Jonathan Majors knows what makes him an exceptional actor. “I’m willing to hurt more,” he said. “I’m just willing to hurt. It doesn’t bother me.”
Majors, 30, is a star of “Lovecraft Country,” a supernatural thriller, produced by Misha Green, J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, which juxtaposes tentacled monsters with the more mundane horrors of American racism in the 1950s. Majors plays Atticus Freeman, a Korean War veteran and the guardian of his family’s secrets. He describes this show, alongside his recent films “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Da 5 Bloods,” as part of a trilogy exploring Black masculinity.
The child of a musician father, from whom he is now estranged, and a pastor mother, Majors grew up just outside of Dallas. Some behavioral troubles landed him in an alternative high school, where he discovered acting. After graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and fathering a daughter, he enrolled at the Yale School of Drama and began a professional career during his final semester, playing a lead role in the ABC docudrama “When We Rise.”
An actor of precision and intensity, he can suggest complete stoicism while also showing what pain roils just beneath that muscular surface. “Emotions in the men in my family run deep,” he said. His mother’s son, he believes in acting as a service and a calling, a mandate to feel everything, good and bad, so that an audience can feel it, too.
Majors has spent the lockdown mostly alone and mostly in Santa Fe, N.M., waiting for production on “The Harder They Fall,” a Jay-Z produced Western, to resume. As he drank tea, on an evening Zoom call in late July, he discussed cowboys, outlaws, the spiritual dimension of acting and why artists are essential workers. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Let’s start with Atticus.
He’s the guy who has everything under control, always looking out for other people, always deep and broody, like all heroes should be. He feels like all the great ancestors put together.
A Korean War veteran, he carries that trauma, as well as the weight of moving through America in a Black body.
That’s where he and I are very similar. All I’ve ever been in my entire life is a Black man. Same thing can be said for Atticus. The racial trauma that he carries, it is almost like breathing. And the thing that makes him special or different is that he refuses to just get along with it.
How did you prepare?
The first thing I do when I start a role is I look to see where we’re similar. What do you get for nothing, you know? I played sports my entire life; that speaks to the physicality of Atticus. The main thing that had to be prepared was his imagination. I had to go to places of remembering when I was beaten up so bad in school that I retaliated and ran to my apartment building and grabbed a knife and was chasing the bully down the street — like, the fear I had pulsing through my body and that rage, that murderous frustrating, ghetto boy rage. I had to go get that.
This is a very frightening series. Was that difficult to play? Did you have to learn how to scream?
I learned that ages ago. That type of scream is a full body scream. I’m screaming from my toes. I drink some tea and lie down and then get up and do it again. Acting, for me at least, is also spiritual. There are moments where that’s what’s moving you through.
You got into trouble as an adolescent. Did acting save you? Did it give you a place to put those big emotions?
There comes a point in everybody’s life where you either learn to handle things or you get handled. I was right there at the crossroads. I had great father figures in my life, a wonderful mother and a great sister, but they could not straighten me up. With acting, it was almost like I was in a corridor, and it just appeared to me and said, “Go that way, son.” I didn’t get in trouble once I started acting. I had a place to put the energy, to put my focus.
Even before you left the Yale School of Drama, you began an extraordinary series of roles. Did you know that would happen?
When I was in summer stock [low-paid summer theater] in North Carolina — Yale wasn’t even on the radar yet — a mentor said something to me along the lines of, “You’ll get out, you’ll do a sitcom, you’ll do Off Broadway.” I and said to her, “That’s not what I’m here to do.” My intention was always to share my experience and my gifts on the largest stage possible. Primarily because I’m willing to hurt more, I’m just willing to hurt. It just doesn’t bother me. My heart breaks every day.
Have you turned down work because it didn’t test you enough?
Of course. Since quarantine, I’ve probably turned down three or four projects, and something they all had in common is they weren’t full. I always say, I’ll play any size role. The litmus test is, what’s the responsibility of the role?
And as a Black actor, do you feel responsible for what your roles represent?
There is a certain amount of meditation when I look at an entire project. I have seen films where I go, “Guys, you did not help us one bit.” It’s OK if your intention is to make your money and survive as an individual. My agenda, my mission is just a bit different.
You were shooting “The Harder They Fall” when the pandemic hit?
We’re shooting it now. It’s quite exciting. Our director just came back into town last week and I haven’t left. I’ve been here since February. Cameras go up end of August. [A spokesperson for Netflix suggested that filming would probably begin within the next two months.] There’s a lot of protocol.
Do you feel you’ll be safe?
I do, I do. And I also feel very, very privileged to be one of the first productions to go back. It’s a bit precarious because I’ve been dying to work. I’ve been dying to act. But we’re also the guinea pigs. We’ve got to see if it’s really going to work. I think it will.
Who do you play?
It’s a spaghetti western, an all-Black spaghetti western. I play Nat Love, a man whose parents were killed when he was 10 years old. We meet him 20 years later, and he’s become the leader of a gang and an outlaw. His vendetta has been to kill everyone that was involved in the death of his parents.
I love that. Because Atticus is such a cowboy. That’s range!
I had a teacher tell me one time, “It’s good that you can act because you’re not a handsome fellow.”
How have you spent your shutdown?
I stayed here in New Mexico. I took a 10-day break and flew to Atlanta, where my daughter is. Which was good. It’s just been me and my dogs. Lots of exercise, lots of reading. Nietzsche. Lots of Sam Shepard because I’m out this way. I’ve always really valued isolation. But that rubs up against my deep need for intimacy. I’ve found myself talking to people on the phone longer. But also I’ve found myself just kind of sitting and really listening to the universe, to what this moment is.
Did you attend protests in Santa Fe?
When brother Floyd went down, I got out there. I was surprised with how young my fellow protesters were. I felt like an old man at 30. It’s so interesting that “Da 5 Bloods” and “Lovecraft Country” are coming out the summer of 2020. Not to be too poetic about it, but 20/20 is perfect vision. We’re cutting the cornea, right? It’s happening through protests, it’s happening through reinventing this [expletive] up system. It hurts and it’s uncomfortable, but hopefully when we get done with 2020 we’ll see clearly as a society.
Few people count actors as essential workers. Has the pandemic made you think differently about what you do?
I believe the arts are a service industry. We doctor different things. We doctor the invisible hurt. We mend the phantom pain. I believe — and I’ll say to anybody — we are essential for humanity. When we all come together, around the campfire or around a television, and experience something together that allows us to move through the world with a bit more confidence, a bit more security, knowing that we are not alone … well, that seems essential to me.