Jonathan Majors is on — well, a major roll at the moment.
Majors has appeared in a string of high-profile features in a matter of a few short years. Those include “Da 5 Bloods” from Spike Lee, Sundance hit “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Hostiles” with Christian Bale and “White Boy Rick” with Matthew McConaughey.
Next up, audiences will see him in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country.” The show boasts an impressive lineup both in front of and behind the camera. Majors’ co-stars include Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Michael K. Williams and Courtney B. Vance. Based on the book of the same name by Matt Ruff, the show was created by Misha Green, with Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams among the executive producers.
Majors’ ascendancy to the lead role in an HBO series featuring some of television’s biggest creators and most heralded stars has brought him a long way from his native Cedar Hill, Texas. Fresh out of an alternative education program he had been sent to as a middle schooler, he tried his hand at theater at the suggestion of a teacher he knew as Ms. L.J. He performed a monologue in front of his class called “The Freak Meister,” by Ric Averill, whose opening he can still rattle off with ease. He already knew he was a good public speaker, as his schoolmates would often throw it back to him when choosing someone to read aloud in class. But his solo performance that day sealed the deal.
From there, he went on to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, followed by a stint in New York before attending the prestigious Yale School of Drama, from which he graduated in 2016.
“I have a lot of passion,” Majors says. “I was told by the world for a long time that I was angry, or that I was sad. I put my mind to [performing] early on and did nine years, 10 years of actor training nonstop. To me, that’s what I’m still doing. I’m still trying to get in there and do the best work I can in the scene.”
It becomes clear within a few minutes of speaking to Majors that he is a cerebral actor, one who thrives on analyzing every detail of his roles.
“Jonathan is endowed with a chameleon-like quality,” his “Lovecraft Country” co-star Smollett says. “Wildly imaginative, he embodies the soul of each character with such specificity he rivals a technician. He seeks out the unique in the familiar, the beauty in the mundane, conveying the truth with a level of nuance that so few can.”
Majors says he boils projects down to their “ancient qualities.” He wants to know who he is getting involved with and what they stand for before he will attach himself to something. He believes that a person and their beliefs cannot be separated from the work. If someone is ignorant in their own life, “that ignorance or stupidity will make its way into your production.”
“In the ’hood we say you check the paperwork,” he says. “Make sure the paperwork straight, and I expect you to check my paperwork too.”
Lee did just that with Majors before offering him a significant role in “Da 5 Bloods,” a saga about four Black American GIs who return to Vietnam to retrieve a cache of stolen gold and recover the remains of their fallen squad leader. Majors jokes that when Lee first called him to discuss the film, he flashed back to childhood and being called down to the principal’s office. That was combined with a sense of excitement at getting to meet a legendary filmmaker and potentially work with him.
Stepping into a film with the pedigree of “Da 5 Bloods” would be intimidating for anyone. The four leads — Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. — have more than a century of acting experience among them. Majors says the men “hugged me up” the moment he met them, eschewing any notion of making him earn a spot in their company. And then there is Lee, whom Majors calls a major part of the American cultural landscape. He refers to the director as a griot, a type of West African storyteller known for maintaining a people’s oral history.
On “Lovecraft Country,” Majors shares connections with a couple of his co-stars. Vance is a fellow Yale drama school alum, while Majors and Williams played the younger and older versions of the same character in the ABC limited series “When We Rise,” about America’s gay rights movement. What ultimately bonded Majors and Williams on that project was a night spent walking around San Francisco — and underwear.
“I’d been traveling to the set [of ‘When We Rise’] this whole time, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and I was not accustomed to living on the road,” Majors says. “I realized early that morning I didn’t have any underwear. Michael walked me into the Levi’s store. He wanted a jacket, and he bought me every pair of boxer briefs in my size. There were about 50 pairs! That started off a beautiful friendship and brotherhood between us. Now to meet him again two years later and I’m playing his son, it’s quite remarkable. Our dynamic in ‘Lovecraft,’ I’m pretty proud of it. There is a divine chemistry that kind of runs between the two of us for whatever reason.”
Majors stars in “Lovecraft Country” as Atticus Freeman, a Korean War veteran who returns home to 1950s Chicago when his father (Williams) goes missing after sending him a mysterious letter. Atticus, his uncle George (Vance) and childhood friend Letitia (Smollett) try to find him, setting them on a collision course with a powerful magical force, a horde of Lovecraftian monsters and the racial terrors of Jim Crow America.
As the show progresses, the audience learns that Atticus was a bookish child who coped with his strained relationship with his father by escaping into the pages of pulp novels and strange tales. Now a grown man who went to war against his father’s wishes, Atticus is on the journey, Majors says, of a prodigal son who is becoming the family patriarch. The road is an ancient one, he says, and filled with “so much redemption, forgiveness and responsibility.”
“The hero is he or she who allows their heart to break,” he says. “In cinema, the hero is not the one who sacrifices their body always, but the person who sacrifices their heart. They allow their heart to break so everyone else can stay intact. You know, that’s the hero. And I found that quality to be so key in the development and then the portrayal of Atticus.”
The horror elements of the show also informed how Majors approached his role. “Lovecraft Country” not only borrows from the work of H.P. Lovecraft — the early-20th-century master of bizarre monster fiction whose racist views often found their way into his stories — but blends elements of other prominent horror writers as well as West African traditions. Parallels can also be drawn between the show and “Get Out,” the Oscar-winning film written and directed by Peele. Majors was not overly familiar with Lovecraft’s work prior to signing on, but says he now views him as part of a trinity that includes Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King.
What he says binds the three authors is their mastery of psychological horror; they tap into not only physical frights, like monsters with dozens of eyes and rows of razor-sharp teeth, but also the horrors of the mind. For Black Americans, those horrors include vicious treatment at the hands of white people.
Majors says the show is “a day in the life of any minority that is outnumbered, period.” This is evident in numerous instances in the first few episodes alone, when Atticus and others face threats of intimidation, violence and death for the crime of simply being Black in America.
He points to one sequence in the first episode in which Atticus, George and Letitia are stopped in rural Massachusetts by an infamously racist white sheriff.
“Literally on the top of my script for that scene I wrote, ‘The worst day in Texas,’ where I grew up,” he says. “That is the type of thing my mama would pray over me when I would travel — pray that wouldn’t happen.”
The sheriff makes it clear that the three will be killed if they do not get out of his county by sundown, and humiliates Atticus in the process.
That kind of psychological terrorism is nothing new for Black people, Majors says, adding that it has been hardwired into their DNA since the days of slavery. He compares it to methods employed by American slave owners, who would often humiliate, beat or kill larger male slaves to send a message to the others. “The overall thesis was control the mind, break the body,” Majors says.
There are other such moments in the show, as when white people use psychological warfare tactics like heat and noise to try to drive Letitia out of her home. Vance’s character sums it up best in a different scene when he says, “They want to make us crazy.”
“The thing about terror and why it’s so interesting is that terror is there to keep us safe,” Majors says. “But then the issue comes in: Well, how do you ever grow if you can’t get past this fear? That’s called suppression. And that’s another thing we’re dealing with in the story: how to break the mental chains of the system that we’ve been brought into.”
Racism and white people — and not just those who engage in outright violence — are equally the monsters in the series. Majors likens it to the conundrum white Americans find themselves in today in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Although they may never use racial slurs or do anything directly harmful toward a Black person, they still benefit from racism.
“Anyone who is building, developing and thriving off of the system is not a card-carrying Ku Klux Klan member, no,” he says. “But you are complicit in the system.”