'Last Black Man in San Francisco': Jonathan Majors on His Breakout Role and How Acting Served as a Guiding Light

THR - Jonathan Majors - Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet - H 2019
Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet

The actor also talks about his upcoming HBO series 'Lovecraft Country' and his unconventional upbringing: "Institutions are tough for me. Hollywood is tough for me."

The more Jonathan Majors talks about meeting Jimmie Fails, his enigmatic co-star in A24's The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the more he comes to realize they were probably fated to meet.

"There were deep things that were going on in his life that we would just sit and have breakfast and talk about," Majors, 30, tells THR. "Things that I've experienced, what it is to be young, gifted and black — or in my case, young, kind of gifted and black — issues [of] trying to be a young man in the world. He's my buddy, he's my best friend."

That bond spilled over into the nostalgic, poetic film centered on the friendship of two young black men in a fast-gentrifying San Francisco. Majors plays the quiet, quirky Montgomery Allen, an artist and playwright living with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover) and capturing the world around him in his work. Fails' character, also named Jimmie Fails in the movie, crashes with Mont and his grandfather while trying to reclaim a classic Victorian house that his own grandfather built in a now upscale San Francisco neighborhood.

Majors rewinds to when he first met Fails and the film's director, Joe Talbot, after flying from New York to San Francisco to audition in 2018. He was tired from the journey, his credit card had stopped working for some reason and he was "in a very ragged place" when he met the two men. "Joey was so gentle and calming, and then I saw Jimmie — and Jimmie just had a quality about him," Majors recalls. "He's sitting there with his hair out and in his hoodie, looking hella San Franciscan. We didn't really look at each other much, we kept communicating through Joey."

But after sharing a few laughs, Majors and Fails formed a fast friendship. When Majors landed the role in the film, he flew back to San Francisco and spent days walking around with Fails, "just two brothers walking down the street talking about girls, talking about art, talking about education." Majors bought books for Fails, including Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting, a book of poetry titled Citizen and a book about gangsters that Fails wanted, as well as a journal and pen. "I said, 'That's what you're going to need to get this journey down.' And he just threw them into his backpack, and I was like, 'You're just going to throw them into your backpack?' And he was like, 'Thanks, bro!' "

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is expanded from Fails and Talbot's short Sundance film American Paradise, and is based on Fails' own surreal upbringing in San Francisco. Majors' character was initially named Prentice and was based on Fails' real friend from school. But when Majors asked to meet with Prentice so that he could essentially imitate him for the role, Talbot and Fails decided he should do his own thing. Majors then asked for the character to be renamed Montgomery. "From then on, everything opened up," he says.

Majors' path to acting is a straight line within an unconventional upbringing. Born in Lompoc, California, to Texan parents, Majors spent his early years growing up with his older sister, Monica, and younger brother, Cameron, on the Vandenberg military base, where his father was in the Air Force. And then his world turned upside down.

"Our father, who loved us dearly, just kind of disappeared one day," Majors says. "And he resurfaced 17 years later." His mother moved him and his siblings back to Dallas, and raised them while putting herself through divinity school (she is now a pastor). Majors describes their life as "very much like the one we find Mont and Jimmie in."

"Me and my brother used to play a game where we used to see a Cadillac DeVille drive by and we would run into a ditch and hide, as to not get shot up. The other game we would play: Me and my friends would be walking around and we'd scream 'Cops!' and you run around and jump over the nearest fence to get away from the cops. That was the day-to-day. It was crazy, it was fun, but it was also a scary environment."

Majors says his mother was "really good at keeping us safe," and it was within this safety that he started to act out and misbehave in his teens. Growing up in a working-class household with affluent neighbors, Majors says he struggled with seeing kids around him getting opportunities that weren't available to him. "I found myself getting into fights, being bullied, and then retaliating," Majors says. A series of misfortunes followed: Majors was caught shoplifting and had to do community service; he got into a physical altercation at school that led to in-school suspension; shortly after, he was thrown out of his home and lived in his car (which he fondly remembers as an "Oldsmobile called Ariel") while working two restaurant jobs. "The one thing that was consistent from the age of 14 to that time was that I was in the theater," Majors says. He was driven by "that emotionality, that impulsivity, that need to connect," which he found in the safe space of the theater. "I just wanted to be in the world and be a part of it. Institutions are tough for me. Hollywood is tough for me."

Ultimately, theater allowed him to find his purpose. He went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and then to Yale School of Drama (he says he's wearing a Yale cap while speaking to THR). "There's no such thing as a classically trained actor," Majors explains. "It just means that you have the tools, it means you've put in the time; there is no cookie cutter to it. Some of us for a fact have had adventurous lives pre-Yale or before making a cool film."

As Majors speaks to THR, he's sitting in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, where he's filming HBO's upcoming series Lovecraft Country, with Misha Green as showrunner and Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams serving as executive producers. Majors plays Atticus Black, a young man traversing the Jim Crow South in the 1950s in search of his missing father.

"The hope with Atticus is to bring elements of surprise to him. He's a hero, he's also a bibliophile, he reads books, he loves pulp fiction stories, he's a soldier, he's also near-sighted, he's a killer, he's done things in war as soldiers must — he's an amalgamation of all these things," Majors says. "To bring a full-blooded human being that is complex and honest and, in some ways, unseen — to bring the unseen to the screen — that's the ticket right there."

As a young black actor, Majors says he often fields questions in interviews about diversity in Hollywood. To him, the issue is simple: "I want diversity to have to do with those who are diverse, not just those who hire [people] who are diverse."

"Misha Green, as the showrunner of [Lovecraft Country], humbly casting myself as the lead of this show — a young black man from Texas who doesn't look how Hollywood normally looks, who doesn't speak like Hollywood does — that's diversity," Majors says.

Representation, he explains, lies in playing a truly diverse array of black men onscreen; he wrapped Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods earlier this year after spending a couple of months shooting in Thailand and Vietnam, and will next film the Jay-Z-produced revenge drama The Harder They Fall for Netflix.

It was Fails who was the first to embrace Majors when he learned he would be the lead in Lovecraft Country. "I just cried and he held me. I was on the phone with my mom and he was right by my side saying, 'Hell yeah, bro. Hell yeah, bro!' " Majors reminisces. "And then he took me to an arcade bar where we had drinks. I'm not a heavy drinker, but I think I had a gin and tonic. It was trash, but it was amazing."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.