By Chancellor Agard
August 14, 2020 at 07:11 PM EDT
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The world of HBO's Lovecraft Country is a scary place.

Set in Jim Crow-era America, the horror drama follows science-fiction bibliophile and Korean War veteran Atticus "Tic" Freeman (Da 5 Bloods' Jonathan Majors) as he embarks on a quest to find his missing father (Michael K. Williams). Unfortunately, the very real threats of racism and police brutality aren't the only terrors he'll face on this journey: He must also contend with Lovecraftian monsters and a mysterious secret society. Thankfully, he won't go through it alone, because his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and friend Letitica "Leti" Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) are along for the ride. For both Tic and Majors, having family by your side makes all the difference.

Below, the actor discusses the horrors — both real and imagined — that await the audience, what attracted him to the role, and more.

Elizabeth Morris/HBO

ENTERATINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to Lovecraft Country when you read the scripts?

JONATHAN MAJORS: [For the audition], you only get the pilot — and not even the pilot, you get the scenes and then you get the pilot. But what I saw off top with Atticus was, this is how real people come up. You hear it all the time, as you make your way through high school, etc."I hope you didn't peak in high school, boy." Atticus did not peak in high school. And the whole series is Atticus becoming the man that he's going to be, essentially the patriarch of the family, in a very strange, odd way.

But what got me off top was, I'm a theater kid. I played sports, I did all that, but I was a theater kid. I experienced being bullied. I experienced hiding away and being by myself in books. I too had an estranged father. There are so many elements that [I related to]. Also growing up in the South, I'm very familiar with the relations between the African-American community and the white community down home in Texas. I was born in California but raised in Texas. Then I end up in New York, and then I head up to Connecticut. I began to witness society as it changed [from place to place].

And then there's the monsters. That to me was like, "Oh, this is cool." And there's no cape. [Tic isn't] a masked crusader. He's a bespectacled hero who kind of makes his way through, and that was very attractive to me. The fact that he was first and foremost, in some ways, a regular guy — and we find out down the line that he's not a regular guy — felt so attainable. It was something that everyone could relate to, and then magic happened.

In an interview you did with Variety last year, you said Tic was like playing Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo all at the same time. What did you mean by that?

He's got the Romeo aspect because he's a lover and he's from a very distinct culture and very distinct group. He's been banished; the war for him was self-banishment. And he lives in banishment in Florida before we meet him. That's where he's coming from [in the pilot]. As you're beginning to see, his heart is what drives him. You know, that's the beautiful thing about Atticus, and a real hero, is that a hero is only a hero because he lets his heart break instead of somebody else's.

Then the Macbeth element is that he's so mysterious. You have no idea what's really going on in his mind, and he's haunted. We see it a little bit in episode 2 where the stuff from the war comes back and he is suffering from PTSD. As we know, Macbeth is haunted, he sees ghosts. Especially in episode 2, Atticus is dealing with monsters. Then Hamlet… He's a soldier and a mechanic, and built the way he's built, but ultimately he's an academic. Everything he does is driven primarily from his heart and brain, and his brain moves at such a pace.

Elizabeth Morris/HBO

The show deals with racism and police brutality, things we're still dealing with today; I found parts of the show hard to watch. How did you and your castmates handle digging into those heavy topics, and were there any particularly challenging days?

As a Black man, you are living in a place and you are constantly unsafe. And we go to these bastions of safety: Harlem, you can call that a haven; the South Side of Chicago, you can call that haven; Detroit, you can call that haven. But we have to leave our homes at some point in order to survive, in order to move our family and ourselves forward. What that ends up doing is, you put yourself in constant danger. There's an enemy around you, there's a system around you that is not on your side and not playing fair. The thing that is in jeopardy, it's not your happiness — it is your breath. It is your life. So at the beginning of the show we get a hint of it, and it's pretty mild compared to where we go. But there are moments when it got really, really real for me.

I do not drive now, for a reason. You know, I'm a 6-foot Black man, and I'm built the way I'm built. Driving is a very stress-inducing thing for me to do. And so you notice in the first episode, that's the worst nightmare. That slow chase [with the cop] is probably the most tense thing I had experienced. You see a cop car, it could be a hearse. So that sequence was extremely frightening.

How did you and your costars come down from those intense days?

Courtney B. Vance was a boxer, and I was a boxer, and what we would end up doing was just kind of slap boxing once it was over. [We formed] this kind of fellowship. You just got to talk and keep it loose. You want the tension. But when it all came down, when it was all over, we had each other. And that's a great theme in the [show]: that this family is so tight. And that includes Leti, who's not a part of the blood family.

Elizabeth Morris/HBO

Speaking of Leti, how would you describe Atticus' relationship with her?

It's funny, man. When we were shooting, Atticus was not smiling. He just wasn't a smiling man. And the only people that make him smile in the story, especially right there at the beginning, is Uncle George and Leti. And when he sees Leti, he lights up. What he's experienced in the war, what he's experienced before leaving home, he's kind of heartbroken at the beginning. And then he meets Leti, and that heart begins to somehow come together.

You've had a busy few years with this, Da 5 Bloods, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. What did it feel like to jump through so many projects in a short period of time?

Man, all I can say to that is the North Carolina School of the Arts and Yale School of Drama. Because when you're in drama school, you're playing multiple characters at once. You know, in the morning you're doing a Chekhov play, and then you're doing a Shakespeare workshop midday. And so you're kind of moving around, and you learn how to access certain parts of yourself and, not really cut certain parts off, but hold certain parts.

And so, I didn't book them all at the same time. The beauty of it was, I got to play one guy fully, Mont [in The Last Black Man in San Francisco]. The funny thing about Mont is, I was playing a guy in a film called Gully in Los Angeles while I was prepping for Mont. But once you've played them [both] out, the body remembers, the instrument remembers. And so Mont had certain elements and style to him, and a way of speaking. And then I ran off and do the pilot for Lovecraft after that. And I now know, "Okay, I've done Mont, I could feel Mont in my body. I could feel that segment in my body. Where's Atticus now?" And you develop him. And then Spike Lee comes along and you got to go into a whole different world [for Da 5 Bloods]. I think that's the cheat sheet: All these worlds are very different. So pretty much what I had to do was find a way to become invisible in the world.

Lovecraft Country premieres Sunday, Aug. 16, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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