Arts & Culture News

Dallas Actor Jonathan Majors Digs Into the Truth of the Black Experience With Spike Lee

Spike Lee (left) with Delroy Lindo (middle) and Dallas actor Jonathan Majors (fourth from left) filming Da 5 Bloods.
Spike Lee (left) with Delroy Lindo (middle) and Dallas actor Jonathan Majors (fourth from left) filming Da 5 Bloods. David Lee/Netflix
Two days after returning from the Sundance Film Festival, Dallas-born actor Jonathan Majors got the call that would fill any performer with joy: Spike Lee wanted to meet with him about a role.

Majors eagerly drove to Lee’s office in Brooklyn, but the meeting wasn’t exactly what he expected. The legendary filmmaker took him aside into his small, intimate editing suite, where he had been working on an upcoming music video project.

“I’m watching some edits for some pieces he’s been doing, and one of the pieces was a music video for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and the subject matter was the border wall that 45 has been trying tirelessly to put up,” Majors remembers. “I’m watching it, and I get very emotional, and he looks over at me and goes ‘Ha ha, you like that one, huh?’”

Majors instantly felt at ease talking with Lee, who had just picked up his first Academy Award for BlacKkKlansman. Lee didn’t beat around the bush. He instantly told Majors that he wanted him for a part in his new film Da 5 Bloods, where he’d be playing the son of a Vietnam veteran who joined his old colleagues in a search for a lost soldier’s body.

“He says ‘So, your dad is Delroy Lindo,’” Majors says Lee told him. “You have to understand that as an actor, that’s usually not how it goes. They usually don’t start jumping in, they ask you what you think about the script, et cetera, your interpretation, blah, blah, blah, but the first thing Spike tells me is who I’m going to be working with.”

Majors didn’t just get the low down on his co-stars, but a window into the entire production. Lee handed him a copy of Bloods, an Oral History of the Vietnam War, an account of the experiences of black veterans in Vietnam, as well as information about when and where they’d be shooting.

“He says ‘We shoot in Thailand, we shoot in Vietnam,’ and he just starts running me through what the process is going to be of shooting this film,” Majors says of the director. “I’ve been in his office for all of 25 minutes.”

It’s not every day that a young actor, who at the time was just shy of 30, gets a meeting like that, but Majors had put in the work that earned him that reputation. In the past 10 years, he not only graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts and Yale University with degrees in acting, but he’s starred in such films as Hostiles, White Boy Rick, Captive State, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

“You go from walking around Northpark Mall, just being a mallrat, to walking through and seeing your face up on a White Boy Rick poster for a film you’re doing with Matthew McConaughey,” he says. “It’s been an amazing time for sure.”

Majors grew up in Dallas and attended Cedar Hill High School, and discovered acting at the perfect time in his life. After some years of being a self-confessed troublemaker, Majors found himself on the stage thanks to the “very rich theater community” in the Dallas area.

“It was a place to be kind of sheltered, in a way,” he says. “We’re a big football culture down home and I was playing sports, and then I slowly transitioned to just doing theater. It was cool because things were hectic. I had already been in trouble, and then to be in the theater was a safe haven for me.”

Majors credits his teachers in the theater department with helping him come into his own on stage, where he landed first place in district and second place in state competitions. It was during his studies at North Carolina School of the Arts where Majors learned that his passion for acting could extend beyond the stage. He recalls words of wisdom from the university’s recently departed dean of the drama department, Gerald Freedman, who encouraged students to open themselves up to a broad spectrum of acting possibilities.

“He really dropped into me that there is no medium for acting,” Majors says of Freedman. “Acting is a vehicle, and if you can act, you can do film, you can do television, you can do theater, you can do slam poetry, you can do music videos, you can do anything. It’s limitless. It became very clear to me that I can do anything in acting, and then film kind of took hold.”

It didn’t take long for Majors to branch out, as he was plucked out of class at the end of his third year at Yale to work with Academy Award-winning director Gus Van Sant on the miniseries When We Rise, which set him on a steady trajectory toward larger roles.

Majors gained some of the best reviews of his career for his performance as Montgomery Allen in last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a Gotham Independent Film Award nomination for Breakthrough Actor.

“That was a big moment, and I had a great responsibility,” Majors says of his role. “The film, unbeknownst to me off the top, was going to be seen by a great deal of people, and gained notoriety, and there’s a cult following. It hit mainstream in a strange sort of way; it’s quite novel how the film began to breathe and live and exist. That transition was incredible.”

It would be less than two months after the debut of The Last Black Man in San Francisco at the Sundance Film Festival that Majors would be trudging through locations in Bangkok and Saigon for his role as David in Da 5 Bloods.

“It was like gridiron, football preseason hot, and then it was wet on top of that,” he remembers. “It was incredible because that’s what the soldiers were dealing with when they were there, when they were fighting, so that part made the acting experience very easy as far as playing the physical circumstances.”

Majors shared the same belief that the rest of the cast did: their personal challenges were worth it to get the story of Da 5 Bloods out there. The film follows the story of four black veterans who return to Vietnam to uncover the body of their brother in arms Norman, played by none other than Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman.

Majors was in awe of the stacked cast. In addition to Delroy Lindo, the veteran film and television actor who plays his father Paul, the cast also included Norm Lewis (the first black actor to play the title role in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway), Clarke Peters (a veteran television actor with roles in The Divide, Treme, and Person of Interest), and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (best known for his unforgettable role as corrupt state Sen. Clay Davis in The Wire).

“You go from walking around Northpark mall, just being a mallrat, to walking through and seeing your face up on a White Boy Rick poster for a film you’re doing with Matthew McConaughey.”– Jonathan Majors

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“I’m thrown in the mix with those guys and the harmony of the group,” Majors says. “They called me ‘Young Blood,’ and Spike called me ‘Morehouse’ because David is a Morehouse alum, as is Spike. It felt like a ceremony to me. It felt like a transition of being with members of your community that you didn’t even know that you were a part of.”

Majors admits he was initially nervous about being part of the ensemble, but he quickly gelled with the cast and enjoyed the communal experience of shooting.

“It felt like I’ve got a job to do, this is what I’m going to do in this household, and we are going to survive, and we’re going to thrive, and we’re going to make this film,” he says. “That was the overall vibe of it, and the brotherhood that we shared and the intimacy that we experienced with each other I think yielded a very heartwarming, visceral, emotional, political film.”

It was important for Majors to connect with Lindo — a veteran of Lee films such as Crooklyn, Clockers, and Malcolm X — specifically, because the father-son relationship between Paul and David drives much of the film’s emotional conflict.

“The beautiful thing about Delroy is he has so much grace, and in our process, I studied him in the same way I studied my own biological father, the same way I studied my grandfathers, the same way I studied my uncles,” Majors says. “I know for myself the thing I need is to be understood and to be accepted and to be loved unconditionally by my father. That’s what I need, so I figured that’s got to be the same thing with David.”

Majors found Lindo easy to connect to, as they shared a commonality in that they both graduated from conservatories, with Lindo an alum of the American Conservatory Theater. Majors knew that David’s quest to gain his father’s love would be essential to the story, so he studied the veteran actor in order to build their complex relationship.

One climactic scene pushed Majors to his physical and emotional limits, he says. The sequence, which occurs toward the end of the film, involves his character being in imminent danger, and that sense of urgency was felt by the entire cast and crew.

“Spike’s intensity was all the way up,” he says. “Spike traverses between being almost a monk and being a war general, and on this day he was a war general.”

Majors felt an enormous responsibility, as much of the scene revolves around paying off the father-son relationship that he and Lindo had been building throughout the entire film.

“The primary focus is on David and Paul, and the care and the intensity and the focus that was radiating from everybody, but particularly Delroy in that scene, is something I’ll never forget.,” he says. “I’ve seen the film a few times now, and I think it’s one of the reasons why that scene pops. We’re all in full sprint. I’ll remember that for the duration of my life.”

Da 5 Bloods, which will stream exclusively on Netflix starting June 12, wrapped principal photography in the summer of 2019. Majors was ecstatic to see the final version, and calls the end product “mind blowing.”

“As an actor, I just wanted to be one of the actors that didn’t watch his own work, but then I realized how fucking selfish that is, because it’s not just your work,” he says. “You are in a Spike Lee film, you should see what a Spike Lee film looks like. You worked with Delroy Lindo, you should see what the fuck Delroy Lindo did.”

It was announced in early May that the film would land on Netflix in June, but Majors never expected that the film’s frank discussion about black identity and subjugation would be at the forefront of the world’s mind.

“I was just blown away by almost the prophetic nature of what Spike had done with the writing, the directing, with the edits,” he says. “It’s very exciting because I believe some of the themes that we’re talking about in the film, what the film accomplishes with this ferocious love, this very naked humanity, in particular that of the black soldier and the black man, is what a lot of people miss in cinema. I think that’s what a lot of people miss in our country.”

Majors says the empathy that the film has for its characters helps shed a light on the universal black experience.

“These people, my people, are human, and experience all types of discomforts and all types of trials and tribulations,” he says. “It’s not valued in so many cases, and what we’ve done in this film is we’ve made it front and center. We’re not hiding from it, and we’re not aggressively putting it in your face. We’re telling a story.”

Majors also says the intersectionality of telling a story about black veterans confronts racism within the ranks in a way that isn’t often discussed.

“Our heroes are black men, and they’re moving through a universal trauma, which is war, and then we highlight the fact that they’re not just in one war, they’re in two wars,” he says. “They’re fighting the Viet Cong, they’re fighting in Vietnam, but they’re also fighting the race war in a foreign land, dealing with their own racial injustice inside the ranks, inside the Army. That’s something we haven’t seen before.”

One of the things Majors admires most about the film is that it acknowledges that each character has a different personal experience.

“It’s a prism of the black man experience, it’s a monolith,” he says. “The second we can shift that idea that all black folks are the same, that you can just put us all in a box, that you don’t have to spend the time to understand what the nuances of black life are... once we break that idea, once we realize that all these people are individual, they have a shared struggle but they’re different, each life is special, each life is a life, that’s what the film offers.”
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.