The furious case of Jason Momoa

Before facing the ‘Fast’ family, the actor takes Gentleman’s Journal on a spin through his car collection, and talks a high-speed career: “It’s all gas, no brakes…”

Jason Momoa is going up. Quite literally, when he answers the phone. “Hey man, I’m just in the elevator,” he says, in a rich laconic drawl delayed by a second or so as the signal bounces around the planet. “I hope I don’t cut out.”

At 43, the actor is a man on the move. Specifically, he is hopping from place to place in New Zealand, where he will be holed up for the next year while he shoots Chief of War, set in 1790s Hawaii, and another movie which he can’t tell me about.

That’s alongside the two enormous franchise movies he has due for release this year. There is the tenth instalment in the billion-dollar Fast & Furious petrol-fest, in which he finally gets to crack his knuckles as a baddie. Then there is Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom, the long-awaited sequel to DC’s smash-hit from 2018, which is due to be released on Christmas Day.

Momoa stars as Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper and Atlanna, the Queen of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and blessed with aquatic superpowers. If Aquaman was a less prestigious character than Batman or Superman before Momoa turned his hand to the part, the first film put paid to that. It took more than a billion dollars at the box office, making it the biggest DC film of all time, and elevating its star to the first rank of Hollywood bankability. The big guy’s big business.

“It’s all gas, no brakes, bro,” he says. Down the line Momoa has almost as much presence as one imagines he does in person, which is to say a lot, given he is 6’4 and hewn from granite. “I’m not taking my foot off the pedal. It has taken me a long time to get here, and I’ve been doing this for years. I started when I was 19 and I’ll be 44 this year. I’ve been writing for 14 years, directing for more than ten. I’m living and doing everything I’ve ever wanted. I’m just trying to do what I love.”

Momoa rocketed to fame as Khal Drogo, the violent but charismatic warlord in season one of Game of Thrones. His character, the leader of a loose-band of horse-loving nomads evidently inspired by the Mongol hordes, took Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) as his bride. He spoke in Dothraki, a made-up language, and summarily punished all who stood in his way. Drogo was a giant of a man in every sense, powered by a performance from Momoa you could not take your eyes off. Although the character died in the second series of a show which ran for seven in total, Momoa’s position was assured.

“I’m not taking my foot off the pedal…”

Or so it seemed from the outside. The reality was rather different. While Game of Thrones might have put Momoa in front of more eyeballs than ever, this did not necessarily equate to better parts. In fact, he says, casting directors overlooked him after his turn as Drogo, thinking he might not have the range they wanted. He was cast in the lead in a remake of Conan the Barbarian, which flopped. With a young family to support and bills to pay, Momoa ran into his most challenging time just when things ought to have been going well.

“After Thrones was really challenging,” he says. “Conan didn’t do well at all, which was a bummer. It was fun to shoot, but there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Then Thrones didn’t get big until the third or fourth season, so it took a long time. But right out of the gates most people didn’t think I spoke English. It was hard to get roles. They didn’t know me. They weren’t about to get the big naked guy and cast him in a comedy or a romance.”

It was all the more disappointing because Momoa had been putting in the hard yards for over a decade before Westeros came calling, in all kinds of different roles. His sense of humour is key to his performances: despite his intimidating appearance there’s always a twinkle in his eye, and he has beautiful comic timing. “I trained in comedy, and that’s all I wanted to do,” he says. “It’s exciting I’m writing my own stuff now, because I just didn’t have those opportunities.”

He was born in Hawaii, christened Joseph Jason Namakaeha Momoa, the son of artists Coni and Joseph, the latter of whom is of Native Hawaiian heritage. They divorced soon after Jason was born, and he spent most of his childhood in Norwalk, just outside Des Moines, Iowa before returning to Hawaii for university. It was there that he was spotted and cast in the revival of Baywatch, before a main role in Stargate: Atlantis.

A childhood in Iowa, he says, gave him a certain wanderlust (as it did for another hirsute Anglophile son of Des Moines, the travel writer Bill Bryson). “Iowa is a wonderful place, but I wanted to get out and see the world,” he says. Momoa is evidently proud of his Hawaiian identity. Among his distinctive physical features – height, musculature, cheekbones – are his tattoos, some on the side of his head, which commemorate people he has loved and lost. He says one of the reasons he is so happy to be in New Zealand, along with the natural beauty, is the respect with which Maori culture is held.

“After Hawaii New Zealand is probably my favourite place on earth,” he says. “Being an indigenous man, it’s really interesting, the relation between the English – or white – with the Maoris. It was the first culture that signed a treaty, compared to Hawaii where everything was taken over and taken from us. The white people embrace the culture here, which is something you don’t see anywhere else. Even our language – Hawaiian language – is very similar to the Maori, which is something to take pride in.

“It’s a special thing for me to be Polynesian,” he adds. “Being Aquaman – representing that brown skin culture is an honour. I didn’t have that as a little kid, being able to look up at this guy, whose covered in tattoos, and think ‘he looks like me’. And also when it comes to doing things for the UN, being Polynesian we’re on the front line of the climate crisis. We’re the small island nations, the ones that are going to get affected first.”

Well, that and the natural beauty. And the sport. For a man who grew up in Iowa, Momoa has a strange affinity for English games. He played soccer in school, and rugby is another big draw from New Zealand, especially the All Blacks. He performed a haka in his Game of Thrones audition and did it again at the Aquaman premiere. Perhaps he was drawing a line over that brief career doldrums, recognising that maybe things would be alright again.

If New Zealand is his home at the moment, he also has a hot streak of Anglophilia. It dates back from his time on Stargate: Atlantis, when he came here frequently, and was cemented doing Aquaman, which was shot here. It has not always been a starry British existence: for a while he lived in Totteridge. “I was on Stargate for four years,” he says. “It was like going to college. They taught me how to write, how to act, how to shoot this and that. It was wonderful.”

But his recent success has let him scratch an longstanding itch and get a suit made on Savile Row.

“I used to come here for these [sci-fi] conventions and I was so broke,” he laughs, “and I remember always standing in front of Henry Poole. I couldn’t afford that art form. So when I got where I’m at now, I was like ‘I want to have a custom tailored suit. It’s a beautiful thing to have someone make you a suit. I look back at the things I used to wear and think ‘oh my god that doesn’t work.’ But that’s what I could afford. Still, to have something really done right, and fit you, it makes you feel like a king. The first thing I wore it to was the James Bond premiere. To go to that with my children, and wear this amazing suit: that was pretty cool.”

He still keeps a flat in central London, and has a relatable list of London favourites. “I like oysters at Bentley’s, going to the Wolseley for breakfast, Bodega Negra, ramen at Tonkotsu. The best pint of Guinness are at The Toucan, so I’m always there, and there’s really good pizza across the street”. [Pizza Pilgrims on Dean Street.]

If he is allowing himself the odd luxury here and there, you don’t get the sense of an actor looking for an exit. If anything, Momoa gives the impression of a man who has fought his way to the starting blocks.

“If Aquaman hadn’t been a success I’d still be there banging away, trying to make stuff happen. It’s hard. It’s a little bit of luck too, man. Obviously I have talent and whether people have known that for a long time, doesn’t matter. Success is weird, though. I don’t pick things on whether they’re going to be successful. I just want my kids to think their father is happy and doing what he wants to do.”

"You’re one with the road, so the trickier the road, the funner it is…"

“I keep it pretty normal with my babies,” he says. “We’re still a very normal family. We go camping, play music, go rock climbing. Sports. People recognise you and you say ‘thank you, I’m just with my kids right now’. When I’m not with them I can do stuff, but when I’m with my babies I just try to be dad.”

Climbing gives him a sense of peace unlike anything else. “My body feels beautiful climbing,” he says. “Walking is harder. I like the movement, I like the fear of it, where I’m pushing my limit and not knowing where my limit is. I’m not seeking death, but you’re pushing your inner limits of what you can hold onto.”

Motorbikes give him something similar, if nosier. “It’s very pure,” he says. “Your mind might be all over the place but when you’re on a motorcycle, you’re doing nothing but that. In a car I can be on my phone or putting makeup on or doing all these other things except paying attention to the road. On a motorcycle you have to. You’re one with the road, so the trickier the road, the funner it is. I enjoy these old, old bikes, 100-year-old, pushing them to their limits.”

The upcoming Fast X gives him ample opportunity to flex this muscle. He stars in an ensemble cast including Jason Statham and Vin Diesel as well as no fewer than four female Oscar winners: Brie Larson, Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron and Rita Moreno. Momoa’s character, Dante, is the son of Fast Five’s villain, Hernan Reyes. According to the film’s director, Louis Letterier, Dante is an arch-antagonist; “completely obsessed with [Vin Diesel’s] Dom. He’s like a crazed fan. These are the most dangerous enemies”.

“I had one of the funnest experiences of my life,” Momoa says of the film. “It was amazing. Our director Louis was phenomenal. I had a ball, just getting to be unhinged.

“I know what I’m doing for the next ten years,” he adds. “My career’s all pretty well mapped out at this point. But being able to ride motorcycles in Rome…”

He tails off, temporarily speechless for the first time in the conversation, as though he has just remembered what he gets to do for a living. But the message comes through loud and clear all the same: Jason Momoa is going up.

Want more Gentleman’s Journal cover interviews? Here’s Paul Bettany on fame, playing the game, and staying sane…

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