When Lovecraft Country debuted in August 2020, its genre fusion, propulsive soundtrack, and to-die-for vintage fashions quickly made it a watercooler show. Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name elicited as many analytical deep dives as live-tweeting sessions, sparking meaningful discussions about racism and literature, shining a light on a painful history that should never be buried. But it was also just incredibly exciting to watch a predominantly Black cast—including Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B. Vance, and Wunmi Mosaku—at the center of a such high-profile, large-scale genre production. Even as the larger storytelling stumbled in places, the actors held together the show’s blend of horror, fantasy, and social critique.
Majors had already earned accolades for his work in The Last Black Man In San Francisco, but as Lovecraft Country’s Atticus Freeman, he cast a new mold for a leading man—a hunky nerd, if you will, capable of great bravery and vulnerability, who recognizes the same fount of strength in his friend-turned-partner, Leti Lewis (Smollett). The A.V. Club spoke to Majors, who’s about to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, about the big lesson he took from Lovecraft Country, what Tic and Perry Mason have in common, and what he thinks of that Superman fancasting.
The A.V. Club: What was the most challenging thing about entering the world of Lovecraft Country?
Jonathan Majors: One of the things we deal with as a theme is legacy—thinking about the future of oneself, the future of one’s family, one’s culture. How they’re going to survive, and how their survival will be viewed by those in the future. In doing so, I had to really think about my past and the past of my people. I’m a member of the African diaspora, and what we have experienced, I had to tap into and use that. Atticus is in his late 20s. I’m in my early 30s. We’re similar in that way, but he’s closer to things chronologically than I am. His memories, his history is different from mine and yet it’s the same. So I had to dig all the way back to that point and operate from that area. And it’s a scary place to go.
I quickly understood that me growing up in Texas, my grandparents living through Jim Crow America, my parents living through Jim Crow America, to a degree, my aunts and uncles; those are all very different experiences. There’s a difference in being raised somebody who’s gone through that and actually being a person who dealt with that. Atticus is someone who’s dealing with that. I had to tap into and feel that type of rage to feel that very relevant fear and current fear, which is being called for the series multiple times, that’s a different experience. That does put a certain mileage on you and your instrument, to take your imagination there. Every day it was like, “We’re going in. We’re using that part. We’re going to do that. Deal with all the high notes here. Okay, that’s going to take some work, let’s get busy.”
AVC: There are a lot of visual effects, stuff that’s added in post-production. Are there any moments in watching the show where you’re like, “So that was what was behind me the whole time?”
JM: Two moments; one is a very action filled. It’s the first time we deal with the Shoggoth and Uncle George, Leti, and I are sprinting between these two bases. And then, a Shoggoth comes up, we’re like, “Ahhh!” Running to the next base, Shoggoth comes out, we go “Ahh” again. We sprinting back and forth and playing it for everything we’re worth—the three of us, just thespians just, “Whoa, holy shit!” Run that way, “Oh, holy shit.” And that was wicked, that was fun. It was like suicides in basketball practice, we’re running back and forth, back and forth. When I saw it in the show, I was like, “Wow, that’s incredible.” It’s also the first time we see [a Shoggoth] come all the way out of the ground. Just as an audience member, I was really taken by the artistry of these monsters. And the other is the first time the house was being attacked and they just shot a bullet at me, and Atticus’ Shoggoth jumps up and takes the bullet and he wrecks shop. But then, right there at the end, he approaches Atticus, and I walk up to him and I place my hand on top of him. It’s one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen.
AVC: Atticus is one of the heroes of this story. He’s a Korean War veteran, but he’s also, in a sense, a Black nerd. We don’t see enough of that in mainstream film or TV, even though Atticus has so many real-life counterparts. What was it like to embody him, and did you feel like you were tapping into a discussion about the types of people who have historically been portrayed as heroes on screen?
JM: Well, anyone who wants to go to war can go to war. If you survive it and you come back home, you’re a veteran—that’s part of the script. Those guys should be honored. They’re real men, they’re real women, they’re real people. The part that is a bit more nuanced and a bit more novel is the fact that this war veteran, when you zoom in, is a follower of fiction, specifically pulp fiction and sci-fi. He loves those things and has made it his business. I mean, yeah, Atticus is built like a brick shithouse, sure. But the way he uses his brain, that’s the cool part. Everyone has one of those—not everyone has that height, genetics are genetics. It is what it is. You know what I mean? But, everyone has a brain, and when you watch Atticus use that brain, you go, “Wow, I could do that. I get that. I’m into that.”
That unites people more so than running fast and fighting things and throwing punches. That unites so many people. Nerds come together, please, unite. Let’s all unite, it’s on. For me, that was very important, that Atticus is, and it’s coming to me now, a “yes and” character. Yes, he is that and he is this, and that’s the beautiful part about it. Yes, he’s this war hero. Yes, he can shoot a gun and run fast and take punches, but he also is a nerd. Those things are held at the same level. This man, this Black man, holds multitudes, and uses all of those things as a weapon. He weaponizes his mind. That is a beautiful thing and that was very important for me to let breathe and let live in the series.
JM: That’s funny. It’s great. Love to hear it.
AVC: People are always going to dreamcast their favorite characters, but I do think it points to why Atticus is very significant for reasons beyond the show.
JM: I would say it is an untapped archetype. The warrior and the wizard, or the soldier and the nerd, rarely come together as one. Rarely does that happen. That is Atticus. Funny enough, that’s Perry Mason. I believe in Matthew [Rhys]. Yeah, that’s him. That’s Clark Kent all the way. And somebody said that about Iron Man, you know what I mean? But Atticus is a brother, and that’s just shifts shit all the way up. That adds a whole different layer to it and Atticus is now hopefully throw into the canon of a Tony Stark and and a Perry Mason and a Clark Kent. That’s beautiful, that has relevance.
AVC: What’s something about making the show that made you think, “I want to take this with me into my next project?”
JM: There’s a few things I’d say, just because if anybody listens to any shit I ever have to say, I really want people to understand that growth as an artist and growth as a human being are synonymous. Stella Adler said that. When you really commit yourself to anything you do, then growth as a human being is synonymous. One thing I learned playing Atticus Freeman is that the hero, or the heroine, is he or she who allows their heart to break.
As I look through life, I reference my mother. I’ll just stick with my mom as the chief and highest example I can give, the most personal example I can give. My mother allowed her heart to break for 18 years I was with her as her son in her household. She was my hero. She let her heart break, so I could survive. She took the brunt of it. In playing Atticus, I experienced that. For her, it was “You don’t have to hurt, you don’t have to be afraid, you don’t have to be scared, you don’t have to feel weak. You don’t have to feel these things because I’m going to do it. I’m going to let my heart break, so we as a family can move forward. The ultimate heartbreak is my heart breaks, I sacrifice myself, my body and my spirit for you, so we can survive.” That’s something I’ve thought about as a dad. Me and my kid went to Disneyland yesterday. Wicked. It was our first time for both of us. It was great. But yeah, I look at [my daughter] and I go, “That’s what Daddy’s going to do. You don’t have to worry about it, Ella. Daddy’s heart will break for you. You don’t have to worry about it.” Thinking about that with my siblings now as with friendships. That’s what a hero or heroine is. Because everyone is someone’s hero. As I move through life, that’s just something that I’ve experienced and really believe in now, and practice as a citizen and as an artist.
AVC: Shows like Lovecraft Country and The Underground Railroad, and Watchmen a couple of years back, have done very important work to remind us what this country’s history is. But right now, we’re seeing legislators, university officials, and school systems working to hide that history. There’s a willful misunderstanding about critical race theory. Does that make you want to get out there and tell more of these stories? How do you take that in as an artist and as a citizen?
JM: Well, it’s deep because art is inherently political. Period. First thing someone does when they colonize, where they conquer or they take something over, the first thing that they do—top of their list—is destroy the art of the people. They must destroy their art, because that is their humanity. That is their liberation. That is the essence of them. That is the spirit of a people, of a culture, the art that they make. When someone is being conquered, when someone is being taken over, when something is being erased, that’s the first thing that goes. For me, when I watch CNN, my news of choice, and I see, okay, shit’s getting crazy out there, I go, “Okay, let me get busy. Let me get back to my lab and make more art, so we will never be erased.”
You can talk all the shit they want to, you can even do as many voting requirements or voting fuckery that you want to try to stop people from voting. You can do that. Fine. Fine. I’m not having it though. Watch this, watch this. Every time I moved through the world, every time a marginalized actor, actress, artists move through the world, it makes art. Every time someone like us walks into a gas station, drives down Sunset Boulevard, walks through Times Square, has an interview like this, that is a protest. Right now, we are chronicling protests. Period. And it’s going to go into the world. That’s what it does for me. I go, “Okay, I understand where you’re at. I see where you’re coming from. You can be foolish if you want to. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”