Interview: Jonathan Majors on bringing aviation icon Jesse Brown’s life to the big screen in ‘Devotion’ [VIDEO]
Jonathan Majors is about to become one of the biggest stars in the business. His workload in 2023 consists of playing two villains in two of the biggest franchises on the planet with Creed III and his feature film debut as Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. But before we see those two projects, he will be the lead in Magazine Dreams, an indie drama where he plays a bodybuilder that will premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. But as he is about to take over world, the 33-year-old, Texas native actor is taking on one of his most personal projects to date, as he plays Naval pilot Jesse Brown, the first African American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program, in J.D Dillard’s Devotion.
Majors has been one of the hottest up and coming actors over the last couple years, producing an impressive body of work in films like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Da 5 Bloods, The Harder They Fall and in the HBO sci-fi series Lovecraft Country. Within Devotion, he continues his steak of stellar performances as he tackles the personal and physical to bring Jesse Brown’s life to the screen, as well as his real-life friendship with Lieutenant Tom Hudber (Glen Powell).
In my conversation with Majors, we discussed his process in selecting roles, his collaborations with Dillard and Powell, his favorite moments in preparing and shooting the flight sequences in the film, and what excites him about his upcoming releases in 2023. While he may seem quiet and reserved due to the characters he plays on the screen, Majors is a kind, sincere actor who is as excited about talking about his latest performances as he is about the bright future he has come.
Ryan McQuade: What is your process in selecting roles and how did that factor into you signing on to Devotion?
Jonathan Majors: I guess the short answer to that, it’s a feeling. It’s a feeling. But I think that feeling is engendered in… When reading, I know there’s something in myself that, I see there’s a high-level of difficulty in the piece. Sometimes that can be physical. Sometimes it can be social or emotional. And that’s coming from the character that I’m going to play. If it doesn’t scare me, then I stay away from it. And have a bad habit of casting it. I’ll tell my team, “Well, this is probably better for so and so. I can’t really find my way into it.”
Thank God that wasn’t the case for Jesse Brown in Devotion. He terrified me completely because he read so nuanced, he read so complex. It’s probably the most interesting man in the world. He’s bilingual. He flies planes. He code-switches in a strange way. And then on top of that, I think chiefly the fact that the story hadn’t been told before. His legacy hadn’t been put in front of folk before, and I felt another pull and responsibility and fear to take on that mantle to do that. So that’s how that came to be.
RM: How much did you know about Jesse before shooting the film? And what were you surprised to learn about him when researching and reading the role?
JM: Yes, I mean, when you first get the script, you’re an audience member. So, I was an audience member and I knew nothing about Jesse Brown. I knew a great deal about the Korean War having had a Korean War veteran in my family in that of my grandfather. And then also I got the script when I was in the middle of shooting a TV series in which the character, I was playing was indeed a Korean War veteran. So no, I didn’t know anything about him. What surprised me most in it was that how late down the line that this first Black anything was being established. So, him to be the first Black naval aviator was something that was a huge surprise to me. But also, just his character. Ultimately, just his character, who he was, how he operated and just how modern his plight was. Things he’s experiencing with racial pressure, with the pressure of excellence. Being a young man, trying to raise a child, trying to be a great husband, trying to be a good American. These are stories as old as time. And you would think that it would be cloaked in antiquity, but in reading it, it was on our doorstep. It felt very, very much on my doorstep, very close to me in many ways.
So that was surprising because I was getting ready to do, I thought it was going to be a period piece. There’s so many examples of that, but that has a lot to do with the vision of J.D. Dillard and our collaboration. Ultimately, a naval aviator and a rock star. That’s the architect.
RM: Along with learning about just his life and career you also had to prepare physically for these flight sequences and everything. What was the preparation like to pull off those sequences that we see in the film?
JM: Humility, first and foremost. Because the body is not built, we are not built to fly. If we were, we would’ve done so. So, the biggest thing was humility and getting the body where it needs to be and the discipline to be patient with yourself, but also to stay calm. That seems more mental and social. But to keep yourself calm physically is important. You can look calm, but if your heart rate jumps, if your adrenaline begins to really push through you, that’s when you’ll black out, you’ll throw up, you’ll brown out, all these terrible things happen. But in order for the good things to happen you got to stay hydrated, be careful what you eat because inevitably you will have a day where something goes wrong and that spaghetti Bolognese or whatever it is, will fight back.
And so, I ultimately never had that experience of letting it all come up. I held it. Actually, it all came up many times. It actually just never came out. And so I’ll let you and your viewers imagine how uncomfortable that was. But yes, there’s a certain conditioning to it. I probably lost probably seven pounds in the training of it, and also in the actual flying weeks just because of diet and when your adrenaline gets up like that you’re stressed. And so your body wants to burn and how to replenish all of that. You sleep like a baby the next day because you feel so out of whack. But yes, it was incredible from head to toe, from take-off to landing, I think.
RM: Did you have a favorite moment when you were shooting those sequences?
JM: Yes, I would say, maybe I’m a masochist, but it’s like there’s a moment where the first time I got, I was there, you know? These guys would ask us, “Do you want to go back down?” I think they asked me that once. And it was this one particular time when you’re so sick you’re cold. The body is like this is it. Your body doesn’t know what’s happening. It’s a foreign object. It’s in a space in which it was not made to be in.
But we were doing a day where we were really just going for it. We had done maybe three or four days, I was flying, then my operator was flying, and then this particular day we got into a really, really, really, what was the bird called? We were in Cessnas and then we were in the Corsair. We were in all these. But this particular day we went up in a big dog and there was going to be some moves and maneuvers and he really took it there. You know what I mean? I got so, I was wrecked, completely wrecked on that day. But I remember a moment where we were doing barrel turns, vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom. He did the first, I mean, you’re literally you’re going, wham, wham. And so he did the first two, and you’re so happy that you’ve survived it, you’ve done it. And you go, okay, cool. Then that’s the third one, vroom. Then he goes down. Then he pushes you straight up. And so as we were going on that particular day, I was like, wow, this is incredible. But then my body started really freaking out, just really freaking out. And he asked me did I want to go back down?
And I remember pouring sweat and all I was thinking was Jesse Brown wouldn’t go back down. You know what I mean? There’d be no quit. There’d be no quit. And so I said, “No, sir, let’s continue.” He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes, sir, let’s continue.” And we stayed up there another, I don’t know, probably 10 minutes, but that was the duration of it. That was probably the most intense and probably my favorite day of shooting or preparation because it’s very rare that you get to those moments outside of scene work where you feel completely aligned with the spirit of the character that you’re going to be playing. And so that was definitely that scenario.
RM: You not only play Jesse Brown, the aviator, but you are playing a father, a husband.
RM: How much were you able to relate to him when he’s outside of the plane within his personal life?
JM: Yes, I mean, that was interesting because something Daisy says in the picture, she goes, “That’s the funniest man I’ve ever met. If he likes you, when you get to know him, he’ll let you in and you’ll see.” She says that to Tom. And I really like that line because that’s something that I can relate to. Those who know me I’m very serious, a very serious actor, a very serious man, all those things. And I am, but there’s a part of me that is reserved just for those people who I get close to or really know me, and I really know them. So, I mean, that part I could relate to completely.
One of my favorite scenes is, some of my favorite scenes are in the house. A quick moment when we’re, I go and pick up Pam after coming home from work. And it’s just a sequence between a father and a daughter. And I, too, am a father. So, it’s quite beautiful. Those moments were quite close to me. And again, how modern this man was. How every day in quotidian his experience could be. And hours later, he’s doing a thing that no one else in the world has ever dreamed of. So yes, he was close in that way. I could relate in that way being a lover, being a partner, all those things were good. And also, when not in the sky, just the trepidation one can have being away from, just being a minority in America, being a Black man in America.
Yes, I mean, there is a certain amount of distance, and for me, there was a certain amount of distance coming from where I come from where you do have to figure out how to trust and move through. Not all the time, but in certain situations. I recognize it’s not the same for everybody, but I don’t know everybody’s situation. I just know my situation. And to have that feeling primarily because of the color of my skin is something that Jesse also experienced. And though that’s an uncomfortable similarity, it was something that was close to me.
RM: What was the collaboration process, not just in the beginning, but as you’re working on the film with your director, J.D. Dillard like?
JM: Oh man, that collaboration was beautiful in a nutshell. I mean, he is probably the most sensitive director I’ve ever worked with and his latitude of understanding for this world was sovereign. He really got us off the ground and landed a plane. And the time that he put into it and the time that he invested in me, and the time I invested in him, and ultimately us trying to find Jesse and build Jesse out. We would always… Shooting a movie there’s pretty, it’s all the same. It’s pretty much all, you’re doing the same thing. I mean, the nuance of it is in the how your director’s working with you, and that’s where you make the memories.
But I think the biggest memory and the biggest takeaway from our experience was probably every Sunday. Every Sunday we’d get together and we’d meet in the park, and we’d go to the coffee shop and have breakfast and we would just sit. I’d pull the script out and go, “Okay, this is what we’re doing next week. What do you think? This is where I’m taking it.” And then he would poke holes in it and I would say, “No, no, no. There’s no hole here. This is how it goes. Let me break this down to you.” And he goes, “Okay, cool, cool, cool, cool.” And then he’d say something, and I’d try to poke holes in it. He’s like, “No, no, no, there’s no holes in it. Let me explain it to you.” And so, we would build and collaborate together. And that way when we got to work Monday morning, we were proper wing men and could move and operate swiftly to bring the most out of each scene.
RM: You spend the majority of the film also with your co-star Glen Powell. How was it like working with him and creating this real life, refreshing friendship between Jesse and Tom that we see on screen?
JM: Well, the beautiful thing about working with a Glen Powell is that he has a way of, I mean, he just brightens up the space, you know what I mean? And in doing so his presence, his aviation IQ is something that helped us, you know what I mean? It helped us in general. There’s a certain confidence that he has. And then because of that there’s a certain amount of confidence you can have with him. And he’s probably, not to speak in superlatives, but just speaking in superlatives, the best scene partner in some aspects that I’ve worked with. He’s really on it. He’s really trying to figure out how to move everything forward. I don’t know if that was because he was our co-lead and also the producer of, one of the producers of the film. But his investment was more than I could ever imagine. And yes, us building a friendship was trying to keep it real.
He made a promise to Tom Hudner that he was going to get this right. And my mantra is get it truthful by any means necessary. And so, between his correctness and my search for authenticity we really built a friendship. And we talked about this quite often. That wasn’t just, these guys are buddies. We’ve seen these films a hundred times. I think what me and Glen did with Tom and Jesse’s friendship is, is so, it’s actually fucking people’s brains up, you know what I mean? Because it’s not the cinematic… Some people don’t even recognize it because it is in some ways, I believe, a truthful bond, not necessarily a Hollywood rah rah rah bond. But it has to be because this is a friendship that yielded a legacy that allowed books to be written about it. We have made a film about it. So, it’s not the commonplace Black boy, White boy, not fox and the hound, now we’re friends for life. It’s not that, you know what I mean? We held each other accountable for allowing a natural and organic bond to come that was truthful in relation to what Jesse and Tom was experienced.
And I think what we would try to yield in that was not just a friendship, but a snapshot of what soulmates looked like. And so, there were many conversations and also some conversations that we just did not need to have because we weren’t attempting to give the PC version of boy from Mississippi, boy from Rhode Island. We just weren’t interested in that.
RM: You’ve worked with a lot of great directors and artists already in your career. Are there any directors, actors, artists you haven’t worked with yet that you would love to collaborate with in the future?
JM: Yes, I mean, of course. First off, I would want to work with everybody I worked with before, again, because we continue to grow in that way. But I’m a huge fan of the Anderson boys, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson. Who else could I say? Spielberg, Barry Jenkins. Who else is on my mind? Who else is on my mind right now? Janicza Bravo, (Gina) Prince-Bythewood. Yes, I mean, all these folks. It’s a great time to be making movies. Did I say Spielberg? Spielberg.
RM: Yes, you did!
JM: Spielberg twice. You know what I mean? (Laughs)
RM: I know. (Laughs)
JM: The education from any of those directors would be great. I just want to be better. And directors can help with that sometimes. I think the affirmation directors really have a understanding of the craft that would allow me to explore my craft further.
RM: You are going to have, I think, the busiest 2023 of any actor I’ve seen already looking at the slate, good sir. What excites you the most about the future projects that you’ve worked on and the ones that you’re going to create, hopefully, in the future beyond your projects coming up?
JM: Yes, I mean, there’s a few things coming out pretty quickly right here at the top of the year. And hopefully those things will, they’re coming out in a great time, because hopefully, not hopefully. Yes, hopefully, they’ll have legs long after what we call first quarter, second quarter.
Yes, I mean… What am I looking forward to? Look, I mean, for a while I was just on sets with my head down, headphones in, digging it out, punching and lifting, and just really trying to get these stories and get these characters out on set to get them photographed properly. And now, starting in January with Sundance, we begin to see the rollout of these, of this chapter. So, I’m excited about that. It’s a relief. And for you all, I mean, not necessarily journalists, but audience members, for the people to see these films because while I’m very, very, very proud of the work I’ve done and am humbled by the characters that somehow got put together, I’m more excited for those who I collaborated with to see the fruit of their labor as well. It’s a collaboration, ultimately. I think Michael B. Jordan put together an incredible, I mean, the best boxing picture in the history of boxing pictures, you know what I mean? For our time, it’s on that level. I could say the same thing about what the MCU is trying to do and doing. Everybody worked extremely hard to get these films into the world.
Not to mention this film Magazine Dreams, which is, I mean, probably the most difficult role and process I’ve ever, I’ve been in. And so, yes, I’m excited for everybody to see those things and to hear the conversations that come from those things and try to understand the healing that people are going to get from them. Because ultimately, for me, that’s what it’s about. That we can see these characters’ experience laughter and joy and pain and tears, and at the end of the day we’re all better for it. So, I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m excited to give them away. There you go. There’s that. There it is.
RM: I’m excited for them all. We’re all excited to see them. And it’s going to be a great year for you. And this is a great film. Thank you so much for your time today, Jonathan.
JM: My pleasure, bro. My pleasure. And thank you.
Devotion is currently in theaters from Sony Pictures.