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When Jonathan Majors was 14 years old in Texas, he was pushing lawnmowers, selling candy at school, working two more jobs, and striving to be class president. The drive, he says, was just a part of him, and he now thanks his career for it – a career that’s accelerated at breakneck speed since turning heads in 2019’s award-winning indie drama The Last Black Man In San Francisco. Since then, Spike Lee’s drama Da 5 Bloods, HBO’s mystery horror Lovecraft Country, hip western The Harder They Fall and Marvel’s Loki have established his major credentials, and now he’s making the leap to bona fide movie star by playing the antagonists in both Creed 3 and Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania. So is he satiated? Hell, no – the drive is stronger than ever.
"At 33 years old, I’m still full of piss and vinegar," he says on Zoom from New York. "Maybe you should speak to my therapist about it. Listen, I live in a cool spot. And when I walk through the door, the guys are looking at me every time because I’m a young Black man living in a certain building. You know what I mean? I live here. I live here! It’s a very intimate group, but they can’t get it past their minds. I come in with my hood up, with my dogs. They’re like, 'Excuse me?' I’m like, 'Guys, there’s only one Black man who lives here, and it’s me. I’m sorry, I’m an actor, and I change clothes. But it’s me, guys. It’s always going to be me.'" He shakes his head, upon which perches a flat cap. "Do I always have a chip on my shoulder? I’ve got the whole chip bag on my shoulder. It only grows the more I pay attention to what’s going on in the world."
This drive, this anger, came in useful when Majors set about finding his character of Damian Anderson in the third Creed movie. Damian is a childhood friend of world champion boxer Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). Imprisoned for years, he’s now freshly released, in fearsome shape, and is quick to remind his old pal just who was considered the better fighter in their youth. How is it that 'Eye Of The Tiger' goes? "Rising up, back on the street… Did my time…" Well, Damian certainly hasn’t lost his grip on the dreams of the past, and is intent on fighting just to keep them alive. He will change your passion for glory… Majors and Jordan – who produces and makes his directorial debut, as well as returning as Adonis – worked on the character of Damian together, building him from the ground up. Anderson is Majors’ paternal grandfather’s surname, and the actor poured himself, and his family upbringing, into the role.
"Although I was never incarcerated, I did deal with juvenile detention, in-school suspension, expulsions… all the way up until adulthood," says Majors, who was arrested for shoplifting and disciplined for fighting during his school years. "So I understood that, you know? But my big connection to it was the fact that the man who raised me was an ex-con, as gross as the word is. He had been incarcerated for 15 years before we found each other. I believe that his sole purpose in my life was to get me to adulthood. My mother and him parted ways, but he still remained… I mean, he’s my stepfather. To this day, I see him as my stepdad, you know? So I understood, second-hand, the incarcerated mind. I witnessed it, what that development is."
The years of incarceration inform who Damian is, physically and mentally. It’s even there in his fighting style. Majors, a natural athlete who has always played sport to "a competitive level" and is "competitive with myself, as far as my body [is concerned]", committed to "eight months of hard living and hard training" before shooting Creed 3. But he was sculpting his brain, also. "That’s probably what me and Mike talked the most about," he explains. "How is he going to fight? He’s quite unorthodox. It’s a mixture of prison survival and ancient pugilism. He’s a very smart fighter. Though he’s strong and visceral, he’s intelligent." And hungry, right? "Yeah, he’s starving."
Again, it was something that Majors connected to. "I spent my time as a boy on a farm and in the hood, as we say in the States – you know, in council housing. That’s my upbringing, period. So I understand that hunger, and the engine it takes to be, quote unquote, 'world champion'. That’s a big engine, and that takes a lot of horsepower. I connected on that – to show people one’s worth; to be worthy, you know?"
It’s a ravenous hunger that could take Damian all the way to the title, especially given that Creed, like Rocky Balboa in Rocky 3, is enjoying a life of luxury. Just look what happened there: Clubber Lang (Mr. T) showed Rocky how a life of silk pyjamas can lead to nightmares in the ring. Major nods. "Adonis Creed is very much a part of the system in this film. He is a part of the machinery. At the top, you can become lax. That’s very much a part of the arc that Adonis is dealing with in the picture. He then reverts, and becomes more spiritual. He begins to remember where he comes from. And that’s the real battle."
Kang you dig it
Majors, the middle of three children, spent his early years on a California air-force base where his father worked. When he was nine, his father left, and the family moved to Texas. Money struggles led him into shoplifting, and it was as an adolescent in juvenile detention that he met Ms. LJ, who taught theatre arts. Finding theatre to be a "safe space", he made it to Yale Drama School and landed his first role while he was there, playing a gay-rights activist in 2017 miniseries When We Rise.
Hop forward four short years and Majors was appearing in two episodes of Disney+ show Loki as He Who Remains, a variant of Kang the Conqueror, the most powerful being in the multiverse. His arresting appearance in Loki was the first small step of what promises to be a huge journey across the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Kang, the biggest bad since Thanos, is on villain duties in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and will then headline Avengers: The Kang Dynasty in May 2025. Quantumania opens Marvel’s Phase 5. The Kang Dynasty is the first of two Avengers movies that will close out Phase 6. No pressure, then…
"Initially, I couldn’t believe it," says Majors. "I come from the theatre, which, in some cultures, could seem anathema to the MCU stage, so it was completely bizarre to be approached. But I found out very quickly that it was a very thought-out choice on their part. And any trepidation I had about being able to actually do the work that I so desperately want to do and create the art that I so desperately want to create…" He offers a smile of contentment. "I was really gonna be fostered within the MCU, and within this company of creatives."
An imposing figure of great intelligence and tremendous gravitas, Kang the Conqueror clashes in all sorts of intriguing ways with Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang aka Ant-Man. For Majors, it’s a gig so huge it makes Rudd’s Giant-Man in Civil War’s airport dust-up seem positively miniscule. So did he seek any advice from his Creed 3 director and co-star Jordan, who of course rocked the MCU as the ferociously noble Killmonger in Black Panther? "No, I didn’t, and I don’t really believe in that," he says. "Every man, every artist, everyone has their own experience on it. I don’t really care what someone else’s experience is because, for me, at this level..." He weighs his words. "I’m in two huge blockbusters about to hit cinemas. For me and my mental health, I can’t compare. There’s no other outcome than a good experience that I can expect. I don’t want to open myself up to any warnings or any trepidation, or someone else’s point of view or trauma around an event, a person, et cetera. I do my best work when I feel secure. Where I feel secure enough to be dangerous. Or I feel safe enough to be daring. I don’t want anybody else in my head."
Majors’ head is a positive space. Not easy to daunt, he is hungry for challenges and ready to meet them. His work, he feels, carries with it a great responsibility, and he looks to the past even as he strides into the future. "What’s been gifted, what’s been earned… I’m participating in that, and moving it forward," he starts. "I think about Sidney Poitier. It’ll be on me to build the next thing, you know? I’ve got a long way to go, but I will only be ripped and 6ft for so long. There will be individuals coming behind me, and I have to challenge them now, you know? Hopefully what we do with The Kang Dynasty; what we do in the MCU; what we do in these Adonis movies… Hopefully they go, 'That is now the pole star. That is what we’re aiming for now'. In the same way I looked at Denzel [Washington] and Sidney Poitier and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis, and went, 'I’m going there.'"
It’s not arrogance. It’s focus, it’s belief, it’s that aforementioned drive. His feet are planted. And besides, it’s impossible to get a big head when you have a young daughter and four dogs to look after. "I’ve got some cheat sheets [to stay grounded]," he grins. "I’m raising a human being. That’s a real thing. And I walk my dogs, pick up dog shit. That’ll do it."
Creed 3 is out in cinemas now. For what else is heading to the big screen, check out our guide to 2023 movie release dates.