Emmy-nominated movie and television actor Jonathan Majors sat down with Professor in the Humanities Paul Muldoon, who also serves as the director of the Princeton Atelier. They discussed Majors’ past roles and what the general public can expect from his upcoming movies.
“Acting literally saved my ass,” Majors said during the event, which is part of the Atelier at Large series, “Conversations on Art-Making in a Vexed Era.” The talk took place on Tuesday, Nov. 29, in the Jimmy Stewart ’32 Theater.
Majors’s rise to fame began while he was still a student at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University, when he received his first major onscreen role in the ABC mini-series “When We Rise,” in which he played gay rights activist Ken Jones.
Majors recounted how playing a gay character gave him new insights, even though he is straight and was raised in a Christian household with a pastor for a mother. Majors also mentioned that he doesn’t know if production companies would cast him in the role today, due to the call for LGBTQ+ characters to be played solely by LGBTQ+ actors.
In meeting the real-life Ken Jones, he said he came to think of the concept of healing in a new light. Majors said that his experience playing an activist character causes him to fight for those who aren’t accepted for who they are, and as a result, he tries to relieve people of their stress and familial trauma. Majors said that, for him, this fight extends on and off camera.
“I’m in the healing business,” he said.
Although the “When We Rise” role offered Majors his big break, he explained that he needed to persuade his faculty advisor at Yale to allow him to take the role.
The Yale School of Drama was initially hesitant in letting Majors take the role because, in his words, they wanted to “brand him.” Majors added that if Yale hadn’t let him do the part, he was going to “hit it and quit it with Yale.”
“Do I hate Yale? Yeah,” Majors added. “We tend to hate things that hold secrets.”
Though Majors highlighted some of his more negative experiences at Yale in regards to constraints on his acting pursuits, he also thanked the School of Drama for the training that it offered him.
Majors earned his Masters in Fine Arts from Yale in 2016, and soon thereafter starred as Corporal Henry Woodson in the 2017 film “Hostiles” — a film and a role that Majors described as “high risk, high reward.”
Muldoon and Majors then steered the discussion to the latter’s 2019 role in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Majors said that, while in production for this film, he and director Joe Talbot would walk up and down the streets of San Francisco.
Majors described his interaction with Talbot and the directors and producers of his other films as a “collaborative” process.
“My most intimate relationship is between me and my director,” he said.
The conversation then moved to the subject of Majors’s role in the HBO show “Lovecraft Country,” which earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series in 2021, the same year he starred in the Netflix original film “The Harder They Fall.”
According to Majors, the Netflix original was met with resistance, due to the film being on “the brink of breaking walls down,” as a movie with a Black ensemble and, especially, a Black Western movie.
Majors said he hopes to see those walls knocked down throughout his acting career, as he envisions “The Harder They Fall” ushering in more Black Westerns.
“We smacked it, we did that. The whole gesture of the film was rebellion, put all of these Black folks together and say, ‘watch this,’” he said.
When asked about his most recent film “Devotion,” in which he plays Jesse Brown, the first African American aviator in the Navy, Majors mentioned how the movie has reminded him of his childhood, since he was born and raised for some time on a military base due to his father’s work in the Air Force.
He also mentioned that he thought of his grandfather in particular throughout much of production, due to what Majors sees as parallels between his grandfather and Jesse Brown: They were both African American men making history in roles no person from their community had held before. To Majors, the character of Jesse became almost like a friend.
On his approach to evaluating potential new projects, Majors said he thinks more about the weight of the character than about the weight of the story. His approach to storytelling is to try to do “as little acting as possible.”
As the event was coming to an end, students in attendance were able to ask questions.
One student asked if Majors was concerned about possible constraints with his upcoming Marvel projects. Majors is slated to appear in the upcoming Marvel Studios films “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” opening in February 2023, and “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty,” with an anticipated release in May 2025.
In response, Majors said that “artists need constraints,” and that he doesn’t look at his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) negatively. “The MCU has offered me a large platform,” Majors added.
When asked about his fast-paced work life, he said that nobody pushes him harder than he pushes himself.
“I’m not tired, I don’t feel the need to stop the pace,” he explained.
Later on, Majors urged those who have a desire to pursue acting to express vulnerability and to be open to new opportunities. “If you go in there hungry, you make the wrong decisions,” he said.
“When you don’t put out, you keep it in,” Majors added, as he urged actors to let their emotions out on the screen and not to wait for their emotions to kick in off camera, saying that the latter could wind up affecting both personal and professional relationships.
Majors also described the various forms of pushback he has received throughout his career.
“I received pushback from the world, and even my own people,” he said.
The event ended with Majors discussing his past poetic pursuits, saying that he hopes to write more poetry in the future. Majors then recited “I Imagine The Gods,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, whom Majors cites as one of his many inspirations.
“Help me to find the heft of these days,” Majors read, “That the nights will be full enough and my heart feral.”
Justus Wilhoit is a news and Prospect contributor for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct all corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.