Jonathan Majors on the Acting Approach That Led to ‘Da 5 Bloods’ + ‘Lovecraft Country’

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“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day. 

Jonathan Majors approaches every character with a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, mentality. “It’s a way of just releasing,” the actor tells Backstage. “You do so much work creatively, emotionally, physically, spiritually, to prepare for the role. But then when you get there, it’s go time.”

Watching Majors on screen, there’s a palpable sense that his every performance carries none of the characteristics of those before it. As he reveals in depth on this week’s episode of “In the Envelope,” it’s only with a strong foundation of training and life experience—knowing one’s craft and oneself—that “go time” can be achieved on set. “You say, ‘I know it,’ and I’m not talking about the lines,” he explains. “You’re talking about the story and the character. You have to trust that gut reaction.

“You’re waiting for the miracle to come, and that’s what you hope gets captured.”

Trusting in miraculous moments on set was a philosophy echoed by Spike Lee, who, after seeing his Spirit Award–nominated work in Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” cast Majors in his Netflix film “Da 5 Bloods.” Alongside Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, and the late Chadwick Boseman, and filming in the jungles of Thailand and Vietnam, Lee’s advice to (or demand of) Majors was simple: “Do it!”

“Spike was a manifestation of one of the things that I’ve been taught at drama school and something most people have heard either in therapy, or self-help, or in drama school: that you are enough.” When Lee was on set instructing Majors to “do it,” he says, “I only know how to do the ‘it’ I know how to do! So he’s calling for that.”

That mantra helped prepare Majors for his next project, playing Atticus “Tic” Freeman on Misha Green’s HBO horror drama “Lovecraft Country.” After contributing to stories in mostly supporting roles on stage and screen, that leading role presented physical and emotional challenges like nothing Majors had experienced before. “What Spike helped me understand is that actually support,” he says. “Nobody is pressuring me. Everyone is actually pushing me forward, pushing the project forward.”

Raised in Texas and discovering theater as a creative outlet while a teenager, Majors studied acting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and later, the Yale School of Drama. Among his teachers was the late UNCSA dean Gerald Freedman, whose philosophy was “not training you for film or theater, [but] training you for life,” says Majors. “It’s not training, it’s un-taming.... You’re trying to un-tame yourself; you’re trying to lose all the habits that you have established.”

There’s no one way to train that’s not good,” adds Majors, reflecting on his time at Yale, the Chautauqua Institute, the National Society of Arts & Letters’ drama competition, and more. “There are things you have to acquire, things that aid you in the un-taming.” Whatever an individual actor’s background and process, Majors recommends continuing their training whenever they’re not working. “I’ve just never seen a championship team be a championship team and not work in the offseason,” he points out.

As of recently, it seems, there hasn’t been an offseason for Majors. Since his Hollywood breakout as Ken Jones on the limited series “When We Rise,” he’s appeared in films “Hostiles,” “White Boy Rick,” “Out of Blue,” “Captive State,” “Gully,” and “Jungleland,” and is now filming Jeymes Samuel’s western “The Harder They Fall” with an all-star cast. He’s also rumored to appear as a villain in Marvel’s “Ant-Man 3.”

“I hope that every actor that is making things can feel emboldened and feel encouraged that we have power,” he concludes. “Be yourself. Let your heart break every day. The beautiful thing about it is people have to look at you. Be seen. Be seen. Be seen.... You’re on the front lines. I’m on the front lines with you.”

For more insights into Majors’ creative process and philosophies—including his thoughts on crying on camera—tune into his podcast episode at the links below. And stay tuned for Backstage casting insider Christine McKenna-Tirella, who this week offers audition preparation advice that can enable you to follow Majors’ approach. She also recommends our guide on auditioning and breakdown of Uta Hagen’s acting technique, and is highlighting the following casting listings: a Blink fitness video, a makeup foundation test group opportunity, and a U.K.-based product launch video.

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