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Jonathan Majors on Taking His First ‘Devotion’ Meeting in a Sauna, and What He Learned From the Late Michael K. Williams

Awards Circuit Podcast: Also on this episode, "The Woman King" star Thuso Mbedu, and the Roundtable dissects the Oscars directors race.

Jonathan Majors.credit: Photograpgh by Alex Gitman
Alex Gitman for Variety

Jonathan Majors knows how to keep a secret. Ask about him about his role (or roles) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — specifically that of Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” — and you’ll come up empty. Ask him to tell you everything that’s going to happen and he proceeds to tease. “Yeah, no problem,” he says. “You want to start from Paul Rudd’s point of view? Or maybe we start from Michelle Pfeiffer’s?” 

Of course, the actor isn’t going to divulge anything about the MCU. What he can talk to Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast about, however, is his upcoming film “Devotion,” a rousing crowd-pleaser based on Adam Makos’ 2017 book “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice.” Listen below:

Directed by J.D. Dillard, the film tells the story of Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner, two fighter pilots in the Korean War. Majors stars as Brown, the first Black aviator in the history of the U.S. Navy, a complex man fighting for a country where many don’t accept him. And rising star Glen Powell not only plays Hudner, but produced the film. 

It was Powell who knew he wanted Majors for the role, though their first meeting was held at an unusual location –  a Russian Turkish bathhouse. “It seemed normal to me,” Majors says. “It’s just a sauna. It’s not quite a spa, it’s not very luxurious. It’s like a staple in New York City.” He adds that he already had the appointment in his book when the meeting was proposed. “Honestly, I didn’t know any better. I just thought, this is what I’m doing. I’m going there for, essentially, mental health, physical health. I think anybody could benefit from a good schvitz!”

Powell agreed, and the result was a three-hour conversation where the two quickly bonded. “I would say we walked in Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell and we walked out Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner,” says Majors. “We sweated it out. We chatted it out. And he explained to me why he was so attracted to the story. He brought to my attention the story of Ensign Jesse Brown, and the tremendous feats he had accomplished and the relationship between him and Tom. And that was that was magnificent, you know, and it’s something I hadn’t heard before.”

Though the meeting spot may have been unique, it certainly paid off. “I think we saw in each other in that moment that we were we were willing to go through the fire together,” Majors says. “I mean, to this day, he’s probably one of my best friends and definitely one of the most intimate collaborators. It wasn’t standard procedure, but how could it be? There’s a line in the film: ‘You can’t always do what you’re told.’ So we didn’t.”

“Devotion” may have all the expected action and awesome aerial work expected of the genre, but the film is by no means predictable, as everyone involved recognized there were certain tropes and traps they wanted to avoid. “J.D. Dillard, our director, will say there’s a very clear way this movie could have been made – a lot of hand slaps and Kumbaya and everything’s great and all of that,” Majors admits. He then goes on to reference his “Lovecraft Country” costar. “The late Michael K. Williams taught me something very clearly and pointedly in our time together. You can tell something ‘how you want it to be,’ or you can tell something ‘how it is.’ Telling something ‘how it is’ is harder and it hurts more, but the healing is greater. Telling how you want it to be, you’ll feel good but the benefits don’t last as long. And I think what we did with ‘Devotion’ is we tell the story how it is, to the best of our ability.”

The leads are aided by a wonderful supporting cast including Christina Jackson as Jesse’s wife Daisy, who serves in many ways the heart of the story. And the appealing ensemble includes Joe Jonas and Thomas Sadoski as fellow officers. But it’s a star turn for Majors, who has quickly established himself as a major presence in a relatively short amount of time. He graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2016 and by 2017 was starring in the limited series “When We Rise” and appearing alongside Christian Bale in “Hostiles.” 

He’s grateful not only for those early roles, but for the people he got to collaborate with, including Dustin Lance Black, Gus Van Sant and Scott Cooper. “I think Sidney Poitier told Denzel and Denzel told my big brothers and the generation above me and before me that the most important thing about a career starting out is the first three roles you take, because that will establish everything. And I would, I would say that’s extremely true,” Majors says. “But also in the small little world of cinema and film and television is who you do those three roles with.”

Also on this episode, we chat with actor Thuso Mbedu about her hit film “The Woman King.” But first, the Roundtable discusses how the directors race is shaping up, and also looks toward the release this weekend of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, who also co-hosts with Clayton Davis, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.