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Friday, June 21, 2024

Jonathan Majors Is Enjoying His Villain Era

I hear Jonathan Majors before I see him. He’s offscreen when his voice cuts the silence. “What publication is this for?” Rising whack-a-mole style from the bottom right corner of my laptop screen, a grin smeared across his face, he realizes he’s been caught. “Did you hear that?” he says, quick to extend an apology. I begin to worry that our conversation won’t go much of anywhere, that it will be just another press interview, but as I will come to learn over the next hour, Majors is the same on screen as he is off: a genuine and total presence. 

This is called the Jonathan Majors Effect. He eclipses expectation. It’s all by design, of course. The exacting discipline. The meticulous preparation he does for a role, burrowing deeper and deeper into the interior of a character, using the reservoir of the human soul to render a singular depiction. He loves this shit. Majors has wanted to do it since he realized his calling as a performer during boyhood Sundays in church, where he fell in love with the arc and linguistic dazzle of sermonizing. It’s where the fire for his creative expression was first ignited.

If it seems like Jonathan Majors is everywhere these days, that’s because he is. He’s roamed through realms of the fantastic in Lovecraft Country (HBO) and played a revenge-happy cowboy in The Harder They Fall (Netflix). In Devotion, he delivered a gripping portrait of a Korean War fighter pilot. But it was his appearance in the Season One finale of Loki (Disney+) as the terrifying jester-king of the multiverse, He Who Remains, aka Kang the Conqueror, that showed just how agile Majors is as a performer. Has villainy ever been so fun?

Majors as villain is like nothing we have witnessed from him before. He’s more conflicted. More unpredictable. But it’s the unpredictability, the not-knowing, that’s spell-like—where is he going to take us next? As Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, he’s power-mad. In Creed III, he’s hellbent on vengeance. With Magazine Dreams—a Sundance favorite, with a wider release coming later this year—he is an obsessive bodybuilder transfixed by the twisted pull of celebrity. 

What makes Jonathan Majors an affecting anti-hero across these varied performances is his ability to occupy the murky gray space that makes those characters all the more savory: Their motivations are grounded somewhere deeply familiar. They resonate with such force because we recognize the amalgam of hurt, resentment, and loss; we recognize all intangible things that make us human, we recognize how Majors is able to beautifully bring them to the fore. To remind us. To teach us. Like I said, all presence. 

What I gathered from reading some of your other interviews was that you seem to be incredibly disciplined. Where did that come from? 

Oh man, that’s just survival. There’s a version of me not being disciplined enough, not getting out of some situations that I was in when I was a kid. I also come from a military background. My father was in the military. My grandfather’s in the military. My uncles. And my mom is a pastor. My grandfather was a farmer—a real farmer. That’s what I witnessed. In any case, when we made progress as a family, it was because of a lot of hard work and discipline. I just copied the men and women around me that kept us afloat. 

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Is your acting a tribute to them in some way?

Everything I do is connected to my family, my child, and my ancestors. Without a doubt. We represent. It’s no joke when someone says represent—that’s a real thing. I take that quite seriously. My name is on something. My face is on something. I represent to my people. 

How does that come through in Creed III?

In this picture, the character’s name is Damian Anderson. My mother’s maiden name was Terry Anderson. So the Andersons are half my family. I changed the name for that. So I’m always thinking about what my people are going to see—my nuclear family and the culture, what they’re going to see and what they’re going to feel with the roles I do and how I play those roles. 

Growing up, what was the first performance you remember seeing that had a profound impact on you? 

Church. And I was always in it, you know. There was a cool transition when I would pay more attention to the sermon than the praise and worship. The singing. Not everybody knows what praise and worship is. The choir.

Yeah [laughs].

And I remember when that happened. It happened quite young, when I was about six. I was no longer looking forward to the singing. I was trying to figure out what this person was going to say. I liked to watch what they were saying and how it was impacting people in the congregation.

What was it about those sermons that pulled you in?

Well, they all have a nice arc, don’t they? They have the slow part, the quiet part, the loud part, then the quiet part. That’s a movie. That’s essentially how movies go. This is the quiet part. This is the loud part. This is the loud, fast part. We’re cresting—this is the quiet part again. Thank you. Credits. 

Right.

So watching that and feeling how that was moving through the congregation, and sometimes the organ comes in and that’s banging—I was looking at it as a bit of a dance, a party. 

I could hear the nuance in the message, which was interesting to me. I like language. I like listening to how people talk, how they communicate. And I grew up in the South. So I was hearing the sermon, and I was hearing the homies in the street just talk crazy. That was also exciting to me. 

Let’s talk about that nuance. How do you define it?

I think nuance is when you have two truths running at the same time, perhaps. That’s not the definition. But when you look at a character and you see two truths running parallel, sometimes those two truths may counter one another—they may not be saying the same thing, but they’re both truthful. That, to me, is interesting. That’s where you learn most about people. How great would it be if you could really understand somebody on two different levels at the same time? How much faster would we get to know each other? 

When you take on a role, is that what it becomes for you—an attempt to bridge understanding between you and the audience?

The audience has to understand them. Otherwise, it’s essentially a bad performance. If you play a character that seems so fringe, if you can invite the audience to understand that character, that’s a lot more fun. And the reward is greater.

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A lot of what drives Damian in Creed is trauma. He’s motivated to do what he does because of what he’s lost or missed out on. Did that have any resonance in your own life?

Growing up the way I did, I watched a lot of people get advances in life. It didn’t track. I couldn’t understand why. Why not me? Or in some cases, why me? Not really a victim situation but just like, as an act of living, of being aware. Like what the hell is going on here? Damian has that too. Tenfold. 

You’re becoming more known as a method actor. You give yourself so completely to these roles. I’m curious, when taping ends, do you ever feel like you’ve lost a piece of yourself? 

It’s definitely a gain. In observing the character—I mean, I could do it with you. If we talk long enough, I can figure out where you’re hurt. And same with me. You could be like, something happened here. So when I get a character, I go, there’s something there. There’s a hole there, something happened. My job, if I’m honest with myself, and this is the quiet work, I can find a time or maybe it’s quite present in me where I go, I have that same hole. 

With the roles you’ve recently taken on, more and more your body is a hot topic of online conversation. Do you ever feel objectified? 

I know what’s going on, but I don’t really get in the mix of it. I mean, they’re not in my face. The internet is not real. It has real consequences. But the internet can’t slap me. The internet is not knocking on my door. Nor are the people that participate in it. If it comes to that, I might feel quote unquote objectified. But no. I mean, nothing’s wrong with a ruckus. It doesn’t bother me—people say whatever they say, good, bad, or indifferent. I kind of stay out of that. I have to. Otherwise, Jesus, I can only imagine. 

Is that why you are off social media?

I like to focus. I’m quite sensitive to stimuli. That’s part of being an actor. Someone offers an idea. You agree with that idea, and you hope that your emotions and nervous system and physicality will adjust to that, and play it out. I’m not bold enough to test my emotional fortitude. I know how mean people can be. And I don’t want to be in that frame. 

What about reviews of your shows and movies? 

It doesn’t matter what the good stuff is. You only care about that one bad review. That’s what haunts you. You don’t care how good people are saying your body looks. It just takes that one person to say something negative. I’m grown now. I worked very hard to get out of high school [laughs].

Do you ever feel like those conversations, where people focus so intensely on the physical, it clouds them from seeing your art?

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I don’t know about that. It also depends on what it is they’re looking at when you watch the movies. You’ve paid your money. You’re going in to see it. You take from it what you want. The art is there. The art is full. A magazine cover, something like that? If that’s the gateway for you to read the article, so be it. But I don’t know if it clouds it. It activates the haters, I’ll tell you that much [laughs]. It’s very aggravating.

I was first introduced to your work through The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which I loved. Your characters are never the same. What is a Jonathan Majors role?

Whew! I don’t really know. All the roles that have come to me that I've decided to invest in, there is a very clear world that’s built that I’m interested in. I’m interested in the boxing world. I’m interested in the bodybuilding world. I’m interested in sci-fi. For me, the world has to be present and specific. And then, yeah, of course, it’s about the character. And now at this level it’s also about the movie, and the responsibility of the character in the movie. 

I don’t have to play the lead role. I don’t have to play the second lead role. But if you take this character out, does the movie work? If the answer is no, then I’ll stick with it. Then I begin. How am I going to grow? How am I going to challenge myself? You know what I mean, brother. [Majors notices the bookshelf in my apartment]. It looks like you’re a big reader. If they stop putting good things in books you’ll stop reading, right? Like fuck it, I’m done now. I feel that same way about acting, and I don’t want to quit. 

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Did stepping into a role like Kang—a character that already has a great deal of mythology around him—trigger anxiety? Were you at all hesitant to take on a character in the Marvel universe, especially one that’s going to be so focal in Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars?

If there was any anxiety, it was definitely overrun by the excitement of the opportunity. I don’t know if there was anxiety. I was excited to play. I was excited to participate. Kang is a gift. I mean, they are all gifts. Kang is unique, you know, for obvious reasons. He’s a variant. There are multiple versions of him. What a challenge. What an opportunity to really get better. 

You get to play a different version of him in each film, which is something we haven’t experienced in the MCU.

The Kang conversation now runs parallel with a career. Like, is Damian Damian or is that a Kang variant? Because the MCU is so dominant. You go, is that … or? That’s the fun part. It’s cool.

Is there an initial reaction when you accept a role? Excitement or enthusiasm? Perhaps something darker? What are you feeling when you have this new character ahead of you? 

That’s a great question because my answer may be quite controversial. Once I sign on to do something, I get extremely—what’s the word? It’s not sad, but it’s very, very, very quiet. Everything is very quiet in me and somewhat serious because I know what’s about to happen. Once I decide to do a role, pattern recognition tells me that I’m about to go on a trip. Imagine someone said to you, Hey man, we’re going to send you to the moon. That’s very exciting. Then you go, Wait—I’m going to the moon

I gotta get there. 

I gotta say goodbye to this. I gotta prepare for this. What am I gonna do about this? Do I need to bring this to the moon? My mind begins to slowly focus and begins to enlist everything it thinks it needs to tell the story.

Are you typically someone who is in their head a lot?

It’s like a gut feeling. It’s like when you gotta lift weights and say, That’s 305. That moment! You go, Oh shit. You know you can do it but it’s gonna be a motherfucker. That’s the feeling. And yes I’m thinking, get the grip right. Hold my core, all of that. But my gut is like, This is gonna be something

What does the future of Hollywood look like to you?

Michael B. [Jordan] is getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What does the future of Hollywood look like to me? It looks like more of that. It looks like there’s a real acknowledgment and real responsibility for historically marginalized artists to take the reins and be responsible for what happens in this town. That we can participate and be responsible for the beautiful metaphor that is Hollywood. It’s more inclusion and, at the same time, a high level of quality in the work. 

Is there a specific road map to get there? 

It’s going to happen through our funds. It’s going to happen through participation and more collaboration. And I’m just getting here. I look forward to continuing my path here in this town, as it were, just bringing movies back.

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Is Hollywood what you expected?

There aren’t really any surprises. I am sometimes surprised by the surprises that people find. You think that’s a surprise? Come on, man. These are people. You know the game. Some people’s lack of awareness—that surprises me.

This is a big year for you, perhaps your biggest—Ant-Man, Creed, Magazine Dreams. How are you feeling?

I feel alright. I feel really at ease. There’s no pomp and circumstance here. I’m pretty chilled. Very relaxed. Primarily because I know I’m gonna have to go to work soon. I’m in watercolor mode now. This is the victory lap. Win, lose, or draw with how these movies play out, I’ve already made them. I’m thinking about May right now, when I go back to work, when I’m on set. It’s a time of peace now. I’m using my discipline to keep the peace. 

In preparing for the work ahead, do you ever go back and study old performances?

I don’t watch anything. I don’t watch playback. A few days ago I watched this promo ad for a thing I did, but it was a promo ad. I was like, OK cool. I’ve seen one of the movies I’ve done. 

Why is that?

It’s just not my business. 

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