TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest is actor Jonathan Majors. Earlier this year, he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the HBO series "Lovecraft Country." Now he stars in a new Western film, "The Harder They Fall," with an all-star Black cast, which includes Idris Elba, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield. We invited Audie Cornish, one of the hosts of All Things Considered, to do an interview for our show. She recorded this interview with Jonathan Majors before last week's accidental shooting with a prop gun on the set of another Western, "Rust." Here's Audie.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Just what does it take to build a modern-day Hollywood career? Well, when I think of some of the roles that might check the box, there's the emotional turn in a quirky festival indie, a chiseled romantic hero in a prestige cable series, a gunslinger of one kind or another and of course, there's got to be a turn in a superhero film. Well, our next guest has checked off all these boxes barely five years out of Yale Drama School. Jonathan Majors had his breakout moment in 2019 in the indie film "The Last Black Man From San Francisco" (ph). He later starred in HBO's Emmy-nominated horror series "Lovecraft Country."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVECRAFT COUNTRY")
JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Atticus) I know casting this spell is going to kill me. But I also know I got to take every chance I can to live for my son.
CORNISH: He did a turn with legendary director Spike Lee in the haunted Vietnam vet drama "Da 5 Bloods." And Majors shocked Marvel fans with his appearance as Kang the Conqueror in the finale of the TV series "Loki," setting up the next run of films in the Marvel Universe.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOKI")
MAJORS: (As Kang) There's two options. One, you kill me and destroy all this. And you don't just have one devil, you have an infinite amount. Or you two run the thing.
CORNISH: Well, today we're going to talk to him about his gunslinger role. Jonathan Majors is in the JAY-Z-produced Western "The Harder They Fall." It's British director Jeymes Samuel's first feature film. "The Harder They Fall" is a revenge drama that imagines actual Western figures - the legendary Bass Reeves and outlaw Cherokee Bill - in a story with all the classics of the mid-century Hollywood Western - train robberies, saloon face-offs, dusty gunfights and sunset rides. Majors plays the character of Nat Love. And Love was a real-life figure, a former slave who became a rodeo star also known as Deadwood Dick. In this film, the character is an outlaw on a quest to avenge his father's murder. Here's Majors with Regina King and Delroy Lindo.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")
MAJORS: (As Nat) Where is he?
REGINA KING: (As Trudy) Where is who?
MAJORS: (As Nat) Marshal, I'm speaking English, yeah?
DELROY LINDO: (As Bass) Sound like English to me.
MAJORS: (As Nat) Where's Rufus Buck?
KING: (As Trudy) Ooh. Bass.
LINDO: (As Bass) Trudy.
KING: (As Trudy) If I'd known you was switching sides, I'd have ask you to come join us. You here for your damsel in distress?
MAJORS: (As Nat) You don't look hard of hearing, so I'm going to ask you again. Where's Rufus Buck?
KING: (As Trudy) Well, clearly, you don't know me.
CORNISH: Jonathan Majors, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MAJORS: Thank you.
CORNISH: You're kind of a Southern boy. Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. We're talking North Texas.
MAJORS: I'm a - I don't know if it's PC to say anymore, but I'm a military brat, Air Force brat. As it were, my father was in the Air Force. I was born in California and then moved to Texas very early on, where my maternal and paternal grandparents are. And my great-great-great and all the folks are there. And...
CORNISH: Your people.
MAJORS: Yeah. Yeah. The folks, as you say. Yeah. In Dallas, that's kind of where we kind of set up camp. My people are from Waco, Riesel, Texas. Those who know, know. Those who don't...
CORNISH: Now you know.
MAJORS: Now you know.
CORNISH: And I understand that your grandparents had a farm there that you spent some time on. Is that true?
MAJORS: Yeah. We had - we have a few acres down home, as we call it. There was two horses. There were a bunch of cows. We still have the cattle. There was a garden. There was some roosters that I got into some trouble with.
CORNISH: Exactly how does one get in trouble with a rooster? How does that (laughter) happen?
MAJORS: Well, I went in. And I broke some eggs because, you know, you go and you pick the eggs up. I mean, this is real - I mean, this is some real rural, country living. And I go in to pick the eggs up. And this rooster this day is just after me, you know? And I kind of look at him. I go, OK, OK. I got something for you. And so I have to be about 11 years old. So I get the eggs. And I've broken a few. And so I know I'm going to hear it from my grandma. And so I go back out. And I go out with a water hose, which is murder - right? - because I got it from my grandpa afterwards. So I go back in. The rooster is, like - I mean, I don't know if people know this, but roosters fight to the death.
MAJORS: And so it was me - (laughter) and at the time, I was string beans. It was me and this rooster and the water hose. And he wasn't having it. And he came after me. I still have a bit of a mark on my shin from his spur. And that was the end of that because my grandpa said, you know, if you wet the pin down and then the birds catch cold - and then, that's the end of that. So it was a huge lesson for me. Don't mess with roosters.
MAJORS: And, you know, be faster when you get the eggs out.
CORNISH: I heard you have described "The Harder They Fall" as a spaghetti Western. What's your familiarity with Westerns in general?
MAJORS: My grandfather used to have the Western Channel on our farm. We used to sit there and watch these Westerns and watch John Wayne and then, later on, Clint Eastwood.
CORNISH: All the guys we expect?
MAJORS: That's right. That's right, sis.
CORNISH: You're not the guy we expect, though, in this genre. I mean, what's different about the way "The Harder They Fall" and the way Jeymes Samuel takes this on?
MAJORS: So our heroes, heroines, villains and et cetera are Black, (laughter) you know? They are members of the African diaspora. And they have made their way to the West. And they live and operate in this Western genre within themselves, you know, and within our culture, which is beautiful.
CORNISH: Right. It's incidental to the story, not the cause - right? - and the motivation for the story?
MAJORS: Exactly. There is no driving plotline about this. We ain't being chased by nothing. We ain't running to nothing. In fact, we're on horses. It's quite special and unique and adds to the very classic and, I think, in some cases, very limited Western genre as we know it.
CORNISH: What did you know about Black cowboys - right? - and that kind of part of Western history?
MAJORS: I had the benefit of knowing that they kind of - they were always around because my folks were - as I said, like, even to this day, like, there's a rodeo in Killeen that my relatives actually participate in strongly. I mean, they're wicked. So I knew that horsemanship and the African American culture was a part of it. I mean, I knew it existed. The way it's romanticized is something that we haven't really gotten a chance to experience. And that took, you know, some research and also took some - you know, some real questioning, you know, as far as, like, history.
CORNISH: What do you mean by that? What's the romance to your mind?
MAJORS: Well, the romance of horses and Black bodies, you know, is that, you know, unfortunately, I mean, you had to ride a horse, right? You had to ride a horse. You had to work a horse. You had to work a mule. In slavery times, that was a part of - that's like fixing a car. Like, you had to have that. You know, you had to have that type of ingenuity, unfortunately, and to some benefit, you know, during those times. But the majestic nature of horse riding is not something that we are usually allowed to witness in cinema.
CORNISH: Our guest is Jonathan Majors. He was nominated for an Emmy for his lead role in the show "Lovecraft Country." He starred in the Spike Lee film "Da 5 Bloods" and the Marvel TV show "Loki" and the indie film "The Last Black Man In San Francisco." His latest is called "The Harder They Fall." We'll have more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Audie Cornish.
Our guest is Jonathan Majors. His new film is a Western called "The Harder They Fall." His movies include "Da 5 Bloods" and "The Last Black Man In San Francisco." He was also in the TV show "Loki" and received an Emmy nomination for his role in "Lovecraft Country." So, Jonathan Majors, this project, "The Harder They Fall," it pairs you again with someone you've worked with before, Delroy Lindo. He was in the Spike Lee film "Da 5 Bloods," where he played your father. In this he plays a version of Bass Reeves, who was a legendary figure, a U.S. marshal. And I want to talk a little bit about "Da 5 Bloods" because that is also another film about fatherhood and trying to know and understand a father. What was it like being paired with Lindo again, who was amazing in that film, playing a kind of MAGA hat-wearing, PTSD struggling father?
MAJORS: You know, the thing about Delroy Lindo - I call him the giant - right? - giant. The thing about giant is that he and I come from, you know, very similar schools of acting. You know, he is a American Conservatory Theater alum - ACT - out in San Francisco. I went to school a few places.
CORNISH: Let's pause. You went to Yale Drama. (Laughter) I know we're going to skim over that. But it gets to the point of classical training.
MAJORS: Yeah, so - well, since we did that, I also went to North Carolina School of the Arts, which was - which is my first drama school. If you're going to say both...
CORNISH: If we're going to say (laughter)...
MAJORS: ...We might as well, you know, say both. Yeah, yeah, first and last name.
CORNISH: But I'm glad you're bringing it up because Clark Peters is in "Da 5 Bloods" as well. Isiah Whitlock is in "Da 5 Bloods."
MAJORS: Also an ACT alum, Isiah Whitlock.
CORNISH: It's kind of this acting school, right? Some of the best character actors of their generation all together. And you were the young blood - right? - of this group.
MAJORS: Which was my nickname (laughter), on set.
CORNISH: Was it really?
MAJORS: Yeah. I was called - Spike would be, Morehouse, Morehouse, Morehouse 'cause he called me Morehouse. And then all the other fellas would call me Young Blood - you know, Young Blood, Young Blood, Young Blood.
MAJORS: Just to set the scene for people, you know, this movie takes place - "Da 5 Bloods" - in Vietnam, and it is a reunion of Vietnam vets who are making the trip so that they can kind of bring back the remains of their squad leader who died in the war. And of course, they're also trying to find gold that they found and buried there all those years ago. I'm going to play a scene (laughter) in just a bit. But to start, set up the relationship between this character, yours and Delroy Lindo's.
MAJORS: Cool. So in "Da 5 Bloods," Delroy Lindo plays a character named Paul. And Paul is a Vietnam War veteran. He is also the father to my character, David. And David sneaks out and, unbeknownst to his father, shows up in Vietnam. The beautiful thing about the relationship is it's kind of in the fourth quarter, you know. They're kind of in the red zone. David has a line where he says, it feels like it's my last time with him. You know? Just where his father is going - he is dealing with PTSD. And so it's a very taut relationship, and he's trying to reconnect with his father and trying to hold on to this man that he is just now, he finds, getting to know.
CORNISH: So in this scene, the vets have arrived, and your character is surprising - has surprised your father by, you know, following them to Vietnam. And as we said, that character is played by Delroy Lindo. And here's that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DA 5 BLOODS")
MAJORS: (As David) I'm worried about you.
LINDO: (As Paul) Why?
MAJORS: (As David) Well, I found out you were coming here.
LINDO: (As Paul) And?
MAJORS: (As David) And I came to check on you.
LINDO: (As Paul) You don't give a [expletive] about me (laughter).
MAJORS: (As David) I do. You've been acting more crazy than usual.
LINDO: (As Paul) Yeah. Well, you consider me checked on.
MAJORS: (As David) You're here for the gold. Don't lie. You going after the gold. I read Otis' emails. You got to choose better passwords - one two three four? (Laughter) Come on now, Dad.
LINDO: (As Paul) What do you want, David?
MAJORS: (As David) An equal share for helping you find it.
LINDO: (As Paul) Hell to the naw.
MAJORS: (As David) The authorities find out about this, y'all go back to the crib empty-handed.
LINDO: (As Paul) So you're just a little jive-ass gangster now, huh?
MAJORS: (As David) After everything you put me through, I'd say you getting a basement bargain.
LINDO: (As Paul) You ungrateful - little Black studies teacher [expletive].
MAJORS: (As David) You want to tell your Bloods, or should I?
CORNISH: That was Delroy Lindo, again (laughter) playing your father in Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods." You mentioned that you two have a similar style of acting or at least training. How does that play out on set? Can you give us some examples of what that means?
MAJORS: Oh, I would say the biggest connection Mr. Lindo and I have is the August Wilson canon. You know, there's just - there's a certain rhythm. There's a certain understanding that a, quote-unquote, "Wilsonian actor" has. You know, you learn it from the language. It's Shakespearean in many ways. It's Greek in many ways.
CORNISH: Right. I mean, he's a playwright who was called the theater's poet for Black America.
MAJORS: Yeah. We should just call him a theater's poet. You know, he was one of the biggest titans of - you know, of language and a champion of a American experience which is in direct contact with the African American experience. The language that he uses - August Wilson - elevates any human being. And the beauty of that is it is about an experience and about a culture that is so often, you know, pushed aside. That's just my two cents on Mr. August Wilson. But any actor who has, you know, even tried to read his work aloud feels something, understands something. And it leaves an imprint on them. And you can't help, like any of the greats - Shakespeare, Chekhov, August Wilson - to keep that in your instrument. There's a certain resonance that comes when you've worked on that work deeply.
CORNISH: What is it about the language compared to a Shakespeare, compared to something else that can work its way into kind of your toolbox as an actor?
MAJORS: Right. So first, we'll use the example of William Shakespeare - right? - the iambic pentameter - right? - dee dum, dee dum, dee dum, dee dum, dee dum, dee dum (ph). To be or not to be - that is, etc. Right? There - that - I mean, that's iambic pentameter. And you learn that, right? Some people say it's the heartbeat, you know? Some people say it's our natural rhythm of speech. In understanding that, there's a certain discipline when you jump into one of those speeches. And it takes a certain amount of understanding of the language, you know, to - if you choose to abide by it. And by abiding by it, by the iambic pentameter, you find yourself taken in a way.
Conversely, with August Wilson, he's dealing with jazz and blues and music in a different way, right? So it's a whole different metronome. The opening of "Fences" - Troy, you ought to stop that lying. I ain't lying. See; he had a watermelon this big, talking about, what watermelon, Mr. Rand? What watermelon, Mr. Rand?
Yeah. Like, that is a conversation between two people. And it's going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And there is no caesura. There is no time to break. It is literally being in complete connection to the other actor in front of you, hearing their instrumentation as they're giving this language out. And the instrumentation is given to us by the spirit of August Wilson, by the work and the mind of August Wilson. And you ride it. And you ride it. And at the end of it, you know, you get to - oh, come on, Mr. Death - right? - which is, you know, the climax of Troy's line, you know? You know, come on, death.
CORNISH: When I look at your past projects, you've had so many opportunities to work with actors of a certain generation. Michael K. Williams was a friend of yours, a very good friend of yours, right? I mean, he died very recently. And people, of course, know him from other HBO projects - "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Wire." But he played a very kind of rich role next to you in "Lovecraft Country" as a character who is - has sort of a fatherlike role in your life. What did he teach you about acting?
MAJORS: The thing about acting - one of the best things about acting is don't make declaratives about, you know...
MAJORS: So it's - you know what I mean? But a thing about acting is that acting is really an approach. It really ultimately is an approach, for me at least, to how one views the world and how one exists in the world. You know, acting is such a - but, you know, people can say it's subjective, you know? And, like, it kind of is. But, like, a punch in the face is a punch in the face. You know what I mean? Like, it is what it is. Like, real is real. And there's a certain amount of expense - spiritual, emotional expense that comes with the work sometimes. You know, it doesn't call for it all the time. Sometimes the scene is walking down the street, you know? And you can do that, you know? You don't got to do nothing for that. Just walk your ass down the street, boy. OK, cool. You know? Just don't get too creative. Just do it, you know?
But then there are times when a role or a world or a project or a moment requires something of you that you've got to give because it's going to give back. And they don't teach that in drama school. They just don't teach that in drama school. You know, they can act like they do. They don't, you know? Mike was an example. And he did it without thinking, you know? It was just who he was. It was just how he operated. And that's a huge example. There's repercussions to that. But the work itself - he's taught me a lot and continues to teach me a lot.
CORNISH: In what ways?
MAJORS: Well, there's a few scenes in "Lovecraft" where, you know, they're shooting the scene at 3 o'clock in the morning. Everybody's tired. Everybody's hungry. You're either hot or cold. No one's comfortable, you know? But you're - Michele Shay said this to me. You're doing it for the person in front of you. That's all you're doing it for. Cameras be damned. Press be damned. You know, you - at least you're doing it for the person in front of you. Only way you're going to do that is if you love the person in front of you. It's the only way you're going to sacrifice and give that to them, let them see your heart.
And Misha Green, our showrunner and writer of "Lovecraft Country," built a relationship where that was mandatory all the time between Atticus Freeman and Montrose Freeman. And so I would watch him do that. And the amount of love and the amount of vulnerability that he would give was something that had to be matched. And it upped. And then that's where we were brothers, where it's like, oh, you want to go? Let's go. You know, you want to bring it? Bring it. You know, we kept upping each other, upping each other, upping it, upping it, making each other better and better and better - you know? - more and more and more human, you know, if that's possible.
GROSS: Our guest is actor Jonathan Majors. He stars in the new Netflix film "The Harder They Fall." It's in select theaters now and will be on Netflix November 3. He's speaking with our guest interviewer Audie Cornish, a host of All Things Considered. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I COME")
BARRINGTON LEVY: (Scatting).
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Jonathan Majors. Earlier this year, he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the HBO series "Lovecraft Country." He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his breakout role in the 2019 film "The Last Black Man In San Francisco." He also starred in the Spike Lee film "Da 5 Bloods" and became part of the Marvel Universe, playing a villain in the TV series "Loki." He's now starring in the Netflix film "The Harder They Fall." It's a western produced by Jay-Z and starring an all-Black cast, including Idris Elba, Regina King and Delroy Lindo. Jonathan Majors spoke with guest interviewer, Audie Cornish, one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered.
CORNISH: You were born in California, and then you lived in areas of, North Texas which is where your parents are from and where your mom raised you. So you've got a little bit of the West in you. Talk about where you grew up.
MAJORS: That's deep. Because we kind of split our time between my mother's father - my grandparents - my maternal grandparents' place, which is a farmhouse we have down in - now, that sounds luxurious, but it's just a farm, you know? That's what people do, you know - down in Killeen, Texas. And then my paternal grandparents actually just lived 45 minutes down the road in Riesel. That's the country. I mean, that's like, dirt roads, don't turn your lights out because you ain't going to be able to see nothing on the road, or, like, let's play that game. Like, how long can mom drive with the lights out type stuff - you know, like, that's fun - like, can't see anything but stars at night. So we spent time down there. But then we also lived in multiple places.
CORNISH: It sounds like you moved around a fair bit. I mean, was that...
MAJORS: Yeah, we did. I mean, my mom had the three of us on our own, really. We had a stepfather come in at one point, and I love him. And yeah, I mean, we - it was just - we were a group of survivors, you know? And we just followed Mother Hen wherever she went, you know?
CORNISH: Why survivors? Why do you use that term?
MAJORS: Well, it was tough, you know? I guess not tough. It's just, it is what it is, you know? I mean, it's economics, right? You've got a single mother with three children, you know? I mean, there it is. We're in the South, and we're just trying to me make do, you know - two of which are boys - Black boys in the South, you know? So that's a headache. There's a sister, you know, that she's trying to - we were just spread thin. And so, yeah, there's a lot of, you know, can drives. There's a lot of, you know, borrowing stuff and staying over places and all that. But my mother, you know, being the queen she is, always made it work - always made it work and got us - you know, got us here. And you know, the later parts of my time in Texas, you know, we found some stability. But by that point, I was, you know, out the house, you know, kind of by choice. I guess kind of by choice - you know, put out the house.
CORNISH: I want to ask you a little bit about your mother. Because she worked her way through divinity school while you were young. She is a pastor. You do speak about your acting in spiritual terms. Do you find her coming out of you in some of these characters?
MAJORS: Well, she's my mother, you know? She's my first hero. She taught me the greatest lesson I ever learned, you know, about, you know, humanity, especially about storytelling. You can boil storytelling down to hero and villain. Well, the hero or the heroine is - you know, he or she - I've said this before - is he or she who allows their heart to break. And I grew up in a household where my mother - you know, and I was a knucklehead, you know? But my mother always allowed her heart to break as much as she could so mine wouldn't. And I watched her. I remember my mother just - my mother is a praying woman, you know? She believes in something greater than her, you know, and she prayed over me. And she doesn't let me forget that when I talk to her on the phone. You know what I mean?
CORNISH: Well, you're saying knucklehead, but it sounded like more than that. I mean, as a young man, at one point, you were at an alternative school. What was playing out then?
MAJORS: Well, I think - I mean, there's a moment there - right? - where - I mean, talking about toxic masculinity, you know, you're also talking about growing up, you know, and, like, you know, being a little, young Black boy. You like - you have to - I mean, I'll say it all, you know, and I don't regret any of it, you know? Like, sometimes there's so much discomfort in a young person. You know, I'll just speak to myself - so much discomfort in me, so much fear, so much anger, you know, because of - you know, in my case, you know, it's embarrassing, you know, to come home, and all your friends live in houses, and you live in this apartment. Or you know, you get to your apartment, and, you know, some days, the lights don't come on. It's like, OK. That's all right, you know? And the next day you come in, and, you know, the door don't open. Your key don't work no more, you know? And so you just wait for your siblings to come home. I mean, you know, all that - there's a lot of stuff, you know? And everyone has it. You know, I'm not singular in that, you know? But sometimes you can't metabolize it properly. And I was - I had a hard time with that.
CORNISH: Was it something you were struggling with as a family? And some of the things you've described are, you know, familiar to those of us who grow up having less, right? But I also know there were times when, you know, you left or were thrown out of your home. Was it something that was a struggle between the two of you?
MAJORS: Well, yeah. I mean, I think - not my mother - you know what I mean? - but my mother's household, you know? So I come from a very Southern house over in Texas. And you know, there is a certain responsibility that - you know, I was the man of the house, you know, quote, unquote. And there's a certain amount of pressure that comes. You don't want that.
CORNISH: Right. So your father was not present for your sort of early years.
MAJORS: Correct. Well, I guess early to later, you know what I mean? But you have a moment where you go, OK, you know, what you going to do? I mean, my big issue - you know, the thing that kind of put me down - you know, the fighting is fighting, you know? But what really put me on the radar with, you know, the folks, was, it was Christmas. And there was a Kohl's down the street. And I shoplifted all my Christmas presents. At this point, I'd been shoplifting for a little bit. And I was pretty good at it. And I got a little ambitious. And I had a list and all. And I was going through - I was just picking stuff up. And I got a little too ambitious. And that happened, and that got me in trouble. And then from that, the angst of being in that trouble - then, you know, you throw your hands the wrong way at the wrong person at the wrong time. And now they've got you, you know? And so...
CORNISH: Right. So you're referring to some fights you got into at school.
MAJORS: Yeah. And then you're in.
CORNISH: You're in the system.
MAJORS: Out-of-school suspension, you know what I mean? And then you find out what no-contest means, you know? It's like - it was deep.
CORNISH: You went through a phase of fighting. You went through a phase of shoplifting. You went through a phase where - it sounds like...
MAJORS: You going to read the whole rap sheet. You - wait. Stop. Stop (laughter).
CORNISH: The thing is, it's not that long a rap sheet. And I have wondered, with a mom as a pastor, how far you really got down that road before someone yanked on your collar?
MAJORS: Well, I mean, the cool part about the community I was in was like - there's a lady, Ms. Frieling (ph) - right? - who actually stopped it all, right? She was my principal. And she said, well, you just can't come back to school anymore. If you want to, you got to do it this way, right? And so we got put in this...
CORNISH: And how old were you then?
MAJORS: I must have been 14 - 14, 15. And we had this guy named Mr. Anderson (ph) who dealt with all the knuckleheads. And you were just with him. And they kind of escalated. Like, you know, you're right. You know, so, like, it starts with detention. Then you get what they call ISS. And then you're out in the cubicles. And then they just, like - then you're doing your community service and all the other stuff, you know? It was a good, hard hit, and it was time for it. And my mom had - you know, she had worked it so it was like, you do your community service, you know, you do this program, and then you find theater, and let's see how it goes.
CORNISH: At that age, were you already acting?
MAJORS: Not quite. Like, there was theater classes that I was taking - theater arts. And then once I kind of hit that class, it was kind of on. Like, Ms. LJ was, like, my first proper theater teacher - Ms. Lejeune (ph). And it was just - started with reading, you know? I think we've said, like, my mom was a pastor so, you know, you race to Bible verses, and you read the Bible verses out loud, all this stuff. You know what I mean? So, like, I was accustomed to reading, you know? And that was something that came naturally to me, and I enjoyed it. And so from the use of language and watching my mother and, you know, other family relatives use language, you know, to rally and to change and, you know, to work the church over, it was something that I was interested in.
CORNISH: What aspects of it drew you? Like, was it a given (laughter) once you started down that path?
MAJORS: It was deep because at the time, I was playing sports - trying to play sports. You know, I was still very much...
CORNISH: Am I guessing football, or am I being biased 'cause Texas?
MAJORS: I played football and basketball. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, yeah, I just wasn't there yet. But I did do it at my school, you know, and still got the - I was still around my teammates and all that stuff. And then after a while - it's interesting how it happened. Like, I quit the basketball team. I never threw up, and I threw up one day in practice. And I took my jersey off. And I just gave it to my coach and said, I think I'm done now. And I remember going home to my mom. I said, Mom, I quit the basketball team. She said, what? (Laughter) I was like, yeah, I quit the basketball team. She was like, OK. And then that was kind of it. Then I was theater this, theater that, you know, playing Third Murderer in the Scottish play.
CORNISH: You just leave the jersey on the bench and don't look back?
MAJORS: I left the jersey on the floor, and then that was it. You know, I still play. I can, you know, still ball a little bit, you know, if pressed or for fun, you know. But that was it. And I just left that behind. And I was like, OK, I guess I'm doing this now. There was something about the calm that my mother gave me 'cause she never let me quit anything. You know, there was a lot of calm in her, and I went, OK. This is OK, I guess.
CORNISH: What did acting give you that sports couldn't, didn't?
MAJORS: You know, I'm going to say something crazy. I think I was just better at it (laughter), you know? Like, there was something about...
CORNISH: That's pretty straightforward. That - (laughter) I can deal with that answer.
MAJORS: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it was like, yeah, that's it. You know, it's like, this is - you know, when something comes natural in a way, you can then push yourself more because you fired off enough, like, dopamine in your brain and be like, I like this enough to stick at it - you know? - 'cause I do think acting is extremely athletic. You know, it should be. There's a discipline to it, to all art forms. But to acting - an independent discipline that you must have in order to, I think - that I apply, right? I use my athletic discipline to my work, you know, in order to achieve certain things. Some things are technical, you know? Like, keep your elbow in, follow through, and that's how you shoot a free throw. You know what I mean? Push to the end of the line. You know, go to the punctuation. That's just technical, you know, but it's the same type of discipline.
CORNISH: Our guest is Jonathan Majors. His new film is a western called "The Harder They Fall." His movies include "Da 5 Bloods" and "The Last Black Man In San Francisco." We'll have more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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CORNISH: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Audie Cornish. Our guest is Jonathan Majors. His new film is a Western called "The Harder They Fall." His movies include "Da 5 Bloods" and "The Last Black Man In San Francisco." He was also in the TV show "Loki" and received an Emmy nomination for his role in "Lovecraft Country."
We were talking about how you were raised, and you mentioned having a child. And I understand that your child came after you had graduated from undergrad at the University of North Carolina, before you went to Yale. And can you talk about how becoming a parent affected how you saw acting as a potential career?
MAJORS: Oh, I mean, my mother will tell you - my siblings will tell you that, you know, I've been pretty hardheaded from the jump - you know, from the bounce. And I remember my mother saying to me, you know, so what's your backup plan, son? Ain't no backup plan, Ma. I'm going to make this work.
CORNISH: How did you decide to make that work?
MAJORS: When it was announced - you know, when it was going to happen. We just did it. You know, I was like, I'm going - I chose to audition for school knowing that I was to be a father soon and got into school and committed to the school knowing that that was going happen. And to me, there was no other choice. I mean, when you're supporting your kid best you can with, you know, student loans, I mean, that's the nitty-gritty of it, you know? And you had the China bus - I don't know if you guys know what the China - oh, we all know what the China bus is - the East Coast.
CORNISH: I do. I'm from Boston, so many times, you'd would take that Chinatown bus (laughter)...
MAJORS: You take that Chinatown bus...
CORNISH: ...Into New York.
MAJORS: ...Down to wherever you got to go. You know, wherever you got to go. And you make it right, you know? You just do the job.
CORNISH: You know, when I think of your last projects - when I think of two of your last projects, "Lovecraft" and "Da 5 Bloods," both of them are casts that, you know, essentially have lost a beloved actor - right? - not only an actor that people love but are really beloved figures in Chadwick Boseman and the late Michael K. Williams. What does that experience - what does having that experience - what has it done for you? How has it made you think about your career or the kinds of stories you want to be telling?
MAJORS: Well, first, we can talk about, you know, Chadwick Boseman because I think these are two examples of great men and great artists and great citizens and very human people, you know, very human men. I'd be remiss to not say, you know, also Black men, you know, impeccable monuments of our culture.
CORNISH: Right, who cared about representation - right? - who were outspoken even about the kinds of roles they did and why they did them.
MAJORS: Right. Right. And so Chadwick is interesting because I actually got to witness him, right? I witnessed Chadwick Boseman become Chadwick Boseman. "Black Panther," you know, "Marshall," "42," you know, Jackie Robinson - I watched it all happen because I'm in drama school looking out and being like, who do I - who - you know, they always say, you know, what - who has the career you - you know, where do you see yourself, you know? You go, oh, I guess it's this guy, you know? This is me at, you know, probably 20 years old. But this guy, you know? Twenty-five years old - this guy.
And I watched him do it. And then I got to meet him, you know? I got to talk to him. And, you know, as I say, very human, you know? It wasn't always sunshine and butterflies. These were workers, you know? They were workers. They worked. And they were constantly working on themselves, you know? And that's the thing I witnessed with Mr. Boseman. And then I experienced it with Michael.
So when they're passing, you know, and being in projects in which we shared time, you know, you can think, OK. So what now, you know? Like, if the real ones, for whatever reason, you know, keep going, what are we going to do, you know what I mean? But there's a call to action in a way, you know? It's time to - it's not even pick up the mantle, it's just keep doing what you doing.
It's like this since - I've been Black for 32 years, you know what I mean? Like, I - there's no other story to tell. Whatever I do, people are going to look and go, oh, yeah, Black, you know, until the time shifts, you know? The kid coming up behind me, the actor and actresses coming up behind me may not have to deal with that. But as it stands now, anything I do, for the most part, there will be someone out there that wants to say, oh, oh, yeah, the Black guy or yeah, this, this, this, that and the other, you know what I mean? That's fine.
But what these two actors did - and here - I guess, here's the mission - right? - to push the instrument to a place where you transcend, right? You transcend that audience member, right? You wrap them up in this, like - and yeah, this is a Black experience. This is an entire human experience, right? And it's twofold, right? If you can do that, then you've got your folks also looking at it being like, yo, that's the homie, you know what I mean? That's the homie. 'Cause the audience is so - it is so subjective for them, you know what I mean? They will project their story onto you whether you want to or not.
So do projects. Be around people. Protect your heart. You know, when the time comes, you know, protect your heart so we can be strong enough to fight when the war is on. And the war is on when you get that script. The war is on when you go to set.
CORNISH: Jonathan Majors, thank you so much for being willing to talk to us. This was really a great conversation.
MAJORS: Oh, this was incredible. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Jonathan Majors stars in the Netflix film "The Harder They Fall." It's in select theaters now and will be on Netflix November 3. He spoke with our guest interviewer, NPR's Audie Cornish, a host of All Things Considered.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new suspense novel "State Of Terror," a collaboration between Hillary Rodham Clinton and bestselling mystery writer Louise Penny. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Hillary Rodham Clinton has collaborated with bestselling mystery writer Louise Penny on a new suspense novel called "State Of Terror." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan decided to investigate.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I approached the package with caution. The book inside could be trouble, big trouble. Literary collaborations usually are. And this one, by two women of achievement, gave off warning signs of being a high-profile gimmick gone wrong. Don't open the book, I told myself. But I couldn't resist late-night readings undercover, so to speak. And before I knew it, I'd lost my grip and fell headlong into the frantic, feminist fantasy of "State Of Terror," a thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.
Let's debrief. Clinton and Penny are personal friends, a friendship that was sparked by Clinton's admiration for Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series. In the wake of Clinton's loss of the 2016 presidential election and Penny's loss of her husband, who suffered from dementia, they decided to collaborate on a political suspense novel. The two women have said in interviews that they wanted to have some fun during a difficult time and to pay tribute to the power of female friendship. Call me naive, but the resulting thriller, though uneven, bears out their claims.
"State Of Terror" is what Graham Greene famously called an entertainment. Searching for fine writing or complex characters here would be as pointless a quest as searching for the Maltese Falcon. Instead, like most political thrillers, "State Of Terror" is a plot-driven concoction featuring a classic race against time to out-maneuver international terrorists and homegrown traitors hellbent on turning the United States into a Russian satellite state. The twist here is the gender of the action figure, who's barking commands and sweating her mascara off in the effort to save American democracy. Not only is she female but she's a late-middle-aged secretary of state named Ellen Adams.
At Adams' side is her trusted counselor and best friend from childhood, a woman named Betsy Jameson. Together, they outwit a cabal of evil potentates, minions and dictators as they ricochet around the globe on Air Force Three. Call it The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits. "State Of Terror" is a giddy read, particularly for women of a certain age - let's say, us women of an age old enough to think that the just-concluded run of Daniel Craig as James Bond lost much of its mojo when Judi Dench as M departed the series in "Skyfall." Suspense, let alone political suspense, is still pretty much a white man's game. Lauren Wilkinson's recent Cold War thriller, "American Spy," is one of the rare novels in this genre starring a woman of color and one who's a professional.
Most often, when female characters occupy a lead role in suspense, they've stumbled into it. That's especially true of World War II thrillers starring female spies and assassins. Think of "Eye Of The Needle," by Ken Follett; "Fall From Grace," by Larry Collins; and "Three Hours In Paris." by Cara Black. Judi Dench as M was that rarest of animals, an ambitious, professional, older woman wielding power. And that's what makes "State Of Terror" intriguing, particularly in its second half, when Louise Penny's trademark one-sentence paragraphs intensify the pace of the suspense. And Hillary Clinton's fictional alter ego goes la mano a mano with two of her real-life foes, Putin, here called Ivanov, and a former American president, here called Eric Dunn.
Here, at the end of an unsuccessful fact-finding meeting with Dunn in his Palm Beach palace, Adams lets her nemesis know who's in charge. (Reading) Thank you for your time. Adams held out her hand, and when Dunn took it, she yanked and pulled the immense man right up to her so that she smelled his breath. It smelled of meat. You've made it clear that nothing happened in the White House without your approval. If there's a disaster, it will be dumped at your big, gold door. I'll make sure of that.
All thrillers are fantasy stories, fantasies about power and ingenuity. In "State Of Terror," an older woman draws on her expertise, a reserve of female solidarity and the magic of a tool James Bond never scored, a pair of Spanx. And she manages to avert disaster. As thriller fantasies go, this one feels a lot more plausible to me than most.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "State Of Terror" by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Katie Couric. After anchoring NBC's "Today Show" for 15 years - first with Bryant Gumbel, then Matt Lauer - she moved to CBS, where she was the first woman to be the solo anchor of a network evening news show. She's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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