How Jonathan Majors — and his 'Devotion' character — shoot for the impossible

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Actor Jonathan Majors
"I was incredibly moved and shocked by the story," Jonathan Majors says of playing a real life naval aviator in "Devotion." (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

For best career trajectory of the last four years, we nominate Jonathan Majors.

In smart succession, the Lompoc-born, Texas-raised actor established Sundance indie cred with 2019's “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” drew streaming attention in 2020 from Spike Lee's “Da 5 Bloods” on Netflix and his Emmy-nominated work in HBO's horror series “Lovecraft Country,” delighted viewers of Marvel's “Loki” as He Who Remains and led the ensemble for Netflix's all-Black western “The Harder They Fall” in 2021, and rejoins the Marvel Cinematic Universe in February as uber villain Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

Majors enters the Rockyverse a month later as Michael B. Jordan's “Creed III” adversary. Clips from that job's training video, followed by nearly nude stills from his next Sundance entry "Magazine Dreams," are now heating up the internet, not to mention getting talk show hosts Kelly Clarkson and Sherri Shepherd a little hot and bothered.

“I don't know what to say about that,” the 33-year-old actor chuckles over coffee at a hotel restaurant on a rainy L.A. afternoon. “A little fun doesn't hurt nobody.”

Nor do serious dramatic chops, which Majors brings to the November release “Devotion.” He plays the Navy's first African American pilot, Jesse LeRoy Brown, in the Korean War-era biopic. Majors saw some of himself in Brown.

“I was incredibly moved and shocked by the story,” he says of “Devotion,” which was adapted from Adam Makos' book and directed by JD Dillard, who's the son of a Black Navy Blue Angels pilot. “Here's a guy who was born in Mississippi, who somehow made his way to the sky. He became one of the most elite members of the most elite Naval aviation group in history. I was moved by that, not to mention the parallels that we share. We were below blue collar, for sure, my family. So was Jesse. He had aspirations of doing the impossible. In my little way, I too have those aspirations. His given circumstances were tougher than mine, and that's what I found encouraging.”

From the start, the film suggests Brown paid a steep toll en route to the heavens. New transfer Tom Hudner, played by “Top Gun: Maverick” breakout Glen Powell, enters a dark airbase locker room and hears his future wingman off-camera, verbally beating himself up with racist rhetoric and charges of inadequacy. The withering monologue was apparently one of many Brown had given himself since childhood — not to internalize the contempt directed at him but to overcome it, Majors reckons.

“Even at a young age, although the pain was great, I believe he knew that his strength was greater,” the actor says. “He always did that exercise in front of a mirror, and that's integral to the ritual. Who he's looking at is him and who he's seeing break is him. The back end of the ritual is who he sees put himself back together. When you can rise from the ashes in that moment, you'll know you're ready. You're battle ready, you're world ready. You've steeled yourself to the point that you can go and accomplish the mission at hand.”

“Devotion's” missions include taking on MiG jets with World War II vintage Corsairs; Majors put in 27 hours of flight and ground school for the assignment, and taxied one of the few propeller fighter/bombers that still moves.

The key task, though, was developing the tight relationship between Brown and Hudner, who was liberal as a 1950s white man could be but still had a lot to learn.

“Our relationship is paramount to the story; you have to believe it, and you have to have someone that's going to be patient enough to build it properly,” says Majors, who first met with Powell — a fan of Makos' book who got the film produced — at a Russian/Turkish bathhouse in New York.

“He looked at me with those piercing blue eyes and that Texas drawl and I had my Texas drawl so OK, we've got that covered, two Texas boys,” Majors recalls, grinning big. “We got so close [that night], but then we had to go to work. You'll see in the film that Jesse is quite standoffish; he's not the chummy guy that I was in the bathhouse. I had faith that I could do that and not break my co-star's self-esteem because of how we met. A huge part of the film is watching these guys learn how to trust — and listen — to each other. When we do misstep, it's not in malice. It's unfortunately the circumstances and social understandings and patterns that we have.”

If this makes Brown sound glumly monolithic, guess again. “Devotion” shows the delight and comfort the aviator derived from his wife Daisy (played by Christina Jackson) and their toddler, Pam. The real-life daughter watched Majors on the set one day.

“She put her hands on my face and said, 'I feel like I've met my father for the first time,'” he recalls. “Talk about break your heart! As an actor, that's the best 'attaboy' you can get.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.