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Watch: Jonathan Majors on his meteoric rise through Hollywood

NPR's Ayesha Rascoe speaks with actor Jonathan Majors about his meteoric rise in Hollywood.
Nickolai Hammar
/
NPR
NPR's Ayesha Rascoe speaks with actor Jonathan Majors about his meteoric rise in Hollywood.

Actor Jonathan Majors has arrived.

He's in not one, but three movies released this year so far.

He plays Kang in Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the new villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He stars as Damian Anderson opposite of Michael B. Jordan in the third installment in the Creed franchise, and portrays the awkward bodybuilder named Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams — a drama that premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and received rave reviews. The film was recently picked up by Searchlight Pictures.

Jonathan Majors drew attention after appearing in the independent film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which was followed by a string of roles, including Atticus Freeman in the HBO hit series Lovecraft Country — landing him an Emmy nomination in 2021 — and Nat Love in the Netflix western The Harder They Fall.

In an interview with NPR, the 33-year-old Texas native said that his introduction to acting came in the way of a theater class he was forced to take after getting in trouble at school. Acting has been his focus ever since.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On his path to acting

The spoken word has always been a big part of my life, whether it be the Bible — my mom is a pastor. We are Southern and as anyone from the South knows oration is a big part of our culture. I listened to my granddaddy tell stories on his couch. Singing was a big thing. The church ... and also living in the neighborhood I lived in, apartment complexes, hearing peoples' alacrity with language. This is my culture. This is this is how we operate.

One thing led to another, and then that led to me googling one night, "what is the best drama school for grown ups?" The usual suspects came up. Yale [University] was one of them and it's been the hustle ever since.

Jonathan Majors, 33, says that he chose to be a part of <em>Creed III</em> and <em>Magazine Dreams</em> because they were roles that challenged him both physically and artistically.
Nickolai Hammar / NPR
/
NPR
Jonathan Majors, 33, says that he chose to be a part of Creed III and Magazine Dreams because they were roles that challenged him both physically and artistically.

On how he picks his roles

You talk about pressure. That's how I pick a role; based on pressure. I look at it and I go, "Oh that's going to be difficult." I'm going to hit the red zone in that. Magazine Dreams, can I be a bodybuilder? I remember reading the script and googling, and thinking, "This is going to be impossible!" Same with Creed. You watch the Rocky film, and you think man, that's so inspiring. But then it can be intimidating when you think [about how] you're supposed to do that.

The complexity of a Damian Anderson [from Creed III], the pressure of folks who have been incarcerated [and are] watching that film. Anderson is based off a couple of folk, but for me, the inspiration was really my stepfather. His name is Joe Young. We used called Mighty Joe Young. He was incarcerated for 15 years before he became my stepfather. I understand what that ankle monitor life is like. I understand what it feels like when the probation officer comes to the crib. I watched him be misunderstood and judged, you know, and his aspirations, his deep, deep aspirations of something greater, that were put on pause because he was incarcerated. With Damian Anderson, I get the opportunity to write a love letter to my stepdad.

Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Marvel Studios' <em>Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania</em>.
/ Marvel Studios
/
Marvel Studios
Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Marvel Studios' Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

On what's drawn him to films in which he plays the villain

I think it's the exploration of the shadow. There's the hero part of you, that's great, but we all have another side of ourselves, and that's the shadow part. It's the part that has our deepest ambitions, deepest drives, deepest wants. Lust is there, greed is there, hate is there. So, to play characters that are already given such pejorative labels, but then to also show the light to that, it adds complexity to our human experience.

On how he juggles the physical demands of his recent roles in Creed III and Magazine Dreams

To transform the body like that, it is a physical, spiritual and emotional transformation. It's a high mountain to climb because there's a standard of perfection. A bodybuilder looks like that. A boxer moves like that, fights like that, looks like that. That takes work. There are 2-o'clock workout sessions where you're just crying on the floor because your abs feel like they've just stopped working. I remember we were doing Creed — there were days where I could not feel my arms.

On how he defines masculinity, after receiving criticism online from Black people for his cover for Ebony magazine

It is fluid. It's balanced, isn't it? There's strength and there's vulnerability. There's awareness, and then there's acknowledgement of ignorance. It doesn't matter how much you weigh or how much you bench press. That's not the point. But, I hear my brothers. We fight and claw for every inch of positive news we get. I don't shy away from this idea of Black masculinity. I'm just living my life. I am male. I am Black.

On his aspirations for the rest of his career

When the young homies are looking at me like, "I want to be like Jonathan Majors," cool man! I'm trying to be like somebody else. I'm trying to be like Sidney Poitier. I'm trying to be like Denzel Washington. I'm trying to be like Philip Seymour Hoffman. I really believe — just do the best you can.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Hiba Ahmad
Shannon Rhoades is NPR's senior editor for interviews.