BY LACEY ROSE | HollywoodReporter.Com
Troy Warren for CNT
Jonathan Majors and Josh O’Connor also join the discussion about family reactions to sexy roles, how actors are “the empathy bridge” in Hollywood and why on-set support goes a long way: “Your fellow actors will give you more jobs than your reps.”
During the course of an hour in mid-May, five of the industry’s most talented actors, full-stop, convened for a conversation — part of The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Emmy Roundtable series — that whipped between emotional and gut-busting with little warning. There was no subject off-limits as Bridgerton‘s Regé-Jean Page, The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor, Fargo‘s Chris Rock, Lovecraft Country‘s Jonathan Majors and Small Axe‘s John Boyega moved from a powerful discussion of the role race plays in Hollywood to slightly frothier ones about splurges, sex scenes and, yes, those crazy Bond rumors. The fivesome came into the Sunday morning chat having never met one another, much less worked together, and left with plans to gather again.
Let’s start easy. If a fan is coming at you, what is he or she most likely to say, do and recognize you from?
JOSH O’CONNOR I get people who smile and then don’t really know where to pin me. They come up and start saying, “You’re the guy.” And you’re like, “Yeah.” And then they say, “Go on, what, what is it?” And then you’ve got to decide in, like, a split second whether you’re going to share your entire CV. Mine’s not massive, but still, it’s a predicament. (Laughs.)
JONATHAN MAJORS For me, it’s just a look and they go (raises eyebrows) and you do a little head nod, like, “Yeah, you’re not crazy.”
JOHN BOYEGA The same for me. It’s normally a distant eye contact and then for some reason, we connect in the mental realm and they understand and I nod, and they nod, and we keep it moving.
MAJORS That’s kind of the best, though, isn’t it? You feel seen for what you did, not for who you are.
CHRIS ROCK I always say not everybody recognizes me right away, but the minute they hear my voice, they know exactly who I am.
REGE-JEAN PAGE I desperately want to pass you in the street and just yell, “Tambourine! Play it with your ass!” (Laughter.)
ROCK Comedians don’t have mystique. We’re not singers. When you like a comedian, you kind of know everything about them. So, it’s “How’s your daughter?” “Hey, I went through a divorce.” Or, I don’t know, it’s Grown Ups, it’s New Jack City. …
When you take on darker roles like your Fargo one, do people expect you to be that comedian when the director yells “cut”? And how does that impact you as a performer?
ROCK I don’t have a hard time staying in character, if that’s what you’re asking. Especially with Fargo — because with bad guys, there is an undercurrent of humor in them. Like De Niro in The Untouchables is kind of funny. Jack Nicholson in The Departed is kind of funny. Denzel in Training Day is hilarious. You know what I mean? I don’t think you turn that guy off. I do have to make sure he is measured, because you can go too far and lose the edge. Like, who the hell is funnier than Joe Pesci in Goodfellas? But at the same time, he is terrifying. As far as on the set, we’re in a new day. I used to be a very funny guy on the set. I’d have the whole set rolling, but I’ve gotten the memo — “Shut the fuck up and go to your trailer.” (Laughter.)
When you were told Noah Hawley wanted to meet with you, your initial thought was not, “Oh, he wants me to star in Fargo.” How come?
ROCK I thought he wanted me to host his wife’s charity event or something. [Fargo] is a big job. And sometimes you can respect something so much, you don’t even want to be a part of it. Years ago, when I had my own show on HBO, it was at the height of The Sopranos, and I got a couple of offers to be on The Sopranos, and I was like, “I like it too much, I don’t want to spoil it.” But I was such a fan [of Fargo], I took the meeting anyway, and then he presents me with this offer, and I’m like, “Whatever you want me to do, I’m down.” Because I saw how he handled Bokeem Woodbine [who played Mike Milligan].
MAJORS He’s wicked in that.
ROCK Sometimes people do amazing work and then when they handle Black people, it’s horrible. But with [Hawley], I saw how he handled Bokeem and I was like, “I can totally be in your hands.”
Can you expand on that idea a bit more?
ROCK Yeah, Bokeem is that good. He’s Val Kilmer-in-Tombstone good. And once you see that, you go, “OK, this guy [Hawley] has no problem putting himself in that character’s shoes.” I write, right? So, when you hand a studio a script, what you notice a lot of times is everyone gives you notes of the character they most identify with. The women in the room give you notes about the women, the underlings in the room give you the notes about the underlings, and the head guy gives you the notes about the lead. They don’t even realize they’re doing this. Now the problem is that some people have a hard time imagining they’re Black, so there’s no notes on the lead if he’s Black. Or if the lead girl is Black, there are no notes from the white women. Because they couldn’t step into it. But Noah had no problem being Bokeem, and that’s why it’s written so well.
Many of you are nodding.
MAJORS Because it was deep, and I go, “It’s a matter of empathy, of life experience.” It’s such a strange experience for minorities — I view it, unfortunately, as a bit of a ladder. And if you’re born into a certain circumstance, be it poverty or whatever, in order to survive, in order to accomplish a certain level of existence, you have to climb. And I don’t mean this in the ambitious way, I mean this in, like, you have to educate yourself — you have to remove yourself from the ditch that you’re born into. That’s what education means, right? And in doing so, you pass other experiences; and as you pass those experiences, you embody those experiences, and then you have empathy for those experiences. And it’s interesting that, as brother Chris was saying, the executives sometimes never did the climb, so they have a hard time trying to understand what that is. And it was nice for me to hear Chris say that, because I often go, “Oh, they’re just nervous, they get a little scared talking about the sister or the brother or the woman in the climate that we’re living in.”
ROCK Some of it is that. (Laughter.)
PAGE I’m with Jonathan, the key is empathy. Some folks aren’t good at writing or directing or handling Black characters or female characters or disabled characters or anything outside their experience, but I’ve always seen [us] as the empathy bridge. When you were talking about embodying experiences, that’s what actors do.
PAGE And a lot of the time the people you meet are through culture, through books, through TV shows — you put yourself in people’s shoes by living vicariously through the people here a lot of the time. That’s a lot of how we build empathy for the world around us. So, the key to that is building up more and more leads from groups that are not normally seen as the protagonist, because you put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. If that executive at the top of the studio had seen more stories with all the people they don’t relate to, they may be able to relate to them better, particularly if those stories are of a higher quality. This is a frivolous career, we play make-believe for a living, but we do help with that empathy gap if we do our job right. That’s the lie I tell myself, anyway. (Laughs.)
Regé, I’ve seen you say that there was a conversation early on as Bridgerton was coming together that the show would feature a diverse cast but it would not be colorblind casting and that was important to everyone involved. What were those conversations?
PAGE Well, yeah, and they’re the same conversations I’ve had since the beginning of my career. I had it on Roots, which was a story predominantly about people of color. [On Bridgerton,] it’s about how do we go into the past and look at the images we already have and spotlight joy within that? Where are our opportunities to spotlight Black joy, because otherwise you go into the past and you think that it’s Black folks’ job to suffer for a while, carry a moral for the white folks, and then we all move on. And finding opportunities for us to be splendid and spectacular and joyous and romantic was the theme of my involvement from the very beginning. And Sylvie’s Love came out at the same time, and it was exactly the same conversations: Where’s our old-school Hollywood love story? Where’s our folks just falling in love?
You’ve also acknowledged that you sent several warning texts and flashing red light emojis to your family’s Whatsapp group — were they sufficiently prepared for the show’s racier scenes?
PAGE No one was sufficiently prepared. I wasn’t sufficiently prepared, and I was there. (Laughs.) I think people were grateful for the intensity of the romantic aspects of Bridgerton; I’m not sure how grateful I was to watch it for myself. It was overwhelming. But I think people were looking to be overwhelmed. My family doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by my backside, specifically, too often, but they’ll take it on this occasion because everyone seems to be terribly happy.
How do the rest of your families factor into your choices? Jonathan, you’ve said your mom struggled with your first role.
MAJORS Yeah, I was in a show called When We Rise. It’s the first job I got coming out of graduate school, and I played this beautiful fella named Ken Jones, who was a gay rights activist. And my mother is a pastor, I was raised in the church, and my mother never had any issue with me being an actor; but she was always concerned about spirits and the vulnerable [positions] that I’d potentially put myself in, her knowing her son and how I work. And that book [the Bible] says some crazy shit around that, things I do not agree with, especially in regard to one’s sexual preference. My mother, being a pastor in Texas, where I’m from, began to experience some blowback from the church, from people around her, with the idea of it, as the previews began to come out. And it’s not that me and my mother fell out, but I did say, “Ma, you just need to watch it, I can’t talk to you until you do.”
And she did?
MAJORS I actually have a photo of my entire family watching it. And my mother called me and she said, “You know, son, I didn’t know. I loved it.” I was like, “Oh, you loved it, huh? OK, cool.” That moment was quite emboldening for me; it said [a lot about] what we do for a living, the art we make, the choices we make, because that was the hardest audience right there, for that character, for that role. For a very stern, Southern, Black preacher woman, to see her eldest son play something that she religiously did not understand, and then for us to give light to that through the show, and for her to then understand it, that’s a gift. And because it was the first thing, it really allowed me to go, “I can go anywhere. Bring the humanity to it, just tell the truth.”
BOYEGA My dad’s actually a preacher as well, but I guess he don’t care, man. (Laughs.) He’s a Nigerian guy, moving his family over to the U.K. to start his life, and then his son says he wants to be an actor. For him in the paradigm of finances, building your own generational wealth, having your own stability, that just does not compute. Even when I got Star Wars, they don’t know what that is. They’re from Nigeria, they like Nollywood films. My mum and dad will see Robert De Niro in a movie and won’t react. But let them see Femi [Jacobs], and that’s when they’re going to get real happy. Teaching them the way Hollywood works has been so interesting, but there are certain things I don’t want to change. Like, I like the fact that when they get on the red carpet, they get cold and they’re like, “John, I want to go inside.” (Laughs.)
Josh, you came onto The Crown when the series was already a phenomenon. So you go in, eyes wide open, about what will likely happen to your career. How do you prepare yourself and your family for that?
O’CONNOR Yeah, it was sort of a surprise, but not a surprise because we knew what happened to those [actors]. To me, my family, my friends, people around me, it was less about “Oh, your life’s going to change” and more about just being cautious and supportive and understanding of the times that you have to look out for each other. I was thinking about this recently because it was Mental Health Awareness [Month], and one of the things I feel very fortunate about in our industry is that there’s this sense of family. I don’t know if everyone else feels it, but I’ve always felt a sense of support. Because what we put ourselves through when we explore character is actually a very tricky mental flex, and so [you need that] support network. And [it’s not only when you’re] playing characters but also with all the trimmings that go along with being an actor and in the public eye. So I suppose what I’m saying here is that I feel very lucky to have these [men here] and everyone else in our industry to pick up the pieces when I’m having a mild breakdown.
Josh, you may not be interested in the Royal Family, but much of the world is. There was certainly heavy interest in the interview Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave to Oprah earlier this year. I’m curious, do you consume media about the Royal Family as Josh O’Connor or as the guy who’s been playing Charles? And if the latter, are you defensive of him as you watch or read?
O’CONNOR I suppose I do feel defensive in a certain way, I guess. But really, I’m the worst person to talk about the Meghan interview. I didn’t watch it and I don’t think I will, to be honest. So any conversation about, “Gee, what did you think about what Charles said last week?” I’m like, “Guys, I have no idea.” (Laughs.)
Regé, you hosted Saturday Night Live and leaned into this reputation you now have as a sex symbol. We often ask women, but rarely ask men, what’s your comfort level with that? And do you ever want to scream, “I’m a highly trained actor, I can do other things, too”?
PAGE I don’t think I need to scream, because hopefully I can do that in the work. And to the last question, there is a responsibility to my family. I think I owed them that side of things because I know that, for instance, my brother finds it incredibly hard to watch Roots, he can’t do it. And I need to look after my family in the more traumatizing work, as much as I look after them when they’re going to have a couple of blushes. I thought that I owed them that for putting them through the previous trauma. And there’s always a conversation with the people you love watching you go through these empathy bridges we’re talking about, these very far removed experiences that are massive — and I keep myself honest by imagining the rest of the audience is my family, and I owe them balance in that experience, too. There was also a personal circle that got completed for me on Bridgerton. The scene in particular that my brother can’t watch [from Roots has me] dragged away from my family in this carriage and sold into bondage in the U.K. I never thought that I’d do many parts in the 19th century, and then I’m back in the 19th century on Bridgerton, and there’s a moment on set where I’m rolling down the street in this lord’s carriage and I’m like, “Oh shit, I own this now.” That’s what I felt I owed my family at the other end of that circle.
John, in speaking about Small Axe, you’ve said, “For the first time in a long time, I looked at my art and I said, ‘I missed you and it’s good to be here.’ ” It’s clear that you’re drawing a contrast with your blockbuster work. I’m curious how much pressure is there to stay in that blockbuster lane once you have made it in? And where does that pressure come from?
BOYEGA I don’t know if it’s a pressure but it’s definitely a choice that you eventually have to make. I’ve always just wanted to be in things that I enjoy watching and sometimes they’re low budget, sometimes they’re more character-based and sometimes they’re blockbusters. So, I don’t necessarily feel there’s a pressure to choose a path but I do think while you are working on a studio movie, it takes up so much of your year that when you are done, all you want to do is rest. Most times when you’re working on a studio film, you’re not gonna have the energy to pump out the same caliber films in an indie or a drama because of the time and so you just miss being a character, you miss being someone different. With something like Star Wars, you’re playing one character that evolves but he is still that one guy. And on a career front, it still only shows one side of what you could potentially do. And then there’s CGI, visual effects, training, the marketing campaign, all that stuff. Like, sometimes I just wanna chill. (Laughs.)
You got up at a protest last spring and in the middle of your powerful speech said, “I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this.” With hindsight, do you believe doors were closed to you that day?
BOYEGA Yes, there are individuals in powerful places that would respectfully take a distance and be like, “You know, that boy is trouble.” (Laughs.) But the [lesson] for me is to see that as a God-given filter and not to see that necessarily as an attack. Because to survive the times, and I’m speaking about mental health, the way in which you see things, your perspective, needs to be an ever-changing model. And remember, I didn’t plan to speak that day, but the megaphone was in my hand and it was like, “Oh, shit, I might as well say what’s on my mind.” It was the first time I’ve ever protested, I’ll be honest. I don’t come from [an] activist family. But there were a lot of emotions pent up, and people were going crazy and, yeah, naturally I was like, “Oh shit, some exec is going to view that and be like, “Pull that bitch. Pull him.”
O’CONNOR I remember watching it on the news and thought it was magic. John spoke so beautifully and with such fire. And I remember thinking when he signed out with that, if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to work with John, then John, you do not want to work with them. I guess that’s what you’re saying.
BOYEGA Yeah. And then Steve [McQueen] called and was like, “John, we’re doing reshoots, I want you to come back.” And these new scenes that he wrote [into Small Axe] and the layers he wanted to add, I now had this fire and this new perspective. And Steve was just going, “I’ll give you the arena in order to display these emotions, and it aligns with who Leroy is as a character, so it’s perfect.” It was reality reflected in art.
For all of you, I’m hoping you can complete this sentence: I wish Hollywood would cast me as a … ?
BOYEGA I want brother Regé as Superman. Or Jonathan. I want one of you guys to just go in there and fly. Just someone with knotted hair, fly. (Laughter.)
BOYEGA Josh, I’d love to see you as a villain. And Chris, I’d love to see you as a villain also — something really dark and messed up.
ROCK I was actually cast in Superman 20 years ago when Nic Cage was going to play Superman. There were wardrobe fittings, miniature sets, I was hanging out with Tim [Burton], and the whole thing fell apart.
PAGE Have you ever seen Kevin Smith’s talk about [that movie falling apart]? I listen to it once a year, just to keep me grounded about the Hollywood process.
ROCK Yeah. I was going to be Jimmy Olson. So, there’s a part of me that’s like, man, where’s my superhero movie? I was this close.
And now? What would you love to do, if only Hollywood was offering?
ROCK My favorite character ever is Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime. So, some modern version of that.
O’CONNOR I feel like all the roles that I’m always like, “God, I’d love to have a go at that,” I think you have to be in your 70s to do. (Laughter.) I don’t know why I’ve got a strange sort of obsession with [playing older]. When I was auditioning for drama school, you were supposed to pick one classical speech, like from Shakespeare, and one modern speech, and my drama teacher and I didn’t know what to pick. You were supposed to pick something roughly your age. I was 18 years old.
O’CONNOR Yep, I did a speech from Lear. (Laughs.) And then I did a speech from an Alan Ayckbourn play, where I was a guy in his 80s in a retirement home. Those were my speeches. And all the drama schools were like, “You are crazy.” Anyway, I got into one. So, maybe, like, if Gandalf came along today … (Laughter.)
PAGE Yeah, no, there’s a market for that Gandalf prequel, man.
BOYEGA I see it, I see it. (Laughter.)
Jonathan, how about you?
MAJORS Edward Scissorhands.
ROCK Oohhh, yeah.
MAJORS I would maybe give that a go. That or like I’d do the biopic of homo sapiens from evolution or play some animal, like CGI a T. rex or something. If we’re going to go for it, let’s go for it. (Laughter.)
PAGE I’m imagining the inside of Jonathan’s head is literally like the opening of Lovecraft Country, and there’s just 100 different pop culture monsters flying around, and Jackie Robinson is fighting Cthulhu.
And you, Regé?
PAGE Oh man, I always try to avoid anything that I can already imagine. I want the thing that I don’t even know exists.
You’re now contending with Bond rumors. …
PAGE Yeah, [because] it gets clicks. It’s got nothing to do with me — nothing to do with anything that has happened in any rooms or any meetings. It’s literally just a thing for people to talk about. So it’s flattering, but it’s just a game. It’s much more fun to hear John throw out things.
John, you’ve yet to cast yourself.
BOYEGA I’m trying to get that Bridgerton money, man. I need to wear them skintights, I need to be the new guy up in there.
PAGE Tell you what, I’ll have that Star Wars money, you can have the Bridgerton money. (Laughter.)
BOYEGA But, honestly, something like that. Give me a horse and a lovely maiden and all of that.
John, you’ve been vocal about your experiences as a Black man in the Star Wars franchise. With hindsight, would you do anything differently? And as others at this virtual table launch their own franchise careers, any advice for them?
BOYEGA Acting is so unique to your circumstance, even the way you get into it. My experience is my experience and I liked that, at the time, people like Ray Fisher and a few others came out and spoke about their experiences. I think that in itself will begin to effect change, because now there isn’t that elephant in the room. But these brothers don’t need any bloody advice from me.
MAJORS I will just speak to that, just brother to brother. John, because you did what you did, you did the job, you did the work, brilliant work, you then spoke about the work, about your process in the work, and that then changed the ecosystem for anybody coming in behind you. That in and of itself is full-circle the job of the artist. That experience changed your instrument and therefore changed the entire industry. So, I guess this is a thank you, bro. Thanks for speaking out on all that and thanks for doing your thing. That’s it.
BOYEGA Thank you, bro.
PAGE Exactly the same sentiment. I think you give more than you think you do. Like, I’ve already taken a lot from you just in terms of how you carry yourself in public and how you’ve spoken about your journey. Even though you don’t think that you’re giving [advice], know that it’s being received out here. So, I’d throw in a thank you to you, too.
BOYEGA Love, man, love you both.
I want to end by asking you what do you wish you’d known or done differently when you were first starting out. Like, Chris, maybe you’d advise yourself against buying that red Corvette with your first SNL check?
ROCK Oh God, no, I had fun with that Corvette. (Laughter.) That guy had a ball. I don’t know, that your parents were right? In the sense that there’s a lot of talented people and your character is going to get you just as much work as your talent. Like, you ever have a friend that’s a good friend, but you wouldn’t want him to date your sister? Like, “Oh man, this guy is cool, but I wouldn’t want him to date my sister.” It’s important that people kind of like you enough for you to date their sister — to think you’re not just a talented person, but someone who’s reliable, who has integrity, who’s maybe not an addict. And if people feel that way about you, you’ll probably work a lot.
I love that. Who else?
PAGE I just bought Game Boys. O’CONNOR Honestly, my first paycheck was for two lines in Doctor Who, and it covered my rent for a month and I was so excited.
BOYEGA Who was the Doctor at the time?
O’CONNOR Matt Smith. I had two lines, and it was at the beginning of the episode, and then I was strangled to death. I had my entire family, a whole lot of them, gathered around one TV set to watch it, and the way it works on Doctor Who is you have this little opening bit and then [I’m] strangled, dead, and then the credits come up for the beginning of the episode. So [the strangling] happened, and then I got this text from my mum going, like, “Really good so far, I’m looking forward to seeing more.” About 50 minutes later, it’s just a text going, “That was it, wasn’t it?” They’d watched the entire episode. They didn’t even like Doctor Who. (Laughter.)
What about the rest of you? Is there advice you would tell your younger selves?
MAJORS I was at a coffee shop with this random guy, this brother named Malcolm. I just got to say his name, he was so beautiful. And we were just sitting there, and I have a habit of taking notes when people talk. And the fella is my age and he said something where I went, “Hmm, I feel that.” He said, “If I know what’s going to happen, there’s no excitement.” It was that simple. There’s no excitement. And so when you ask that question, that’s the first thing that came to mind. I won’t speak for anyone else but, like, that is the journey. You know what I mean? I haven’t bought the Corvette yet, I haven’t bought the Game Boys yet, but I’ve done my version, and that’s fun, you know? There’s something to that, and that’s the living of it. So, I wouldn’t tell myself anything. I’d say, “Just keep going, bro. Don’t change a thing.”
BOYEGA Dude, that was some Superman shit right there. You’re cast. (Laughter.)
PAGE I want John as my agent. But the advice I’d give is be supportive. Be what everyone here was today, because that makes everyone stronger.
ROCK I’ve been doing this a long time. Your fellow actors will give you more jobs at the end of the day than your reps.
MAJORS Just saying that, I’m thinking, I got to get these brothers’ numbers, man, ’cause like I got about three things that, like, “You think you want to come over …?” (Laughter.)
PAGE And know that when you’re not supportive, people talk about you.
ROCK Yeah, a movie is three months. Three months is way too much time to be around somebody you don’t like. I could deal with an asshole for a day but not three months. Mm-mm.
Imagine if it was a series.
ROCK Ohhh no. Assholes are day players. (Laughter.)
Well, thank you all for being here.
MAJORS We’ve just been sitting around at church, now service is over.
ROCK All you guys do amazing work, so thank you.
BOYEGA Likewise, you’re a legend, man.
PAGE The truth is, I’ve been inspired by everyone in this room, so genuinely thank you for your work.
MAJORS Same, brother. The only regret is that we’re not in person.
ROCK We’ll all see each other at Regé’s Bond premiere. (Laughter.)
PAGE You’re not helping, man!
ROCK We’ll herd up!
PAGE Tell you what, if that happens, you’re invited, fine. (Laughter.)
ROCK Directed by Ryan Coogler, I can’t wait.
Interview edited for length and clarity.