Jonathan Majors talks 'The Harder They Fall,' making guns on movie sets 'absolutely safe'
The yeehaw agenda isn't going away.
Cowboy culture continues to reign supreme, but it features some twists in the new Netflix movie “The Harder They Fall” (in theaters now, also streaming). The Jeymes Samuel-directed Western puts Black actors – often relegated to supporting roles in the genre – front and center.
The film saddles up alongside Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a desperado looking for vengeance after a traumatic childhood incident. He joins forces with his love interest and shotgun-wielding saloon owner "Stagecoach Mary" Fields (Zazie Beetz), skillful sidekick Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), quick draw gunman Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi).
Walking onto a set where most of the people involved were Black was a "moving and emboldening" experience for Majors, 32.
"It was a moment," says the actor, calling from London after attending MCM London Comic Con. "You go, 'OK, we're here now as a culture.' "
Draped in denim, leather and cowboy hats (and accompanied by a soundtrack fronted by producer Jay-Z), Nat and his crew face off against enemy Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his gang of outlaws, including "Treacherous Trudy" Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield).
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Though the story is fiction, the characters are based on real people. Rufus Buck and Nat Love were real outlaws and cowboys, and Majors read the autobiography "The Life and Adventures of Nat Love" to prepare for his role.
Beyond some smaller subplots, the movie doesn't linger on the characters being Black – they simply exist. In the unforgiving West, it doesn't matter "if you're male or female, if you're Black or white," says Majors, whose childhood was largely spent in Texas. Trudy Smith and Mary Fields are real Black women in history, and the movie shows "our women the way they actually are: They were owners of property, they were leaders, they were – and we are – survivors."
Rufus is the villain, quiet but menacing in his deadly (and explosive) confrontations; Nat is the hero, the protagonist to cheer on. Those lines blur as the movie progresses.
Rufus and his gang's criminal motives are part of a plan to fund a town for and by Black people. And even "as tough, wild and skilled of a killer that Nat is, he suffers from arrested development, like everyone does who's experienced trauma," Majors says.
"He's been trying to hunt the boogeyman."
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Majors mined his own childhood trauma to tap into the onscreen fear.
"I wasn't quite tall (and) I didn't get strong … for a while, and I grew up very impoverished. And because of that, I was picked on a lot," he says. "I remembered that feeling. It made me feel very small and very ashamed." He said there are still times "when you feel like that little poor kid in Texas."
Majors' rising career is full of multifaceted characters. After earning critical praise for indie drama "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," his role as David in "Da 5 Bloods" and his Emmy-nominated Atticus Freeman in "Lovecraft Country" put him on Hollywood's radar. He's also caught Marvel's eye, starring in "Loki" and the upcoming "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania," and will host "Saturday Night Live" on Nov. 13 with Taylor Swift as the musical guest.
Nat Love is an outlaw, yes – but Majors portrays him as a man who sings, cries, laughs, shoots ‘em up and jumps on a galloping horse.
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Playing a real cowboy and getting comfortable on a horse took practice for Majors, who did all of his own stunts in the movie.
"To be able to ride a horse, and command a horse and listen to a horse that way takes a great deal of trust, confidence (and) vulnerability. And those are some of the main components that make up Nat Love," Majors says.
Safety is top of mind for Majors, who filmed the movie in New Mexico and practiced his horse stunts at Bonanza Creek Ranch, the site of a recent deadly incident on another Western movie set. Law enforcement is continuing to investigate the fatal prop gun accident on Oct. 21 in which Alec Baldwin discharged a "live round" on the "Rust" set, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza.
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"My heart really just goes out to everybody involved," Majors says. The accident made him wonder "what the hours were like. I wonder how tired they were. The thing about stunts is if you say, 'Let's go again,' and you're tired, don't go again."
Majors hopes "to do more Westerns," but "a Western is what it is, artillery is a part of the culture." He cites adding effects in post-production or discontinuing the use of blanks in prop guns as possibilities for safer sets.
"We shouldn't do it again until we know that we can make it absolutely safe," he says.
Another Western makes "The Harder They Fall" a full-circle moment. Samuel previously directed the 2013 short film "They Die By Dawn" with a different actor in the role of Nat Love: Michael K. Williams.
Williams, who played the influential character of Omar Little on HBO's “The Wire,” also starred alongside Majors in “Lovecraft Country.” Williams died earlier this year of an accidental drug overdose.
The co-stars were more than work colleagues. "Twin flames," Majors calls them.
Majors recalls a funny after-hours gym incident during their time together on "Lovecraft." As the two worked out together, Majors split his shorts while doing squats.
"He's like, 'Oh, baby, baby bro, you can't be walking around like that,' " he says. As Majors tells it, Williams ran more than a mile to their apartment building and sprinted back ("He's panting and he's like a sweaty mess") with another pair of shorts for his co-star to change into.
Majors says "it was one of those moments" that showed Williams' character.
"This man loves me," Majors remembers feeling. "He's never going to make me sacrifice my dignity because he had so much dignity. He honored my personhood and our people so much."
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