Film

Jason Momoa: In awe at the size of this lad

The hulking action man on his rise to fame.

Before he arrived in a Pantera vest that covered roughly 30% of his torso, Jason Momoa had two requests.

For lunch he would like meat on a stick (specifically: “various meats”). To wash it down: Guinness, and lots of it (though he changes his mind to “green juice” on the day). Later, he will concede to enjoying Guinness so much that he drinks it as often as he can. “I don’t get p*ssed from it. I drink it because it tastes good.” When I how-long-is-a-piece-of-a-string him about the amount of Guinness it would theoretically take to fell a Jason Momoa, he shrugs; it is impossible to tell how much of Ireland’s most famous export would be required to down this bull-sized, luscious-locked behemoth – best known for Game Of Thrones and, now, for playing Aquaman – because it has never happened. We may never know.

Momoa possesses an extreme, almost dangerous amount of vigour. He is ecstatic when he sees the log cabin we constructed for his ShortList cover shoot. He loves the garish and luxurious knitwear, even when he FaceTimes his wife, the actress Lisa Bonet, and she considers one of the jumpers “Bill Cosby-ish”. “Ha ha!” he bellows, as he thunders around the room, wearing his own stressed-looking pair of workboots because his feet are too wide to fit into any of our fancier, capital-F fashion shoes. He is cheery, despite finding out the photos he supplied for his China visa have been… diplomatically declined on account of his chunky jewellery, his shaggy hair filling too much of the frame, and his facial expression. His photo has been declared far too in-your-face, too Momoa-ish, for something as pragmatic as conditional authorisation to a foreign country, so he must take it again.

“I don’t normally get to do ‘silly’ things,” he says later, reflecting on the shoot while biting down on a skewer of chicken. “I’m normally hired to play that guy – the barbarian, the brute. After Game Of Thrones, no one was thinking I’d be perfect for a rom-com.”

Between photographs, he amuses himself by swinging an axe around his muscular person with a playfulness normally reserved for a sparkler on bonfire night. At his home in California, Momoa collects knives, tomahawks, plus the occasional ‘hog-splitter’ – that’s a heavier blade designed for cleaving through large animal carcasses. He says he has more than 60. “You should definitely call before you come visit,” he says, “They’re huge. I could probably throw one, though.”

We meet in Vancouver at the tail-end of summer, as he is beginning work on a TV show called See for Apple. Being in Canada – with the fresh air, almost-autumnal leaves on the trees and roughly hewn rockfaces he is desperate to scale with his big arms – makes him think of life after this. After interviews, filming and negotiable visits to China. After acting.

More than anything, he wants to ride his motorcycle to Patagonia from Alaska, where he has a buddy. Momoa mentions many nameless buddies who must, I assume, all resemble him in stature and ruggedness – hulking masses of muscle and hair – and live in real cabins like the fake one we’ve built. He wants to take a journey lasting two, maybe three months, through gorgeous vistas, meeting interesting new people, spending a bit of time in his own head. But he can’t. Not yet; there is, unfortunately, acting to be done.

Including Aquaman. Momoa cameoed in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and then appeared in a more fleshed-out role in last year’s Justice League, and now it’s time for Arthur Curry to take centre stage in his own film. Despite the dollar-intensive nature of these gargantuan superhero movies, the DC universe has not enjoyed the critical adoration of other such films. Momoa knows he’s signed up to something all-consuming, though, and it doesn’t bother him that this kind of gig will push the bucket-list road trip back many years.

“People get this idea that I had a choice with regards to what I do,” he says. “Being an actor – for me, anyway – it’s slim pickings. At one time, I’d be 20th down the list for a part. I know I’m not first. But I’ve had a career, I’ve taken sh*t [roles], and I’ve made them good. Most actors can start being picky after a while. I haven’t been in that position.”

I ask him what he’d change, then, if he could reverse any decision in his 39 years. He excuses himself to the bathroom to think about it. “To pass judgement, on everything that’s come to pass,“ he says warily, “feels like a tough thing to do.” But here goes.

“When they asked if I’d done any modelling, I just said ‘yeah’. I just made that sh*t up”

His acting career was built on a simple white lie. Aged 19, working in his father’s surf shop before heading to college in Colorado, Momoa was offered an audition for Baywatch: Hawaii. When he wasn’t folding T-shirts, he spent his time standing on the beach, with his shirt off, checking out girls. One day someone asked if he’d like to be an extra on the show – which paid $100 (£79) a day for him to stand on the beach, with his shirt off, checking out girls. He figured since he was doing exactly that and making no money, it was a savvy business move. “It’s not as though I took Baywatch to hone my craft,” he says, arching an eyebrow.

But they needed a resumé, and he had nothing of the sort. “When they asked if I’d done any modelling, I just said, ‘Yeah.’” He was a clean-cut, handsome dude – who would argue with that? He holds his paddle-sized palm out and counts the names: “Louis Vuitton, Gucci…” He pauses – had he fake-modelled for Prada? He can’t recall. “I just made that sh*t up. I mean, what are they going to do?”

He was cast, and successfully played a headstrong loner, also named Jason, between 1999 and 2001, and then again in 2003’s thrillingly bad made-for-TV-movie Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding.

Momoa then found moderate success in the cult military-sci-fi spin-off Stargate: Atlantis, appearing as a dreadlocked mercenary, but it was Game Of Thrones that made him a global name, after he was cast as Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo, a barbaric warrior who, in the pilot episode, weds Emilia Clarke’s exiled teen princess Daenerys Targaryen and rapes her. He featured heavily in the show’s first season, before suffering the worst fate of all on Thrones – a mediocre death (he is smothered with a pillow after a witch’s ‘treatment’ for an infected wound leaves him catatonic).

Momoa’s infant daughter used to hang out with him on set, and was there during filming for a scene where Drogo kills one of his subjects, an embittered xenophobe called Mago, and rips out his tongue. “I’d come over to her, covered in blood, and be, like, ‘Hi baby! Papa’s just busy at work.’ She’d look at me, holding this prosthetic tongue and say,” he puts on a cutesy voice, “‘You’re so silly, Papa.’” The tongue currently resides in one of his offices.

Coming off Thrones hit Momoa hard. As Drogo speaks a fictional language in the show, many casting directors assumed he couldn’t speak English and dismissed him entirely. “People didn’t know what to do with me,” he says. When Momoa accompanied his stepdaughter, the actress Zoë Kravitz, to her appearance on hipster-baiting sketch show Portlandia, he met her co-star Fred Armisen, whose “mind was blown” when he heard Momoa speak English. Momoa was heartbroken; he dreamt of playing more than a brute, but that seemed like the only thing people considered him capable of.

Thirty years ago someone of Momoa’s stature could walk into a casting agent’s office and book leading role after leading role. Back then, rugged and outdoorsy was marketable. Broad and beefy was aspirational. Being naturally swole – before ‘swole’ was even a thing – was as lucrative as it gets. But we stopped requiring our leading men to be larger than life, and now the massive man-units of Hollywood sometimes feel like more of a novelty.

“It would be nice to play a doctor or a lawyer,” Momoa concedes. “But the truth of it is, they’ve got someone to play those roles.” He perfected the hulking bruiser and sought to do new things with the archetype. Even if his turn as Conan The Barbarian wasn’t a commercial success, he still took it on. Maybe he could work some changes from the inside? His Conan starts out wild and violent, but liberates slaves, stands up for the little guy and avenges his father’s death – a barbarian done good. “If I have to play a brute, how about a soft brute or one with a heart of gold? If I got offered that then f*ck it, it’s on.”

His take on DC’s Aquaman is an attempt to build on that. The story plays up to Curry’s otherness: he’s a half-Atlantean, half-human who feels he doesn’t belong to land or sea but must unite both if he has any hope of preventing a war. “I related to Arthur’s feeling of exclusion,” Momoa says. His father, Joseph, is of Native Hawaiian descent, and his mother, Coni, is of German, Irish and Native American ancestry. “I understood it completely. I knew it would be an honour to play him, but I was scared. Excited that someone trusted me to do it… but scared all the same.”

After the green-screen overload of Justice League, Aquaman allowed Momoa to do more of what he loves to do: running across stuff, jumping off stuff, fighting stuff. Getting sand in his fingernails and feeling as though he earned the blisters on his feet, diligently washing the sweat and gunk out of his hair each night and realising that, if acting can feel this much like real life, then maybe it’s OK that the motorbikes and his road trip and his buddies and heavy-duty axes have to wait a little longer. 

He’s directing next, a film called The Last Manhunt, and is thrilled that he doesn’t have to be in it. “I’ve had to take many roles just to put food on the table. It’s not a hard choice. But now, I feel I’ve paid my dues.  Some people get lucky in their careers,” he says, implying that he was not one of those people. “But I’m not worried. I know who I am, and I’m OK with who I am.”

Maybe it’s for the best. He’s got an unhealthy relationship with money anyway. “I’m a dipsh*t. It’s not my strong suit. But I’m a workhorse. I’m built to work. And I’m doing what I love to do, and I’ve got here. But it’s been 20 years of hard work, and you know what? It was never f*cking handed to me. Whatever I go on to do, no one can take that away from me.”

As a director, he wants people to see what’s been in his head – his ideas, his feelings, the things he has learned – because it seems as though no one in the industry is capable of looking beyond the brawn and the beard and the bigness. And his aim is to do more than command a room by his sheer physical presence. “I want people to see me be funny, and romantic, not just some big lug,” he says. He launched a YouTube channel so he can let people in. “I can make something beautiful and bring awareness to the sh*t that I’m stoked about.”

As he’s getting ready to leave I realise he never told me what he’d change. He stops in the doorway and looks at me. “Every wrong decision got me here,” he says, shrugging. “Yes, bad things happened, but they allowed me to be a good dad and raise my kids. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.”

Maybe the problem was expecting something profound in the first place. Later that day, he shares videos on Instagram chugging tankards of Guinness, and as I board my plane home he’s driving along a frosty mountain road, sticking his head out the window, gale forces whipping his long locks, grinning like a maniac. This is Jason’s world and, honestly, it’s never looked more inviting.

Aquaman is at cinemas nationwide now

(Photography: Peter Yang)