It’s golden hour at Hastings Point, a picturesque surfers’ beach 70-odd miles south of Brisbane, and Jason Momoa is getting antsy.
The 38-year-old American actor has been preening for hours, and he’s not entirely at ease with the situation. “Sorry to ruin your moment,” he says to a nearby couple trying to have a romantic moment. “I don’t normally pet myself in front of a bunch of people.”
Momoa is on Australia’s east coast to film Aquaman, the $300 million fantasy flick, due out next year, in which he plays the lead opposite Nicole Kidman and Amber Heard. Until now, his most visible role has been the brutal warrior Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones. His latest film projects, though, will potentially catapult him into a different category of fame, and he’s learning that this sort of success comes with a price.
The photographer prods him to loosen up—More smolder! Less frown! And despite her best efforts, Momoa will not be charmed into taking off his shirt. At one point, he mutters to nobody in particular, “I’m not a model, I’m an actor.”
There’s no denying that Momoa is an exceptionally striking man. His mix of Hawaiian, Irish, German and Native American ancestry has endowed him with an olive complexion and green eyes. He stands 6’5” and weighs just over 230 pounds, with tousled hair, a robust beard and musculature that makes Phidias’s Zeus at Olympia look a little scrawny. And if all that wasn’t manly enough, he arrived solo at today’s shoot on a large Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
So far, Momoa’s acting roles have tended to make use of his looks. Besides his hunky-brute turn on Game of Thrones, he played the title role in a 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian, and also upped the beefcake factor on TV shows like Baywatch Hawaii and Stargate Atlantis. This month, he has a marquee part in the superhero blockbuster Justice League, and next year will star in the aforementioned Aquaman. While Momoa says he would like more opportunities to “have a shirt on, say some lines, use my brain,” the only real complaint he has about the roles he gets is that they require he stick to a strict diet: “I just want some pasta and some beers,” he says. “You know?”
But Momoa isn’t all rippling biceps and moodily arched eyebrows. During today’s shoot, he playfully asks, “Can I just run into the water now?” until finally, he kicks over the chair he’s sitting on and throws himself into the surf, whooping with delight. As he emerges, you get a sense of the physical presence that brought him worldwide fame on Game of Thrones, but there’s also a boyish smile. The warrior chieftain hasn’t looked this satisfied all day.
Jason Momoa was born in Honolulu, to Joseph, a painter, and mother Coni, who soon whisked him away to a small town in Iowa, where she raised him on her own. “It was tough,” he says of the move. “I had a really loving home, a small number of friends, but it was really just me and my mother. There weren’t any races where I grew up: no Mexican, Chinese or African-American. I was definitely an outsider. Growing up there made me want to get out.”
So he did. Summers were spent in Hawaii with his father, but Momoa soon learned that replacing cornfields with palm trees wasn’t the answer to his problems. “You know, Iowa and Hawaii are very similar,” he says. “People are content where they are; they don’t seem to want to go very far. I have family who don’t even leave their side of the island to go to the other side.” Also, despite his father being from Hawaii, Momoa was considered haole, a local term for those who are not completely native to the land.
Momoa grew up feeling like a misfit, and this sense never really left him, even when, at the age of 19, he moved to the cosmopolitan, anything-goes environment of Hollywood. After his single season on Game of Thrones, he says, he came across casting directors who didn’t think he could speak English. But even this was an improvement over the years when casting directors didn’t know he existed. “People think I just came out of nowhere,” he says, “but I’ve been hiding in plain sight for a long time.”
There may be a positive side to Momoa’s feelings of alienation. He recalls being summoned to audition for the role of Batman in director Zack Snyder’s 2016 film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. “I thought, ‘This is nuts. There’s no way this is happening,’” he says. “I just thought it was a booby trap, so I played it as kind of the polar opposite of what it was supposed to be. Then, Zack called me back in and said they loved my audition, that it was really weird.” It was this weirdness that got Momoa a role in the film, even if it wasn’t the one he was hoping for.
Snyder ended up casting Momoa as Aquaman, the DC Comics superhero who rules the underwater kingdom of Atlantis. “Zack and I came to a really beautiful place,” says Momoa. “He wanted to do a bit of an outsider thing—someone who was not accepted on the land or the sea. I could relate: Iowa and Hawaii.”
While his role in that film was only fleeting, it did set him up for bigger things. This month’s Justice League puts Momoa’s Aquaman in the thick of the action, as part of a team assembled by Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to vanquish the villainous Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). The actor, again, says he plays the part as “an outsider … somebody who stirs the pot,” and will continue in this vein when the Aquaman movie comes out next year—his third time playing the character.
While Momoa is poised on the verge of real stardom, the lean years are still very much with him. “I haven’t had the luxury of being able to pick and choose my roles,” he says of his career. “Half the scripts I read are bad. And those you go ahead and do are to put the food on the table.” One notable example of this pragmatism is 2004’s Johnson Family Vacation, which boasts a 6-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Shortly after that film came out, he landed a role on Stargate Atlantis. “That was a privilege,” he says, “hiding out with friends in Canada, learning how to write and shoot my own stuff.”
Momoa has since written and directed a number of projects, and served as executive producer for Netflix’s Frontier, a Western set in Canada. (The show’s second season premiered this month and a third is on the way.) During his increasingly rare periods of downtime, he noodles on guitar and has taken drumming lessons from his Aquaman co-star Patrick Wilson. Most surprisingly of all, perhaps, Momoa has also revealed a flair for interior design.
“You walk into his trailer and there is some sort of bearskin sheet—everything is very earthy,” says Justice League co-star Ray Fisher. “He brought it all from home, came with tons of stuff. Whereas my trailer was just the most barren wasteland, he has been doing this long enough to know what he needs to make him feel at home and comfortable.”
When Fisher says “home,” he is really referring to Momoa’s wife, Lilakoi Moon (the actress formerly known as Lisa Bonet), and their two young children—Lola, 10, and 8-year-old Nakoa-Wolf. Indeed, when talk turns to his kids, you no longer get the sense that Momoa might, at any moment, tear his shirt off and go riding into battle, hollering Dothraki curses along the way. “They both love reading and they both love math. It blows me away,” he says proudly. “They’re reading to me. It’s the coolest thing. They’re already smarter than me. It obviously skips a generation.”
While Momoa was delighted to have had his children with him during the Aquaman shoot, the experience was compromised by the paparazzi who followed them around. “It’s so annoying. I have to travel really far just to go surf with my kids. It’s sad to have to worry about that. All so they can be on the ocean with their dad.” His voice grows quiet as he says this, as if he’s mystified or just exhausted by it all. “When I’m alone? I’m yours. You can have me. But if you see me with my kids, I want to be Papa for the short time that I get them.”
At home, meanwhile, life isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a showbiz family. “We don’t own a TV,” Momoa says. “They haven’t even seen The Wizard of Oz.” He wants to teach his kids how to play drums and guitar; Lola is currently taking piano lessons. “In the morning, I wake them up and put them in the bath and play them some Billie Holiday, some Bob Marley—that’s what they hear before the sun even comes up. I want them listening to Tom Waits, [Ani] DiFranco, [Miles] Davis, all the greats.”
When asked to describe his relationship with his wife, a strange thing happens: Momoa lets out a high-pitched laugh that, frankly, ventures into giggle territory. “My wife is a goddess on many levels, and she’s definitely on a higher level than me,” he says. “You know, she’s up here”—he throws his right hand up—“in the goddess rank, and here I am”—ground level—“on the savage rank. She’s stuck it out with me. Eventually, I’ll get there.”
The more time you spend with Momoa, the more the Zeus-warrior thing recedes. “He’s a big teddy bear,” says Ray Fisher. “He has that rock star personality, but he is kind and gentle. He makes you feel like you matter the minute he talks to you. We became instant friends—it’s nothing but hugs, nothing but love.”
Momoa, for his part, describes his Justice League co-stars as family. “We did crazy stuff, and it was hard, and we needed each other to get through it, and we were in each other’s personal space,” he says. “I can call any of them, any time.” Well, maybe not any time. “Cell phones don’t work up at our house,” Momoa says of his home in a wooded area of Southern California. “If you know my home number and need to get a hold of me, then you can. Or use a smoke signal.”
It’s no accident that Momoa lives in a relatively secluded area. He is not the type to court the fuss that goes along with celebrity, he says, and as happy as he is about his recent success, he also harbors concerns about what this may do to his personal life—or, indeed, his ability to even have a personal life. “Game of Thrones got me noticed,” he says. “And if I were still on that, I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street. I wonder if that will happen with Justice League.”
Hold on—is Momoa, at the age of 38, saying that all the things he’s worked for all these years are things he might not actually want? He smiles, backlit by a blazing sun. “I try to live consistently; I’m pretty content being me. So I’m a little worried about how life is going to change.” He pauses, shrugs. “But you can’t stop it. Train’s a-comin’.”
Super Friends: Momoa’s take on his Justice League cohorts
Henry Cavill (Superman): “People tell me they look up to me and I’m like, ‘Nah—you should look up to Henry. He has class.’”
Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman): “She always brings light to the work she’s doing. It’s a trip how beautiful she is.”
Ben Affleck (Batman): “Ben is an older brother that I love messing with and learning from.”
Ray Fisher (Cyborg): “Ray is just my bro. We train together all the time.”
Ezra Miller (The Flash): “I’ve known him since he was 14. He’s a beautiful being, and they definitely only made one of him.”