I was scrolling Instagram and came across a headline that stopped me dead in my tracks: “Jonathan Majors Made Glen Powell Pitch Him Devotion While Completely Naked in a Russian Bathhouse.” I need to know more. How did this happen?
What’s so crazy about that headline? That doesn’t seem that crazy. I guess I’ve just been pitching that way my whole career, and finally, somebody wrote about it. No, the funniest part of that… Well, there are two parts to that story. One is that I knew that I wanted Jonathan Majors to star in this, and I’m such a fan of his work that I was like, “Where can I meet Jonathan?” And they said, “Go to New York.” So I was like, “Okay, cool. I’ll meet him in New York. Where does he want to meet?” And they said there is this bathhouse. I think it was in the West Village or something like that, and I was like, “Alright, cool.” They were like, “Is that okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. That sounds fun. We will steam and pitch.” So it was really funny in the fact that we walk into this Russian bathhouse, and yes, very quickly you get completely undressed. I think two minutes into knowing each other we were completely naked. Did I pitch him naked the whole time? No. But were there times we were talking about the movie while [naked]? Yeah, sure. It bonds you together. It’s all honesty. It’s all on the table—metaphorically, literally, the whole thing. It was an appropriate start to our relationship. We had to be in the trenches together, so you might as well just put it all out there and know who you are in the trenches with, I guess.
Amazing! So it’s safe to say Devotion wouldn’t have happened without you. You were the one to recommend Black Label Media option the rights to the 2014 book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice about the friendship between naval officers Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner during the Korean War. Why were you so invested in bringing Brown and Hudner’s story to the big screen?
First off, it was a story nobody knew about that I thought was such a beautiful story of how far you are willing to go for a wingman. Also, my grandfather was a Korean War veteran, and there were no movies that had been made about it. It’s literally a forgotten war. Nobody talks about the Korean War. So to do service to every person wearing uniform during that time period, I think [it] is really important. But I also think the racial conversation that happened because of this movie [is important]. When I read the script or when I read the book, I immediately was like, “What a complicated relationship between these two men.” It was one that didn’t boil down racial dynamics like a lot of movies in the ’90s or early 2000s did, where it simplified it down to “Oh, I didn’t like you, but now, I like you.” There was something so modern about the story. For instance, modern-day racial conversations. During the Black Lives Matter protests, it was “Post a black square,” and I was like, “What does that do?” Solidarity is such an important thing, but how do we do it in a way that’s real? How do we put skin in the game? How do we change the conversation? All of these things are at a much different level than just things that make you complicit or things that make you not feel guilty. And this movie felt like all those things that were going on in my head and conversations I was having with different friends. It really felt like it explored a modern-day conversation with a classic friendship. And I think that’s what drew me to the story, and over the course of developing it, the nuances of it just became more and more exciting. I’m really proud of what it is and how it exists.
How did you come across the original book?
I had a friend that recommended the book to me, and then my uncle recommended the book to me, and I ended up reading it on this fishing trip with my family. We all ended up reading it and being like, “Wow, there is a movie here.” And the more I thought about it, it’s not an obvious movie because the ending is a certain thing and the dynamic between the two of them. They are not like best friends, but they are really like soulmates, and the Korean War is not necessarily like a war that a studio goes, “Let’s make a movie about the Korean War!” So there were all these kinds of things against it, and that, for me, was when it started feeling more obvious—when the chips are down. When something is too obvious, sometimes it blends in with the filmography of every other thing, and it doesn’t rise to challenge the filmmakers or the actors to make something special. And because there were so many things against this, I go, “Everybody on board is going to have to rise to the occasion to make this thing really special,” and everybody did.
You play Tom Hudner and actually had a chance to meet with him shortly before he passed away. How did your meeting with him influence your role as a producer on the film and your portrayal on-screen?
It’s a really great question because it’s really tough to meet the person you are playing. I’ve played real-life people before, but I think this is the only time I’ve actually gotten to meet the person I’m playing. And to look a family in the eyes—the Hudner family, the Brown family, Tom Hudner himself—and say, “If you give me the rights to this book and your life, I’ll tell the story correctly,” it’s a promise that you just hope you are able to keep, and it really does put a lot of pressure on you to do it right.
In terms of the character, you actually have to separate yourself a little bit. I’ve become such great friends with the Browns and the Hudners, but you really have to separate yourself and go, “This was a man who was flawed. This is a man who had insecurities and wants and needs and was disappointing to people close to him and all these things.” That’s what you have to do as an actor. You have to throw rocks at your characters, and because I love this man so much, you don’t want to throw rocks at him. But if you don’t throw rocks at him, you don’t have a movie. So it really made it very interesting and complicated to play, but [Tom] Cruise on Top Gun always said this one phrase that has really become a big compass for me, which is “pressure is a privilege.” When you make something that has a lot of pressure on it, especially something with familial pressure [and the] pressure you are putting on yourself to tell the story right, it means you are doing something right. Showing this movie to those families was so nerve-racking for me. They loved it. They are obsessed with it and such supporters of it. But it’s a thing. This is the legacy of these two men, and to show that on-screen in front of the world was more naked than I felt in front of Jonathan Majors at a bathhouse.