EXCLUSIVE: For his first interview on the edgy drama Magazine Dreams that makes its Sundance Premiere tonight, Jonathan Majors was pulling into Park City, after driving for days cross country from New York. While Majors is one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars after turns in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Lovecraft Country, The Harder They Fall and Da 5 Bloods, he was not going to drive up a small film’s limited budget with pricey airfare. Magazine Dreams is written and directed by Elijah Bynum, and produced by Jennifer Fox and Dan Gilroy, the latter of whom made Nightcrawler. Just like the unhinged photog played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Majors has gone all in physically and emotionally to transform himself into the equally extreme Killian Maddox. An aspiring amateur bodybuilder, Maddox is socially awkward and slavishly devoted to the solitary pursuit of body culture, and the drama traces how his obsession plunges him down the proverbial rabbit hole in an effort to be noticed for his physique. It is a tour de force performance that will conjure memories of De Niro’s Travis Bickle, and the work Majors put in physically is impossible to not notice. Here, Majors talks about the truths about the invisibility and stereotyping of many people, and the darkness that creates combustible conditions that often end in tragedy.
DEADLINE: In Magazine Dreams, your character Killian Maddox is an aspiring bodybuilder. You take us down a dark road with a character reminiscent of Travis Bickle, the equally combustible Taxi Driver anti-hero. Your commercial trajectory lately has been remarkable, and this year you square off against Michael B. Jordan in Creed III, and continue your Marvel villain Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and beyond. Why did you want to balance all that by taking this character plunge in a tiny budget indie film that is so edgy?
JONATHAN MAJORS: It was Killian’s spirit that is the core of the story of Magazine Dreams. I got the Elijah Bynum script at the height of Covid. And when I read it, I was so odd to say, you know, I felt so seen By it. Yeah.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
MAJORS: It really speaks about a minority that walks around us, all the time. A group of people that are marginalized, mentally and socially in their interpersonal interactions, in their day to day as they move amongst us every day. I consider myself one of those individuals. Man, look, it’s, it’s so interesting talking to you. I’m driving into Sundance, and drove in from New York City for this. There were towns along the way where, when I got out, I wasn’t viewed as Jonathan Majors, as much as I was Killian Maddox.
I saw that in the script, and I saw a character that was so gentle and beautiful, and fragile, and actually the byproduct of the world he lives in. What he decides to do in the film is go against that, and try to take some control over who he wants to be, who he’s gonna be. And yes, it does go dark, but ultimately he comes out on the other side when he realizes this is about self-love. The whole story is about self-love, but in getting to that, you have to examine how ostracized, how much a pariah some individuals are, and why we as, as a society make them into that. The fear we have a certain individuals.
DEADLINE: I mentioned Travis Bickle because he was also socially awkward, and just like there, you watch the character go on a date that ends badly as his restlessness and loneliness makes more and more dangerous. At his supermarket job, you can see white customers move away from him. And there is the solitary pursuit of bodybuilding, and building muscles in a quest most people don’t understand, but is everything to Killian. What parts of his character could you connect with, especially working on this during the pandemic, where most of us were isolated and depressed?
MAJORS: Unfortunately, that wasn’t too far away from me, being feared by people because of my stature or cause of my race. When I received the script, I was shooting a film called The Harder They Fall. I call what followed my physical triad, including Quantum Mania, and Creed. And then Killian. From that last picture, it was 18 months of training. So there was a lot of isolation.
DEADLINE: So this was, my two years without carbs?
MAJORS: I mean, yeah, it was tough. It was tough. But that’s the job, you know? But, I like french fries. That’s kind of my thing. I really like them. But once I got over that, I was locked in. As for the isolation part, when I first read the script, I thought, this is impossible, nobody is going to make it. But I was also like, I gotta do this; this is an opportunity. There are parallels to Taxi Driver but this film is, I think, stands alone. The complement each other in that we’re talking about an isolated individual, and the extremes they will go though, to feel present. But our protagonist and Taxi Driver go different ways, and in between, there is a lot that is different.
But the isolation…you don’t have anybody around you when you’re working out, three times a day. And you’ve got to eat seven meals a day. You are pacing up and down your apartment, force feeding yourself the food you need to grow. That isolation and physical commitment does breed a certain amount of emotionality, and distance. The gift of adversity is, you get to learn from the role. I learned things about my body, my spirit and my emotionality, and how I connect to people. And my need for people. Because in this role, you had to go there, and there was extremely dark and extremely lonely. And it hurt a lot. But now, I feel this offered me the greatest amount of healing as an actor, as a citizen. I got to learn a lot, playing Mr. Maddox.
DEADLINE: We haven’t even talked about how jacked you got. Where’d you get that bench press up to?
MAJORS: Max? Probably 340 pounds.
DEADLINE: Amazing. Always wanted to bench three bills, back in the day, and had bad form and pinched a nerve and never got above 270. It will be easy for many to identify with the bodybuilding even if they don’t lift because it’s a solitary attempt based on your self belief you can physically transform yourself, staving off the insecurity and doubts as you are trying to max weight and it’s you against these cold steel barbell plates. Back when I was in college, the stars were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Robbie Robinson. You looked at these photos of these massive and perfectly proportioned physiques with awe but frustration, knowing you have no chance. Killian papers his room with current stars and idolizes one in particular who becomes a major part of the plot. You try to be encouraged and feel, I can be like that, but whether it’s genetics, dietary discipline, it’s impossible. But damn, do you come close.
MAJORS: I love that you say that because there are certain things we learn about ourselves. For the character, the frustration is I can do something most men cannot do, and yet, there’s no real value there. My body looks like this, and I’m looking at the world. I’m looking at all these people. I mean, we’re in Hollywood, right? It is easy to feel, I’m not valued. There’s a certain disconnect there, and then you begin to think, why is that? Why is that? Why is that? But for me, in the gym, man, it was always that 11:00 session. Yeah. I would finish shooting, I’m driving home, I feed my dogs, the ones riding around with me in the car at this moment, and then go to the gym for that workout. The music is blaring and…I looked up Killian and it means ‘little church,’ and there’s something religious about all of that. There is something extremely spiritual about the bodybuilding. You sound like you were a bit of a gymhead, so you know the game. To do it right, you have to be all in. That’s another mind fu*ck. You go, Jesus, fu*k. You go twice as hard, you have to sleep twice as long [to grow]. There were moments it felt impossible.
DEADLINE: Funny though, I saw you on screen and in the Creed 3 trailer and you go, Jonathan is jacked! Then you see the bodybuilder Killian idolizes, and he is just that much bigger and more defined. You realize how everyone else in that sport felt when Arnold Schwarzenegger came along with that 6’2” perfectly proportioned physique, when everyone else had some weak body part. It seems easy to become trapped if you value yourself by your deltoids or calves, which is one of the things that puts Killian down the rabbit hole.
MAJORS: That’s right. It’s part of a meritocracy Killian deals with. Isn’t that what America’s based off of? It’s what we’re being sold. His grandpa is a war hero, and isn’t that supposed to mean something? You feel there’s no way to win, playing by someone else’s rules. You have to find a way to find your own inner peace, and love yourself before anyone else can love you. That’s the thing about Killian. Now, I’m not going to see the movie, I just made it, and that’s not personal to this film, but rather just in general. But I know that by the end, when he hits that pose? He’s a different man. He had gone through the fire of needing everybody else’s love, everybody else’s approval. And at the end of it, the only person he cares about is the man in the mirror. Which is so beautiful. Cause he’s in that mirror all the time. The man in the mirror and his grandpa.
DEADLINE: You wonder will he actually come out of that darkness…
MAJORS: I saw that in the script, and we had a hard time trying to get it made. We were like, maybe you don’t wanna look at it, but this is a real person, there is truth here. Yes, it’s that dark, but there is something in every individual, where they can say, I’m gonna choose the light. I’m not gonna say joy, love, peace, any of that shit, because that’s subjective. But I’m gonna choose the light, and continue. This isn’t the last of me.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest hesitation from financiers? It seemed even more topical, in the pandemic, the idea of a person trying to make himself be seen. Even still, we see the manifestations of what happens when they’re not seen. It’s often radical and violent.
MAJORS: I’m gonna answer that question by saying it’s almost the opposite of not being seen. It is, being rebuked. These people are rebuked and that’s different. We all have eyes, if you’re blessed with sight. So when we choose not to see something or take something in, we’re not blind to it. We are rebuking it. To be a person that is rebuked, it brings humiliation, shame, the self-doubt; you are being gaslit as a human being. Am I real? Do I matter? That’s the mind fu*k. I think people were afraid of it. And I don’t think people believed that an actor could do a transformation and become a proper amateur bodybuilder. You want it to be real. I think we had some issues with that, and the racial dynamics and politics. And then…the guns. That’s America, and very real. I grew up in Texas. Everybody has guns. Do I agree? That’s not my business, I stay out of that. I don’t personally own a firearm. But anyway, ht. Me neither. But, but, but that, but people, do you know what I mean? And so that scared people, even though we rebuke violence and there’s beauty in that. Bro, it’s so nice talking to you because this is the first time I’ve ever talked about the film. So I apologize if I’m scattered. But yeah, we rebuke violence.
This young man you’re calling a monster, rebukes violence. He does not harm a single individual. He defends himself and does harm property and does threaten physical violence, but that boy does not hurt a single person physically.
DEADLINE: What was harder, growing those muscles or making a character with the possibility to be dangerous and imposing, but with enough empathy that you never stop hoping he will come out of the nosedive?
MAJORS: It was hand in hand. The body building, changing the body, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Now, raising a child is quite difficult. But that’s me and somebody else. But the thing about the physicality, We mentioned bench pressing. There’s a point where you really meet yourself and it becomes true emotional lifting. That weight is no longer, 310 or whatever. It’s not that anymore. It’s abandonment, my own stuff, my dad issues, my insecurities. I had to come up against all of that in the gym. Because that’s the only thing that’s gonna get you to push that weight off your legs. By harnessing that. The script work, I was schooled for that. I I can do a blindfold at this point. But to infuse it with that type of physicality and emotionality? I remember going through the movie and I was saying to Elijah Bynum, I just don’t think I can do this without crying. I can’t open my mouth as this guy and not wanna break. It was hard to hold it steady.
DEADLINE: We mentioned the free weights and the truth in pitting yourself against the cold steel. How much of this was an exercise for a young emerging actor to show chops and really test yourself?
MAJORS: That’s right, and you fell yourself. You only have one shot. I don’t think a Magazine Dreams comes around again. This is your The Machinist…
DEADLINE: That drama where Christian Bale lost an alarming amount of weight…
MAJORS: This is, you go in the opposite way. But it’s that, yeah. You wanna take it there, while you’re young, while you’ve got enough anger in you, and while you can bounce back. That’s one of the reasons why I have to seize the role, just thinking about the Museum of a career. You know, not, not many actors have an opportunity to put one of these on the wall, you know?
DEADLINE: A moment on these other two big movies you’ve got coming out shortly. When I had chats with Sly Stallone, Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan about the first Creed, I remember Sly telling Ryan and Michael that it was tradition in these Rocky movies to take a full on punch at a seminal moment. It’s just a price you pay. I think Tony Bellew close to knocked him out. You got in with Michael, who’s now done it three times and is in rock hard ring shape. Did you take one square on the chin?
MAJORS: I took a couple, I think. I loved it. I’m just so humbled by the opportunity to be a part of the Rocky franchise. Sly, Michael B. Jordan, it’s like, if I’m gonna be in that lineage, even as a baddie, I wanna go for it. So, yeah, [Michael] might caught me a few times. I took some body shots, and gave out a few, too.
DEADLINE: Any takeaway from that character and the idea of getting in the ring that was different than you imagined before you made Creed III? And while I thought your character might be modeled after Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, the backstory of the relationship between yours and MBJ’s characters lends to real drama.
MAJORS: I think it is the intimacy of Warriors. It’s a different thing when you, when you know, you’ve hit somebody with everything you’ve got, and they took it, then they hit you with everything they’ve got and you take it. You learn a lot about that other individual. Add in the storytelling where Mike are, are mending and melding our emotional lives and our intellect. Like we’re dancing, it’s choreographed, and then he’s pushing the tempo and I’m still in the music. You become so intertwined and become so connected to the other individual that the, the drama in the ring becomes second nature. I think Michael B and I, we’re best friends at this point. And I’m not just saying that, I love that guy and he loves me. As director, he also pushed my instrument in a completely different direction, and allowed me to then push him further. It’s a great collaboration. I can’t wait for everybody see that film, to see that relationship. It has the DNA of all the Rocky and Creed films, and we’re staying truthful and honest to the legacy of it. It is the kind of complex relationship we see in life and as for Clubber Lang? You’ve seen the poster and trailer, so you tell me.
DEADLINE: Just like with Clubber, I and most sane men would not get in the ring with you. Or Michael B.
MAJORS: That is deep, but you shouldn’t have said that because now we’re gonna get you in the ring. At some point, we’ll be together and just throw our hands up.
DEADLINE: Before any hands are thrown, I would only ask for a moment, to look around for the softest place to fall.
MAJORS: I got your back.
DEADLINE: A moment on this Marvel villain Kang which figures to occupy a good bit of your future. What did it mean to you to be part of the MCU with Kevin Feige and his track record for quality blockbusters?
MAJORS: It’s funny you put it that way. When I was 21 years old, I looked to see what the best drama school in the world was for grownups. I ended up going to Yale, after I looked up the alumni and the work that they were doing, that whole universe, no pun intended. When I had the opportunity to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I took a look at the same ledger. Kevin Feige is the Dean, the James Bundy of Yale. The directors are the faculty and staff, and the students? Robert Downey Jr. Mark Ruffalo, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston. So many others. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that ensemble. I didn’t know at the start that Kang was going to do what he does in Quantum Mania. But I did know I was going to have an opportunity work with great actors.
One of the things we talked before, about Magazine Dreams being a legitimizing role, I was here four years ago for The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I had a small body of work, but that was what attracted the MCU to call my agent and try to have a relationship with me.
DEADLINE: You really drove all the way to Park City with your dogs?
MAJORS: We drove from New York City. Stopped off in Omaha, and New Mexico.