A year ago, almost to the month, the actor Jonathan Majors flew to Vancouver to begin three months of filming for When We Rise. The four-part ABC special, which first aired Monday and will continue throughout the week, chronicles the gay rights movement from its nascent days in ’70s San Francisco up to the historic Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. Majors was still in his final year at the Yale School of Drama when he was plucked out of class by showrunners Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant, the creative team who also wrote and directed the Harvey Milk biopic Milk, on the strength of an audition tape he had made with the help of a few friends. In the series' first two installments, Majors plays a young Ken Jones, the United States Navy veteran who eventually becomes an HIV/AIDS and gay rights activist.
“I got an email from him saying, ‘So, I was hoping for Meryl Streep, but I guess I’ll settle for you,’” Majors recalled. “After that, it was all love.”
Majors's timeline covers Jones's tour in Vietnam, the early, sudden loss of his partner, and an unlikely second romance when he’s transferred to San Francisco to help improve race relations in the military; Michael K. Williams picks up the role in the early ’90s, when a second devastating loss radically alters Jones’s life.
When We Rise is Majors’s first major screen credit. He shot his part during a whirlwind three months in Vancouver and San Francisco’s Castro district—while still finishing his coursework in time for graduation. “I was doing all my Shakespeare and my Chekhov and my scansion work and singing my songs and my voice and speech work,” he said, “and then running off to set to shoot my scenes.”
The miniseries is just the first of several projects he has already lined up straight out of drama school. Next up, he will appear in the period piece Hostiles with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike; when we spoke, he was in Chicago filming Captive State, Rupert Wyatt’s science-fiction thriller with Vera Farmiga and Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders.
After more than a decade studying drama, it’s about time the 27-year-old actor plunged headlong into his career. Even as a child attending church near Waco, Texas, Majors was captivated by the preachers performing from the pulpit. The son of a church minister himself, Majors grew up just outside Dallas, along with a younger brother, Cameron, and an older sister, Monica.
“We’re a motley crew,” Majors said. “Usually, my first phone call when I get good news is my brother; my first phone call when I get bad news is my sister. It’s going to get to mom either way.”
They subsisted on food stamps and free lunches, hovering around the poverty line; Majors’s father left the family when he was nine. Around that time, he started getting in trouble. He was put in an alternative program at school and, at 13, enrolled in an acting class. (To this day, he still remembers the names of his acting coaches at each step, from eighth grade onwards.) During a session of “popcorn reading”—in which the young actors bounced back and forth delivering lines from passages of books—Majors caught the bug. The text, perhaps an unlikely culprit, was Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
“I was reading every other chance,” Majors said. “I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’” He enrolled in the North Carolina School of the Arts straight out of high school, took a year between college and graduate school (during which time he had a daughter), and then matriculated at the Yale School of Drama.
As reviews have pointed out, When We Rise was initially slated to air on consecutive nights, Monday through Thursday. But President Donald Trump’s first joint address to Congress Tuesday night put a wrinkle in that plan; the miniseries instead bookends the president’s rhetoric, as a counterpoint to his recent orders rescinding equal-rights protections for transgender students. (Among the activist leaders featured in When We Rise is Cecilia Chung, a transgender activist and close friend of Ken Jones; the series makes consistent efforts to highlight the intersectionality of the gay rights movement over the years.) Though the series entered development long before a Trump presidency even looked possible, let alone a likely outcome, it’s still a welcome antidote for its audience and cast members alike.
“My politics have become very clear, and they’ve come to the surface of who I am as a human being,” Majors said, citing his own participation at rallies and marches over the past few years. “It’s so rare to do a piece where you don’t have to separate your politics and your work and your art.”
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