Fresh off a scene-stealing turn in Spike Lee's latest, the actor is now gearing up to take center stage in HBO's Lovecraft Country.

By Marcus Jones
June 23, 2020 at 01:39 PM EDT
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Jonathan Majors can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t impacted by the work of Spike Lee

“The first time you see a black protagonist, for me, a real black protagonist, it's Malcolm X,” the Da 5 Bloods actor, 30, recalls to EW over a Zoom chat in early June. “Mind you, I was born in 1989. Malcolm X came out in 1992, and I lived in a black household, so when that movie hit we were watching it. We were watching it over and over and over and over again. Malcolm X was a superhero, therefore Denzel Washington is a f—ing superhero. As a nine-year-old kid wanting to be a superhero, I wanted to be Malcolm X.”

So when Majors, the breakout star of beloved 2019 indie The Last Black Man in San Francisco, got the call that Lee wanted to meet with him, he jumped at the chance without fully knowing what he'd be in for. After some introductory small talk, Lee showed the actor an early edit of the “Land of the Free” music video he directed for The Killers, and it moved him to tears.

Then, before he knew it, the prolific filmmaker asked him if he had a passport.

Stefani Pappas

Giving Lee the affirmative, the director continued to unveil his intentions through a line of questioning. “'Do I know who Delroy Lindo is?' Yeah, absolutely," Majors recalls. "'Well, he plays your father.'" Lee leaves to grab the actor a copy of Bloods, a 1984 Wallace Terry book about the history of the Vietnam War through the experience of Black soldiers, which served as a bible of sorts for the main Da 5 Bloods actors to understand their characters more. Majors was also handed a scout book that had all the places the film would be shooting, and was then asked what his shoe size was. “At that point, I thought, ‘Well, f—, if I don't get this job, this is the biggest trick I've ever experienced in my life,’" jokes the actor.

Lee ended the interaction by telling Majors to wear a helmet (the actor had biked over to Lee’s office), and finally, "You got the role, man.” Among the many reasons to be happy about securing the role, there was a small sense of relief to not having to walk out of the 40 Acres and a Mule office with just a pair of Lee’s Nikes that didn’t fit him.

Majors had not yet read the script though, and those who’ve watched Da 5 Bloods on Netflix already will understand that it was one thing for him to learn he would be playing Delroy Lindo’s son, and another to see the complex, volatile relationship between his character, David, and Lindo’s Paul. “It's great to be picked, but then even more when it feels particular” notes the actor. “David carries the youth, he's us. He's visceral, he's a body, but he's also so full of heart and light. He's the guy who has a different experience from the other fellows.”

One of Majors’ goals throughout the Thailand boot camp Lee organized prior to shooting was to fully inhabit that father-son link between his and Lindo’s characters. While he at first kept an appropriate distance from Lindo, to establish their characters’ initial estrangement, “I studied him deeply, I studied him a lot,” says Majors. “His mannerisms, how he moved, how he talked, what made him go off, how he ignored things, how he got happy, how he got angry. I watched that because I know from my life that I do that the same way my father did, and if I don't, I've made a deliberate choice not to.”

With time came more conversations with each other as colleagues, opening up to each other during walks around the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. As Lindo tells EW over the phone, “We also established, along with the other five members of the team, a wonderful bond and chemistry off screen that we then channeled into the work we were all doing on screen.” 

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One such moment arrives when the film first introduces David. “By the time we got to Vietnam, we had been on the film for about eight weeks,” Majors explains. “We were sitting in the bar in the dark, just huddled up, talking about the story, talking about the film, but also not. But the intimacy, it becomes so deep. And then the next day, or that same week, we shot [our] first scene in the film [together]. Where I walk in on him. So that chemistry had activated offscreen.”

Much has been said over Paul's Trump-supporting ways, complete with the Make America Great Again hat he wears throughout the movie. “It's a very classical vehicle to do that, the mask. So when he put that hat on, it was a symbol to everybody that dad, [or] Paul, has just gone someplace else,” notes Majors. “That hat carried a certain amount of values.”

What has mostly gone unnoticed though is the "mask" David wears. In the aforementioned scene where he is introduced, David is wearing a hat from Morehouse College, the historically black men’s college Lee happens to have attended himself. While he only wears the hat during his introduction, David has some visible form of Morehouse College gear throughout the film, the same way his dad is attached to the Trump hat.

“The Morehouse of it all was in some ways — again, you can be like your father by accident or you can be completely unlike him on purpose,” reflects Majors. Jumping off the idea his hat is in some way a correction of Paul’s beliefs, he adds “The motto of Morehouse is, ‘And there was light.’ So if he wants to make America great again — all this darkness, troll, racist, bulls— — My response to you is, ‘Let there be light,’ and I'm going to wear it the entire film.”

There are many small details and symbols that Lee throws into Da 5 Bloods, but not to the detriment of his cast’s performances. “Things that are understood need not be discussed,” notes Majors, “especially a set like this, where Spike put us all together. There's so much we understand, but we didn't spend too much time talking about it.” It’s a testament to the cast’s chemistry, and their trust in Lee, “when people can just kind of gesture or grind and we know what's going on."

While he has 11 years of acting training under his belt (“There's very little, academically, that I haven't come across”), Majors still found lessons to be learned from his castmates. Beyond Lindo, he stars alongside veteran stars of screen and stage Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Clarke Peters. “Sometimes the best thing to do is just to sit at your father's knee. They don't have to talk to you,” he says, also reminiscing on his times working with other veteran Black entertainers like Danny Glover on The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Courtney B. Vance in the upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country. “If they just performed to their own standards while you're there, you take that in, that becomes a part of your DNA.” Majors elaborates, noting “It's not just what happens in the scene. It's how you carry yourself on set. It's how you discuss something with a producer, how you carry yourself in an interview,” in reference to what he has learned from those actors, who now lovingly refer to him by names like “young blood” or “son.”

The young breakout has a different appreciation for the innovative Black filmmakers he has gotten to work with. “Spike Lee has been a singular voice that straddles the lines of commercialism, politics, entertainment, and culture,” he acknowledges, before adding he's found work with new voices that aspire towards the same things. “I never want to make something for the sake of making it. If we're not expressing something new or pushing something forward, that's for somebody else,” states Majors. “I'm not here to have fun. It's very hard work. However, I find the work extremely pleasurable. So the higher the level of difficulty, the higher risk, the better reward.”

Like attracts like, and Majors has attracted filmmaking peers like his Last Black Man costar Jimmie Fails, who also co-wrote the film’s story, and Lovecraft Country creators Jordan Peele and Misha Green. “It's just as important to me to work with my contemporaries, as it is to work with those who have blazed the path before me,” says Majors. “I'm on the shoulders of Delroy Lindo, right? Down the line, Delroy Lindo will be on the shoulders of me because I'll be pushing something forward and I'll need him. And he'll come in and he'll Lindo this s– out of it.”

For now though, Majors moves from one historical corrective (a term he picked up from Lindo) to another. Much like how Da 5 Bloods adds Black veterans to the conversations surrounding the Vietnam War, his upcoming Netflix film The Harder They Fall does its part to correct the erasure of Black cowboys in westerns. “Not only were we there, but we were killing the game. We were out-cowboying cowboys,” jokes a hype Majors. “John Wayne, what? No, watch this Nat Love s–. Watch this Rufus Buck s–. As they say, I'm going to teach you how to stunt.”

While stuck in New Mexico, sheltering in place until production on The Harder They Fall picks back up, Majors is thankful he is talking about a film that covers the struggles many Black people face in America right now referring to refers to Da 5 Bloods as “edutainment” that provides both the sustenance and gasoline people are in need of.

“My way of protesting and speaking out, because primarily we're equipped with the film. This film speaks out and does that,” he shares. “So most and/or any attention given to the film is giving attention and power to the right side of things.”

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