Success, famously, does not happen overnight. Jonathan Majors’ success, though, certainly seems to have arrived at an accelerated rate.
So far in his relatively short career Majors has led a hit TV show, been in a Spike Lee movie, played the villain in one of this year’s biggest streaming successes, and been nominated for an Emmy and an Independent Spirit Award. Up next, he’s the leading man in an all-star western, the bad guy in a Marvel movie (and possibly many more to come) and Michael B. Jordan’s sparring partner in Creed 3.
All of this has happened in the last two years: when much of the global population was in lockdown, Majors was climbing his way onto the A-list two steps at a time. And he did it at such a speed that most of the world hasn’t even had time to learn his name, or even memorise his face. So, who the hell is Jonathan Majors?
The answer to that question? He’s probably the most exciting actor to come along this decade. Exciting not just because he’s very talented, which he is, but because he has the elusive quality that makes a movie star. We’re meeting to discuss Majors’ biggest film so far, The Harder They Fall. It’s a hugely enjoyable western with an almost entirely Black cast (it’s shockingly rare to see any Black actors in westerns, despite the fact it’s estimated that one-in-four cowboys in the 1800s was Black), with the ensemble including Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz.
They’re all far more famous than Majors, but he is the lead – and he looks like he’s been doing it forever. He plays Nat Love, who watched his parents being murdered when he was a child and, now a grown man, is still hunting down the guy who killed them (Elba). Whether riding a horse and toting guns, facing down Elba or doing some Mr & Mrs Smith-style action-teaming with love-interest Beetz, Majors looks every inch the movie star. Watching him in this film conjures the same feeling as watching Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station or Tom Holland in The Impossible: you can just tell this person will be around for a long time.
This star presence is evident in person, too. We’re meeting in a London hotel just before The Harder They Fall opens the London Film Festival. Without wishing to bore you with behind-the-scenes details of press junkets, meeting in person is now unusual. For the past 18 months interviews have taken place over video call, where everyone can keep their germs to themselves. Now, though, there’s an understandable air of caution: everyone is masked, and we’ve been vaccinated, tested, thoroughly disinfected, de-loused and shrink-wrapped before being allowed near anyone. Among the mild jitteriness, though, Majors is glacial cool. Tall and built like the proverbial brick outhouse, he greets us with an outstretched hand, social distancing be damned. He speaks calmly and slowly, giving thoughtful answers rather than practised soundbites. He doesn’t seem remotely intimidated by his first big moment as a leading man.
“Acting gave me a release valve”
Nerves don’t seem to be a part of Majors’ emotional make-up. He says he didn’t really feel any anxiety about being the frontman on The Harder They Fall despite being the least experienced. “The truth is, I thought about it very little,” he says in an accent which still has a big dash of his Texas upbringing, albeit with the vowels rounded off. He’s never really been one to feel intimidated by people simply because he’s told he should be. “I have an issue with authority, which means I have very little respect for name,” he says. “You’ve got to show and prove.” In other words, he came to the project viewing everyone as equals, from top-billed to lowest. “What you’ve done, I honour as an artist. I see the experience. Regina King? Idris Elba? Oh my god, huge fan of their work, but I didn’t know them up to this point.”
Besides, this is not the first time he’s had to step up to be the leader despite having the least amount of experience. Majors’ career kicked off when he had a supporting role in the indie hit The Last Black Man In San Francisco, for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. But the two projects that prepared him for leading man status came in 2020. First, he was in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which put him toe-to-toe with actors, including Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters, who have been acting for longer than he’s been alive. Then he was the lead role in FX’s popular but surprisingly short-lived series Lovecraft Country, in which he played a young man searching for his father in a part of America infested with supernatural creatures. The two projects were baptisms of fire, and Majors came through without a single scorch mark.
“Lovecraft Country, I was the lead and the new guy,” he says. “All these other people had done hundreds of things. I’d never even been on TV! I was to lead the show. So that experience, along with working with all veterans in Da 5 Bloods, allowed me not to lose my mind and be able to play on that level.”
Though his ascent has happened quickly, Majors came to acting relatively late. He’s just turned 32, which is prime leading man age but late to be a newcomer. He’s been acting for half his life, just not professionally. Initially, acting was simply a way to get himself off a path which seemed likely to end in jail.
Born in California, Majors grew up in Texas. For most of his childhood he was raised by just his mother after his father left without much explanation. As a teenager, Majors went off the rails: his family didn’t have much money and he struggled with seeing other kids enjoying things he couldn’t have. He was arrested for shoplifting and suspended from school for fighting. Discovering acting at 14, however, set him on a better path.
“Acting gave me a release valve,” he says. “Acting should not feel safe… but there is security… I can lean all the way into [it] and have a sense of security I don’t have in the world.” All the things that wound him up and pushed him to react violently could be siphoned off in theatre class. “It’s that sense of insecurity that gets hit when someone talks about my poverty as a kid, and it hits me and I want to cry. But instead I get mad and fight. Or someone talks about how big my nose is – it actually makes me mad now! It hurts… in acting, you can come across that and completely unload, and you’re secure. They’re not going to hit you, the cops aren’t going to show up, they’re not going to suspend you from school. Once you’ve done it, you’ve changed.”
“I wouldn’t want to cross Nat Love”
His ingrained problem with authority could have damned him, but he turned it round to become a positive. All those authority figures – teachers, police – who thought he was destined for nothing: he was going to prove them wrong. “They’d already signed me up for jail and this and that, and all the bullshit,” he says. “They’re already looking for that. Fuck that. I’m going to go in this direction and try to make my way.”
And he did. The reason Majors started professional acting quite late was not lack of opportunity, but the many years spent training. He didn’t finish drama school until he was 26, having already completed a college degree and moved to New York for a year, where he became a father at the age of 23. “So [my acting career] couldn’t have happened [earlier],” he says, “but also it wouldn’t have happened, because it’s all those trials and tribulations and learning moments of school that you need.”
Tribulation really shows in Majors’ work. One of the things that’s interesting about him is that he’s playing action heroes, but very emotional ones – that shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. His character in Lovecraft Country, Tic, is a bookish nerd who’s frequently terrified. In The Harder They Fall there’s a scene where Nat cries heavily, snot and all, when he learns hard news about his past. When was the last time you saw an action hero cry?
“I think the more action someone takes, the more feeling they have,” says Majors. “That’s what feelings do, right? You get angry or you get sad and your body starts to push adrenaline through you to get something done. The amount of love it takes, the amount of fear it takes, to jump on a horse and not think about anything but [getting to the woman he loves]…. we’ve got to see that. Men deserve that. We are evolving.” There are men who might disagree, but Majors could not care less. “‘Why’s he crying? Be a man!’ He is a man. I wouldn’t want to cross Nat Love.”
If 2020 and 2021 have been big for Majors, they are probably just the warm-up. He already has huge projects set for 2022 and 2023. As soon as he leaves London, Majors begins a six-week fight camp to prepare to play second-lead in Creed 3. The latest in the hugely successful Rocky spin-off franchise will see its star, Michael B. Jordan, make his directing debut. Jordan and Majors have already spoken at length about taking the film in a new direction. Previous films have seen Creed fighting enemies in the ring, but Majors says this one is different as he is not simply playing a villain. “Michael is really trying to do something different with this Creed,” he says. “Something that’s a bit more intimate. With intimacy comes complexity. It’s he and I. It’s a story about these two men trying to work something out, and it’s very different from the others.”
The biggest project of his career so far, however, comes in February 2023 – and it’s so big that he’s already been filming it for most of this year and won’t finish until 2022. If you watched the Disney+ series Loki you’ll remember Majors from the final episode, in which he was revealed as He Who Remains. To explain his character fully would be very confusing – Loki was quite confusing – but essentially He Who Remains is a man who exists in infinite variants in infinite universes. He and all his variants – some good, some evil – long ago discovered the existence of other universes, and some of them started a multiverse war. He Who Remains is the variant who effectively keeps things in line, ensuring that all those universes don’t cross over too much and cause cataclysmic chaos.
Unfortunately – spoiler – he’s killed at the end of Loki, leaving all of the universes free to muddle together. That means that in Marvel movies for the foreseeable future anything could happen: alternative versions of known characters can show up, while the dead can effectively be resurrected from another universe. Heard the rumour that ex-Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield could be in the next Spider-Man? That’s the kind of thing the multiverse can do. And that’s all down to Majors’ character – or rather, characters. Look, we said it was confusing.
Majors will also appear in 2023’s Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania in which he’ll play Kang The Conqueror, a variant. Kang is a time-hopping megalomaniac who can exist as multiple entities at once, and has the ultimate aim of ruling over all of time – and he’s so powerful he could do it. Talking about the role is the first time Majors seems careful about what he’s saying. His participation in Creed 3 hasn’t even been officially announced when we meet, but he’s happy to discuss it. Kang? Not so much. “I can only say that we start with He Who Remains and we move to Kang,” he says, suddenly very serious. “The variant conversation is very interesting for an actor, on how to play [it] and what does [the variant] know? They aren’t the same guy – it’s a variant of the human being we met in Loki.”
He won’t confirm or deny, but it’s rumoured that Kang, or variants thereof, could be part of many of the films in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He may be this phase’s equivalent of Thanos, which could keep him in superhero movies for a decade. Majors says he has “no idea” what’s happening elsewhere in the MCU currently. He compares joining the MCU to being in drama school, where you might be chosen to work across multiple projects depending on the desires of “the board… the group of people who are sitting up there looking at the world”. He explains: “You’re part of a huge ensemble: ‘We’re going to take this character, this character and this character and put them in this.’” He doesn’t know what he’ll be required for, but he’s up for the journey. “It can be quite freeing or maddening, depending on how you look at it. If you want control you’re not going to get it,” he laughs. “You’re signing up for a ride. And I’m on it. And that’s all right.”
No matter how many Marvel films he’s set for, there’s no question that you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of Jonathan Majors over the coming years. It seems he’s barely scratched the surface of what he can do as an actor and a movie star. Who the hell is Jonathan Majors? In the very near future, that’s going to sound like a really stupid question.
The Harder They Fall will be available on Netflix on November 3, and is in select UK cinemas now