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Jonathan Majors’ accomplishments are even more impressive when you consider that he graduated Yale School of Drama just six years ago.
On Nov. 23, the actor returns to the big screen as Korean War hero Jesse L. Brown in J.D. Dillard’s Devotion. Majors’ performance as Brown chronicles his achievements as the first African-American naval aviator, as well as his heroics in the “Forgotten War.” The film features one of Majors’ most remarkable scenes to date, as he performs Jesse’s preflight ritual of reciting every terrible remark that’s ever been said to him. As one can imagine, the scene had quite an emotional impact on Majors.
“I just needed to stay out of the way and let Jesse’s story come out. I needed to let my ancestors’ story come out and anybody else who felt marginalized and put down to that degree,” Majors tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And when we cut … it wasn’t shutting off. So I got down on all fours and I just let the rest of it come out. I don’t know how it happened, really, but I’m very grateful to Jesse that he came through in that way.”
In March 2023, Majors will also be starring alongside Michael B. Jordan in Creed III. He plays Damian “Dame” Anderson, a childhood friend of Adonis Creed who arrives on the scene after a long stint in prison. The film also marked Jordan’s directorial debut, which made things quite interesting during his boxing scenes with Majors.
“It was like a sick dream,” Majors says with a laugh. “There were moments where I was like, ‘Did Mike hit me, or did Adonis hit me? I’m not sure. And did I hit Mike, or did I hit my director?’ Michael and I were fast friends, and then we became actual brothers.”
Majors credits much of his success to the confidence he received while working with Christian Bale and Scott Cooper on the set of 2017’s Hostiles. At the time, Cooper actually predicted to him that he’d be a lead actor in no time, and the writer-director made sure to remind Majors of his foresight at a recent event. Overall, Majors still believes that working with Bale and Cooper is his finest moment so far.
“Truth be told, to this moment, that’s probably the biggest moment in my career. He’s Christian Bale. He doesn’t have to be nice. He doesn’t have to be generous,” Majors recalls. “But in our scenes together, I saw that he was actually being vulnerable. He was really coming out and giving me his talent, and I was giving him my talent. [Bale and Cooper] really gave me a lot of fuel.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Majors also discusses why he had to keep Devotion co-star Glen Powell at arm’s length during filming, before explaining the ultimate selling point of playing Kang in the MCU.
Jonathan Majors, congratulations on a beautiful film.
Wow, I appreciate that. Thank you.
They call it the Forgotten War for a reason, but regrettably, I knew virtually nothing about Jesse Brown. Were you in a similar spot?
Well, I did have the pleasure of doing some research on the Korean War, maybe three years prior to reading Devotion for the first time. But it was work that brought me there as I was playing a character named Atticus Freeman on Lovecraft Country, who was a Korean War veteran. He was in the Army, and so I did read about [the Battle of Chosin Reservoir] and the [38th Parallel]. So all of these things were in my lexicon by the time I got to Devotion, however, I did not know the story of Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown. I didn’t know that. I wasn’t quite familiar with the Navy’s purview in the Korean War, so that was new for me.
When did you feel it in your bones that you needed to play Jesse?
I was reading [the script] on a plane of all places, and the moment that struck me first was probably the landing test where he has to land the Corsair. And just the way it was articulated in the script — the try and the fail, and the try again — it got me on the page. I was like, “Come on, man!” My blood started pumping, and I was like, “You can do this!” So I felt the odds against him. I felt that he was a man going upstream, but I knew that he could do it. And I knew he knew he could do it. That type of self-possession and that type of drive and grit really inspired me. I went, “Okay, I want to feel that. I want to give that to people.” So just in reading that moment, I was inspired, but there were many moments.
The bathroom mirror scene is a showstopper as Jesse, in order to ready himself for flight, repeats all of the appalling things that have been said to him over the years. Can you even begin to describe that day for you?
It was quiet. Something happens when you are in it. I woke up that morning, and of course, I knew it was coming. I saw the schedule weeks before in prep. It wasn’t much dialogue, so it’s not like you’re running lines. You’re not doing text work. And so it was very quiet that morning. I remember I got up and walked my dogs. I was in Savannah, and then I got in my car and drove to set. And I just kept listening to this song over and over again, and I just tried to keep my body as relaxed as possible.
I also thought about my grandfather a great deal, because he was a Black man in the Korean War. I thought about Jesse, and I thought about everything the book [Adam Makos’ Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice] said that he had experienced. I thought about where he came from, and ultimately, I just felt my body become so active. I was trying to be quiet and calm and cool; relaxation is key. So I just tried to see what he wanted to say and what this felt like for him. It’s something he’d done since he was a boy, and I thought, “Man, what a brain, what a heart, to come up with this ritual.”
And when we got there on the day, the set was still and quiet, and so that energy followed me. I was just pacing, breathing, pacing, breathing. J.D. [Dillard] then very gently walked up to me and said, “Okay, you ready?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go.” So it was a very quiet set, and this was after the rehearsal, so I know how the camera and everything is going to work. And J.D. said action very gently, thank God. So I walked out of the stall, and what comes out of my mouth, first take, is a completely improvised version of what the text was. And then I felt my body get hot. It was happening. That thing that actors really want to happen and pray will happen was happening. And from that moment on, it didn’t turn off between action and cut. It didn’t turn off.
So we’d finish, and then I would go back into the stall or to the other side of the room. And I would just kind of hold myself and rock back and forth, because I knew I didn’t want to fuck it up at that point. Because whatever was happening, was happening, and I just needed to stay out of the way and let Jesse’s story come out. I needed to let my ancestors’ story come out and anybody else who felt marginalized and put down to that degree. J.D. and [DP] Erik Messerschmidt and the rest of the crew really made room for that, and so we did it. We did it four times, and that was that.
And when it was done, when we cut, I went to the back room, and as I said, it wasn’t shutting off. So I got down on all fours and I just let the rest of it come out. At the end of the scene, he cleans himself up and goes, but I didn’t have anything to go off to and put that energy into. And so I did have to purge it at the end. I don’t know how it happened, really, but I’m very grateful to Jesse that he came through in that way.
You probably don’t compare your difficult scenes, but how does that scene stack up to Mont’s one-man play in The Last Black Man in San Francisco?
They are different, but funnily enough, there is a pattern. Right behind the stage where we were shooting [the one-man play], there was a dark room, and this may have been the first time I said to myself, “This is where you break. There’s no option here. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to break. That’s what this moment deserves. This is what Mont deserves. This is what Jimmy Fails deserves. You have to do that now. This is not about you. This is about millions and millions of people. And at the same time, it’s about one person, Jimmy Fails. If you save his life, you save a million.” So I remember saying that to myself, and boom, we did it.
That’s different because there’s a lot more language. It’s a bit more physicality in a way, but I think it lives in the same place, in the instrument. But what it has in common is that you’re doing it, essentially, for one other person. And through that one person, there is faith and understanding that it will reach the masses if you can just get it truthful enough to connect to that one person. In that case, it was Jimmy Fails. In this case, it was Jesse trying to speak to a weaker Jesse, a scared Jesse, and get himself in the air.
Jesse is willing to break the rules as needed, but he refuses to be provoked by others into throwing the first punch. What did you make of his risk-taking versus restraint?
That’s probably the biggest lesson. I mean, it’s in the title of the film. He was devoted to being a great father, a great husband and a great naval aviator. Before he was a father, before he had met Daisy [Christina Jackson], he had this aspiration. He had this desire, this drive, for flight, and then Daisy became an integral part of his life. Pam came in the same way, and they allowed him to continue his drive. Daisy says, “You’re the only person I know who belongs in the sky.” So I think he understood that by any means necessary, he would get himself in the sky. That’s where he belonged. That’s where he was most happy. That was his happy place.
But I think he also knew that the world he was living in required that restraint. If he didn’t have that love and devotion to flight, he would’ve thrown some of those first punches. He would’ve quit. He would’ve rebuked and rebuffed some of the assault that was coming to him. But because he loved something greater than his ego and being put down by someone, he didn’t. I think he understood that those who were assailing him did not know him. That doesn’t mean it didn’t piss him off. Clearly, that mirror scene shows that he remembers everything and holds on to everything. But his love and devotion for his life’s mission allowed him to restrain himself.
Jesse had to feel Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) out before, quite literally, opening the door to a friendship with his wingman. Did you and Powell hit it off a bit more quickly?
I was worried about that around the first day, first week. I thought, “I hope this is not a problem.” When we first met in New York City, we went to a Russian Turkish bathhouse, and we sat. So the bromance was on, 110 percent, and he pitched me the film. I then fell in love with the story, and then I looked at him. And I saw him as Glen Powell, but I also saw him as Tom Hudner. And I thought, “This man is going to escort me and usher me and be my wingman in this film and in this life.” So I knew that, and we became buddies. We hung out. There’s a lot of love between us. We went to the bar, did our thing and had a great time.
But when we got to Savannah to shoot the film, the circumstances were different, and I was worried about it. I was like, “I hope Glen doesn’t think I’m an asshole now because I’m not really hanging out or being friendly with him.” I was already in the world, trying to get closer and closer to Jesse. And so Jesse operated a certain way, therefore, I operated a certain way. I wanted to tell the story as truthfully as possible, and it was that restraint that allowed us to actually arc our relationship and build the relationship.
And as you so astutely said, to open the door, that’s one of the biggest things that I tapped into with Jesse. Jesse is all about access, and Jesse didn’t offer access to him. In fact, he really held the door shut for a very long time until he literally asked him to come into his house, giving him access to his heart. He invited him into his heart. “This is my family. This is Daisy and Pam.” So that was the arc of it, and that’s the art of it as well. So Glen was 100 percent down, and he understood what was happening. And when we finally got to the end of the film, it made sense. The give and take. Access denied is a real thing, and we were on that seesaw for the 139 minutes of the picture.
Were you training for Creed III’s Damian while on Devotion?
No, I was moving into Kang [in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania]. We had just finished The Harder They Fall. We shot Loki. So we were moving towards Kang at that moment, and so I did begin to train for that. And then another movie came up that I ultimately didn’t do. That’s the interesting thing about this whole physical transformation. As I was shooting Kang, I was training for Damian. And as I was shooting Creed, I was training for a film called Magazine Dreams, which is about an actual bodybuilder. And so I was always in flux and shifting. Jesse was a pilot, so he needed to be pretty svelte, but strong, to be able to sit in the cockpit comfortably. I was taller than a lot of the guys, so I had to adjust that, and being wider as well was an issue. So I brought it in, and then towards the middle of it, I started bringing it out to prepare for the next guy.
I’ve heard some great things about your work in Creed III. So what was it like to trade punches with your director [Michael B. Jordan]?
It was like a sick dream. (Laughs.) I’m sure the stories will come out as we go, but there were moments where I was like, “Did Mike hit me, or did Adonis hit me? I’m not sure. And did I hit Mike, or did I hit my director?” That was probably the most fun, a different type of fun. You’re there with your brother. Michael and I were fast friends, and then we became actual brothers. I just love him. He knows it. I love him so much. I love you so much, Mike! He is my boy. I am his boy. And yeah, it was intense. You can only strike somebody like that or go after somebody like that if you’ve got a deep amount of respect and love for him. But when a director gives you a note that you don’t really understand, you can give it right back to him. You can make him pay for it. (Laughs.)
You first caught my attention during your bedridden scene with Christian Bale. To work with him and Scott Cooper on Hostiles, was that a pretty big deal for you at the time?
Truth be told, to this moment, that’s probably the biggest moment in my career. I saw Scott at the AMPAS Museum Gala, and he said to me, “I told you, I told you.” Once, when dailies came in, I remember him saying to me in passing, “You’re going to be number one soon. You’re going to be number one on the call sheet.” And from an artist and auteur like Scott, you go, “Oh cool!” I didn’t even know what a call sheet was four months prior.
And then the respect that [Christian Bale] showed me … He’s Christian Bale. He doesn’t have to be nice. He doesn’t have to be generous. But in our scenes together, I saw that he was actually being vulnerable. He was really coming out and giving me his talent, and I was giving him my talent. And we were creating something together; it was a real collaboration. You could have taken that in a two shot.
It was actually incredible. Scott would come in and give new lines, and we would just move through it. And then ultimately, he let me improv some things. Who gets to do that with such a director? So it put a lot of confidence in me to know that I had the support of one of my heroes in Christian Bale and now, one of my mentors in Scott Cooper. I watch everything he does and listen to everything he says. Those guys really gave me a lot of fuel.
You graduated Yale School of Drama just six years ago, and now there’s an Avengers movie in the works that’s named after your character [Avengers: The Kang Dynasty]. Did Kang appeal to you because you wouldn’t have to play the same character each time? Was that the ultimate selling point?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s what’s on the page. That’s what the IP says. I was cool, very cool. Kang just lives in his own world in the MCU. No spoilers here, but there’s so many variants of him. And with the powers that are the MCU, that intelligentsia and that brain trust there, they’re just really working to use the IP to its best ability, and it’s extremely humbling that they picked me to step into that. So I’m honored to do it, and I’m always excited to see what we’re doing.
And yes, six years after Yale and ten years after North Carolina School of the Arts, my first drama school, it’s what you always hoped for as an actor. Kang is a career in itself. It’s either the cake itself or the cherry on top, I don’t know. But to play multiple versions, it’s just beautiful. It’s a workshop every day.
Well, it’s a real pleasure to watch you work. Congratulations again on Devotion and everything else.
Man, you broke my heart from the jump. I appreciate it.
Devotion opens Nov. 23 in theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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