push the production forward as it is to become a master of love languages when working with the full ensemble.
“I’m never there to make you feel safe. I’m always there to challenge you, but I also want to make you feel secure,” he says, naming the difference between the two ideas. “Safety means you won’t fall; security means you won’t stay down. And that’s something you have to offer when you’re working in a scene.”
“You want people to fail big and you want them to push themselves, but everybody’s different, and you have to be empathetic. That’s the thing about leadership, you have to be a huge empath, and it takes practice,” he continues. “You have to know when to hit the gas and when to hit the brakes.”
As far as Majors’ career goes, right now, it’s full steam ahead.
He followed his Independent Spirit and Gotham Award-nominated performance in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” with HBO’s historical sci-fi drama “Lovecraft Country” and, on July 13, nabbed his first Emmy nod for his work. The next day, he exploded into in the MCU (and created the multiverse) as He Who Remains on Disney Plus’ “Loki.” Up next, he’ll go toe-to-toe with Michael B. Jordan in “Creed 3” and Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and the “Ant-Man” crew (as Kang the Conqueror) in the latest installment of the Marvel franchise.
As the stage just keeps growing larger, he’s begun to more carefully realize his aims as an actor. “We’re all exploring our life through our occupation to a degree, in order to understand where we fit. I’m just trying to figure out where I fit,” Majors says.
But as each role gives him some clarity, he admits that “it’s actually even more confusing” figuring out where he belongs.
With Nat Love, for example, Majors was drawn to the role by the way the character grapples with the shackles of his own morality.
“This is a man who was trying to liberate himself by keeping things fair, right. But in doing so, he ends up living by a code that ultimately pushes him to make a decision that, because he’s so constrained by his own code … Like, should he have done that at the end?” he asks.
Majors also talks at length about his work in Dillard’s “Devotion” and playing the pioneering African American aviator Jesse Brown, who risked his life during the Korean War to become one of the Navy’s most celebrated pilots. The actor was drawn to that part by its particular exploration of Black excellence.
“I’m quick to be like, ‘No, I’m not doing it, because he’s a Black guy … this, that or the other,’ But I understand the struggle. As Mandela says, ‘The struggle is my life,’ like I understand it,” he says of taking the role. “It’s the first time that I read something where I was like, ‘This is private.’ Because it’s him making his way through the ranks — and Jesse Brown is the best, there’s no question about it — and [the movie is about] the private battles it takes to do that.”
While Majors believes it’s an experience that audiences of any race, religion or creed can understand, there’s a particular ritual and dedication to being the best that he’s never seen expressed. “It really told on me, where I was like, ‘I do this,’” he says, and that sold him on the story.
The role also marked the first time in his history playing a real-life character, where Majors met and worked with Brown’s family.
“Usually the movie is about a moment in time in which the family’s not around, like no one knows the guy or the character in that moment,” he explains. “With Devotion it’s different, because the family is around in a real way. Pam, who’s his daughter and Daisy, who’s my wife in the film had just passed on. It’s no secret that I have a daughter, my child, so I connect to that. And to sit with that family and to hear [stories] — this is actually the first time it’s a different responsibility.”
When it comes to working on “Ant-Man,” Majors has gotten really good about not giving up too much about it Marvel role, though that seems to be just as much about who he is as an interview subject than a strict studio mandate.
When asked about the evolution from He Who Remains to Kang the Conqueror, Majors offers: “Well, it’s a different script, so there’s that. Different writers and I’m shooting in a different country, so there’s that.
“And He Who Remains is in the world now, and so there’s so much we know about him. There’s 40 minutes of that guy and that narrative,” he continues. “So it really set me up to tell a story and add another canvas, with more players. This time, it’s not the incredible Tom Hiddleston; I’m dealing with Paul Rudd and Evangeline and the likes of the ‘Ant-Man’ family, so it’s a whole different world and I’m just exploring and trying to do the best I can.”
With Kang and his yet-to-be-revealed character in “Creed 3” coming back to back, Majors also discussed playing two antagonists following this leading man moment, arguing that “there’s no difference” between the two.
“In my opinion, there’s no difference, but there is,” he teases. “What is happening, how it manifests may seem like there’s malice in it. Sometimes I feel like with the villains or the antagonist, there’s more hurt, so it almost seems impractical or it seems extreme what it is they’re trying to do.”
It’s a deep – yet vague – answer, but he divulges more when it comes to training for the role. While Majors has fought and boxed before, he wouldn’t call himself a boxer. “It’s actually a culture and a lifestyle,” he explains.
But through training sessions with his coach Rob Sally, he’s leaned a loot about himself beyond his physical limitations. “The thing about boxing is it’s… and this is something my coach said, people live the way they fight, so you learn a lot about yourself when you’re training. And you can surprise yourself.”
“I know inherently that I’m … actually, I have a great deal of aggression, but I actually have to activate my aggression,” he shares. “It doesn’t take much to activate it. [chuckles] But I am by nature, an introvert and actually very cerebral, though I’m so physical.”
Through the boxing training, too, he’s also tapped into something profound about his acting.
“It’s just you and your fatigue,” he says of the intense boxing workouts. “And when the body gives out, you can explore the spirit.”
Majors calls up a quote from playwright August Wilson to explain why the spirit is what he works so hard to capture: “You’ve got to get to the limitations of the instrument, and once you get there, something else happens.”
“That transcends my six-foot African American frame, my acting education, my fatherhood, my American nature, and it makes me human, which everybody can connect to,” Majors notes. “Being a father, being a Black man. I’m proud of those things. But when the art happens, all those ships rise. Everything gets clear, and in that clarity, the story can be told and felt by everybody.”
That clarity is what he feels in interactions with audiences, like happened in the minutes before this interview kicked off.
“That was deep. I’ve gotta say it though, because it’s not lost on me, that’s pretty badass,” he says, circling back to those earlier interactions. “This guy’s hollering about ‘Last Black Man in San Francisco,’ we come in and the Asian fellow is loving the Marvel stuff, sister girl is loving Atticus. And we’re on Sunset Boulevard where at the opposite ends, we’ve got “The Harder They Fall” [billboards].”
As Majors goes on, searching for his words, he finds only tears instead. “I can’t explain it, it’s actually too much, you know what I mean? It’s a lot,” he ekes out as his eyes well up, spilling over as the wave of emotion hits him. “That makes me so happy.”
It’s an achingly authentic moment – and one that mirrors the finale of “The Harder They Fall,” as Love comes to the completion of his lifelong mission of revenge. But, unlike Love, this isn’t the end of Majors’ story. It’s only the beginning.