The order came before he arrived — French fries and a glass of milk.
Jonathan Majors shortly after slides into a table in the back of the bar at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. On the table he places a small cup off to the side. In his backpack he has pens, a notebook he writes poetry in, a clown nose, the book he’s reading (James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and a speaker for music. He doesn’t go anywhere without Paulo Coelho’s “Warrior of the Light.”
Majors points to the cup. This one he’s had since Yale, where he attended the graduate acting program. It’s one of four he rotates, a symbol of his mother’s long-ago advice: “Don’t let anyone fill up your cup.” Those things in his backpack? Totems not unlike the lucky stones and sticks he used to gather as a kid, he says, “to keep my frequency where I want it to be.”
There’s much in Majors’ life right now buzzing at a high frequency. In the days prior to meeting a reporter, Majors had been at the megawatt premiere of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” He was courtside at the National Basketball Association Slam Dunk Contest, sitting near Spike Lee. After casting Majors in “Da 5 Bloods,” Lee took to calling him “Morehouse” for his character’s T-shirt. Now, Lee calls him “Big Time.”
“I woke up this morning and thought: I’m very exposed. Everything’s very exposed,” Majors says, “but there’s also a great deal of confidence because it’s like I’m ahead of it. It’s like I’m watching it in slow motion.”
To everyone else, Majors is moving very fast, indeed. After breaking through in 2019’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” the 33-year-old Majors has been steadily bulking up as an actor, expanding his formidable screen presence in “Devotion” and “The Harder They Fall."
However, 2023 is the year Majors turns heavyweight “Lovecraft Country,” which earned him an Emmy nomination.
Majors is the new movies-spanning villain of Marvel-dom: the time-traveling supervillain Kang the Conqueror. He is Michael B. Jordan’s friend-turned-foe in “Creed III,” which opens Friday in theaters, and in Elijah Bynum’s prize-winning Sundance entry “Magazine Dreams,” Majors — in a performance that could well earn him an Academy Award nomination next year — is an amateur bodybuilder warped by childhood trauma.
Majors’ ascendance, to anyone who’s been watching, is not even a little surprising. The Texas son of a pastor, a Yale School of Drama-trained theater actor, a published poet, a classical and soulful performer, Majors is in a weight class by himself. Uncommonly sensitive as an actor, lyrical and loquacious as a person, Majors, a profound admirer of Sidney Poitier, is a rare and potent combination of serious thespian, thirsted-after hunk and devoted artist, and he’s now stepping into, as Spike said, the big time. Global, magazine-cover fame is rapidly descending.
“Though I’ve not seen the boogeyman, I know it’s out there,” Majors says, smiling, “and I’ve been around to know it’s comin’. I won’t go down my rabbit hole of death, but it’s comin’, but you outrun it. You just stay out of the frame. I’ll stay out of the frame, make my work.”
For each role this year, Majors has physically transformed himself. A diet of six meals a day and intense workouts made him a muscular mass. Yet the eye-catching metamorphosis belies the steadfast interiority of Majors’ performances. Each character — a brawny but tender trio stretching from villain to antihero — is leaden with pain. The discomfort is what attracted him to the roles, especially Killian Maddox of “Magazine Dreams.”
“I was curious if I could actually do that. Not even do it. If I was brave enough to go there for myself,” Majors says. “To feel something that’s inside of all of us, that rage, that awkwardness, that constant heartbreak that I do carry. I can’t hide from it. I have a beautiful daughter. I have a beautiful life. But there’s something inside that’s extremely unsatisfied — extremely.”
Where Majors’ pain comes from and how it applies to his acting is something you can’t help watching him in “Magazine Dreams” (Searchlight Pictures will release it later this year) or in “Creed III,” in which he plays a man newly freed from prison after a long incarceration for a violent but justifiable crime.
Majors, who has a 9-year-old daughter, grew up poor. His family were at times briefly homeless. His father was absent for most of his life, but putting that rags-to-riches narrative — that frame — around his journey as an actor is something that doesn’t quite fit. Majors has no “insta-trauma,” he says, to fuel him.
“I have no moment in my life where I go: That’s what I pull from all the time. I was afraid of that in drama school. My dad just vanished when I was 9 years old,” Majors says. “Yeah, you’re working through that stuff, but I remember saying very clearly: What’s going to happen when I no longer have that pain? When that thought of my dad doesn’t break my heart? Because we grow up. At some point it won’t mist you. What are you going to do then?”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t still sometimes sound haunted. “How could the best father in the world leave me? How could that happen?” Majors said. “My dad was a great guy. I have no bad memories of that man. I actually have no bad memories of my father, just his absence.”
However, Majors’ focus is more outward.
“When you open up your life — any of us — to the suffering of what’s really happening, it gets deep,” he says, rattling off a list of everything from the history of slavery to the George Floyd movement to the heartache of raising a child. “All those things break your heart if you care, and I care a great deal. I don’t know the level to which other people care because I’m not in their skin, but I know the stakes are always extremely high for me. It’s always life or death.”
That, too, was Bynum’s experience working with Majors on “Magazine Dreams.” Their long talks, he says, weren’t therapy sessions. To Bynum, Majors is “a conduit for human empathy.”
“The intelligence that he has and the instincts he has an actor are one thing, and those are wonderful,” Bynum said, “but his understanding and feeling for people is really what separates him.”
“He’s a pretty singular individual and incredibly cerebral and has been that way before any sort of attention has come his way for being that way,” Bynum adds. He’s not concerned about what fame might do to Majors, but he is worried about his schedule. “Making another movie is going to be tough,” says Bynum, “because he’s locked up in Marvel Land for God knows how long.”
However, there aren’t too many in the MCU who are simultaneously publishing poetry. Majors has had two poems recently in The New Republic and is planning to publish a collection soon. In some of them, you can see reflections of Majors’ character work. In “On an Aeroplane” he writes, “It becomes clear to me/ How society converts a hero/ How the villain finds virtue.”
“Writing’s interesting because it’s the subconscious made clear,” Majors says. “You can examine it. What poems warn you not to do is explain it. Not explaining it and living in the ellipses, you get infinite understanding. Yeah, writing is an integral part to my existence but also to crafting characters.”
What’s clear is that Majors’ mind is always working. Even in the background right now, in between late-show appearances and premieres, part of his focus is on his next role in an adaptation of Walter Mosley’s “The Man in My Basement.” The building of a character, Majors says, is gentle. But it’s constant.
“I actually work very slow,” he says. “I just don’t stop working. I am always working. And my body knows when it’s go-time.”
All the other stuff ultimately has no bearing on where Majors’ head is at. To explain it, he goes back to a formative moment for him, when he realized he wanted to be in actor. It was watching his theater teacher in a Dallas regional production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” It struck Majors like a thunderclap how his teacher transformed with laser-like focus into someone else on stage.
“I thought: Holy smokes. I want to do that,” Majors said. “That’s where I’m at these days. I’m not shy, but I don’t really like to be bothered. I kind of stick to my stuff. I can be out and chatting and it doesn’t take away from what I’m going to do on screen. It makes no difference.”