The actor Jonathan Majors had a breakout year in 2020 with his roles in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and the HBO series Lovecraft Country. But his confidence and sense of self-worth stem from a period long before that. Between the ages of 8 and 12, he says he wore a Batman costume his mother made for him that convinced him he could fly and fight crime. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Majors talks about the emotional and physical confidence he gained from playing sports, and about working alongside a legendary team that included Lee.
Was it intense, interacting with your fellow cast members in Da 5 Bloods? It seems like there's a lot of testosterone, and as the guy who's coming in, that's an intense place to be.
Spike Lee has a way of putting together the most efficient team. And as you said, that team was filled with testosterone, with laughter, with crude jokes, with practical jokes. But he happened to pick everybody by hand, and he knew that this melting pot would work and make the best film and tell the best story. That doesn't mean that I didn't have to throw bows where need be with the OGs. And at the same time, the OGs were throwing bows right back. I mean, Delroy Lindo, who was my character's biggest attachment in the film, he and I locked horns early on.
What was the first role you got in your career?
I booked my first professional job my third year, in my final semester, at the Yale School of Drama. It was a miniseries on ABC called When We Rise, directed by Gus Van Sant [among others] and written by Dustin Lance Black. And I got to play one of the leads in that.
I have always heard that at the Yale School of Drama, they want you to go into theater. Was that a radical move to go toward television and movies and a miniseries?
With YSD, there is no discouragement in any direction for work—work is work. But when I got my offer, the school was hesitant at first—it's their pedagogy that we aren't to leave. But I had a baby to feed, so I was all, "Please, please, please, please, here's my case." And much to my delight, the head of physical acting, Christopher Bayes, and the head of the acting program at the time, Ron Van Lieu, who was one of the great American teachers, knew this. A lot of the big dogs at the school began to advocate for me, and I was allowed to go. And so I did my work in Vancouver, where we were shooting, and then came back to do a bit of audible oration—this is what I've learned, a dissertation of what I had taken in while on the road.
Do you have a secret skill?
I make a killer bolognese. I stand by that. I've been cooking bolognese since, I would say, third, fourth grade. It's hardy, it's nutritious—you get carbs, you get protein. And here's the secret—this is what we do in my house: The cheat sheet is that you take four boiled eggs and you drop them into the water while you're boiling the noodles. And so you have an entire meal there. You got your spaghetti, you got your hard-boiled eggs, you got your beef sauce. I played sports, so I needed all that.
What sports did you play?
I played football—quarterback, wide receiver, and cornerback. I played basketball—point guard, shooting guard. And then I boxed for a while.
Do you think sports give you anything for acting?
There's a physical discipline to acting that I think people sometimes miss. We think it's all emotion and talking, but there's a great deal of physicality that goes into bringing a character to life, and great restraint. In a sport, you have to practice restraint. You have to practice being able to explode physically at any moment. And I think those things correlate to how we modulate our emotions, how we follow the arc of a character, how we follow the arc of the game. The fourth quarter of a game could easily be called the third act of a play or a film. The stakes are high; it's win or lose, it's do or die. That adrenal push you're feeling in the fourth quarter, in the final round, in the red zone, it's the same thing you're feeling in certain moments of acting.
You also have to play through pain. Sports are a great balance between emotion and physicality, because the body modulates the emotion, and there are times when the emotion gets the best of you. And we rarely see that in sports. We just see the catharsis at the end.
Where was your first kiss?
My first kiss was outside of art class. I was 14, and it was a surprise. I just did it. It just happened. We were kind of seeing each other, going steady. The bell rang, we walked out, we were holding hands, and next thing I knew I was there. I was like, "Okay, that happened. That happened." And she didn't mind it. So, we hung tough for a little bit.
Where did you go on your first date?
The first date I ever went on was with my first love, and I believe we went to see the first Hellboy. And then we went to Olive Garden.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
I had a huge crush on Janet Jackson. I'm talking about “Scream” Janet Jackson. I'm one of three siblings, and me and my sister would watch that all the time, and I would be Michael and she would be Janet. And I was like, "You can't be Janet, Monica." She's like, "Why can't I be Janet?" I never told her why she couldn't be Janet: Monica, you can't be Janet because I had a crush on Janet Jackson when I was 13.
Did you make outfits and do the "Scream" dance?
No, my outfits were Batman. I was a big Batman guy. Batman and Power Rangers were my big thing. Actually, my mom and I talked about this a couple of days ago. When I was 8 years old, my mom made me a Batman costume with a cape. There were muscles in the costume. I wore that Batman costume from 8 to about 12 and a half.
Did you think you could fly?
Think I could fly? I knew I could fly.
And fight crime?
Fight crime? Let me tell you something. There was a moment when my mom and I were driving up our driveway, and I told her, "Mom, watch this, I'm Batman." And I was in my cape, and the car was moving, and I got out like Batman would and survived. Got out, stumbled, and survived. I was a crime-fighting, Batman costume–wearing, bad motherfucker.