Before taking the title role of the superhero epic Aquaman, before breaking out as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, before making his name over five seasons of Stargate Atlantis, a 20-year-old Jason Momoa was named Hawaii’s Model of the Year in 1999. Well, of course he was. Look at him.
This information has been widely disseminated. It’s cited on listicles entitled Ten Things You Don’t Know About Jason Momoa. It makes an appearance on his Wikipedia page. It’s also, according to Momoa, a complete fabrication – invented by the young actor to help him score a part on Baywatch Hawaii.
He got the part (well of course he did: look at him) but the modelling stayed on the CV, and the rest is history as told by the likes of scoopwhoop.com. Well, who can begrudge a little white lie on the road to stardom? Model of the Year or not, he’s done Hawaii proud…
Jason, you must be pumped to see Aquaman enter the ranks of Hollywood superheroes?
It’s absolutely amazing. I had to keep the news secret for four years and I was just bursting inside with pride. I have worked incredibly hard to get to this point and you can’t appreciate how good this feels.
How does this origin story of Aquaman differ from Justice League?
We’ve seen him in Justice League, which is maybe two minutes of his old life, so [in Aquaman] we get to see where he actually came from. He was born with powers but he never really harnessed them, or honed them. This is his whole origin story.
What can you reveal about Aquaman?
He has the perspective of someone who’s an outsider. His father is from Earth and his mother is from Atlantis, and he’s not really accepted in either world.
That’s a feeling I can relate to – my father is Hawaiian and I grew up in Iowa where I didn’t fit in easily because I really didn’t look like any of the other kids. Aquaman was raised by his mother like I was, and I think that kind of experience helped me to identify with his way of looking at things.
Do you think that Aquaman will serve as a role model for younger generations of fans?
There’s a whole bunch of kids out there who don’t have someone that they can identify with and I think that it’s a big responsibility to be this outsider character and be that first brown-skinned superhero.
We basically just did head shots of me and said, ‘hey he’s the Hawaii Model of the Year’. We just made it up
Tell us about your background?
I was born in Hawaii but I grew up in Iowa where I was raised by my mother. She’s Irish-German and also has some Native American ancestry, but I don’t think of myself in terms of being Hawaiian or white or whatever. It’s the same with my work. I’m playing action guys now but I can see myself doing a lot more than that. Playing these roles and getting to do Aquaman is going to open up a lot of different work for me and that’s exactly what I’d like to do with my career.
I think being raised by a single mother gives you more vulnerability and sensitivity as an individual. I can be tough when I need to, but that’s not the way I am in person.
You started off modelling, right?
No, actually I made that shit up! [Laughs.] When I was in Hawaii I went to a casting call for Baywatch Hawaii – it was basically like a cattle call for 1,300 people. I got there, and seven hours later when I finally got to the front of the line, they said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to have a resume.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, well, I don’t have one.’ They were like, ‘Dude, have you ever acted?’ I was like ‘No’, and they were like ‘Have you modelled?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m a big model. I do Gucci and Louis Vuitton,’ and I’m looking at my friend, and I’m like, ‘You did Prada, right?’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, we did that in Japan.’ So we were just kind of making it up on the spot.
So you were thinking on your feet?
Yeah, we just kind of bullshitted our way in and then I met some managers down there: they kind of made up some stuff for me like, ‘Hawaii Model of the Year’. We basically just did head shots of me and said, ‘hey he’s the model of the year’. We just made it up.
But you decided to keep it on the resume?
Well it kind of stayed on there. It’s like, when I finished Baywatch, all I had was Baywatch, and you’ve got to have something more credible. So we just left it on.
Did you do a lot of crappy jobs?
The worst job that I had was working as security. At the time, I was living out of an Airstream, but it got really hard, and I couldn’t live in it anymore. I ended up living on my friend’s couch, putting the Airstream into storage, and borrowing money. I had to get a job, but I couldn’t even get a bartending gig. I ended up working as security at this club where I had to sit outside in the parking lot, telling people to be quiet because it was in a residential area. There would be a bunch of drunks coming out at 2am going, ‘Fuck you man,’ and I’d just be like, ‘Hey, can you just keep it down for people around here.’
So, I had to do that for a week and it was very humbling and I spent a lot of my day writing the movie that I wanted to do. I was pretty much at rock bottom, and then a week later I got North Shore, which sent me to Hawaii, and then my first audition after North Shore was when I got Stargate Atlantis, and then that went for four years. After that I had a bit of a break because I had an accident – I headbutted a pint glass, and it split my head open. So I ended up having to take a year off. And then I got Game of Thrones.
Does your wife Lisa Bonet like you playing these larger-than-life kinds of characters?
She loved Drogo (in Game of Thrones). It was the first time she was really impressed by my work. I didn’t want the fuss of us going to see the Game of Thrones premiere, and I didn’t really want her to watch me as the character, but she told me that there was no way she wasn’t going to see the series.
One day we got the DVD sent to us by HBO and my wife spent the entire night watching the series. She woke me up at 6am to tell me how much she loved it!
You’ve struggled for work at different periods in your career. Did you ever begin to doubt yourself?
No. It’s hard, sure, but most actors are used to being unemployed, it’s the nature of the business. I knew that if I kept working hard and didn’t give up that something good would eventually happen. And it did.
How bad did things get for you?
Things got tough. I wasn’t getting any jobs and I had to develop my own project (Road to Paloma, which he wrote and directed) to get some money coming in. It turned out to be a good thing because that’s how I got The Red Road, which was a big moment for me.
Once I knew I had the Aquaman role, though, it took a lot of the pressure off. I just want to keep working and enjoy every opportunity that comes along.
Do you believe in fate?
I don’t know, I guess so. Pretty much everything I’ve wished for comes true, so I’m very lucky. I think I saved a lot of drowning children in my past life, or something else really, really good. I’m very lucky.
How did your parents react when you said you wanted to be an actor?
My dad was like, ‘You should be an actor.’ When I got Baywatch, he was blown away. He’s a marine biologist, so that’s what I did beforehand. If things had gone wrong, I had a scholarship I could have fallen back on, and I would have gone back to school.
It’s easy to be a critic but it’s hard to get out there and make something truly original
How do you deal with Hollywood?
I just try to stay away from it. I did it when I was younger, went and pissed around and was a little fucking punk and had fun. I have children now, and I’m privileged to have a place that’s away from all the craziness.
On a ranch?
Yeah, five acres. It’s a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle.
How would you feel if your children wanted to go into the business?
I mean, I’m going to support them through everything. I can’t give them knowledge – if they are mathematicians and lawyers and doctors, fantastic, I’ll support them in anything that they want to do, but I’ll surround them with music, dance, the arts and theatre, and pray that they can express themselves through mind, body and soul.
To me the ultimate art form is just to be an artist, and to do a lot of these things. In acting, you’ve got to find yourself. It’s good for people that aren’t even actors to get in there and dig out some demons and find the root of what they are and express themselves. Putting yourself out there for people to judge is not an easy thing, so it’s great to do – I think it’s easy to be a critic but it’s hard to get out there and make something truly original.
How do you think you do with the whole heartthrob sex symbol thing?
I don’t know, I wasn’t raised that way, I was raised in the Midwest where it’s a case of – you grow up to do your workload. I wasn’t raised in LA, I don’t have that mindset. Because it’s not in my roots, it doesn’t really affect me.
Have you been starstruck by anyone?
You know, I’m a really big geek. I get star struck by everything, I really do. I’m just excited about life, you know? I was starstruck by my wife, I’m starstruck by Christian Slater – Gleaming the Cube was my movie when I was growing up, because I was a skateboarder, that was my big thing. And if I saw Jack Nicholson, I’d be blown away.
Do you feel that you’re giving Hawaiians someone to cheer for now?
I really hope so, and it’s such a huge honour for me to do so. We have such a proud tradition and spirit, and I would like to show something of our soul to the public.
I’m also incredibly proud that I can finally play a character that my kids can go and see in the movie theatre. They were able to do that for Justice League where I have a small part, but now they get to see their papa up there and leading the way in his own movie. I can’t tell you how much it means to me for my children to see me in this movie. There hasn’t been that much they’ve been able to see so far because of the kinds of projects I’ve been doing. I was able to take them onto the set of Justice League and they got a kick out of that and they’re always anxious to see the films once they come out. My daughter loves Wonder Woman and my son has been a big fan of The Flash and Superman, but Aquaman is a huge step up for them in getting to see their papa in action.
Aquaman is in cinemas from 14 December.