Jonathan Majors has burst into the limelight with projects ranging from Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods to the Indie film sensation The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but it’s his quiet and forceful turn in HBO’s supernatural series Lovecraft Country, that has garnered him significant attention.
Based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, the limited series follows a young black man traveling across the segregated 1950s United States in search of his missing father. As Atticus “Tic” Freeman, Emmy nominee Majors internalizes Tic’s emotions and allows each moment of verbalization to be a gift. It’s a performance that transcends the archetype of what makes a hero.
The series has propelled discussions about the Jim Crow era, peeling back the layers of systemic racism with snarling beasts and supernatural forces that highlight a painful history in America. The large scale mixture of genre’s resulted in an exceedingly entertaining show that also includes gut-wrenching performances from Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis and Wunmi Mosaku.
“The rebounding nature of what Lovecraft did added so much to the culture,” shares Major. “[The show] raised the profile of brilliant writers and actors that are now pollinating our industry in a really positive and forward-thinking way.”
Majors spoke with awards focus about finding Atticus’ voice, working with an Emmy-nominated special visual effects teams, and breathing life into the introduction of his Marvel character in the Disney+ series Loki.
Awards Focus: How familiar were you with the source material before you joined the series, and did you know what the trajectory of the show would be?
Jonathan Majors: I wasn’t too familiar with the book. As soon as the audition came, I looked up the novel, and once I decided to audition I purchased it. The book’s incredible, and I made sure to finish it before I tested for the role of Atticus.
What (Series Creator) Misha Green, and the entire squad, ended up doing was far beyond what I had imagined, especially from using Matt Ruff’s material. They built this incredible world, but I had no idea of the trajectory of it. There were scenes in there, even in the pilot, in what I call ‘the overture,’ that in and of itself set the template for me to know this is going to be a whole different ballgame.
AF: Our editor did a panel with the special effects makeup artists from Lovecraft Country, and they spoke about the blood spatter and practical effects like an arm being bitten off by a monster in the pilot. What was it like for you to work with such high quality special effects, compared to a green screen?
Majors: It’s a dream for an actor, right? It’s a dream for me. Your imagination can do so much, and you can do a whole lot more when there’s something else to play off. The visual and practical effects they’re offering us are real. I had syrup in my mouth, my hair, and on my clothes. There was a moment where we were shooting out in the woods and I was washing off this Kool-aid in the shower each day.
But it was a gift because if we’re seeing it, and there’s actual pre-vis, then it allows you to play more and more. It ignites the imagination and ignites the body, which allows you to keep working until four o’clock in the morning.
AF: Can you talk a bit about accessing the character of Atticus, and bringing him to life from the page? What was your process in finding his tone of voice?
Majors: You know, it’s funny you’re asking about the voice because I listened to Sam Cooke a lot. Not his singing voice but his speaking voice. Atticus’ voice is placed differently than mine. I’m a baritone, and I would say Atticus is more of a tenor when he speaks. So there was a balance of him being a younger man in that earlier time, and in many ways more mature, and who he would have been listening to.
The fact is that this was a radio culture. They listened to people speak all the time and they would be emulating what that sounds is, so consciously I just latched on to that. It really gave me a way into the character. I remember while filming the pilot in Chicago watching these Sam Cooke interviews, just him talking and the fact that the Freeman family would have Southern roots. That sound would be in Atticus because that’s what he would have heard in the household.
That said, Atticus is a military man, he’s a bibliophile, and he’s a single child. It’s part of what makes him an introvert. I remember saying to Misha (Green) that Atticus doesn’t want to talk. Her prefers not to speak, and those are the best characters because it’s a gift when you hear them speak. If you hear them raise their voice, it’s a whole different visceral response that you get.
Then, of course, I researched what it was to be in the Korean War, the forgotten war. It’s as if he’s in a bad dream and no one can remember it. There’s no other vets, no relationships to him and other vets, and no one to speak with. The only confidant he had was Jia, and she was a Succubus. Laughs
AF: I love what you’re saying about Atticus being so quiet, that it’s a gift when he speaks, because he’s so many things you don’t expect from a hero. He reads a lot, he’s a nerd, a veteran, and a prodigal son. Do you think Atticus breaks the mould of the hero archetype we generally see on screen?
Majors: Absolutely, because he’s not gregarious. He’s also not purposefully charismatic, and he’s strong embodied, but it’s of no consequence. When shit goes down you realize that this man is built that way because of thing’s he’s done, and the Korean episode really helps to showcase that.
AF: How was it to work with Misha Green, and how did you feel knowing there wouldn’t be a second season?
Majors: There’s a whole slew of people that helped make the show, and the ship is being piloted by Misha. The relationship between a showrunner and an actor is interesting because she’s dealing with you in so many ways. We knew what we were doing and she had trusted me to feel this guy out, and make Atticus who he is on screen.
With that said, the idea that the show isn’t coming back is bittersweet. It wasn’t like I was going to run off and let that go. I was fully prepared to do both in all of it. But the powers that be who were involved are two of the biggest institutions in our industry. They weren’t going to make that compromise. I was crestfallen not for what could have been but because of what was, the potential that we weren’t done yet, and we’re not done now.
The rebounding nature of what Lovecraft did added so much to the culture, and raised the profile of brilliant writers and actors that are now pollinating our industry in a really positive and forward-thinking way.
AF: Your Marvel character was introduced in Loki, and it was a generous monologue with only a few interceptions from the two Loki’s. Were you nervous about breathing life in the scene, which feels similar to the introduction of the Architect in The Matrix: Reloaded?
Majors: I just didn’t look down. Before you get to set, there’s a very long process, and I wrestled with myself. Once I saw a script I understood there was a lot of talking. I know for a fact that not nearly as much of what we actually shot made the show. There were pages and pages missing for the nature of the beast. But that was a dream.
He Who Remains just spoke to me, and there’s lots of archetypes. People recognize them and you take those archetypes and shift them and move them, and make them more relevant and personal. You say, I’ve got to carry this, but how do I make it as fun and as effortless as possible, and put a real human being on the screen? With the help of Tom Hiddleston, Sophia Di Martino, Kate Herron and Kevin Wright, I could do that.