One morning in late summer, drivers heading north on Route 101, not far from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, were treated to a surreal sight, even for Hollywood. Sputtering along in the slow lane of the freeway was a big man with even bigger hair in a roofless, windscreen-less 1929 Ford Model A hot rod. His long mane was whipping across his face in the wind; the red blanket that he’d placed over his busted car seat as a cushion was flying like a cape behind his neck.
Those who pulled up closer to get a better look at what might pass for a real-life (albeit grizzled) Superman weren’t too far off the mark. It was Aquaman in his natural habitat: behind the wheel of a vintage car, his fingers drumming on the steering wheel to the Tom Waits song in his head, navigating his way through another swashbuckling adventure in a summer that was crammed with them. Then, as he neared his exit, radiator fluid began spraying all over his face.
This hot mess might have been a crisis for any actor not named Jason Momoa, who was en route to Men’s Health’s photo shoot. But the Hawaiian leviathan isn’t like any other Tinsel Town A-lister. Not willing to let this fiasco harsh his aloha mellow, he left a friend behind with a wrench and a hammer, hitched a ride with another friend who was hauling his motorbikes to the shoot, and arrived on set needing just two minutes to change his shirt and splash some water on his beard before he was ready for his close-up.
“My wife makes fun of me, because everything I have breaks down,” he said, by way of introduction. “But I just like old, beautiful things. They make you feel like you’re in a time capsule.”
In some ways, entering Momoa’s world for a few hours does indeed feel like a time warp. His life is simple and often rugged. When he’s not working, he spends most of his days rock-climbing with his kids and riding through Topanga Canyon on old Harleys with the boys. He and his wife, actor Lisa Bonet, somehow made it through months of lockdown without ever feeling the need to acquire a TV. He showed up to our interview in tattered cargo pants that looked 15 years old, precisely because they were 15 years old.
On the other hand, he carries himself like a reconstructed Renaissance Tarzan. This is a man who can who can squat a car but cried like a baby when his daughter, Lola, turned 13 earlier this year. He stands at a commanding 6ft 4in; his broad shoulders and barrel chest somehow make him seem even bigger in person. Yet he’s comfortable enough in his masculinity to use a pink scrunchie to hold up his hair while he talks. “It’s mine, not Lola’s,” he says as a matter of fact.
At 41, Momoa is at a career crossroads by his own choosing. The actor is in the enviable position of being able to earn millions by playing charismatic mythical warriors who vanquish foes on screen in a way that appeals to teenage boys, middle-aged women and everyone in between. He intends to continue pushing his body to the brink by accepting punishing He-Man roles as long as the offers keep rolling in and his surgically repaired knees hold up. But after two decades in the business, Momoa has just had his first taste of working on a prestige film with an acclaimed director and a tonne of Academy Award-nominated actors. And, well, he wants a bigger bite.
Later this month, Momoa will star in Dune, the first instalment of the long-awaited (second) film adaptation of the sci-fi coming-of-age novel by Frank Herbert that has sold more than 20 million copies since its release in 1965. Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, a swordmaster and mentor to the young protagonist Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Over a meat and cheese platter in a small, wood-panelled trailer on the set of our shoot, Momoa struggles to contain his excitement about the movie. He stands for the entire duration of the interview. He bounces on the toes of his boots while discussing his talented co-stars, including Chalamet (“a young man as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside”); Oscar Isaac (“my new man crush”); Josh Brolin (“who I look up to so much”); and Javier Bardem (“like a god to me, the roof”).
Dune’s director, French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049), read the series as a child and called making the film a realisation of a lifelong dream. Momoa says that signing up to play Idaho in Villeneuve’s adaptation was one of the easiest career decisions he has ever made. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t scared shitless. “I was literally sitting in someone’s dream job, knowing that he picked me to play this role,” Momoa says, between mouthfuls of salami and cheddar. “I felt like an imposter.”
Momoa may have been married to a mother of dragons as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, but Momoa says nothing could have prepared him for the intensity of shooting a scene in Bardem’s glare on one of his first days on set. “We’re sitting at this table, and the scene is all about Javier walking into the room. I’ve never seen someone strut into a room like such a boss. He just comes right up to this table and stares everybody down. He’s glaring at everyone else but giving me a little bit of a twinkle, and I’m giggling inside because I can’t believe I’m standing at this table right now. Then he delivers his lines and just kills it. Right after that, Denis goes up to him and starts giving him notes and I’m shocked, like, ‘What the hell could you possibly be giving him notes on?’ I’m completely bewildered. And it just keeps getting better and better, because Denis is so good. So, I’m standing there absolutely terrified, because I had to deliver all this sci-fi exposition, which is not my bag at all. And then I did it, and I didn’t get any notes at all. I was so unbelievably happy, I could have cried.”
Casts of blockbuster films do not always get along. Shia LaBeouf was (rather implausibly) rumoured to have knocked out Tom Hardy on the set of Lawless. Police had to break up a fight between LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx during the Any Given Sunday shoot. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams reportedly had to have an impromptu counselling session while filming The Notebook. During promotional interviews for Dune, however, the actors have been so effusive in their praise for each other and so steeped in inside jokes that they occasionally seem like a travelling comedy revue that’s been touring the country for years.
In an otherwise gloomy trailer, Momoa’s Idaho is seen hooting and hollering at Chalamet’s Atreides, before lifting up the young actor in a warm, brotherly embrace. Momoa may have felt like (ahem) a fish out of water among this group, but those who worked with him say his goofy charm was crucial to the cast’s on-set chemistry.
In an email to Men’s Health, Chalamet said Momoa was a big part of why the troupe of A-listers became so tight. “Jason inspires a group spirit,” he wrote. “He is someone who brings a raw joy for film-making to the set every day. He’s one of those enriching humans to be around for their camaraderie, which is especially i3mportant when you are starting out as an actor.”
Jason Momoa learned to find joy and wonder in little things at a young age. He was born in Hawaii but raised as an only child by a single mother in the small, Midwestern town of Norwalk, Iowa. Momoa says that when he looks back on his childhood, there wasn’t much to do. But that didn’t stop him from “having a ball”, whipping up his own outdoor adventures in dusty fields, developing an appreciation for all the old, beautiful things that now tell the story of his life as an adult by going antiques shopping every weekend with his mum, and making nine-hour drives to go rock climbing in Boulder, Colorado. “Even though I work in Hollywood, I’m 100% roots Midwest,” he says. “I work hard and I don’t take anything for granted. I’m a big family guy.”
That sense of loyalty made for an interesting summer escapade. After three months of his mother living alone with her dogs during lockdown, Momoa and a few friends got themselves tested for COVID-19, then set out on an epic drive from Los Angeles to Iowa to visit her and his 91-year-old grandmother. “Literally, we just stopped at gas stations and busted out Hazmat suits,” he says. The group was staying at a friend’s house outside St Paul, Minnesota, when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Momoa and his crew were packing up for Norwalk the next day when protesters began clashing with police in a showdown that gripped the nation. As fires raged in the Twin Cities behind them, tornadoes lay ahead. They became stuck near the Iowa border as storms tore down towns near his mother’s house. They eventually made it to her safely.
On the drive back to LA, Momoa witnessed mass protests in several major American cities. “It felt like the whole country was falling apart,” he says. “At the same time, I think that things need to change. There are so many massive issues happening that can’t be tolerated any more, and I’m absolutely behind them. I’m looking forward to not going back to normal. I do believe we’ve hit a tipping point. We just need to keep fighting for it. I’ve been trying to do a lot of things with climate change and environmental issues, and that’s all part of this, too. It’s kind of gone by the wayside for some people, but it hasn’t for me.”
Momoa was interested in protecting the ocean long before he squeezed into Aquaman’s suit. He grew up wanting to be a scientist and majored in wildlife biology at Colorado State, before dropping out to become an actor. He says one of his big goals for 2021 is to cut back on meat, for environmental reasons – which will be difficult, because he really loves eating meat. “I’d also like to go from being the best fan of Guinness to being just a really good fan of Guinness,” he says.
One of his other New Year’s resolutions is to exercise more. Really. “I don’t work out that much at all,” he confesses. “It’s just genetics. Hawaiians are big people. I rock-climb a lot but lifting weights is challenging. I’d rather just do hikes and bodyweight stuff: normal push-ups, pull-ups, squats. I broke my femur when I was young and so I think my legs have always been pretty gnarly. I had injuries to both my knees, and both knees are redone.
So, I have to find a better way to get the flexibility back.”
Bonet, his wife, is into Pilates and yoga, and she has been urging him to take them up for years. “I tried yoga the other day, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Climbing El Capitan would be easier than doing two hours of yoga. She doesn’t get it. I can’t bend over any more! My hamstrings are so tight. My body’s so tight. It’s pathetic. I remember, one time, I was all yoked out for Conan, and I was in a yoga class with these older ladies in Topanga. Everyone was just holding their arms up, and I was like… ‘This is so hard!’”
The more Momoa makes fun of himself, the easier it is to see him excelling in comedic roles down the road, like John Cena or the Rock. Much of what made his performance in Aquaman so good was that his version of a superhero never took himself too seriously. Very few could pull off wearing a 20kg armoured suit underwater without looking ridiculous. Once he’s done shooting Aquaman 2 (pandemic permitting), he will start filming what he calls his dream role; all he divulges is that he co-wrote it, and that it will shoot in Hawaii. Once that’s over, he says he would love a chance to do comedy. “Romantic comedy lead, the nerdy best friend, anything,” he says. “I would love to do it, but nobody will hire me for it.”
He’s hoping that after Dune, more doors will open. He could live a more than comfortable life continuing to play the same character over and over again, but comfort has never really been his thing. After all, this is a man who somehow worked up the nerve to ask out his goddess of a wife when she was 38 and he was just 26, even though he admits now that, at the time, he was “a mess”.
His voice rises and he pulls his long hair out of the knot on top of his head. “That’s why when people go, ‘You can’t do that!’ I go, ‘I married Lisa Bonet,’” he says, evidently still amazed that she agreed to go on a date with him once, let alone stick by his side 15 years later. “I can do anything I want!”
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of Men's Health
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