He started acting because of a fight in middle school; he had a bunch of big emotions and a blocked vent. Now, a decade and a half later, in his first leading role, Majors is playing the kind of hero his younger self (and the boys he used to “cut up with”) could’ve used. Someone who’s learned how to harness his hard-earned rage for good.
“As a boy, I was warring with my community. I was warring with myself,” says Majors, who stars in HBO’s new sci-fi drama “Lovecraft Country,” a “Twilight Zone”-y road trip through the real and imagined horrors of the Jim Crow South and the South Side of 1950s Chicago.
Majors plays Atticus Freeman, a Korean War veteran returning “home” to a hostile America.
“The soldier [in me] was very real,” the actor recalled of his youth, “and now at times the soldier is still there. But I began to love my community, love myself, love where I come from. And then the fight’s different: You’re now fighting for them.” But the quest from Point A to Point B and back for Atticus — and Majors himself — is never free of potholes.
There are vengeful ghosts and good old boys waiting for Atticus, who has returned to Chicago to save the father who deserted him and the community that never understood him. He is the prodigal son, soon-to-be patriarch and political protester all in one.
“This role, presented to the world with dignity and honor and sincerity, will alter the hero’s narrative in general,” he says. “Heroes now can come in any shape and form. Of course there can be a Black James Bond, a female James Bond. Atticus Freeman exists. We have taken something that is so iconically White and male and pushed the scope.”
Still, “Lovecraft Country” creator Misha Green says producers didn’t have Majors specifically in mind for the lead role at first. But when he walked in the door to audition, “he was clearly our Atticus.” The actor got the call that he was in two days before he started shooting “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
“Jonathan has this presence that’s vulnerable yet ferocious at the same time,” Green says, pointing to Major’s gift of embodying “all the little details and contradictions that make us human.”
Courtney B. Vance, who stars opposite Majors in “Lovecraft Country,” put it this way: “He has that look. I don’t know what else to call it. A face that you could put any young Black man on to.”
Vance plays Atticus’s Uncle George, the uncle everyone wishes they had — the one who sees the good parts your own parents don’t.
“I am so proud of him. He is like my son,” says Vance of Majors. “I see in him a younger version of me because I know the journey, and it is one where he must be diligent and vigilant to stay on this path. He will be working nonstop for the rest of his life.”
For anyone following Majors's stellar work in the past year alone, the role of Atticus is both culmination and coronation. In each of his three most recent roles, Majors codifies the Black male experience in America as the forgotten son who is still fighting to be seen.
In “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — 2019’s ode to the Bay Area and the actor’s most lauded role to date — Majors plays Montgomery Allen, an impossibly talented street Shakespeare aggressively documenting the boys on the corner for a one-man play that is a masterpiece to watch on-screen and a master class in acting.
“He really wanted to feel the people around him because in doing that, he would understand them,” Majors says of “Mont,” referring to the character like an old friend. “He has the emotional aptitude to realize if you’re understood, then I’m understood. For me, growing up, that was the place I had the most discomfort. I felt so misunderstood.”
The film’s director, Joe Talbot, called Majors “a quiet observer and a confident philosopher. He feels somehow young and old all at once.” It was Majors who first coined the script as “quiet,” according to Talbot, who used the actor’s description as “a guiding light for how we all approached the material, and each other.”
“He was also perhaps the only actor who came in for Montgomery that immediately understood the character. He didn’t reach for the low-hanging fruit to make him into a prototypical nerd or goofball. He understood Montgomery was more than that — he was an eccentric empath,” Talbot says.
If in “Last Black Man,” Majors was grappling with the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself,” then in his next big project, Spike Lee’s Vietnam reunion drama “Da 5 Bloods,” the Yale-trained actor delved into the logical next step of self-help-ism: “know thy father.”
David, the character Major plays in the film, is the only actual young blood in the group, made up of a cadre of veteran Black actors. David follows his father — a MAGA hat-wearing Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, played by Delroy Lindo — to Saigon, the root of it all.
“A son has to know his father because, irregardless of what the relationship is, you will ultimately become them,” Majors says. “There is a deep satisfaction that comes when you know them.”
Being misunderstood, a son finding his father and a soldier seeking his place in America: Those themes, those men, have all shown up in Majors’s own life.
“With all my characters I try to track what it is they’re getting out of the story and what it is I need,” Majors says. “Lovecraft’s” Atticus, in particular — gifted, earnest and angry — is all too familiar for the young actor on the cusp of becoming.
So, the beginning.
Our hero starts his journey in Texas, the middle son. His mother is a pastor. His father is in and out. Young Majors is a voracious reader who's bursting with emotions — rage, heartbreak, "deep, deep joy" — that he doesn't know how to handle. At 14, he's sent to an alternative school after losing his temper in a big way.
“When you’re like 11, 12, and you get into a fight at school, it’s not a big deal. But all of a sudden you got some weight to you and your ire is more adult. It was like ‘Oh, that’s young-man strength,’ ” Majors explains.
He spent his time outside of the school system with other “Black and Brown boys,” doing physical training and learning about decorum. By the time Majors got back to the classroom, he had “shifted.” A teacher steered the quiet kid toward the stage and he began to crack open.
“Everything I had held onto and was festering unbeknownst to me, would come out in language and other people’s words,” Majors says of his first theater classes. Acting became a lifeline. But the actor is quick to note the stage didn’t save his life. “I got a good mama. She saved my life. But [acting] did give me a reason to live and showed me how to live,” Majors says.
“I began to find out things about myself emotionally, like where my tears come from, and the fact that I had a great deal of empathy. . . . That began to open up my emotional drain.”
Still, like the classic hero’s journey, the course wasn’t free from obstacles.
Majors got into “a bit more trouble,” and a bit more after that. Despite lettering in drama (yes, you can do that), he was suspended again in high school and threatened with permanent expulsion.
He remembers his mother picking him up after that particularly rough visit to the principal’s office. “It put so much shame on me,” he recalled. The image of his letterman jacket, still in its plastic, thrown haphazardly in the back of his mother’s car stands out in his mind. “Let’s just go. Let’s get out of here,” he remembers telling her.
Majors transferred to another high school and was “safe” for a time. Then he started skipping class. A lot.
“I didn’t know what it was. I just had my own way of thinking about things and trying to get things done.” He had to appeal to the school district’s superintendent — a man whose son Majors had coincidentally gotten into a fight with in elementary school — and ask to be reinstated. Majors, who was a senior at the time, was directing a school play.
“I walked in there and said, ‘Listen, man, first off, yeah, I am the guy who slapped your son. Yeah, sorry about that. I know it may not seem like it, but I’ve really straightened out.’ ”
He was reinstated at school, and the path was straight from then on out. He attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and earned a graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama. During his last semester at Yale, director Gus Van Sant cast Majors in the LGBT miniseries “When We Rise.” He finished his coursework in a trailer on set and hasn’t stopped working since.
It's impossible to keep a straight face when up against Major's Cadillac-sized grin. Just before our Zoom interview, the actor finished a long call about a new film project, adding it to the growing pile. So, ask him how he's doing and Majors doesn't do the humblebrag Hollywood thing. He goes for the truth.
“Oh, man. Whoo! I’m good, I’m really good, you know, all things considered. I’m good,” Majors says from the Santa Fe, N.M., home he’s been living in since February, practically bouncing from the rounded Pueblo-inspired walls. He is waiting for production to resume on his next project, the Jay-Z backed western “The Harder They Fall.”
But that’s on the horizon. For now, the actor is still steeped in the past of the “hella entertaining” “Lovecraft Country.” Set to debut Sunday, the show is premiering to a country in the throes of a great reckoning with race and patriotism. It’s fitting, though: As Atticus, Majors is playing a modern-day hero who proves that America’s past is prologue.
“There are pieces [of art] that in one go encompass the past, future and the present,” Majors says. “This is not a Black show; this is an American show. Our protagonists are heroes. They are Americans.”
The show is seemingly yet another recent success story for the actor who spent too much his youth fighting — often literally — to be seen. But unlike then, Majors’s trajectory is clear.
“I think it’s gonna turn out all right,” he says, still beaming about his next big thing.