CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – Well before the birth of his daughter and before he fell in love with acting, Jonathan Majors was completely devoted to Iggy the iguana.
Majors, 33, was gifted his first pet for his ninth birthday, right before he moved from California to Texas. “I’d get up in the middle of the night, hunting for crickets,” he remembers. “I just loved him. And when he went, my heart was just broken.”
His new Korean war drama “Devotion” (in theaters Wednesday), in which he plays real-life Navy aviator Jesse Brown, has Majors thinking about the definition of that movie title: “Devotion is going beyond essentially the call of duty. Coach tells you to run two miles, you run three miles. Not for ego, not for anything else, but because of a spiritual acknowledgement of your connection to something else. And Iggy was the first time I experienced that.”
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Majors takes flight in his new film while also soaring into Hollywood’s stratosphere: Go to the movies and half the trailers you’ll see feature the Yale-educated actor. An Emmy nominee for HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” Majors brings the next big bad to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (due Feb. 17) and puts his dukes up against Michael B. Jordan as ring antagonist Damian Anderson in boxing drama “Creed III” (March 3).
Throw in his role as an amateur bodybuilder in the upcoming “Magazine Dreams” and playing mercurial basketball icon Dennis Rodman in “48 Hours in Vegas,” and, well, the sky’s the limit.
“Part of the magic trick of seeing Jonathan on screen is that he commands such a presence, yet you don’t see Jonathan Majors,” says “Devotion” director JD Dillard. “To be both character actor and movie star, it’s a really exciting thing to see.”
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In Brown, the first Black naval aviator in a newly desegregated military, Majors found a man with a similar drive. “His monomania for flying is akin to my monomania for acting and art making,” Majors says in an interview at the historic Paramount Theater, a few hours before a Virginia Film Festival screening of “Devotion.” “I saw his ambition and his willingness and ultimately his service, because he’s doing that for his family. He’s doing that for himself. He’s doing that for his country. He’s doing that for his culture, his people at large. And I, too, am humbly on that same mission.”
“Devotion” tracks Brown’s friendship with white pilot Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), but also the racism and prejudice he faced. One powerful scene shows Majors’ character, in an effort to motivate himself, facing a mirror (and, by extension, the audience) screaming the slurs and insults that have been hurled his way.
That moment is “cathartic in a way, but not necessarily for me – for us,” Majors says. “Trauma is a universal thing. Being a victim of hate is a universal thing. I felt in that moment, if we took it to the deepest level, we could have hit a vibration that could reach everybody: white, black, brown, of any walk or creed (or) gender. So we had to take it there.”
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In real life, Majors has those gut-check experiences regularly, especially in his chosen field. “There’s many moments of, OK, you’ve got to do it now,” he says. That’s why rituals are important to him: During a portrait session, the photographer asks him to put his cup away and turn off his music, and Majors politely declines. “Those are my ways of coaching myself up and keeping myself focused.”
He cites a more personal example, when he found out he was going to have a daughter, who’s now 9. As a “relatively young” father, three years out of drama school and “brand new” to New York City, Majors recalls “many moments running through Queens, pacing, talking to myself, ‘What you going to do? How you going to do this? Can you do this?’”
Majors says his life changed immediately: “When it was official – she’s coming – everything shifts. It’s tectonic plates, isn’t it? Everything’s still there, but there’s more space, there’s more definition, there’s more distance between things. There’s a different perspective that comes. Whenever you’re responsible for anything, but nothing more so than a child, your heart just changes. It has to. I don’t think you have a choice, really.”
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Powell enjoyed seeing Majors’ big heart up close. “He cares so much,” he says. “We are just brothers for life.” And “Quantumania” director Peyton Reed calls Majors “a force” and says the actor has one thing in common with his villainous Kang: “He wants to win. He really sees every acting role as a challenge, and wants to get better and better.”
For Majors, playing a real-life figure like Brown or Nat Love in “The Harder They Fall” means taking extra responsibility, because they’re “someone who walked this life. That individual actually touched other individuals who may or may not be with us,” he says.
But digging into the lives of his fictional characters is also important for him. Filming “Creed III,” Majors explains, “I was a boxer for a year. So when those punches came, I knew how to avoid them, not because I’m acting like it. I’ve been hit a few times … and I don’t want that to happen.”
As for portraying the enigmatic new Kang, he wants to be the part, not just act it.
“He’s a conqueror; (so) do that,” he says, because audiences need “a real reference point, even if it is an olio of conquerors and dictators and kings and queens and villains of the past.
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“I just don’t like to act. It’s hard for me. It makes my brain go crazy. I feel silly,” Majors adds with a laugh.
A thoughtful conversation turns downright nerdy when discussing inspiration vs. imagination in his work – “I feel like I’m teaching a class” – and turns giddy when he’s asked about his interests, from dogs and horses to cooking and Formula 1 racing (“That’s kind of a new thing”). His expressive smile lights up the most, though, when talking about “my muse.”
His daughter’s “been the guiding light for me,” Majors says. “I’ve always wanted to do this, always wanted to be here to do this stuff. But she has altered my engine in a way that I would’ve wanted to, but I don’t think I would’ve been able to if I wasn’t thinking about that little girl and making her proud.”
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Story Credit: usatoday.com