TIFF 2018 Exclusive: Rising Star Jonathan Majors Talks ‘White Boy Rick’Posted by Wilson Morales
September 12, 2018
Coming out this week from Studio 8 & Columbia Pictures (Sony) is the upcoming crime drama White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Richie Merritt.
Directed by Yann Demange and based on true events, White Boy Rick is set in 1980s Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, and tells the moving story of a blue-collar father and his teenage son, who became an undercover informant and later a drug dealer, before he was dropped by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.
White Boy Rick stars newcomer Richie Merritt as Ricky Wershe Jr., and Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) as Ricky’s father, Richard Wershe Sr.
White Boy Rick also features Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as the FBI agents who begin working with Rick as a confidential informant, and Brian Tyree Henry as narcotics detective Officer Jackson; two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern as Rick’s grandfather, Ray Wershe; three-time Oscar nominee Piper Laurie as Rick’s grandmother, Verna Wershe; Bel Powley as Rick’s sister, Dawn; Jonathan Majors as Johnny Curry; Rapper YG as Leo Curry; RJ Cyler as Rudell Curry; Taylour Paige as Cathy Volsan; and Kyanna Simone Simpson as Brenda.
For Majors, the role represents a number of projects that is propelling him to stardom. He previously starred in the 2017 film “Hostiles” opposite Christian Bale and the ABC miniseries “When We Rise.” He’s been cast in the lead role of the upcoming HBO series “Lovecraft Country,” which is written and executive produced by Misha Green (Underground) and executive produced by Jordan Peele through his company Monkeypaw Productions. Majors also has another film playing at the festival, “Out of Blue,” starring Patricia Clarkson.
Blackfilm.com caught up with Majors at the festival as he spoke about his experience working on White Boy Rick.
You play the role of Johnny Curry. So before we get into the role, what attracted you to the project?
Jonathan Majors: Oh man, the project in general. A young, white boy enters into the dope game, it’s already examining things in a weird way. It’s not something you would imagine, it’s not something you think would happen. So it’s different already. And in reading it, it became clear that they were really going to tell the story. They were really going to tell it the real way. With the language, the sex, the drugs, the loyalty, the love, the friendship, the family element. All those things are going to be in the soup.
And so, you want to be a part of something real.
Let’s about the character you’re playing. What’s on page when you read it and what’s different when you played it for the screen?
Jonathan Majors: I play Johnny Curry. Johnny Curry is the head of the Curry family. The Curry family in the 1980s was one of, if not the, most powerful gang family, drug dealing family, dope dealing family in the Midwest, and one of the strongest in the country. So what happens in the film is, Wershe, White Boy Rick, Jr ends up being adopted into the family, via the Curry homies, with the youngest member of the Curry brothers, Boo Curry, played by R J Cyler. It kind of unfolds from that.
We’re living in the middle of the war on drugs. We’re all equal, in so far that we’re low on the socioeconomic level. Being a black family, it’s what they want us to be, and that’s what we are. Right? The Currys … we’re probably walking around in the 1%. So they had to live in a way, and live in a place that was impoverished. They were kings and queens amongst them.
Is there anything about the character that you can relate with? Was this a role where you knew folks in that environment or did you have to do research?
Jonathan Majors: Yeah. You asked me the question earlier, what was on the page versus what comes on to the screen? What’s on the page, the occupation is a dope dealer, you understand? A kingpin, that’s what’s on the page. And what we brought to it, through the collaboration, it was directing an homage. What I brought to it, specifically, and what I saw is, I understand this. Is that, yeah, he’s a dope dealer. Yeah, he lives his “life.” But he’s also a big brother. He’s also a father figure. He also runs a country. You know what I’m saying? He runs Detroit, that is his country, that is his territory. You know? He’s a captain, and those things I can relate to.
I’m a father of a five year old daughter. I’m an older brother. Because of my upbringing, I became the head of my household, the man of the house, as they say in my house, in our culture. I was going through the trash, I was going to make sure we got everybody fed, mama was happy, house was clean.
That role that I played as a young man, it’s carried on now, at 29. And that role is something that Johnny is also playing. I worked at Braum’s, I worked at a hamburger/ice cream shop. Because that’s what was available to me. You know what I’m saying?
In the days of Geoffrey Owens, work is work.
Jonathan Majors: You feel me? You hear what I’m saying? Johnny was a dope dealer, because that’s what was available to him. I did the best I could, at Braum’s, and Party City, and all the others. Bennigan’s, all these other jobs I had, I was hustling that way.
So when I got Johnny, you understand, when it landed on me, those are parts of my character that were in line with him. And then ancestrally, you look at his tribe, he’s the leader of the tribe. That’s in our DNA. He walks into a room and they know, “That’s the king. That’s the one.” But then why is it that the king’s the king? Because he’s hard, he’s the king because he’s smart. He’s the king because he’s tough. He’s not one to fuck with. But, he’s also the king because he’s gentle, he listens, and he’s vulnerable, and he’s sensitive, and he doesn’t miss anything. That’s why he’s the king.
This is a good ensemble cast. Obviously, lead by Matthew McConaughey, but then there’s you. There’s RJ, there’s Brian Tyree. There’s a number of people.
Jonathan Majors: YG, Taylour Paige, Rory Cochrane, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
How was the chemistry among the cast?
Jonathan Majors: Well, we’re in the middle of the junket now and so, we walk out into the middle of the hallway and we see each other and we scream, “Ah! What’s up man? How you doing? It’s good.” We really became a family, all of us. One of the cool parts about it is, you have this white boy, White Boy Rick, played by Richie Merritt, that kind of moves in between the worlds. His moving between the worlds connects the worlds, in a different way.
When we were on set we were brothers. YG, he plays Leo, right? RJ plays Boo. Those are the three Curry Brothers. The three of us are brothers, we’re friends. We talk about, “Hey man, I’m doing this project. I’m going to do that project.” That happened post White Boy Rick. We stayed in contact. I’m going to see YG in a couple of days, for one of these things. The same with Taylour Paige. The same with Rory Cochrane. Jennifer Jason Leigh, we’ve all kind of become friends, like real friends. Some of us family, but all of us friends for sure.
You have another project here at the festival, Out of Blue.
Jonathan Majors: Yes, starring Patricia Clarkson. I play a character named Duncan Reynolds, Professor Duncan Reynolds. The exciting incident in that film is a death, and I’m trying to figure out what happened, or why it happened. And the drama ensues.
What goes into the roles that make you say yes?
Jonathan Majors: Well, I think about the script. The story has to be great. As an actor, I want the responsibility in the holding up the experience. It doesn’t have to be the lead role. It doesn’t have to be a supporting role. It can be a bit role, it can be something like that. But if this role was removed, you wouldn’t have a story. When they say play your part, you can’t do it without this part. The car won’t start, without the spark plug. That one little spark plug will stop the whole engine.
If the role is the spark plug, at least, and I believe in the engine, then I’m with it, I’m with it. It just so happens that I’m fortunate enough to be the alternator. To be the cylinders, to be … and things coming up. Six cylinders of an eight cylinder engine. The guy’s doing good, but it’s what the experience will be.
When the folks leave, when the fans leave, when the audience leaves, when the general leaves, have they experienced something? Has there been a cathartic experience to them? Have they seen something, felt something? And in some way, purged something out of themselves, in order to be better and clearer minded in the spirit and in the mind. As they move from the theater, or from that Netflix shit, to wherever they going.
What keeps you humble when you’re not working?
Jonathan Majors: Well, prayer, that’s the thing. There’s a lot of things that I pray for every night. “Lord, just keep me grounded, keep me humble.” And just paying attention in the world. If you pay attention, there are things that will humble you. In some lives you’ve got disorder, because they weren’t paying attention. That’ll humble you.
Somebody you saw being sad, and you saw, you’ll be sad. That’ll humble you. Someone makes you laugh, so you couldn’t be this stoic, cold ass actor guy. That’ll keep you humble. Just being present and keeping your priorities straight.
Come September 14th, when White Boy Rick comes out in theaters, what’s a good reason to tell them to go see the film?
Jonathan Majors: Well for one, thank you for coming to the movie, right? In general. 2) White Boy Rick is a story for the people. For the folks, like everybody. Let’s not compare this to the other films, all the other films are great. But what White Boy Rick will do is, present you with a set of questions. It ain’t trying to tell you nothing. We’re just trying to show you a world, entertain you. But it’s going to move you. You’re going to laugh, I guarantee it. You’re going to cry, I guarantee it. The cathartic experience that made me sign on to it … I hope and I know, you will experience by watching it. It’ll clear you up, it’ll be an exorcism.
White Boy Rick will hit theaters September 14.