Jonathan Majors Discusses His Role In HBO's New 'Lovecraft Country'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
In the new HBO series "Lovecraft Country," three members of the Freeman family from the South Side of Chicago walk into a diner on a motor trip through segregated America in the 1950s where Blacks were not welcome - and worse. The Freeman family looks at the menu, then are chilled by the silence.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVECRAFT COUNTRY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Get your ass up. We got to get the [expletive] out of here now.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIRES SCREECHING)
SIMON: "Lovecraft Country" mixes the horror of supernatural creatures in the woods with the terror of the utterly real racist monsters in a segregated America. The series stars Jonathan Majors. Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. And Jonathan Majors joins us from Santa Fe. Thanks so much for being with us.
JONATHAN MAJORS: Oh, man. My pleasure, you know?
SIMON: Well, it's our pleasure, sir. And tell us about your character, Atticus Freeman, just home from the war in Korea.
MAJORS: Yeah. So Atticus - he goes off to war. And when he comes back to the States, he decides to stay down in Florida. And while in Florida, he gets a letter. The letter informs him that his father's gone missing, and Atticus makes his way from Florida back home to Chicago. And once he gets to Chicago, he meets up with his uncle.
SIMON: Beautifully played by Courtney Vance.
MAJORS: Courtney B. Vance - he is the - he is a friend, a mentor and a spirit guide for sure. The two of us meet up with Leti Lewis, played by Jurnee Smollett, and we begin a journey to find my father. Atticus is a bibliophile. He is a Korean War veteran. He is also a Black man - a young Black man making his way through the Jim Crow America of the 1950s.
SIMON: He loves horror fiction, and especially H.P. Lovecraft. What does he see in those stories?
MAJORS: I believe what Atticus was so attracted to in the pulp, in the sci-fi and the horror genres is this idea of escapism. You know, he's a young man who is living in a very oppressed society. And these books offer new worlds, new areas to live in and to put his imagination in, and that gives him a bit of solace. It isn't until he grows up that he realizes that there might be some issues with one of his favorite authors.
SIMON: Well, and, you know, H.P. Lovecraft, he was a segregationist. He was a Hitler apologist.
MAJORS: And Atticus - what he says - you know, books are like - books are like people, you know? You essentially love them the way they are, you know? Doesn't mean there's not anything - that doesn't mean there's nothing wrong with them. You know, you just love them. You know, and that kind of ties Atticus up in a bow tie a little bit.
SIMON: Do you think it's possible that a lot of African Americans can relate to horror stories in a particular way because of what goes on in this country?
MAJORS: I mean, I wouldn't be bashful about asking that 'cause I think we absolutely do, we absolutely can. I mean, you know, there's a scene in the film - in the story where they're getting pulled over by a sheriff, and Atticus is there with his uncle and with Leti. And I remember writing on my script, this is just the worst day in Texas where I'm from, you know? This is my horror story. Your dignity is going to be challenged. Your humanity is going to be challenged. Your spirituality is going to be challenged. And that is a horror story. You know, that's what I would call psychological horror.
SIMON: You told The New York Times acting saved your life.
MAJORS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
SIMON: Can we hear about that?
MAJORS: I found myself in trouble simply because I, you know, I did some things I shouldn't have done. You know, there was shoplifting, yes. There was fighting, yes. There was all types of awful things that young boys in Texas can get in trouble with. And I pled no contest, and that put me in a place. And to wrap it up, when I was in that place, acting came to me - came to me through a teacher, came to me through books. And I kind of latched on to it, and it latched on to me. And through that, the discomfort that I experienced, and frustration and rage that I was experiencing as a young man found a place to kind of - not kind of, but absolutely found a place to dwell and a place where it was cultivated.
I remember an exercise where my anger was so large and the teacher was saying, more, more, more, more. And that was the thing that was getting me in trouble so much, I said. She said, more, more, more, more. So I could be as angry as I wanted to be, you know, and as sad as I wanted to be, you know, in the arts. And I've been at it ever since.
SIMON: Wow. We might explain, you wound up at the Yale School of Drama.
MAJORS: Yeah, that did happen. Yeah.
SIMON: You're working on a Western now, I've heard.
MAJORS: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. We're out here in Santa Fe, and we are - I mean, we're gearing up. I'm going to run to a rehearsal once we hang up the phone today. Yeah, it's a Western. It's called "The Harder They Fall," directed a fella named Jeymes Samuel, a beautiful, artistic mind. Produced by - I don't even know how you would label Jay-Z at this point, but Jay-Z is producing it with us.
SIMON: You just have to say Jay-Z.
MAJORS: Yeah, it's just - it's a noun, it's an adjective, it's everything - a verb. So it's exciting right now.
SIMON: Are you shooting in some kind of bubble or something?
MAJORS: Well, we're just in rehearsals right now. Some of my cast members are flying out in the next few days, so it's going to be a big orientation for us. The thing about a Western is everybody's already wearing bandanas, so.
SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, that's right. Of course.
MAJORS: You know, so we're in good shape there. You know, and we're outside for the lion's share of the work, so. It's a blessing to go back to work, you know? We'll be safe.
SIMON: Jonathan Majors stars with Jurnee Smollett and Courtney Vance in HBO's new "Lovecraft Country." Thank you so much for being with us. Best of luck to you in everything.
MAJORS: Oh, man, absolute pleasure. I listen to you all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.