Jason Momoa rolls up on his motorcycle to a cafe in the Hollywood Hills to talk Aquaman. The 6’4″ actor strides in looking like an action figure come to life, ready to give his first deep-dive interview on the biggest project of his career: Top-lining a standalone DC superhero adventure chronicling a character that’s long been considered the toughest to pull off in the whole comic universe. Below, the 38-year-old actor details his audition process, the superhero parts he didn’t get, his personal connection to Arthur Curry, his quibbles about Justice League, the new film’s production challenges, and his goals for the future. You think you know Momoa from his roles so far? You might be surprised.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, director James Wan showed me about 15 minutes of Aquaman…
JASON MOMOA: Cool, right? Black Manta looks great. Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II] killed it, so happy.
It does look great.
Were you a little bit surprised?
I had confidence because of James. And I was glad to see a lot of your humor in it.
I was too. It’s tough because you’re going from one filmmaker, Zack [Synder], who gave birth to it, to another. The new director has to be able to build a whole new world and set the tone. And James let me do silly stuff. He’d encourage me to be more goofy and then I’d watch [scenes during post-production] and I was like, “Holy s—, he kept that in!” I did a lot of stuff that I didn’t think he was going to keep.
I was thinking when you walked in there are actors can just put on a hat or sunglasses and no one recognizes them. You can’t go anywhere without people knowing who you are. Is that annoying?
Yeah, it’s fine. It’s part of the job, man. When people like you and think you did a good job on something, you deal with it. I embrace it and don’t try to hide. I’d probably make it worse to wear some silly hat. As long as they stay away from my children I’m a pretty nice guy. I don’t like my kids seeing me that way. So I try not to be rude, but…
James told me about how when you were growing up in Iowa, that your experiences there helped you relate to what he wanted to do with half-human and half-Atlantian Aquaman.
One hundred percent. I grew up in the Bridges of Madison County area, like one county over. I graduated with maybe 100 kids, all very much the same. I stood out. I didn’t kind of do the same stuff. I was a bit of a skateboarder, and I started rock climbing. I love Iowa, but I just didn’t fit in. If you’re a Hawaiian kid in Iowa, you’re kind of a fish out of water. Then I went back to Hawaii and I got ostracized there too. I loved both, but just made my own path. So I think it’s easy to relate with Arthur Curry, not really being accepted here and not really being accepted there. I definitely got bullied, but it was—
Bullied? Really? You?
I really did. I was small. I graduated when I was 16. So I was the youngest boy in my class.
How did you graduate that young?
My mom’s a single mother, and she just couldn’t afford a babysitter. So she worked three jobs and just needed me to “get your ass in school.”
As you got bigger and went into acting, do you think your size was a benefit? Or was it more of a hindrance in getting the parts you wanted?
Well, I’m sure some shorter actors didn’t want to be standing next to me when I was coming up. I was on a show called Stargate Atlantis with Joe Flanigan. He was the sweetest guy, I was his Chewbacca to his Han Solo. He was shorter and he wasn’t scared of that. He embraced it. He’s still one of my best friends.
What is it about you and Atlantis, anyway?
I know, right?
As a young actor, what were your goals? Is this career exactly what you wanted, did you have something different in mind?
That’s a good question. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I wanted to write, direct, and produce movies. I didn’t want to act. That was the first thing I told my agent, and he kind of looked at me and was like, “All right…” Now I do that a lot, and I love it. I love telling stories. I might not be right for the story — I have a particular look, and sometimes I fit and sometimes I don’t. I like being a part of being the whole process, not just doing my acting job and leaving. I like being passionate about it, dreaming it up, seeing it through, selling it. So that’s coming true. A far as playing roles, I think after Game of Thrones it was challenging to get some work. Then we wrote and directed [Road to Paloma] that ended up getting me on The Red Road and that got me noticed. People actually realized I spoke English.
What other superhero parts have you tried out for over the years?
I met the Russo brothers [who directed Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and Infinity War], who are amazing. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had. I was going to do something with them, which unfortunately didn’t work out.
Can you say what character it was?
I don’t know. It was going to be a villain, I think. People always want to hire me to play a villain, you know? I did an audition for Guardians of the Galaxy, which was super cool. I got to audition with [Chris Pratt], who’s just a legend and a gentleman. That didn’t work out. And then really the other one after that was my audition for Batman with Zack. And I almost didn’t go because I was like, “This is bulls–t. I’m not a white guy. I ain’t playing Batman.” Even if I do, I don’t even want to. It’s like an American playing James Bond, you know? I almost didn’t do it. I thought for sure I was going to be playing [DC Comics villain] Lobo or something. The only people I knew they were casting for were Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman — who the hell am I going to play? So in the meeting, I just played it as if Batman had died in an alley and some thug picked up his suit and put it on. I just played him as a smart ass, jaded and sarcastic. And that’s when Zack was like, “I have an idea…”
He asked about you to play Aquaman?
And how did that first hit your ear?
Oh bro, I was like, “What?” Blonde? Tights? Orange and green shirt? I’m like, “I don’t know man, is this a joke?”
It’s funny, because if you told somebody about this movie and showed them a picture of you and your costar Patrick Wilson and said one is Aquaman and the other is the villain, you would assume the roles were switched.
Totally, you’re absolutely right. He is totally Aquaman.
So how has the role evolved for you across three movies now?
One of my concerns is when we did Justice League was that people were going to be like, “Oh he’s so grumpy.” But the whole idea Zack and I talked about was that [Justice League] is only like a half hour in his life, you know? So I had to stick to that character knowing in Aquaman we can explain why he is the way he is. I don’t even become Aquaman until the last 10 minutes of the movie. I mean … I f—ing smile, you know? When I’m speaking, I laugh. I have children. I have a wife. There are things that I do that people don’t even have the slightest clue about.
You got to show some dry humor in the Justice League scene where you were sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso, which I think was part of director Joss Whedon’s re-shoot, right? That became a lot of fans’ favorite scene.
For sure, man. That was a fun scene. It was definitely one we came in for. I laughed my ass off. I was like [to Joss], “Ah, dude, this is gold.” He’s like, [changes his voice to a Whedon-like half-joking breathy whisper] “you’re gorgeous, and smart and sexy.”
That’s such a good Joss impersonation.
Yeah … I do still get the whole, “You talk to fish?” Fans will come over and say, “You talk to fish?” I’m like, “Wow, are we still doing that?” When we did that in Justice League, I’m like, “Don’t put this line in there. Because that’s all people are going to say. Do you want me to make him cool or not?”
You don’t seem like a guy who has a lot of self-doubt. Do you have moments where you’re like, “Can I pull this off?”
No. Not on this movie.
Or for this part in general.
Hell no. Not at all. I feel like it’s an honor to represent my people, Hawaiians. I’m a brown half breed, and it’s pretty awesome. And this is the first thing my kids get to watch. I felt very loved. My kids can’t watch Game of Thrones. Maybe Stargate. [For Justice League they] got to go to the movie theater and see papa in movies and got to be there with me. And they’re next to Batman and Superman. I got to have my kids on set. It was just the coolest thing ever, and everyone was just amazing. By the time we got to Aquaman, it’s me, it’s my show. I’ve had two movies to get ready for this.
What type of part that you haven’t gotten would you like to eventually do?
I’d love to do a movie like The Birdcage. I love to do comedies. My favorite thing is Saturday Night Live, I would love to do it.
What was it like working with your costars?
[Amber Heard, who plays Mera] and I are mostly alike. We’re kind of the deviants. She likes to have her wine, I like to have my beer, and we both kickback. Patrick is definitely the thespian but he’s also a joker. And Yahya is just the mission man. We would always work out together. I didn’t pull too many pranks like I normally do.
Aquaman is the biggest thing you’ve done, in terms of the size of the project that’s riding mainly on you. Do you feel pressure for that?
I don’t think about that s—. I honestly don’t think, “Oh, this movie cost more.” Just because this movie cost more doesn’t mean it’s more meaningful. I have Aquaman in me, and he’s somewhere I don’t have to reach far to access. [Game of Thrones horselord] Drogo was harder to play, where I had to learn a different language and do certain things that I don’t think are right. I want to make Aquaman fans proud. A lot of the real Aquaman fans love him, and I love them for it. And some people don’t like him — my job was to kind of come in and make this guy cool. I was worried [at first] that maybe they wouldn’t like me. But they’ve responded really well. I was more nervous on Conan because there are the Robert E. Howard fans, and there are the comic book fans. And I did what Robert E. Howard did. Conan had people like, “who’s this little f–king scrawny rat?” So that was tough, but I feel like we embodied it the way that the original writer wrote it. With Aquaman, I think people will identify with him. I know I did. And James made it like Star Wars underwater and it’s beautiful.
What was the most challenging moment throughout the production, in terms of when you’re on the set?
The fights on this were like nothing I’ve never done. There’s so many, and we’re also “underwater,” on these wires. So you’re doing stuff that your body’s not used to. We had two stunt guys that were constantly getting hurt. The acting parts I love. I’ll do that for free. The stunts were challenging because I’m a little bit older now. This is like the first film where I’ve started feeling s—. Because I did all my stunts in Justice League, and then on Aquaman there was just too many.
Did you end up injuring anything?
Oh yeah. Even the littlest thing can hurt. Do a head whip [snaps his head quickly to the side as if he was just punched]. Now do that 30 times in a row. You’re not supposed to do that.
What’s the secret to acting like you’re underwater when you’re not actually filming underwater?
Pretend like you’re underwater. That’s the secret. Pretend like you’re underwater. Act, motherf—er, act.
The Aquaman trailer is coming this Saturday. Follow @jameshibberd for updates. Aquaman is released Dec. 21.