It’s late July and my Brooklyn apartment feels more like a newly discovered circle of hell than anything designated in degrees. I’m sweaty, stressed, and struggling to find a way to listen to Jonathan Majors on our Zoom call without turning off my A/C. Spoiler: I did not succeed.
Majors joins our Zoom chat exactly on time, from Santa Fe, where he’s been staying since February to film the western The Harder They Fall alongside Idris Elba. Naturally, production was delayed. He’s smiling widely in a green tank top, snacking on popcorn as though this interview isn’t a mid-pandemic industry obligation, but a carefree movie date. “No worries,” he says of his current state, blasting a few seconds of upbeat music to reflect his mood.
Perhaps you can read that as a metaphor for Majors’s year at large. Despite the cultural, political, and literal climate, the Yale School of Drama alum is thriving professionally. Fresh off the success of Sundance favorite The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the 30-year-old appeared in Spike Lee’s latest joint, Netflix hit Da 5 Bloods. Majors describes Lee — or “Spike” — as “my uncle, my godfather, my big brother,” labeling him chief among his many Hollywood mentors.
With a direct line to one of the most celebrated directors in history and a slew of prestigious acting nominations under his belt, Majors is embarking on his biggest project yet: Lovecraft Country. The HBO series, based on the novel by Matt Ruff, juxtaposes the horror of H.P. Lovecraft with the inherent racism of Jim Crow-era America. Helmed by Misha Green and produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, the show is a behemoth in both subtext and production, matched only in scope by the monsters that follow Atticus Freeman (Majors) and Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett).
Though it’s an undoubtedly strange moment to be promoting a project, it’s hard not to see Lovecraft Country as coming along at just the right time. “It speaks to what the soul of America is haunted by, what it's afraid of,” Majors says of the series. “It contributes to the movement that is happening now. It is our call to arms as well as our victory chant.”
You could call Lovecraft Country a departure from his established body of work but, if you look closer, every performance Majors gives is wholly original.
“I have this ritual,” the actor tells me between bites, explaining how he uses the experience of traveling to his next job to get into character. “I use the transition of the airport, the flying from one place to another to really let go of the -isms, and the ideas that I have as an individual and kind of adapt and begin to morph.” Those ideas and “isms” are clear throughout our conversation, as Majors punctuates his opinions with a passionate “come on,” or reminisces near-poetically about his favorite pastime: going to the movies.
The process of losing himself in a character extends to dining as well. Atticus Freeman has lent his name to an Atlanta-based reservation or two. "Who's the table for? Atticus.”
Given the intentional division between Majors and the characters he inhabits, he doesn’t have a problem with watching himself on screen. In fact, he’s a bit put off by actors who do. “Yeah, that's just bullshit,” he says with a laugh.
“I love being uncomfortable. I love feeling very revealed. And when I watch a piece of work that I've done, I'm actually looking for that. How naked is this character? How truthful is this character? If it's truthful, there's automatically a separation.”
Read on below as Majors charms his way through questions about his celebrity crush, his favorite famous Robert, and the breakfast that got him through grad school.
What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
Who is your favorite villain?
Heath Ledger's Joker.
Would you ever want to play the Joker?
He's already done it. He's flawless. Flawless.
Describe a memorable dream.
[I have] a recurring dream. I'm sitting on the steps of Notre Dame. I'm 30 now, but in the dream I'm about 12. And I look out in the distance and I see this little boy walking up to me. And the little boy walks up to me and hands me a red balloon and sits next to me. And I look at the boy very closely and I see it's my baby brother.
I have this dream probably four times a year. It's deep. It's deep. It's deep.
What do you think it means?
To me, I always get a sense of hope. I'm in oversized clothes and my brother's walking up and he's a baby. You remember your siblings as they always were. You clock them in your head. I always get it when I'm feeling kind of low about something. My brother shows up and hands me a red balloon. The only emoji I use on my phone is the red balloon. I don't emoji. For what? I'm a grown-up [laughs]. But I will send the red balloon at any given time.
What was the first album you ever owned?
Amos Lee. Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight.
Do you still listen to it?
All the time.
What's your favorite cheesy pickup line?
Do your feet hurt? Because you've been running through my mind all day.
If you were required to spend a thousand dollars today, what would you buy and why?
I would buy a projector and television.
Because there's so much stuff on TV, on streaming, that I miss movie theaters so much. I just want a projector. I would get a projector and a huge pull down screen. Just build a theater in my home here.
What do you think about everything that’s going on with theaters amid the pandemic — with movie dates getting pushed back and the option of just moving to VOD and missing a theatrical release?
I think we're just in a season. Emotionally, I really, really, really find myself torn because it is my favorite thing in the world to go to the movies.
I'm literally eating popcorn right now. It's a habit. I love it so much. The ritual of it. I like going on dates there. I like going to the matinee. I like taking my daughter there. It's just my favorite place in the world. I go there after auditions. I lived in New York City, I would go to the theater right after because it clears your mind.
So I miss it terribly, but I also understand the danger that we can put ourselves in as a society if we were to really open them up. Once the film is made, it's about the audience. You want the audience and right now you can't get the audience all together, but you could still have an audience. So I thank God that we have streaming service services, HBO Max, Netflix, et cetera, all of them. I don't want to name all of them, but all of them. Because it gives us access to a little bit of that nostalgia, the ritual of it.
Name one place you've never been, but have always wanted to go.
Well, first off, have you seen The Prince of Egypt? Come on. And also I love the pyramids and I love the Sphinx and Amun-Ra and those ideas. And it's so dope because it's Africa. It's Africa! And also, have you seen The Mummy? Come on. Those are my two reasons. I might watch The Mummy when we hang up the phone. That movie. Come on! Right?
Roberts: Downey Jr. or Pattinson?
I mean, are we humans or are we dancers? Robert Downey Jr. Come on.
What's your favorite project of his?
Oh God. Chaplin. He's beautiful in Chaplin. Hands down, one of the best performances I've ever seen.
What is your favorite bagel?
Plain bagel. It's got to be Lower East Side though. Lower East Side plain bagel or New Haven, Connecticut. Plain bagel, extra toasted, hella butter. And then peach jam on top of it. Yeah. That's my favorite. That was my breakfast all through Yale.
When was the last time you cried?
Oh, two days ago. A woman told me she was going to come visit and she didn't.
Describe your first kiss.
My first kiss was fourth grade, girl named Krista West. We're walking out to the black top, and I throw my arm around her. I kiss her on the cheek. And I do that the day after I saw The Sandlot for the first time and the guy kisses a girl in the pool, kisses the lifeguard. And I said, "I'm kissing Krista tomorrow. I'm going to kiss her.” And I kissed her.
Who is your celebrity crush?
What would you say to her if you met her?
I love you, Proud Mary. That's what I would say.
Lovecraft Country premieres August 16 on HBO.
Photographs by Stammtisch.604. Styling by Jonathan Majors. Production by Kelly Chiello.
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