The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with up and coming actor Jonathan Majors at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Majors was in town to promote and celebrate the TIFF premiere of his new film White Boy Rick out this Friday, September 14. Jonathan plays Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry in the film, which is based on the true story of teenager Richard Wershe Jr. Wershe Jr. became an undercover informant for the FBI during the 1980’s and was ultimately arrested for drug-trafficking and sentenced to life in prison. Majors was raised in Dallas, Texas and studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Yale School of Drama. Check out highlights from our roundtable chat below:
How exciting is it to be here in Toronto?
Jonathan Majors: It’s amazing.
So, how did you get involved with White Boy Rick and what do you think of your character?
Jonathan Majors: Wow, I got into White Boy Rick kind of the old fashioned way. My team was inspired by a script and it was sent my way and when they informed me that they wanted me to look at John Curry, I read the role and then shot a traditional audition and then from there it kind of got a little hectic. I auditioned. I heard back that our director Yann Demange was interested and then it went dark, went quiet as it can and then … time went by. I met him again. He wanted to Skype. We Skyped. He was very complementary on the tape and wanted me to do some more work with it and he said, ‘Just go. Do it.’ And so the initial tape was three scenes I did in five minutes. The next tape was 48 minutes of just improvisation, building of the scenes that were there, just playing with it and sending it out. And then it went dark again. It wasn’t until maybe three weeks later when I was on a project in Chicago when I got a call [saying that] we could be going to Cleveland to shoot a film and at that point we were in bed together.
How long was that whole process?
Jonathan Majors: I think it was a two and a half month process.
And was that the longest you’ve had to wait to hear whether or not you were going to do something?
Jonathan Majors: Yeah, I think it was. Usually, you know soon, if they are interested or if they are not.
So what do you think of Curry? Is he still alive?
Jonathan Majors: Yeah, John Curry is still around. Actually, I spoke to him the first time on my birthday [Sept. 7], after the premiere and at the reception on the phone. I really felt a deep responsibility to advocate for Johnny in playing the role. It seemed to me that on the page, it would have been easy to make him, you know, the gangster, the kingpin, the rough criminal guy. And that’s on the page but what also is there is his status. He’s a king of the people and what kind of king is he? What makes him king? Well, he’s loving, he’s caring, he’s a family man above all else, he’s a CEO, he’s a president. And he essentially runs a huge corporation and people love him and respect him and I felt that I wanted to be the one to bring that forth and bring it forward.
That dignity in a way.
Jonathan Majors: The dignity exactly because the film, we didn’t know then, but we were hoping that the film would be received and that the people would see it and so in this climate, I think it’s most important that we represent complete human beings … Nobody needs to be put back 50 years, 100 years. Everyone needs to have the opportunity to be seen and so, in my picture of Johnny, that was really my objective, to give us a full human being — the dark and the light.
And is it intimidating at all when you are playing someone who is alive and is going to actually come and see your work?
Jonathan Majors: It’s funny. In a way yes and in a way no … Ken Jones who’s actually still alive was my very first job after drama school. And he was alive. But the December before I’d done that, I had played Henry V and Henry V was also a real guy, right? But Henry V was not a young black boy from Dallas, Texas, you dig what I’m saying? So, there’s always a certain amount of responsibility attached to the character. Johnny, like Ken Jones being alive, I think … that he directly will be impacted by this. His day to day after this film, will be impacted. His ego, his persona, his psyche will be touched by what people think about that performance and what he himself thinks about the performance. So there is that aspect which is different from any other character, but it doesn’t change the process. Ultimately, you want to honor what’s on the page, you want to honor the story and you want to honor the human condition.
You have Richie Merritt who is a non actor and you have a background from Yale Drama School. How exciting was it to collaborate with him?
Jonathan Majors: Well, working backwards, I think after 9 years of drama school, three years at Yale, you work so hard to essentially do what Richie Merritt does in the film. It doesn’t want to feel like acting, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a character. You just want to walk in and do it. And there are many ways to get there. You know, there is the organic way, there is the inspired way which Richie brings in and there is the craft way, there is the method way. There are so many ways to get at it so as an actor participating who has gone ‘the trained actor’ route, to be across from somebody so raw, so bright, so honest, so pure, so on his toes, so front footed, as everyone would say at school was amazing. And there you are in your purest form. There’s an actor in his purest form without the trappings of a technique or the trappings of a style or tone.
He said he doesn’t get intimidated by celebrities or big names. Could you tell he was born to do this?
Jonathan Majors: Oh, yeah. He has a certain amount of swagger. You know from what I understand about him, he grew up in a certain area. When you grow up in certain area, certain things don’t phase you. His upbringing, my upbringing, different races, same socio-economics. Once you’ve seen things, once you’ve experienced things and it’s also about your value system. If you don’t value celebrities, if you don’t value popularity and you value human beings in a one on one context, I think it’s very grounding and I think he has that experience.
There’s also a pretty prominent hip-hop artist in this movie, YG, who you got to work with. Can you speak about working with him?
Jonathan Majors: Yeah. YG, like Ritchie, is not really an actor but both of them are artists and so that spirit can move you through any medium. YG plays Leo Curry and Leo is Johnny’s brother. So there’s Johnny, Leo and RJ Cyler plays Boo. And so YG was with me the whole time. There was not a scene in which we weren’t together … And so, he was sweet, he was open, he listened in the scenes. That’s the hardest part of acting in some cases is talking and listening … And when you have the capability to talk and listen and really be effective and also be able to keep it light and fun and be like we are over this now, this is it you know, the tedium kind of just moves through without a problem.
Can you talk a little about your acting choices? What prompts you to say yes?
Jonathan Majors: It’s like a tributary story. Sidney Poitier told Denzel Washington and Denzel Washington told somebody else and I happened have to have heard. Where, the first three roles you pick are the most important roles that you will ever pick for your career. It wasn’t said to me, it was said to my forefathers. And so I hear that and I thought that way. Every role now I will pick with the same amount of scrutiny and I guess the barometer of that is what is the experience, what is the human experience of it? What will be released? What type of catharsis are we going to have? Are we going to release rage, are we going to release laughter, are we going to release fear? Are we going to release pain? And from that release, we are going to make the world better without sounding crazy.