JONATHAN MAJORS does not like to take it easy. If you ask him to become a pilot, a professional boxer, or a bodybuilder for a role, the 33-year-old actor will commit to several months of brutal cardio, strength training, and mental conditioning until his muscles bulge and he fails his way to perfection. By the time he’s ready to perform, he will have become who he needs to be. “If I’m going to bench-press 250 in a film, I need to be able to bench-press 275 a few times,” he says, then corrects himself: “305 a few times.”
On set, it’s the same story. Hand him fake weights for a scene and he’ll look at you with incredulity and tell you in the politest, sincerest tone, “You’re fucking kidding me,” as he did while playing two of the most physically demanding roles of his career: a rough-edged boxer in the latest instalment of the Rocky Cinematic Universe, Creed III, and an asocial bodybuilder in the dark drama Magazine Dreams. For both upcoming projects, Majors lifted real weights during filming.
“I will do this all day. We are not putting fake weights on. I haven’t been training for the past three months to get here and use Styrofoam,” Majors says on a hot and sunny day in London. “Put these fucking weights on so we can lift it, so you can shoot it, so I can tell the story.” Respectfully, anything less is “like putting fake tears in your eyes. Or putting fake sweat on you. This is it. This is it! Let’s go.” He laughs.
It’s a little past 8:00 a.m. on Hampstead Heath, and the shutters of Kenwood House aren’t yet open to visitors. Majors is on a bench overlooking the sprawling 17th-century manor. Despite the heat, the Texas-bred actor is wearing sweatpants and a pinstripe button-up under a vest. The best guess is that he’s in London filming a Marvel title. He won’t say. A year ago, Majors debuted as the demented He Who Remains in the season 1 finale of Loki. That cameo has Marvel fans giddy about what he will accomplish as the Avengers’ next significant threat, Kang the Conqueror.
In talking to Majors for two and a half hours, you witness the extreme discipline he possesses. He is equal parts focus and sensitivity, and he wears his drive like a second skin. When the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance aired in 2020, Majors had friends texting him, “I understand you better now.” In conversation, he’s quick to affirm his dedication to his work, which includes three new films. Devotion explores the real-life camaraderie between two naval aviators, Jesse Brown (Majors) and Tom Hudner, played by Top Gun: Maverick’s Glen Powell. Then he turns up as Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. He will also shoot the film adaptation The Man in My Basement, a thriller based on Walter Mosley’s book about preserving a cherished family home.
Majors stands out in a world short on new, exciting movie stars. His portfolio is like a capsule collection of art films, including his 2019 breakout, The Last Black Man in San Francisco; historical adventure stories and westerns (Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, the ensemble pic The Harder They Fall); and HBO’s Black horror series Lovecraft Country, for which he was Emmy nominated. He not only savours a challenge but seeks it out. “When I look at a script, I look at the level of difficulty,” he says. “If it’s going to be easy, I don’t want to do it. The fitness community is going to scrutinise Magazine Dreams. The Navy is going to scrutinise Devotion.”
Majors has proved himself as a multifaceted leading man, and he’s about to level up with consecutive roles that combine his physical and mental strengths. He’s shepherding Marvel through a crucial phase as the next big villain while pursuing indie projects, dealing with great expectations while still making savvy art. More than pulling off his own stunts, which he does, he’s concerned with convincing the audience that his characters are real. “People have been following this character for two hours sometimes. I’ve been trying so hard to tell the truth, which is not easy,” he says. “A part of you will know. That’s Kang, but that’s not my Kang. That’s Kang adjacent. That’s a stunt guy. In The Harder They Fall, I ride a horse in a very particular way. You put a stunty on that, and they go, ‘He don’t got the swag. His head ain’t bopping.’ You should never once think it’s not him. You know it’s him. So you trust in him.”
Whatever it takes to establish that trust, Majors will do. Over the past year, he’s packed on ten pounds of muscle to play Kang, an extra five for Creed, and six more for Magazine Dreams. And he’s whittled his way down to 5 percent body fat to look believably ripped. Not every actor has the impulse or discipline to transform their body the way Majors does. He has that instinct in common with his characters, who wrestle with tragedy and have something to prove. It can come from ambition. But Majors knows better than anyone that on the flip side of ambition are deeper, much more complex motivations. Details about his Creed III character, Damian, are under lock and key, but what Majors will say is that every fibre of Dame’s brawn comes from trauma. “There are certain reasons you build your body,” he says. “Dame’s body was built from loss. He had lost something, and that hole is what made him work the way he worked. When you see Dame’s body, you go, Oh, that makes sense. You don’t look like that and be happy with life.” In contrast, his Magazine Dreams character, Killian, who’s using bodybuilding as a coping mechanism, is fuelled by rage. “That’s a pain body. A lot of guys build their bodies by anger, which is a secondary emotion,” says Majors. “And those bodies don’t look right. Those bodies don’t engender emotion.” Beyond aesthetics, he wants his characters’ bodies to convey emotional strength. “When you see these guys, it’s like, Yeah, they’re fucking fit. But if you look at it, there’s a story there.” So what’s his story?
MAJORS HAS BEEN in Jordan-esque attack mode since he was 17, when his high school coaches put him on the B team. “Basketball, football—I was a B teamer,” he says. “I was like, ‘You got me fucked up.’ No disrespect to the B team, but I felt like I’m better than that guy. I’m faster than that guy.” Majors was a churchgoing kid who grew up in Cedar Hill, a Dallas suburb, with his mother; his older sister, Monica; and his younger brother, Cameron. He was nine when their father left. He attended school with the children of Dallas Cowboys players and developed a habit of taking things personally. Over the summer, you’d find him running to and from practice in his B-team jersey.
“You couldn’t outrun me. You wouldn’t outlift me. I was determined [not to feel] less than,” he says. “Then I transcended to where I am now: Fuck everybody. Fuck everything. The coaches and the teachers were giving me the layout of what success looked like, and they said I wasn’t that. So then I began to work hard to be that. . . . I was dealing with my daddy issues and also moving into adulthood.” Majors was constantly being kicked out of school for fights but later discovered reading and acting as a distraction from rebellion. His family gifted him a viewfinder his grandfather had brought back from his time in the military in Germany, along with books like The Three Musketeers and The Canterbury Tales. In time, Majors sanded away at his edges but kept the chip.
When he read the Devotion script, he connected with a particularly agonising scene in which his character, Jesse, gives himself a pep talk during an insecure moment. “The doubt is overwhelming, and what he does to get himself in position to succeed is heartbreaking and telling,” Majors says. “I was pulling from things I knew would hurt me. Things I’ve said, to get myself where I need to be to tell Jesse’s story.”
Majors notes that part of the challenge with physical acting is quieting your body’s natural reflexes. Sometimes he can’t just let them go. “When you express that much discomfort, rage, or loss, that is a physical reaction. Your body doesn’t say ‘Cut!’ and you’re over it,” he explains. “You can’t turn it off, because it’s not acting.” The opposite instinct is turning it on. In the middle of a brutal take or workout session, he asks himself, “Am I dying?” And when a voice inside screams, “No!” he pushes. “It could be The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it’s like, Go! My emotions are a muscle. I say, ‘All right, fire them motherfuckers up!’ You’ll hear me hollering. I scream on set like a quarterback. Oh-maha! Oh-maha! It’s a thing.” Stephen Broussard, an executive producer on Loki and a producer on Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, recalls how Majors had “an insane work ethic” and would show up early on set every day wearing his Kang outfit, then jog around the soundstage with his portable speaker.
Majors is known around Hollywood for his immersive approach, a blend of different Method-acting styles. He says, “I’m not going to be an acting snob here. But I will say, when people talk about the Method, they’re talking specifically about Strasberg.” He points to the differences between the improv-based Meisner and Demidov techniques, both of which he studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the School of Drama at Yale. Method acting has earned a reputation as somewhere between excessive and grandiose, and Majors is mindful of his energy while filming but emphasises he’ll do “whatever it takes for me, whatever it takes.”
During production, Majors has sent his scene partners written letters and songs relevant to their roles. For Devotion, he took Christina Jackson, who plays his onscreen wife, Daisy Brown, on an old-fashioned ice cream date to get in character. When shooting a take for the opening scene of Magazine Dreams, Majors was lifting with such intensity, snot and tears running down his face, that director Elijah Bynum told him to “take it easy.” Majors chuckles at the memory. “He almost got his head bit off.”
He adds, “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I’m just trying to finish the mission. I’m never doing more than I need to. That’s economy. I’m usually relaxed.” Before accepting the role in Devotion, Majors asked his costar Powell to meet him at a Russian bathhouse in Manhattan’s West Village, where they sat in a sauna and discussed the movie and their upbringing for around five hours. “As an actor, you have to be incredibly sensitive and be able to get in touch with things that a lot of other people maybe cover up,” says Powell. “To make it as an actor in Hollywood, you also have to be relentless, and that’s Jonathan. It’s like he’s got these two sides where he’s the greatest empath and also a warrior.”
MAJORS WILL SOON take on the task of following up Josh Brolin’s Thanos with Kang, the anchor of the MCU’s multiverse saga. Avengers: The Kang Dynasty is slated for release in 2025. Majors says, “It was the character and dimensions of Kang [that drew him to the role]. And the potential that it had. I thought, I’ll take a chance on that.” He first talked to Marvel head Kevin Feige only after filming Loki and sealing the deal to play Kang. “Jonathan is an incredibly compelling actor who puts in the work yet makes it look effortless, and he’s also just cool—everyone pays attention when he steps into the room,” says Feige.
Majors is prepared to give a rich, multi-dimensional performance unlike any other. “Killmonger, Thanos, and Kang are not related, and that’s good for the MCU. It adds diversity,” he says. In 2021, he started layering on muscle for his portrayal of Kang in the newest Ant-Man film, working with strength-and-conditioning coach Jamie Sawyer. Sawyer used the same approach he uses when training boxers and MMA fighters, prioritising performance over aesthetics. “He is the warrior version of Kang, so there was a focus on what that warrior would look like who’s been around through the ages and has developed every type of combat skill,” says Sawyer. “It was about making him look like an imposing figure.”
Audiences know an actor’s physical transformation is part of the job, but they’re also aware of the temptation to overdo it, especially when playing a chiseled superhero. “I look at Kang and I go, Okay, cool. It’s a certain IP where people expect this at a bare minimum,” says Majors. “No one should put themselves or their families in a place where they’re hurting, but your own discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing. That’s growth. It’s not comfortable, but you’re here to save the world, aren’t you? Or take over the world.”
While filming Ant-Man last year, Majors also began readying for Creed III with his primary trainer, Mark “Rhino” Smith, and boxing coach Robert Sale. Rather than simply prepare him for the movie, Sale wanted Majors to inhabit the essence of a fighter and taught him how to box. At points, he had Majors spar with professional fighters (minus the hitting). The actor’s athletic IQ helps him understand the science of boxing. “The trick to becoming believable on film is to embody it philosophically,” says Sale. “He ate up every component of the information ideologically.”
Michael B. Jordan, who plays the Creed franchise’s prizefighter Adonis, makes his directorial debut with the third instalment. He knows the amount of mental prep required to sell the choreography of boxing. “Jonathan, you know, lives a little bit of the character, so there’s a fluidity from off set to on set that you respect,” says Jordan. “The time it takes to do these fights and what it takes out of you daily is truly incredible.”
Majors is taking nothing for granted. He wakes up around 4:00 a.m. to run or train, and his six-foot build is low-single-digit body fat and striations that “cannot be bought.” Still, the past year of preparation has tested the limits of his mind and body. “I’ve always been athletic, but these are body roles—where the body is part of the given circumstances,” he says. “Creed taught me things about my craft, my body, and the marriage of the two. There’s levels to this shit.”
THE VIBE IN 800-acre Hampstead Heath, with its rolling hills and gentle shrubs, is serene. But Majors can’t help adding an even more tranquil backdrop. An hour into our conversation, he grabs his iPhone and raises the volume on a classical song: “Luminous,” by Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi. It turns out he was playing music the whole time, so low it was imperceptible. When I ask him later if music is part of his routine, he texts back, “Music is an integral part of my life. I play it often to keep some spirits away, but often to invite them. It stays with me and plays the yang to yin of silence, which I also yearn for very often.” His uncle was a jazz saxophonist, and his mother, a minister of music, told him music had spirits in it, so he shouldn’t listen before bed, which made Majors do the opposite.
A notebook peeks out of his pants pocket—he journaled a bit in the surrounding meadows on the way over. He tells me that he’s writing about his creative process, characters he’s played, loves, losses, and memories. Later, we walk to the nearby Brew House Café, where he fills his plate with eggs, spinach, and four strips of bacon. Those muscles need fuel.
Majors isn’t very social outside of work, and he isn’t on social media. He joined Facebook when he was 17 and deactivated his account not long after. “I had broken up with my girlfriend from Texas, and I never really got back to it. I’ve always been an outcast.”
This past spring, Majors was in Los Angeles filming Creed III when a photo of him shirtless on set leaked online. Obscene tweets ensued. His publicist and his mom notified him of the photo. “Now I kind of step away from that part,” Majors says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I embrace it. I also mostly wear hoodies when I’m out. I stay covered up.” He adds, “I think that’s part of being sexy. I’m not conscious of it. My brother was the pretty boy. I was never the cute boy growing up. I was just J.”
You won’t find J partying. He does walk his dogs and run a lot. While out with his two Belgian Malinois, Captain and Hero, one day in Los Angeles, he met an amateur bodybuilder named Jason Best, who complimented the dogs and had just seen him in The Harder They Fall. From then on, Best would bring Majors coffee every day, and they’d sit on the corner with the dogs and chat about religion, relationships, and fatherhood. (Majors has a nine-year-old daughter and won’t discuss his relationship status.) “Regular homie. That’s who I fuck with,” he says. “If you build castles, everyone that approaches you is an enemy. But if you’re amongst the people, everybody’s an ally. I’m actually with you.”
When asked where home is, Majors says, “I’ve been without a permanent physical address for six years now, without rent or mortgage and never in one place for longer than three to five months.” Four years ago, he called himself an actor for the first time, and it didn’t feel right. The more he performs, the more he realises he’s still learning. He rarely celebrates, but he does find romance in his work. “It’s an occupation. It actually is what occupies my mind all the time, outside of my intimate relationships. I’m lucky in that way. I just really like it.” He laughs. “Some days it is a job. But that’s the athlete in me, where it’s like, Okay, that’s another rep; it’s the last round. There’s something romantic about that. You get off work at 4:30 in the morning, drive home in Los Angeles through Topanga Canyon, and nobody’s on the road. I bring my dogs to work. So I got my dogs in the truck. I got my windows down. Got my Radiohead playing. I’m just gunning it. That’s the best, man.”
Majors cuts a commanding figure walking alone back to his residence near Kenwood. Once in a while, you’ll encounter someone like him with an intense, almost painful ambition that propels them to greatness. I tell him few people care enough to reach the level of focus he somehow sustains. “That’s true. That’s the secret weapon,” he says. “I have a tremendous amount of faith in my preparation and faith in something greater than me.” To him, control is preparation.
“I’m not fearless. I actually encounter fear a lot. I just don’t give a fuck. I know I can do it, and it’s something or somebody else sneaking in and saying, ‘Be careful.’ Which is like the person telling me you’re on the B team. Telling me you’re not smart enough or you’re not handsome enough or you’re not talented enough. And I go, Oh, but I know I am,” says Majors. “And not because my ego tells me I am but because I’m ready. I haven’t had a carb in two and a half months. I know I can take my shirt off. I’ve been running miles. And because I’ve failed. I’ve already had another grown man pull the weight off my chest because everything has died. I’ve already tried to jump on the horse and broke my heel. This is not going to be worse.”
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