'We're Gonna Win': 'Lovecraft Country' Star Jonathan Majors on Race and Redemption

At 4 A.M. on June 24th, Jonathan Majors woke with a stomach flu. So, he did what any of us would do: Dragged himself out of bed, headed outside in the predawn light, got situated on the basketball court of a nearby park, threw up, and worked out for an hour and a half. Then he threw up again and walked home.

“It’s the ritual,” he says matter-of-factly, while alternating sips of a blue energy drink and hot tea a few hours later. “It was rough. But we did it.”

The “ritual” consists of the following steps, more or less in this order: Wake very early, meditate, walk the dogs (two of them), make tea, exercise. This happens every morning of Majors’ life that he isn’t shooting a movie or television show, and even some days when he is. Discipline is a bit of a theme for him, a function of a very regimented upbringing, which he has found a way to replicate in his adult life on his own terms. 

“I’m a military brat; my mother’s a pastor,” Majors says. “There’s been a lot of order in my life that I don’t have control over, that I just dedicate myself to. So, it’s important to have my three hours in the morning.”

Majors is Zooming from the sun-dappled courtyard of a pink adobe house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’s been quarantined since February with a couple of friends and his assistant. He had flown there to begin production on The Harder They Fall, an all-black spaghetti Western co-starring Idris Elba and executive-produced by Jay-Z, among others. The coronavirus, of course, had other plans. The delay will leave audiences hungry for more Jonathan Majors, since his most recent projects establish him as one of the most compulsively watchable actors working today.

In Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s scathing Vietnam vet epic, released in June on Netflix, Majors plays David, son to Delroy Lindo’s Paul, a hard-headed Trump supporter suffering from PTSD. Tagging along with his dad’s crew on a return visit to ’Nam, David is alternately puckish with his old man and cowed by him, nudging his way into the group dynamic — as Majors does with an esteemed veteran cast — and emerging with an on-the-ground lesson in brotherhood and sacrifice. Majors brings an easy swagger and offbeat charisma to the character, who in some ways traces the biggest emotional arc through the story, from boy to man by the film’s end. Some of his most memorable moments — a buoyant little jig on a brush-pocked hillside hiding buried treasure, for example — seem to bubble over with his own natural enthusiasm.

Next up is the highly anticipated HBO series Lovecraft Country, debuting August 16th. A mind-bending, genre-blending tour de force (think Indiana Jones meets Twilight Zone meets Tales From the Crypt, and you’re still only halfway there) adapted from a novel by Matt Ruff, the show plays off of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, a 1920s pulp author who was also an unrepentant racist. The story follows Majors’ character Atticus “Tic” Freeman, a Korean War veteran whose estranged father goes missing, on a road trip through Jim Crow-era America to find him. As crafted by writer and creator Misha Green, the series makes bedfellows of the ghouls and ghosts who plague Tic and his crew, and the real-life bigots who do the same. The role gives Majors a chance to bring his intense physicality, vulnerability, and intellect fully to bear. 

“Atticus is a character who used to be a geek, who was picked on and was in the sci-fi club and read books, but then he went to war and became a killer,” Green explains. “Now, he’s coming home to deal with the demons of his past. And when Jonathan came into the room, his presence just embodied all of that. He was building Atticus in his head already. What he brought, even into the audition, were details.”

Majors hadn’t heard of Lovecraft prior to being cast in the series. So he started reading: “The comics, the encyclopedia of monsters, everything,” he says. Sucked into a vivid world of aliens and mythical creatures, he was thoroughly entertained. In much of Lovecraft’s work, the author’s racism isn’t on display — the stories are just pure fantasy run amok. “I’m reading and I’m reading and I’m reading, and there’s no mention of his bigotry,” Majors says, with a hint of amazement. “I go, ‘This is great!’” But eventually, as he delved deeper into Lovecraft’s texts, he realized, “Oh, he hates black people,” Majors says. “I felt betrayed! It was like, ‘Aw, fuck, man, not you too!’” 

The inversion (and subversion) of Lovecraft’s principles — making African Americans the heroes of a sweeping, Lovecraftian pulp adventure — is a big part of what gives the series its power. Still, to see those characters face tormentors — in the form of racist cops, racist neighbors, racist diner owners, racist department store managers, you get the idea — that are still very much present in the fabric of American life some 70 years on can be a gut-punch, at least for a white person. Majors’ take is different. When I ask if it makes him sad that a story set in the Fifties is so resonant in 2020, he pauses for several seconds. What comes next is a thoughtful preamble, an account of his own journey to really seeing the insidious bigotry that lives all around us — and, simultaneously, a lesson, delivered so gently and empathetically that you might not notice it as such, in the black experience. 

“You know, I didn’t grow up in a cultured household,” he begins. “We were all highly intelligent, but we were common, simple people. We weren’t activists, none of that. So, the pressure and the burden and the weight of being black is all I’ve known. That’s why the idea of being ‘woke,’ which is overused in many ways, is quite applicable here. Being woke is a real thing, and it’s for all races. And it happens through a series of events in a black man’s life, where you go, ‘OK, they’re not playing fair.’ 

“I understand the system, right? I understand what I can’t do, what they won’t allow me to do. But now you’re not playing fair, because even what I can do, you’re stopping me from doing. It takes one of those events. And then, heaven forbid, you go to the military. That’s another event. Heaven forbid you have to then raise a child, and then your heart’s outside of you, so you see all the dangers that are around. So, over time, I began to realize, ‘OK, I got the short end of the stick in this scenario.’”

In other words, at 30 years old, having lived through his own personal awakening, Majors is no longer surprised to find racism lurking under every rock. Nor, to answer my question, does he feel defeated by the fact that a Jim Crow-era tale is starkly relevant today.

Majors with Courtney B. Vance in ‘Lovecraft Country.’

Elizabeth Morris/HBO

“Sadness is a privilege,” he says. “To be mopey about something, that’s a privilege. I did not grow up with that. Atticus did not grow up with that. So, he gets active. He begins to rage against the machine. And he’s seen too much. That’s why the system is built to cut us off, right? To build a high wall so you can’t see what’s on the other side. Because if you see that, oh, you’re gonna get angry. You’re gonna want that. And you’re gonna find a way to go get it. 

“So, it made me excited when I saw the parallels. With Lovecraft, I look at it and go, ‘Oh, it’s on.’ Because we get to win. We’re gonna stick it to ’em. I’m gonna put something into the world that corresponds with a horrific system that plagues my day-to-day life. And I get to do something about it for 10 episodes. Oh, it’s on.”

Onscreen, Majors is power contained. No matter the character, he gives off the sense that his body is a dam working to hold back a rush of emotion. It is a lever that he commands with precision. Just watch the wrenching moment in Lovecraft’s first episode when a small-town sheriff forces Tic to ask permission, through a clenched jaw, to make a U-turn.

“Fear, anger, sadness — I call them the angels or the muses,” Majors says. “At every moment in the scene, you’re wrestling those angels. Suppressing or expressing that angel is how you move through it.”

That emotional control was hard-won. While some of Majors’ Texas childhood sounds idyllic — roaming his grandparents’ farm with his older sister and younger brother, reading books on top of the chicken incubator, or trying to commune with the cows — there was turmoil, too. The family was poor, and his father left them when Majors was around eight or nine years old, planting seeds of internal chaos that would bloom in his adolescence. He got into boxing, but it wasn’t always the best match with what he calls the “curse” of being highly sensitive. At 13, Majors was arrested for shoplifting — he stole armfuls of Christmas presents for his family from Kohl’s — and, a couple months later, assault, after a classmate teased him about his arrest and his MIA dad. 

“At that time, my father had been gone for a long time,” Majors says. “The interesting thing about an absent father is, for a child, you don’t know he’s absent. You just think he’s… tardy.”  He laughs. “To stay with the school metaphor. He’s comin’ back. He’s dad, he’s gonna come back! Around 13, it dawned on me that I had been abandoned. And that I was now the head of the household.”

To have another kid poke at the raw wound of this realization was too much for a young Majors to bear. The slight ushered in “a perfect storm,” Majors says, recounting the fight. “The teacher asked me a question, I told him, ‘I don’t know the answer, man. Not today. It’s a bad time.’ My punkass classmate said something, I got up, and I popped him. Teacher intervened, popped the teacher. That put me on an alternative route. And thank God it did.”  

He was sent to a juvenile detention program, where an intuitive teacher, recognizing that he needed an outlet, walked him into an advanced theater class. In acting, Majors says, he found a place to channel “all that athleticism and energy and anger — and love! Because that’s what happened. I did what I was doing because I loved my mom and siblings and wanted to do something for ’em. So, yeah, it straightened me out. Straightened me out good.”

From there, it was onto the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, where he fell in love with Shakespeare and August Wilson, and then, after a year off during which he became a father, the Yale School of Drama. He was still finishing up school when Dustin Lance Black cast him in the 2017 ABC miniseries about the modern LGBTQ movement, When We Rise. A year later, he made the most of his role as a preening, fur-coat-clad Detroit gangster opposite Matthew McConaughey in the Eighties drug-scene biopic White Boy Rick. But it was with 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an elegiac portrait of friendship set against the backdrop of gentrification, that Majors announced himself, in a performance both deeply sensitive and charmingly left-of-center. 

In the climactic scene, Majors’ character, Montgomery, performs a one-man play in honor of his best friend, Jimmie (played by Jimmie Fails), and the neighborhood that made them. Majors-as-Mont embodies a series of locals, from the posturing dudes who hang out under a streetlamp across from his house to a soap-box preacher who sets up each day along a desolate stretch of road by the bay. He whispers. He shouts. He weeps. He holds the screen for several of the most gripping minutes of cinema that don’t include a car chase or a courtroom confession.

The acting teacher who relentlessly nagged Majors to put his fearsome vulnerability to use must have been proud. He certainly absorbed the lesson. “Your heart breaks every day, you know?” Majors says. “I wish that for most actors. If you’re gonna be a great actor, you have to let your heart break, every day. You’ll always be ready, you’ll always be open. Then you don’t have to fake the funk when it’s go-time.”

It’s not a coincidence that the parts Majors started booking right out of school include nothing lightweight — nary a Law & Order perp or a sitcom kid’s buddy in the bunch. While he’s not exactly a write-down-your-goals type, he is never without his compass.

“I always knew what I wasn’t going to do,” Majors says about the type of work he sought. “Then I had a daughter, and that put another fire under my ass. I knew how I wanted her to think about her father, that an actor isn’t a prostitute or a hustler. It’s an elegant art form. It has a lot of dignity to it, if you allow it. It just became very clear to me that I know what I’m made out of, I know who made me and where I come from. So that’s what I’m gonna look for. And I attracted it. It was gifted to me.”

Majors’ satisfaction with his work comes not just in his ability to entertain and to make people feel. He takes something from each of his roles, in a kind of transfusion between him and his characters. “Art is my therapy,” he says. “That’s why acting is the best job in the world — because you can learn to be a better dad, a better lover, a better friend.”

That’s perhaps never been truer than in the case of his most recent projects, both of which have given him the chance to tend to the most profound injury of his childhood. In Bloods, David has to chase his distant father halfway around the world to bond with him. In Lovecraft, Tic’s father Montrose is an alcoholic who holds secrets and flies into rages — and didn’t once write while his son was away at war. Both parts sank into Majors’ blood, changing the alchemy ever so slightly, opening him up to the idea of communication with his own dad.

“Ben Kingsley once said, ‘When you’re on a film set, you’re a hunter.’ Everybody’s hunting for the scene,” Majors says. “I’ve taken that and applied it to my life. I know what I’m missing, because I’m hunting for it. And [in] the hunt I’ve had to get closer to my father, to understand him, to understand myself, why I was so angry, why I’m still a little angry and hurt, Atticus and David have given me tools. And now I have enough courage some days to stand there, like the boy you are, always, with your father, and ask the question, and hear the answer, and have enough strength to hold back the dogs of havoc, and just listen.”

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