Things are happening fast for Jonathan Majors. In January at the Sundance Film Festival, the actor became an instant breakout, with a winning performance in Joe Talbot’s wistful “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” The movie finds Majors playing quirky artist and playwright Montgomery “Mont” Allen, and the role recently scored the 30-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate Gotham and Spirit Awards nominations — but he’s unfazed by the sudden acclaim.
“To me, an award just means your peers are saying, ‘He contributed to the form,’ and I want to contribute to the form much as possible,” Majors said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be busy, but it’s still strange at times. My manager will tell me that so-and-so wants to interview me, and I say, ‘Me? Are you sure they have the right guy?’ So it’s probably just an adjustment I need to make.”
It’s been a very busy 2019 for the actor, who appeared in four features across several months: In addition to summer hit “The Last Black Man,” he had roles in March’s “Captive State” (released in March) as well as festival premieres “Gully” and “Jungleland.”
That’s only the beginning: Majors spent five months in Thailand and Vietnam shooting Spike Lee’s war drama “Da 5 Bloods,” then headed to Chicago to film Jordan Peele’s HBO horror series “Lovecraft Country,” in which he plays the lead. Once principal photography wraps on that, he’ll dive right into “The Harder they Fall,” the Jay-Z produced western which Majors will also lead. His dense portfolio has its drawbacks: He was initially attached to Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but had to exit the project due to scheduling conflicts.
But that’s how in-demand and busy Majors, who graduated from Yale three years ago, has become in such a short period of time.
“It’s just keeping my head down, going out for roles that my reps set up, and if the Lord sees fit, it would land on me,” he said,, crediting his Christian-military-southern upbringing for keeping him grounded and focused.
Along with his pastor mother and grandparents, Majors spent his childhood moving around Texas. His father left when he was five years old, and he struggled early in school; eventually, he was put into an alternative education program, where he met a teacher who introduced him to acting.
Majors’ first gig was the 2017 docu-drama series “When We Rise,” which he booked while still at Yale. He almost didn’t land the role because of the school’s policy toward students not leaving school for acting work, but they made an exception for him.
“There’s the saying, ‘Good artists bend the rules; great artists break the rules’,” he said. “They broke a rule for me.”
After graduation, he landed a supporting role in 2018’s “White Boy Rick,” which further boosted his credentials. When the A24-produced “Last Black Man” premiered at Sundance in 2019, there was no longer any doubt: Majors had arrived.
The movie tells the story of gentrification and the concept of home, through the friendship between two young black men, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Majors). Fails and Mont attempt to reclaim the home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. With a single-minded focus that blinds him to the reality of his situation, Fails struggles to reconnect with his family and community. As they search for belonging in a changing city that seems to have left them behind, they embark on a nostalgic journey inhabited by marginalized locals.
“The relationship between Jimmie and Mont is a take on the real-life friendship between Jimmy and a guy named Prentice Sanders, who I’m essentially playing,” said Majors. “When I got the role, Joe and I talked and we both agreed that we didn’t want a copy-and-paste version of him, so the first thing we did was rename him. Prentice is the placeholder; a beautiful man, but very different from Mont, who we kind of birthed and crafted.”
Mont is a character who immediately draws audiences in, stealing some of the spotlight from Jimmie, despite being a supporting character. He’s magnetic in his eccentricity. For Majors, Mont’s appeal is rooted in his tenderness.
“He’s quite gentle, and has an ability to show you the truth without hostility or picking a side,” the actor said. “You feel like you’re understood by Mont, and I think that’s what we kind of all want in a friend.”
Majors’ approach to the character was to make Mont’s empathy his most palpable quality and his greatest strength. “I turned prejudice and judgment all the way down, and I think people saw that,” he said. “But he’s also courageous. And what I like about courage is that there’s a little rage in it, which makes him even more interesting.”
The film is most notable for its rare depiction of a genuine bond between two young black men who don’t have extreme personalities. “This is a fable that’s poetic and it’s got young, black men who are dynamic,” he said. “They’re buddies because one of them needs to be seen, and the other is just built to see things, and so they complement each other. That’s the relationship. That’s the story. The end.”
Majors listed a wide range of actors who had inspired his path — Denzel Washington, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day Lewis, and Ben Kingsley among them — but he also expressed appreciation for younger working talents Daniel Kaluuya, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, and Zendaya. He was keen on exploring opportunities on the stage as well, from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning play “Topdog/Underdog” to Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”
“I don’t want to be stuck in a box,” he said. “I’m an actor, and the thing about an actor is that if you’re fortunate enough and you have the ability, is you can access multiple parts of yourself. I want to grow and see how far can I stretch.”
In the meantime, he is managing expectations. “You keep your rent low, which takes some of the pressure off. So when I say ‘no,’ I mean ‘no.’ I don’t mean, ‘Give me more money.’ I mean ‘no.’ And the same goes for the flip side. I find that the industry is respectful of that.”