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Jonathan Majors’s Time Is Now

Just two months into 2023, Majors has already come crashing into franchises like ‘Creed’ and ‘Ant-Man’—as well as Sundance, for good measure. And in each role the actor shines with tools he says he’s gained from poetry, his family, and yes, even clown class.

Disney/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Jonathan Majors is an athlete and a poet, a church boy and a troublemaker, an actor and a clown. “I’m here to disrupt,” he tells me with chipper resolve over Zoom in late February. “I mean, apparently that was my mission this year.”

Barely two months into 2023, Majors, 33, has already knocked socks off at Sundance, punched lights out for Creed III, and batted the cosmos around—both in the latest Marvel spectacle and also here in this crazy place called real life. Speaking from Los Angeles and sporting a red beanie, Majors explains that just a few hours earlier, he had been on a plane with Michael B. Jordan, his costar and director (and adversary) in Creed III, the latest installment in the greater Rocky-strong lineage of boxing movies that premieres this Friday. “The Creed-verse,” is how Majors refers to this particular IP, before chuckling and interrupting himself: “Isn’t that funny, I’m saying Creed-verse?! Is that real? Mike says it all the time. I go, I see what you’re doing.”

It’s no surprise that Majors, and the people around him, think and talk in such expansive terms, especially given the way his career has so quickly become a Majorsphere all its own. It was barely five years ago that Majors appeared in his first feature film, Hostiles. It was only in 2019 that he had something of a breakout performance in the beloved indie The Last Black Man in San Francisco. In the short while since, he has garnered growing acclaim and nabbed increasingly high-profile and high-pressure roles. He has played a pilot and a cowboy and a real good buddy. His characters have sought respect, revenge, and peace. He has worked with Idris Elba, Paul Rudd, and Spike Lee. In 2021, he made a surprise cameo as He Who Remains in the season finale of the TV show Loki, and he earned a lead actor Emmy nomination for his stint in the HBO series Lovecraft Country. Actor Glen Powell was so hell-bent on casting Majors for his 2022 Korean War film Devotion that he traveled to Majors’s idiosyncratic suggested meeting spot—a no-frills, no-clothes Russian Turkish bath house in downtown Manhattan—just to pitch him.

It’s been this year, though, that the various worlds Majors occupies have synced up in orbit. In January, Magazine Dreams, a film that showcases Majors as a striving bodybuilder named Killian Maddox, premiered at Sundance and was picked up by Searchlight Films for awards-buzzy distribution later this year. In February, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was released, teasing Majors not only as the villainous Kang the Conqueror but as, like, the villain for the foreseeable future. And on March 3, Creed III will hit theaters, showcasing Majors as Damian Anderson, a charismatic shoulda-been blast from Adonis Creed’s past who is buoyant and bitter, dogged, and yes, extremely disruptive.

“Show me your show, and show me your world,” says Majors, explaining what it’s been like to join some of these established projects midstream, “and allow me to change it, you know?” He is describing his character’s bold entry into the Creed-verse, sure—but he is also narrating his own self-aware, self-assured arrival into the realm of sought-after Hollywood status. He is on a mission, and he is already accomplished.

In Creed III, Majors plays a man who is at once unique and familiar: Sure, we may not all personally know an aspiring boxing champion like Damian, who has recently gotten out of prison and has a score to settle with a world-famous athlete, but just about anyone can relate to the idea of the long-lost friend that your parents warned you about, back at your door. The story goes that Adonis and Damian—Don and Dame—were once thick as thieves, but only one of them wound up marked as a criminal. Creed III is about what happens as a recidivized Damian tries to find his footing, and maybe even catch up to his old pal.

In production notes from Creed III studio MGM, Michael B. Jordan said he essentially “cold-called” Majors, whose work in The Last Black Man in San Francisco he found “truly incredible,” for the role. And Majors says they had an intimate on-set bond: “He was also my cut man, you know, my training partner. You don’t always get that. You never get that!” Many of the fisticuffs shown in the movie are the real deal: As Jordan pointed out, for a slo-mo shot of a knockout punch to work, the contact really can’t be simulated. “Thank God we loved each other,” says Majors. “Thank God we were on the same page, because Creed III has all the ingredients of hooooly smokes. It was his vision, my vision, and our trust.”

Played by Majors, Damian is ambitious and insecure, jacked and jealous, saddled with the loopy visage of a guy who has taken some hits and seen some things. “I was the best, bro,” Damian tells Adonis, and an entire history is written in those five words. Their chemistry is tragic and deep, a triumph and defeat of things left unsaid. “He represents so many people,” Majors says of Damian. “Of course, the amount of Black men who are disproportionately incarcerated. Anyone that’s been incarcerated, man or woman, anyone whose dream has been deferred. Anyone who has felt that they are built for something better.”

But Majors also says that while finding the character, he kept one specific person in mind. “I was raised by a gentleman who had been in prison for 15 years before he consequently married my mother and I became his stepson,” Majors says. His name was Joe Young; Majors and his siblings called him Mighty Joe Young. He had, the lore went, once tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and made it all the way to the second-to-last round. “And so I witnessed the social anxiety of someone who was stopped in their greatness early on,” Majors says. After Majors’s sister saw Creed III, she reached out to tell him that she “saw a lot of Joe in it,” Majors says. “This man was quite impressive, but also quite damaged. I found with Damian that it was an opportunity to tell part of his story. You know, I saw the hustle. I saw the light in his eyes, and I saw the danger.”

Majors brings all of it—the bitterness, the promise—to Dame, ratcheting up the tension and unpredictability in every scene he enters. You can see the wheels turning inside his head and feel when they’re about to veer off-road. To tie himself even closer to the role, Majors also gave the character the last name Anderson, his mother’s maiden name. “Every time I looked up in those fighting rings, in those fighting scenes,” Majors says, “I saw my family’s last name there.”

Majors wasn’t exactly a cinephile or a thespian as a kid. He grew up running around his grandfather’s farm near Waco, Texas. And the son of a pastor mother, he was more likely to be sitting in church, or singing in church, or reading aloud in church, than he was to be idle in a movie theater or in front of the TV. But Majors does have a few pop-cultural memories from those days. “We always watched Gunsmoke” with his grandfather, “Big Andy,” he says. “Lonesome Dove.” (Such entertainment would come in handy, years later, when Majors played a gunslinger in the rollicking neo-Western The Harder They Fall.) Whenever Majors left the house, his mother would holler: “No drinking, no drugs, no sex!” Still, he found plenty of trouble.

He got into fights. He got caught stealing. He served an in-school suspension “that lasted so long,” he says, “it turned into summer school.” He was a bored young man trapped in a punitive cubicle, and in those conditions, he stumbled across some reading material that changed everything: the script for the Suzan-Lori Parks play Topdog/Underdog, about two brothers, named Lincoln and Booth, who spend their days hustling and competing (and, sometimes, shoplifting) in the hopes of transcending the confines of their urban apartment. “That play stuck with me,” Majors says, “which made sense because those guys are stuck in isolation.”

Majors’s teen years were rocky—at one point, following a falling-out with his stepfather, he lived out of his car—but he became increasingly intrigued by the escape of other worlds. Sometimes he would play hooky, head to the campus of Southern Methodist or Texas Christian universities, and “poke in on the theater classes,” he told The Ringer’s Higher Learning podcast in November. When he decided to apply to drama school himself, he included monologues from Topdog/Underdog in his applications.

It worked. The first time, he wound up at UNC School of the Arts, where he spent formative years. The second time, he got into the Yale School of Drama, where he was determined to soak up all he could. Jessica Holt, a classmate of Majors’s who directed him in two productions, remembers him as an enthusiastic collaborator. “He came into rehearsal processes sort of approaching them like he was a member of a team,” Holt says. “The director is the coach, and he is there to receive the directives from the coach, and to apply it to the best of his ability, and to like, really kind of nail it?” Majors was an inventive presence in workshops, yielding “some of the most memorable, hilarious, soul-wrenching, beautiful work I’ve seen in the rehearsal room,” says Holt. The other thing she remembers: “We were also in clown class together. And I think that he has this incredible connection with his inner clown.”

For someone who has become so adept at playing strong, sometimes menacing, always magnetic characters, Majors has, over the years, also distinguished himself in gentler and more whimsical ways. Not just through his gleeful reactions to seeing young kids in Kang the Conqueror costumes in the wild, or his wholesome misunderstandings with Rudd about fraternities and Homeward Bound, although all of those things are endearing. It’s his more intentional and considered acts, too. Like how he puts himself out there creatively, publishing a pair of poems in The New Republic late last year. (Or the knack he has for turning into a Mary Poppins figure in so many interviews, always pulling totems out of seemingly nowhere at exactly the right time.)

There is, for example, the handful of small—or small in his hands at least—earthen stoneware mugs that Majors rotates through, seemingly always carrying one as both (a) a handy vessel from which to sip water and (b) a reminder of something his mother used to tell him: that he and he alone is the only one who can ever truly fill and empty his proverbial cup. (During our chat, he has a fine speckled specimen out on the table.)

There is the music: Majors often bops around with a little speaker on his person, his chosen tunes—classical; gospel; ”9mm” while playing Kang; daily Tupac during Creed III—preceding him like he’s a boxer entering the ring. There is the other kind of “verse” he engages with: Last fall, during an interview with the fashion site Mr. Porter, Majors blanked on the specifics of a line from a Mary Oliver poem he was referencing and simply grabbed his copy of one of her compilations right out of his bag for immediate consultation, as one does. The line, from the poem “The World I Live In,” was “Only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”

And then there is the big red honkin’ clown nose, attached to elastic that has definitely seen better days, that he whipped out during an appearance on Kelly Clarkson’s talk show in November. Majors proudly explained to Clarkson that he had earned the nose at Yale—where second-year drama students take a class called “Clown” as a way to get in better touch with their bodies and selves—and that doing so had been one of his toughest achievements. (On his school résumé, under the heading “Special Skills,” Majors once highlighted proficiency in things like football, boxing, “sword & shield,” tumbling, and “red nose.”) Yale professor Christopher Bayes, the school’s head of physical acting and the king of its renowned clown curriculum, saw the Clarkson clip, and just the other day he mailed Majors an envelope containing two fresh strips of elastic and no note. “He’ll know exactly who it’s from,” Bayes says.

Bayes, whom Majors often cites as a particularly influential teacher, remembers several things about his former student: that Majors was an independent guy; that he had “a beautiful, gentle, secret dad energy”; that he had a toddler daughter who once joined the workshop and provided everyone with “a master class” in the art of the clown merely by being herself. He says Majors is someone who “listens deeply, in that kind of clown-energy way.” And that “at the core of the clown, the most important thing at the end of the day is your ability to listen, and live in, like, a playful, curious body that’s ready to respond to whatever the world is going to offer you today. And I think Jonathan’s waiting. You can feel him waiting for that. Just, like, give me something.” When Bayes puts it that way, it sounds a lot like the Mary Oliver poem about seeing angels.

Majors may be eager to shake up a set these days—something he’ll have the opportunity to do when he plays one of sports’ great chaos agents, Dennis Rodman, in a forthcoming picture called 48 Hours in Vegas. But he’s also vigilant about not letting his own process be disrupted.

“My approach to the craft of acting,” he says, “is to do as little acting as possible. To only employ the imagination to erase things, like, I don’t see the camera there. I don’t see the cameraman. Or, I didn’t just have a conversation with somebody about what I’m going to do.” Reaching toward this ideal, for Majors, involves decisions that range from the commonsensical and enviable—like not befouling his psyche with the unnecessary “stimuli” of social media—to the slightly more surprising. Like so many other contemporary greats—Adam Driver, Michelle Williams—Majors has no interest in “playback,” as he puts it, of the work he does. In other words, he doesn’t watch his movies.

The finished product is “not my business,” Majors said on Higher Learning. “It’s just not for me,” he reiterates to me now. In a 2021 conversation with John Lithgow recorded for an HBO podcast, Majors compared film acting to the intimate act of going to penance. (Stage acting, he said, was more like being a preacher at a pulpit. “It’s Pentecostal; it’s Baptist,” he told Lithgow.) His obligation, as he sees it, is to tell whoever is on the other side of the confessional the whole truth about his character. “You load yourself up fully with all the sins of the character, with all the bad stuff, all the good stuff,” he said. “And you get in there and you step onto the set. And you just confess it.” Once he’s done so, he’s absolved and free to move on in the world. Why dwell further?

Once, when Ant-Man director Peyton Reed was trying to convince him to just watch Quantumania, dammit, Majors remembers that producer Stephen Broussard overheard and stepped in. “No,” Broussard said. “Whatever he’s doing, let him do it, because it works. Jonathan, you do not have to watch this movie, do not watch this movie.” He didn’t. “I just—time is of the essence, and I had the benefit of experiencing the film,” Majors says. When he’s in costume, “I am Kang for those moments. Like, you’re not gonna beat that. You’re not gonna beat that high.”

As for what exactly it means to be Kang, a guy defined by the very infinity of his iterations, there are no simple answers. In a Marvel press conference in February, Majors gave it a telling shot: “Who is Kang?” he asked. “I think that is a question that we will all be answering for a very long time. I think the quick answer to that is Kang is a time-traveling supervillain who is also a Nexus being, which leads to this idea of variants. There are multiple versions of Kang. ‘Versions’ being ‘variants.’ They occupy different universes, multiverses, they have different intentions.” Got that?

In Quantumania, Majors plays Kang as something of a cipher, with an ennui that feels a little bit like if Dr. Manhattan broke bad. (It’s kind of fun to read this poem by Majors as being written by a seen-it-all Kang, and this one as being Creed-verse canon.)

But being Kang is also a moving target: Majors’s work as Kang the Conqueror was a very different performance, by design, from his toothy, smooth He Who Remains character in Loki. And ostensibly it is also a very different performance (and performance, and performance, and performance) from the ones teased in the (two!) mid/post-credits scenes in Quantumania, in which Majors plays countless disparate members of the Kang Gang, each one of them with their own particular set of sins. Prepping for the kind of work required for upcoming projects like 2025’s Avengers: The Kang Dynasty “really comes down to who my director is, and who my hero is,” Majors said in the Marvel press conference. “I look at them and I figure out, OK, you can’t antagonize somebody if you don’t know who they are.”

In November, about a week after the Kelly Clarkson show, Majors sat down for an interview with the poet Paul Muldoon at Princeton University as part of a discussion series called “Conversations on Art-Making in a Vexed Era.” The pair discussed his acting work, and his path, and his own poetic aspirations. At one point, Majors recited one of his favorite poems, “I Imagine the Gods” by Jack Gilbert, for the audience.

In that work, the narrator is offered big, sweeping gifts by some higher powers—wisdom! fame!—but asks instead for more concrete, albeit definitely more ephemeral, delights: a simple hog, roasted on a spit. This one long-lost Algerian student with huge eyes named Hugette. The ability to fall in love. The ability to fail. “Teach me mortality, frighten me / into the present,” writes Gilbert, a line that could be relevant to Damian Anderson (everybody has a plan, after all, until they get punched in the face) or to Kang the Conqueror (“Time, it isn’t what you think,” the character says cryptically in Quantumania. “It’s not a straight line.”) or to Victor Timely, another Kang variant played by Majors whom audiences glimpsed ever so briefly after the film’s closing credits. (“Time is everything,” Timely says. “It shapes our lives. But perhaps we can shape … it?”) It also reminds me of the way Holt described being a clown: “The part of you that’s sort of open to the wonder—the agony and ecstasy—of living.”

“The thing I love about it most,” says Majors about the Gilbert poem, “is that it was a conversation between a mortal and the gods. The amount of audacity that we can have as human beings, and the amount of humility we can also have, is all held in that poem. There’s something sort of asking in that poem. It’s very similar to my process. After all the years of training, after all the script work and all of that, ultimately, it’s a question: You’re asking for the muse, you’re asking for the genius, right? You ask for the gods and the angels to show up, and to be with you just for a little bit, even just 30 seconds.”

After all, that’s really all the time it ever takes for everything to be disrupted, for everything to change.

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