Just ahead of Memorial Day, Jonathan Majors and his upcoming movie Devotion offer a reminder of the fight United States military veterans endured in battle.
The PEOPLE exclusive premiere of the trailer for Devotion introduces Jesse Brown (Majors), the first Black man to fly in combat for the U.S. Navy, during the Korean War.
"It's a story about breaking through the limitations of society and breaking through the limitations of one's own fear, and the legacy that leaves," Majors, 32, tells PEOPLE of the war film based on Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice by Adam Makos.
Brown forms a bond that goes beyond friendship with fellow aviator Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), a clean-cut soldier from New England who passed up a chance to attend Harvard in favor of joining the Navy. Brown and Hudner find themselves in an unimaginable situation when one ends up shot down behind enemy lines and pinned in his burning plane, while the other attempts a seemingly impossible one-man rescue mission.
"Tom and Jesse are more soulmates than best friends, which is deep," Majors says. "There's no escaping each other. They are forever each other's men, even in death."
Majors says he and Devotion costars Powell, 33, Joe Jonas and Daren Kagasoff bonded off screen as well.
"Glen was really good at getting all the guys together," the Lovecraft Country star says. "He and Joe, Daren — all the guys — they would get together and play at the park. And the park was right down the street from my house, so as I was walking my dogs or riding my bike, I'd see the guys, and we'd hang out and chat."
Majors also liked to work out on set with Jonas, 32. "I would always bang my music, but Joe Jonas would also put his music and we would set up outside the trailers and we'd run, we'd do jump ropes, we'd do pushups, as a team," Majors says of shooting in Savannah, Georgia. "We would work out and then go into the scene. We were a mixture of a boy band and a football team. We just held space for each other."
Depicting a real person onscreen came with some pressure. But Majors made Brown's family "a promise that I would do everything in my power, everything my talent will allow me to do, to do to bring this man's story to the screen with as much integrity, and with the same moral fiber and humor that you all know he had," he says.
Brown's daughter Pam paid a surprise visit to the Devotion set and gave Majors some feedback on his portrayal. "After we shot a scene, I came out and she looked at me and she burst out crying," Majors recalls. "She said, 'I feel like I'm meeting my father for the first time.' Because she was a baby when Jesse left us. That was a gift."
Majors found similarities between Brown and late actor Sidney Poitier, who, in 1964, became the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor. "No one thought Sidney would be able to do that," the Yale School of Drama grad says. "I see a correlation between Jesse and Sidney's fight, as they began to expand and exceed limitations. What Jesse is experiencing is such a universal thing in the same way as any trailblazer."
Brown didn't see himself as a trailblazer, though, simply a pilot who wanted to do his best and serve his country. Majors understands wanting one's performance to speak for itself — and facing adversity.
"I'm proud to be a Black man, but you're not going to minimize my experience by trying to make it a monolithic movement. I'm an individual," Majors says. "And as that's understood that you're proud to be a Black man, you understand that the hardships you experienced were not because you wanted to be an aviator, it's because you're a Black man that wanted to be an aviator. It wasn't because I wanted to be an actor, it's because I was a Black man who wanted to be a leading man. That's where the conflict comes in."
Majors acknowledges "it's a big conversation that we're having" with Devotion's approach to race and male friendship, but "we try to put some levity in it."
"I know it's difficult, but I hope something that people take away from it is this idea of friendship, it's something we all have as human beings," he continues. "It is what pushes us forward as a species, a devotion to one's family, a devotion to one's calling. I hope people feel uplifted and inspired to continue down their journeys to achieve whatever heights they hope to achieve."
Devotion opens in theaters in limited release on Oct. 14 and wide on Oct. 28.