'Last Black Man in San Francisco' Star Talks Depicting Black Masculinity in New Ways Onscreen
Breakout Jonathan Majors discusses his 'offbeat' character Montgomery and how he fell in love with acting as an emotional teen at an alternative school.
Before Jonathan Majors graduated from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in acting in 2016, he was already on set shooting his first big job: ABC's Gus Van Sant LGBTQ miniseries When We Rise. Since then he's had a career any young actor would die for: He's shot eight features, including the Toronto Film Festival drama White Boy Rick and the forthcoming Chadwick Boseman starrer from Spike Lee, Da Five Bloods. Earlier this year he landed the lead role in the HBO drama series Lovecraft Country, created by Jordan Peele and Misha Green, and he will soon start work on Aaron Sorkin's next film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, in the role of Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale.
Majors' latest film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, earned critical acclaim after its debut at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where the film's director, Joe Talbot, nabbed a special jury prize and a directing award. In a delicate and playful drama that takes on the thorny issue of gentrification in a beloved American city, Majors plays the role of Montgomery, a playwright and devoted friend to lead character Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) as he attempts to reclaim a Victorian home in his old neighborhood. Majors delivers a nuanced, thoughtful performance alongside a talented ensemble cast that includes Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris, Martin) and Rob Morgan (Mudbound).
In advance of the June 6 bow of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Majors about depicting black masculinity in new ways onscreen, what it was like acting opposite Danny Glover and how playing the role of Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio as an emotional teen made him fall in love with acting.
You've basically been working on back-to-back projects since you got out of graduate school, so how's the transition been from Yale to being a working actor?
There really wasn't a transition. That's one of the cool things about going to an acting training program is that you are working on multiple roles at the same time. You're just going, going. I was blessed enough to leave the school and get right into to a very cool project where I learned a lot, very much like school. Then from there I landed in another project a month after wrapping the first project, and then in the middle of that I graduated. So it's kind of been nonstop.
You started acting as a teenager?
I grew up in Dallas. We have this thing in Texas called the UIL [University Interscholastic League] Competitions. After a bit of alternative school, I really got in a groove with the UIL speech and debate stuff, as well as acting.
You were in an alternative school?
Just for a beat. It was an in-school alternative bootcamp. My mom is a pastor, so I grew up listening to people speak. Then theater at 14 became the thing for me when I was in a one-act play. … Up until that point, I was just a kid with what I call occupational hazards. I'm the middle child. I was athletic. I had high emotions, was extremely sensitive and had a wiseass mouth.
That's a lethal combination.
(Laughs.) For a young black boy growing up in Texas, that's not a good look. You had to check that shit ASAP or learn to say somebody else's words and use your emotions to apply your circumstances to the circumstances of Mercutio, which was a role I played in high school. I grabbed my crotch onstage and … ended up in the principal's office, and the principal asked me about that moment in the play. The line [from Romeo and Juliet] was "Here's my fiddlestick. Here's that shall make you dance." That's the line. We all know what the fiddlestick is. Ultimately I transferred schools because of that, but I made my point.
So what was the experience that really changed your trajectory?
When I hit North Carolina School of the Arts [for college], things kind of opened up. The overall thing was "What is it to be a good actor; what is it to act?" That changed my hustle and focus. The biggest word of advice was from Gerald Freedman, who was the dean of the drama school at NCSA at the time. He said, "I'm not training you for the stage or film; we're training you to act."
Between University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Yale, you went to New York City on your own, I presume to test the waters of being an actor?
Yes, I came out of school at 22. I got an agent at a showcase, and I just went after it. I did the hustle like everybody else. I tried to become a personal trainer, bartending. I got regional work doing August Wilson plays. Then I met Ruben Santiago-Hudson who, to this day, is my artistic godfather and mentor. He really took me in, so I not only got to continue training, but also went to auditions.
Also during that time, I had a daughter. My daughter was three months old when I started at Yale. It was a big year. I was testing the world as well as my craft and my training.
In The Last Black Man in San Francisco, you play the character Montgomery, the best friend of the main character, Jimmie. Tell us about Montgomery and what drew you to him.
When I first met the character who would eventually become Montgomery [originally his name was Prentice], that character was pure of heart — not innocent but very pure, forward, independent. What attracted me was what I saw to be his uniqueness and also the fact that he was a subculture of a subculture. Here he is a black man, which is already a marginalized group, but then he's not the mainstream black guy. He's not even offbeat mainstream black guy; he's the offbeat, offbeat, offbeat black guy.
How did you go about creating your character?
That was an interesting process. The idea of changing Prentice to Montgomery came actually in a bit of good artistic conflict. Prentice is an actual guy [a classmate of Jimmie's] so I say, "Man, you know we should just have Prentice play it" because we were trying to be true to this idea of what Joey [Talbot], Rob [Richert, co-writer] and Jimmie had written. I said, "Go get me the actual Prentice. Let us live together and spend time together, and I will give you him. Otherwise we really have to make some shifts."
The next day Joey was like, "I want you to do your work. I want this to be your character." He gives me that permission to where I'm like, "OK, now we can really begin to craft it, all of us." So from there I could open up the script a little bit more, open up myself a little bit more and use more of my toolbox, more of my experiences. There are entire scenes in the film that are complete improv.
The scene where Mont goes across the street and talks to the guys standing around. That was originally a magic trick scene. Joey pulls me aside and makes suggestions, and I take the ball and I run with it. He just lets me loose, and I just play it. … It was really just playing and playing. Then we really could establish a very true friendship between Montgomery and Jimmie. The essence of that friendship is actually more toward our director and our lead actor.
What's your take on Jimmie and Montgomery's friendship?
Jimmie and I lived together while we were shooting the film, and we were pretty much inseparable. We had our meals together. We worked on the script together. We were together all the time. By the time we got to set it was like, "That's my boy. We're brothers." That's a gift that Joey gave us too because he was adamant that me and Jimmie spend as much time together as possible. I saw the option to bring out a type of friendship that exists within the black community, within black masculinity, that we don't necessarily show. These guys put themselves on the line for each other. They are soulmates in a way. It's two black men that are experiencing a deep love, appreciation and protection for the other person. They complete each other. That's why the end of the film is so cathartic. You want a friend like that. We all want a friend like that.
That's the heart of what is so moving to me about the film. It's powerful to see a platonic soulmate relationship between two black men because I've never seen that on film before.
That is what will inspire change because it doesn't have anything to do with challenging their manhood. When we show how intimate Jimmie and Montgomery are, we are actually amplifying that they are human. These men are extremely vulnerable with each other. They do extraordinary things because of the other man. That is a gift.
I have a 6-year-old daughter. I can't wait for her to see this down the line. I have a 13-year-old cousin who needs to see a film like this, to know that I can love my brother and say, "I love you man. I got your back" or like in the film when Mont says to Jimmie, "I'm with you, bruh." We as a people we need that. We need to hear that.
There's a terrific ensemble cast in the movie — Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Rob Morgan, Mike Epps. What was it like on set?
Everybody brought their superpowers. It was the most supportive group of individuals. No one tried to say, "You know I'm big dog." There was none of that. Everyone entered with a gentle, vulnerable, open spirit.
Rob Morgan was beautiful. Tichina was funny and brought so much gravitas and mother energy. Danny Glover was the most vulnerable, sensitive, artistic man I've ever met in that capacity. Immediate intimacy. He just said yes.
How do you feel about San Francisco now, having done The Last Black Man in San Francisco? Your first big job was partially shot in San Francisco, and you're soon going to be playing Bobby Seale, who is from Oakland. Do you feel a connection to the Bay Area?
Montgomery is San Francisco. I got my spots. I know where I like to go, where I don't like to go. In the movie, Jimmie says, "You can't hate San Francisco, unless you love San Francisco." I think after this movie, there are things I hate about San Francisco and I can only say that because I love San Francisco. I love it. I am very excited to get back.
What are you hoping people get from the film?
It's important sometimes not to explain the poem. I just want to let people see it and digest it and take from it what they take from it. I think there's a feast to be able to take from it.