There’s Something About Jonathan Majors
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Jonathan Majors started his day — as he usually does — at 4:30 a.m. He likes the solitude of morning: the quiet, the clean slate. London had come to feel more than ever like home, but on this October day, well before dawn, he found himself in a hotel room on the Sunset Strip. He hadn’t slept well, and this quick business trip back to Los Angeles left his mind in multiple places. But he was used to that by now, so what was bothering him? Jet lag no longer fazed him. Neither did nerves. His appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” had gone well — “Boy, you’ve had some year, haven’t you?” Kimmel asked him, though both of them knew it was more statement than question. The N.F.L. promo shoot for Fox was flawless — one take. The Screen Actors Guild screening of Netflix’s Black cowboy adventure, “The Harder They Fall,” and the Q. and A. afterward, had been successful enough, he guessed. So, what was it?
Then he remembered: A “dark energy” had chased him in his sleep from evening to morning. He just couldn’t figure out what it wanted with him. He rose from bed thinking it would go away, but he couldn’t shake it. So he would count on the day’s routine to settle him — a lit candle; a prayer; a little instrumental music to get him going; some poetry; and then, soon after, a workout. To Majors, everything is expressed as ritual. And this includes not only fending off the moments of darkness, but also acting, of course. “No one has the standards that I have,” he would tell me later.
Majors, 32, is a paradoxical force. He is preternaturally calm, and yet there is something deeply apprehensive about him. He is old-souled and irreducibly Southern (he uses “sir” and “ma’am” freely), and yet he is steeped in New Age spirituality, a child of Texas churches reborn in the waters of Bali. After we saw “Dune” together in London, we sat through the credits talking over what he loved about it, even though he usually leaves a film before it ends — he’s a movie star who can barely sit through a movie. These heterogeneous and often conflicting impulses render him mysterious, humane, easy to relate to. And his career is taking off as a result.
While I was in Los Angeles, I could hardly turn a corner without seeing him gracing a billboard for “The Harder They Fall.” This Thanksgiving weekend, he will appear in “Devotion,” based on the life of the American aviator Jesse Brown. Even though it’s a big-budget production, a mix of “Top Gun” and “42,” Majors communicates endurance and anguish on the subtlest frequencies of feeling. As Jeymes Samuel, who directed him in “The Harder They Fall,” told me: “Jonathan was always going to blow up. Muhammad Ali was always going to be Muhammad Ali. I’m just glad I got to meet him when he was Cassius Clay.”
Jonathan Majors with Christina Jackson in ‘‘Devotion,’’ to be released this fall.Credit…Sony Pictures
In February 2023, Majors will emerge as a central villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following up on his episode-stealing debut as He Who Remains in the “Loki” series last year, Majors will reappear as a far more inimical version of that multifarious Marvel character, the time-traveling antagonist Kang the Conqueror, in the movie “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Shooting the film is what took his life to London. “It’s become a cliché over the decades to compare somebody to a young Marlon Brando, but Jonathan has that,” Peyton Reed, the “Ant-Man” director, told me. “He has just this energy and this presence, and our movie is definitely benefiting from that.” The role is no one-off. Kang will influence what happens in what Marvel refers to as “Phase 5” and “Phase 6” of its ever-expanding roster of superhero movies and series; the fifth film in the Avengers franchise, for example, is currently scheduled for release in 2025 with the title “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty.”
From Chris Evans’s early apprehensions about taking on the role of Captain America to Martin Scorsese’s dismissal of the M.C.U. as “not cinema” and something more like a theme park, plenty of questions have been asked about what an artist can do with a Marvel role. How do you avoid being the same person, doing the same things, cracking the same jokes again and again? But the character of Kang offers a distinct opportunity because he is a character with numerous identities across numerous timelines. Some of his aliases in the Marvel comic books: Victor Timely, Pharaoh Rama-Tut, Blue Man, Lord of the Seven Suns, King of Kings, Master of Men, Victor Timely Jr., Victor Timely III, Scarlet Centurion — it’s a vast sandlot for an actor to play in. And the results may be some of the more multivalent, ugly, ridiculous and dark work we have seen from Marvel yet.
This is the kind of spiky character Majors has been preparing to play for all his professional life. When Majors — Black, handsome and the owner of a physique that borders on perfection — was presented with the pivotal roles to truly commence his career, he chose the road less traveled and one difficult to discuss, because it involves a kind of clowning, a style that bears special risks and, especially for a Black actor, comes with complicated baggage. But he is a clown in the classic sense: an interloper who listens to the world with unabashed curiosity and then disrupts it.
In “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Majors plays Montgomery Allen, who intrudes on a moment of rising emotional tension among men on his street. They are on the verge of coming to blows when he begins to — of all things — direct them. Majors seems to float into the scene, suddenly turning a street-level conflict into a midsummer night’s dream. His body says his lines before his mouth forms the words. “You’re all doing marvelous work,” he says firmly as the men sputter to a halt. “But I know it can be deeper. Hey — remember Stanislavski. Grotowski. Boleslavsky. Chekhov. Brecht. These are the greats!” Lines like farce, but Majors makes them not only funny but substantive, gritty, real. This is clown work.
Something similar happens in “Loki” when he appears as the mysterious time-controlling villain, He Who Remains. He spends much of his screen time bored, manspreading in his seat and munching on a green apple. He dares both the Tom Hiddleston Loki and the Sophia Di Martino Loki (there are two of them — it’s complicated) to give him something to get excited about. As the two Lokis are trying to figure out how they can continue to coexist, Majors talks with his mouth full and makes them tea. A little while later he suddenly leaps atop his desk with weird malice. This is clown work.
“That’s right,” Majors tells me as he reflects on those characters, “that’s pure clown.”
The clown is the game-changer who speaks truth to power, embodies the best and worst of our nature and does this without fear. Hollywood has long struggled or simply refused to provide good roles for Black actors, confining them to stereotypes, bit parts, magical problem solvers for white people and collateral damage in action and horror flicks. The exceptions have sustained hope that this would eventually change. Majors offers us time and again that missing ingredient in mainstream Hollywood: complex Black subjectivity. His comfort with clowning — which is to say his comfort with the beautiful menace of his body, the quiet chaos of it — is both radical and timely.
A few hours after his troubled sleep, I found Majors waiting for me in front of his large black S.U.V. The bright beams from behind cut out his silhouette. Majors approached and gave me a pained look. “I almost left you,” he said. It was 6:32 a.m. “But,” he added, as his gaze softened, “I couldn’t leave you.” We were just getting to know each other at that point — over the next three weeks I would see him in two countries and three cities — but I could tell he wasn’t joking: It had rankled him that I was late. I apologized as he hopped into the deep driver’s seat of his S.U.V. As I climbed into the passenger’s seat, I couldn’t help making a self-effacing joke about arriving two minutes late. “You’re five minutes late,” he said firmly, pointing to the clock on the dashboard, which read 6:34 and then changed to 6:35 while he was still pointing. And just like that we were on our way to his usual break-of-dawn session of heavy-iron dead lifts, back squats, farmers walks, leg lunges, rapid-fire push-ups and pull-ups, shoulder presses and jump-rope work at Undefeated, a gym on the other side of town.
A few weeks later, while walking together in London, I began to understand the real source of his annoyance. I asked him whether he ever thinks about the fact that he will be playing the same Marvel character 10 years from now. If life “keeps popping off the way it is,” he said, stopping in his tracks, “I’m going to die soon. I’m OK with that. It won’t be drugs. It won’t be alcohol. It’ll just … something’s going to get me.” He said this in a way that made it clear that he’s not afraid of death. We stood for a moment — two Black men in one of London’s most posh neighborhoods — and then, like someone who has just perfectly explained his situation and needs to say little else, he followed up without a hint of fear, paranoia or lament: “Know what I mean?”
Back in Los Angeles, at exactly 10 a.m., five and a half hours after waking in a funk, Majors was sitting down on a set of empty bleachers in Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Recreation Center. He took two rolls of hand wraps and a pair of Kelly green boxing gloves from his gym bag. He checked the time. At 10:02, his hand wraps were being put on by his trainer, Rob, who was determined to stay off the record. The two men began working together when the pandemic shut down most of Los Angeles and Majors had little to do but focus on boxing, to prepare for his role — currently cloaked in mystery — in “Creed III,” the latest installment in the boxing saga, which is scheduled to come out next March. “I completely tuned out,” he said. “I was just fighting and eating and working.”
Despite having met only through this work, the two men have developed a close bond. Rob asked Majors if I was part of the circle or part of the press. Majors classified me as the former, and Rob’s mood eased. A retired boxer and a veteran boxing trainer for Hollywood actors, Rob sees Majors as clay of remarkable quality; he is certain Majors could box professionally if he dedicated himself solely to the sport. Usually, he trains his clients for the camera, for the role ahead. But he is training Majors to be a real fighter, teaching him the craft.
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For the next hour, Majors went through a training regimen of ever-increasing intensity, starting in the shadows near the bleachers — with a light warm-up of jabs, crosses, feints, dodges and footwork in heavy, navy blue sweatpants; an oversize gray hoodie; boxing shoes; and his trademark red wool beanie — and ending, in the center of the field, with a bout against an invisible opponent under the sun’s harsh spotlight. Rob was constantly in his ear about his movement, his thought process.
Finally, he left Majors on his own. Having worked himself into a heavy sweat, he was shirtless now, punching ceaselessly at full speed — crosses, jabs, uppercuts, the occasional haymaker. “Huyesh!” he breathed out in time with the blows, gaze fixed on his imaginary foe. “Huyesh! Huyesh!” Rob called out to say there were 30 seconds to go. “Huyesh! Huyesh! Huyesh! Huyesh!” When the torture finally ended, a man who had been kicking a soccer ball on the far side of the field before stopping to watch applauded from a safe distance.
When Majors talks about the business-related aspects of being an actor, the natural poetry of his diction departs, and he defaults to the clichés of enclosed, contentious spaces. He calls Hollywood “the arena,” the quest for the right role a “battlefield.” Basketball analogies pepper his conversation: a new script on the open market is “a jump ball,” his team of publicists “the Ladies of the Paint.” Partly this comes from his background in sports: He played football and basketball in his youth. But he has also brought these competitive impulses to the artistic world and honed them to pull himself out of difficult circumstances.
His story begins on Sept. 7, 1989, at Santa Barbara County’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Majors was still very young when his parents answered the call of the church. His mother left military life behind and moved with her two sons and daughter to Texas, where she lived earlier; his father stayed at the base a while longer before following them to the greater Dallas area. His mother worked as a minister of music; his father was the director of music at the same church; the children sang in the choir. A falling-out between the church pastor and Majors’s father — and the social discomfort that arose from it — led to another relocation for the family. “I was 9 or 10, and things just got bad.” Majors chalks up the anguish of his home life to what he calls “church business,” perhaps the most thinly veiled of all euphemisms. “I don’t know how she managed it,” he says, referring to his mother. One day his father simply didn’t come home. And soon there was a new man of the house, whom Majors refers to as his “stepdad.” He was freshly out of prison, “a real G,” Majors says — gangster.
“What people have to understand about me is that when a part of you that made you abandons you, your level is at the highest it can get,” he says, meaning he had reached the limit of disappointment. “I still hold onto my father. He’s not dead to me” — he is, in fact, still alive. “I think about him, I worry about him. That is what needs to be resolved. Until that’s resolved — for real for real, not just like ‘Yes, I outwardly forgive you’ — I’ll be inwardly working on it.”
Through his elementary- and middle-school years, the family moved five times. “I was saggin’ my pants, I was fighting, I was cussin’, I was being bullied and then rising up during the semester and beating the bully down,” Majors says. Frustration tended to get the better of him. He would walk obscenely long distances, get into unwinnable fistfights against trees, lash out at his own stuff as though it had wronged him. “I was quite destructive,” he says. Life at home worsened; Majors was constantly having problems with his stepfather and looking, unsuccessfully, for a way out. “There’s got to be another way to make my way,” he says he thought. The nadir came when he pulled a knife on his classmates. In-school suspensions hit him hard with their similarity to solitary confinement: “You’re sitting in a box. I hid in this thing!”
A change of high schools gave Majors an opportunity to start over. He found new friends in the “choir nerds”; he immersed himself in dance, speech and debate. He began writing poetry and styled himself “J. Manifesto.” “I was trying to build my own training program,” he says. He took various jobs: at a Party City warehouse for $6 an hour, at Red Lobster, at Olive Garden. He moved with his mother, his stepfather and his siblings to an apartment complex in Cedar Hill, just outside Dallas. He shared a room with his little brother until he was 16. “I had my own room for like a year,” Majors recalls, “when I left and lived in my own car.” Living with his stepfather had become unbearable. After work, he would spend nights in his car before heading to school the next morning.
Despite his living situation, he thrived at his new school: He even had “J. Manifesto” stitched into the back of a letter jacket from his old school. In the same week he got that done, though, he was expelled for lacking an acceptable address. “I ended up being kicked out,” he says, “because they learned I lived out of district. I still don’t know how I have a high school diploma.”
But he does know. He discovered that the superintendent of his new school was the father of a boy at his old school — a boy he had slapped sometime around seventh grade, for which Majors was suspended. Now, with no other options after his expulsion, Majors drove to the superintendent’s office, told him that he had straightened up, was singing in a show at the school and wasn’t going to screw up anymore. Majors was reinstated. He says he would thank the superintendent now if he had the opportunity.
Ashley Gates Jansen was one of his first teachers when Majors enrolled as an undergrad in the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem — a “place of blood, sweat and tears,” Jansen says. She and her legendary colleague Gerald Freedman come up often when Majors talks about finding his way at the school, whose graduates include Mary-Louise Parker. Majors’s talent immediately stood out to both Jansen and Freedman (he died in 2020). “One word I would use for him is ‘unmissable,’” Jansen says. “Acting is about vulnerability, but I think some of us think acting is about always being in control.” She recalled to me how Majors would choose a seat facing the door when she took him out for coffee, so he could see who was coming in and out. Jansen was unaccustomed to such hypervigilance in the students there. It is the sort of step people take when they are used to having trouble find them and want to avoid it without hiding from the world.
By this point, however, no one was coming through the door looking to start trouble with Majors. He was able for the first time to commit himself full time to being a student of acting. Freedman’s teaching style — “natural, free, authentic,” Majors says — suffused the college and suited him well. As did Freedman’s notion that he wasn’t training his students for the theater exclusively but for whatever performance opportunities came their way. Majors graduated from U.N.C.S.A. in 2012. But though he excelled there, he never played the lead in a school production. “Drama school,” he says matter-of-factly, “is a crapshoot.”
A familiar scene awaited Majors when he moved to New York from North Carolina: bar jobs, roommates, auditions. He also became a father. As he grew into fatherhood — he is extremely close to his daughter, who lives with her mother — his thirst for more training also grew. He searched out the best graduate programs and decided to try the Yale School of Drama — now called the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale — one of the most selective in the country.
Ron Van Lieu was chairman of the acting program when Majors enrolled. Van Lieu told me he tried to talk Majors out of coming to Yale. “Not because I thought he was untalented,” he says, “because he was clearly talented, but because he seemed to be at that point of his life where I assumed he should be out in the world.” But it immediately became clear to Van Lieu “that here this was a young person who actually understood the necessity of having the long view,” he says. “That he was not interested in some sort of immediate professional gratification, and that whatever he felt was undone in him as an artist needed to be attended to, needed to find its expression. In essence, he told me that he was going to come to the Yale School of Drama, and I acquiesced.”
Majors turns irritable when talking about Yale. “I don’t hate Yale, but — I hate the way it made me feel,” he says. He won’t go into details, but the chill abates only when he talks about his teachers, especially Van Lieu and Christopher Bayes, Yale’s head of physical acting, who taught Majors the art of the clown. When Bayes discusses the subject, it’s clear why Majors was drawn to the approach. “The clown is the unsocialized self,” Bayes told me. “It’s the person who’s never been told no. What would you be like in your body if you’ve never been told ‘no’ or ‘be quiet’ or ‘sit still’ or ‘you’re too much of this and not enough of that’? If we can get out of that social body, what is left behind is a kind of beautiful playfulness and audacity.”
Bayes directed Majors in the Commedia Project, which Yale has described as its “experimental space to take the temperature of the world, the society we live in and ourselves.” A small number of students are selected to work on a performance rooted in commedia dell’arte, an early form of popular theater focused on ensemble work. Stock characters interact in a form of play based on status and of course there are those expressive masks most of them wear. Beyond these defining parameters, improvisation, skill and endurance reign. The experience is a feather in the cap for any Yale drama student, and Majors, though somewhat of a loner in the program, was a key member of the troupe. Il Capitano, the prototype of the braggadocious but spineless military man, especially captured Majors’s imagination. The figure’s walk — long steps, knees raised outlandishly high — is a hallmark of the character. Majors has retained something of his gait throughout his career.
To this day, he considers Il Capitano to be the toughest of roles to master. Unlike the clown, who might go masked, the Commedia characters mostly have their faces covered. And what work the clown does through physical emphasis, Il Capitano accomplishes through boastfulness and vocal emphasis. But they are sides of the same coin — and we will no doubt see flashes of these qualities in Kang. Il Capitano is the only role for which Majors uses the word “difficult.” He speaks of his Commedia years with the reverence of someone still in the middle of figuring it out. “It’s a lot of big, focused, circular energy where he’s speaking out,” he says, referring to the military character, “but also feeling at the same time — he’s moving at a certain speed.”
On the cusp of graduating from Yale, Majors auditioned successfully for the role of the gay rights activist Ken Jones in the ABC mini-series “When We Rise.” His manager at the time asked him if he was prepared to drop out of Yale, because the program strongly discourages students from taking on outside acting projects. Though Majors knew of another Yale student to whom permission had been given, and a collaboration with Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant in his final year of graduate school was too good for him to pass up, he still feared he might not be allowed to finish school. But one of his mentors, the veteran actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, says he told him not to worry about Yale dropping him: “You’re the poster boy for what they’re trying to do!”
In the end, what should have been an unadulterated triumph turned into a fight for his job and his diploma, Majors says, thanks especially to the intransigence of certain faculty. He could have turned down the role. But what would have been the point of that? Was he not being trained to get such a job? “I’d gone to school for myself, but also for my kid, and for my family, and for the artist I wanted to be. … It was a big thing, and I was so close. I was at the end.”
Relatively recent alumni of Yale include contemporaries of Majors like Lupita Nyong’o, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Brian Tyree Henry. But the imprimatur of the school tends to be taken as authentication for actors — especially Black actors — and this irks Majors. “The thing about institutions is that we’re so starved for meaning that we live up to belonging to an institution when the goal is to have the institution belong to you,” he says. “Meryl Streep didn’t go to Yale, Yale went to Meryl Streep.”
Majors endured what he described as the equivalent of a Senate hearing to see if he could hold onto the Ken Jones role and remain a student, then completed his remaining classwork from a trailer on the “When We Rise” set, which enabled him to graduate in 2016. Notwithstanding the tensions at the end, Majors feels indebted to his education at Yale. Teachers like Van Lieu provided him with an invaluable sense that there were those on the inside who understood him. For someone like Majors with deep-seated issues with authority, that would prove to be a great boost. “He was very much unto himself,” says Van Lieu, who wasn’t used to seeing students who were so self-contained. “It’s like he was his own teacher, his own pastor, his own mentor.”
“Hostiles,” a film about two gruff, taciturn servicemen in which Majors stars opposite Christian Bale, was Majors’s first feature film. “Once the cameras rolled, it was apparent that Jonathan was going to not only be a great actor, but a movie star,” Scott Cooper, the director, told me. “He has an undeniable charisma and this deep humanity that one cannot deny. And it was very, very apparent to me from the first time I called ‘action.’” At the film’s midpoint, there’s a scene in which the two old friends played by Bale and Majors are parting ways and know they are unlikely to see each other again. Their mutual affection must be conveyed not through dialogue so much as through the finer tools of acting. After the scene wrapped, Bale said to Cooper, “Wow, Jonathan’s so bloody good!” Remembering that moment, Cooper paused for a moment, then added, “There’s no bigger compliment than that.”
In the last half-dozen years, Majors has played a gay activist, a post-bellum Black soldier in the United States Army, a 1980s Detroit gangster, a playwright, a rebel in the aftermath of an alien takeover, a schoolteacher in search of his father, an outlaw cowboy and a Korean War veteran (twice), in addition to a boxer and Kang. He has brought to life some Black characters rarely seen onscreen and played them with an uncanny authority. How does one describe Majors’s fever dream of a performance in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” or the vacillating quick-twitch animus and velvet savoir-faire as Atticus (Tic) Freeman in “Lovecraft Country,” the HBO drama-horror series from Misha Green? I can’t escape the sense that those roles simply wouldn’t work with another actor.
Last year Majors received an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for “Lovecraft Country.” One day while filming the second episode, he nearly lost his emblematic cool. He watched as the crew chased the light, till the Georgia sun hung low in the sky, bathing the set and the 1948 Packard Station Sedan at its center with an ethereal grace. Tic Freeman has just fled from a mystical cult, barely escaping the fire and destruction of a burning lodge where he, his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), his wounded Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his friend-cum-love interest Leti (Jurnee Smollett) had all been held captive. Everything was right, and it was time to shoot.
Following the algebraic equation of the classic adventure narrative, Tic was separated from the other three characters and now plans to meet them back at “Woody,” the wagon that had thus far kept them safe in their travels from Chicago deep into the feral racism of America’s dark-hearted roads. Except when Tic finds Leti waiting for him near the car, covered in blood, he knows that it is not her own and that his Uncle George is dead. The episode ends with Tic’s walk to the car and his discovery of his uncle’s lifeless body there. This moment in the script has no dialogue. But for Majors, it had everything that he needed.
Majors recalls the consensus being that the first take was nearly perfect; the director, Daniel Sackheim, was ready to move on. But Majors, channeling sadness, loneliness and anger, knew what he had done and how it felt: it was an eight out of 10 — good enough, especially as they were losing the light. “Eighty percent of the population is going to like that … if we can get one more percentage of people to understand this moment, that’s what we should do,” he said. “Light be damned!”
He persuaded Sackheim to do a second take. The resulting scene is one of the show’s best. Set to Leon Bridges’s “River,” it is a climactic portrait of grief and guilt. The song’s lyrics offer crumbs of Tic’s inner monologue — “been traveling these wide roads for so long . . . . there’s blood on my hands and my lips are unclean . . . . take me to the river, I wanna go” — but it’s Majors’s job to add the element that brings all of this to bear on the viewers: catharsis. Wordless, he breaks down. The physicality of the performance gives it a weight that words cannot. It’s a beautiful scene that’s hard to watch. What would lead someone to want to go through that twice in a matter of minutes? “It’s not ego,” Majors says. “It’s the ideal form. That’s what I’m shooting for, the ideal scene.”
When the scene was shot, Majors had recently lost his grandmother, to whom he was close, and he was unable to attend the funeral because he was filming Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in Thailand. The doubled pain focused Majors’s emotions in that “Lovecraft” scene. But he emphasized to me that the moment was not about him. “It wasn’t about that anymore. It was like, ‘This is what it feels like when you lose a member of your family.’ You know what I mean? Regardless of the magic and all the whoop-de-whoop around the show. This is a very true capturing of what that feels like.”
Michael K. Williams, who played the other survivor in that scene, died last September, the day before Majors’s birthday. The loss hit him particularly hard. In addition to playing father and son in “Lovecraft Country” and the same man, at different ages, in “When We Rise,” their bond extended to friendship offscreen. Majors talks about it like a badge of honor: “What are the odds that we got to fly together for a little bit?”
“Who here can throw a football?”
Still in Los Angeles, Majors, dressed in slacks, a T-shirt and sport jacket, waited for an answer. He had been casually spinning a football up into the air from center stage, watching in a trance as it dropped back into his hands like metal returning to a magnet, as he waited patiently for his shoot for Fox NFL to begin. A crew member named Shane raised his hand. Immediately Majors let fly a perfect 10-yard spiral across the length of the set. As Shane made the catch, Majors put his hands up, chest high and expectant, forming a triangle with the thumb and index finger of each hand to form a target for the return toss. Shane threw the ball back, Majors snatched it out of the air, then tucked a pointed end between his massive forearm and biceps. Just when it looked as if he might continue the pantomime football game with a juke or a spin, he withdrew from the moment, and took to pacing, as though another, deeper idea had just entered his mind. He looked down at his hands and stared at the football, as though he wanted to know everything about the pigskin: its weight and its texture, its shape and its laces, the sparse writing on both sides of the pimpled leather. He surveyed the set again, the black-and-blue mood of the scene, took a deep breath, and sighed — his immense physicality giving way to intense contemplation.
“This feels a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”
He turned to the cameraman beside him. He was curious about how wide the camera was, what the intended shot was, how many cameras they planned to use. “I’ve got a million questions,” he said, giving the cameraman a smile one part innocent and one part mischievous. Here he was: on a commercial set to film a sliver of a promo for a football program, something he could do half-asleep, but he was laser-focused. Three phases of Majors’s life were folded into one moment: the primacy of sport in his youth, the stage work of his student years and a performance that would be seen by millions. Majors is an actor’s actor at heart, but there’s no escaping the fact that he is being positioned with an expanded audience in mind.
Until recently, most of Majors’s characters have tended toward covering themselves in baggy clothing. Quite like clowns. He easily could have gone after roles that would have showcased his physique, but as Montgomery Allen in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” he wears a Dick Tracy-style coat for much of the film; as He Who Remains, in “Loki,” he is draped in a purple cloak. But when he started work on “Lovecraft Country,” Yann Demange, who directed the pilot, wanted to emphasize what he calls Majors’s “dignified strength” — so he asked for more T-shirt time (and then less shirt time altogether). He was confident that Majors’s more subtle acting gifts would balance out the beefcake: “He’s a soulful man,” Demange told me. “He writes poetry, he really cares. He’s a very sophisticated screen actor, with a movie-star quality. His face is almost from a different era in terms of masculinity.” Away from the set, Majors is always in baggy clothes. “My body is my instrument, and I work hard to have it,” he says. “I don’t believe in showing it off for free.”
I was standing on the perimeter of the set with Mimi James, the talent producer for Fox NFL who had invited Majors to be here. I turned to compliment Shane on his throw, but only glimpsed his back — he was already speeding through the door from the set, off in urgent search of food for Majors, who was still trying to add even more muscle for “Creed III.” He had been eating six full meals a day, almost exclusively chicken and rice; sometimes when dining out he consumes two entrees in one sitting. The crew was digging into their sandwiches as Majors paced like Hamlet midthought onstage. Then word came, and it was time to begin filming this teaser on behalf of the Fox network’s crown jewel: its Sunday N.F.L. coverage.
The lead-in to Fox NFL Sunday is a minute or so of scripted riffing designed to pump up fans preparing to spend the next three to six hours on their couches. It takes a certain amount of gravity and A-list bona fides to be invited to do these. James told me how Brad Pitt came to the set to shoot a spot. “He said: ‘This is great. No one is asking me questions. Why haven’t I been asked to do this before?’ And Jamie Foxx: Every year he asks to do one. Honestly,” she continued, “Jonathan’s not yet quite on the level of the stars we usually have do this. But he’s so clearly on the cusp. He’s so good.”
Onstage Majors was saying, yet again, “This all seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?” He seemed unhappy; he circled the set once more, searched for a way to loosen up. Then, he took a deep breath, and the cameras began to roll.
Only after seeing the entire shoot from beginning to end, knocked out in one take, did I realize that “This all seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?” was a line that Majors was reciting rather than his own musing — just a plug for some football.
One night in London, I took Majors along to a friend’s poetry reading at the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. It was late October, and despite the still-raging pandemic, the city had an autumnal strut to it. Streaked with mellow greens and golds, the river curved past the upscale southwest pocket of Twickenham with its swans, rugby bars and picturesque little boats passing by. When I prodded Majors about his poetry — he often writes during those predawn mornings when he’s up, and occasionally while preparing a character — it was the first time he truly became withdrawn. He knew that I had published a few books of poetry and that I teach it at college. I was in a gray suit and striped tie. He wore his trusty red wool beanie, a black light overcoat over a navy T-shirt, moss-colored wide-legged pants that stopped at the calf and ankle high lace-up boots. Upon entering the red-carpeted, late-Victorian space, he came across an acoustic guitar orphaned in a corner and proceeded to pick out the opening notes of Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)” with a puckish smile on his face. After the reading, we drifted into the reception area where he chatted freely and easily about poetry, naming some of his favorite poets — Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton — and deflecting as best he could any talk about his acting. When he was introduced to an editor as “a breakout star,” he winced and replied, “You can only be a breakout star for so long.”
He then proceeded to cause pandemonium among the assembled poets and editors when he declared that “Richard II” was his favorite Shakespeare play. Perhaps from having been fed a steady diet of Americans professing their love of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “The Tempest,” they didn’t want to believe him. He insisted that it was true, that he found constant solace in Richard’s “No matter where; of comfort no man speak” monologue and the fact that the entire play is in verse, making it an oddity. Everyone in the play speaks poetry — no matter their social status. Coincidentally or not, there’s no clown, unless we count Richard, the king, who, in becoming aware, becomes his own holy fool.
A few days later, I met him at his home away from home, in Twickenham. Inside, a photo of Muhammad Ali hung by the staircase. The living room’s windows looked out over a yard and the Thames River beyond. Books of poetry, philosophy and photography were stacked everywhere, with the occasional script mixed in. To one side of the living room was a treadmill, to the other two rows of five neatly aligned Balinese theater masks, the sculpted faces spanning the color spectrum. They were full of meaning, though inscrutably so.
I had become accustomed to playing his guitar and reading the books scattered about as we killed time in this riverside rental house in a neighborhood that the “Loki” star Tom Hiddleston tipped him off to. One book in particular caught my attention: “Poetics of Relation,” by the great Martinican philosopher-poet Édouard Glissant. “There’s some Kang energy in that,” Majors told me. Glissant’s beautiful, complex book is a masterpiece of Caribbean thought. And though its focus is on that part of the world, its central idea is more universal: basically, that Western culture has championed linear progress and finds legitimacy through the linearity of time and direct connections to a mythicized past. In contrast, Glissant argues for radical change: “an open totality evolving upon itself.” He wants, in other words, to elevate simultaneous multiplicities over the Western ideal of hierarchy and linearity. I couldn’t help thinking of Majors when I arrived at one passage near the end of the book: “Distant reader,” it begins, “as you recreate these imperceptible details on the horizon, you who can imagine — who can indulge the time and wealth for imagining — so many open and closed places in the world, look at him.”
Majors is now producing films. That’s Kang energy too. “It’s self-actualization, right? I want to see my vision in the world,” he told me. “I believe in it that much.” I picked up a script with an unfamiliar title that had been lying around in his kitchen. Suddenly, he leaped across the room to grab it from my hand before I could turn the first page. “I didn’t mean to snatch that from you, but,” he said, almost apologetically, as he tucked the script far away, “it’s ‘Ant-Man.’ ”
Later, as we crossed the Thames over the Twickenham Bridge on foot, he stopped and said, “I’m telling the story of Kang, but Kang is not this.” He gestured out toward the river, where there was no trailer, no green screen, no killing time between takes.
That he grew up in poverty, for the most part fatherless, for a time homeless, disregarded, underestimated and truant? That he’s now one of the most promising actors in Hollywood? He wants what he’s been through to mean something to others, but for the recognition to be that that meaning has come through his work. He cringes at the idea that anyone who would skim the script of his life might see a simple rags-to-riches story. “That’s somebody else’s narrative,” he told me. “It’s easier to adopt that narrative, because that’s been the narrative for everyone else:Misery loves company. But that’s not how it went. If that was how it went, I’d be dead in Texas.”
Majors’s Marvel work is likely to make him set for life, but he plans on not letting the role of Kang become Jonathan Majors. That would be reductive, linear thinking. Majors wants you to see him as he sees himself, with or without the masks: “Complex, broken — that’s an actor’s job.”
Stylist: Fabio Immediato. Grooming: Tasha Reiko Brown.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is a professor of English at Stony Brook University, teaches in the M.F.A. program at N.Y.U. and is the poetry editor at The New Republic. He is a former Guggenheim fellow and a recipient of two PEN Awards, among other accolades. Phillips’s most recent book, “Living Weapon,” was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; a new book, “Silver,” is forthcoming from the same publisher. Ryan Pfluger is a photographer in Los Angeles and New York. His book “Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens” will be published in November.