Amer­i­can Badass



He surfs. He climbs. He chucks tom­a­hawks for fun. And now real-life ac­tion star Ja­son Mo­moa gets top su­per­hero billing in the up­com­ing Aqua­man. By Marissa Stephen­son

SHOULD I TRIG­GER PRE­MA­TURE LA­BOR hurl­ing this ax, at least I know that Ja­son Mo­moa’s catcher’s-mitt hands are here to help de­liver the baby.

This is what I’m think­ing as I stand next to the hulk­ing 6'4" ac­tor, both of us eye­ing his makeshift wooden tar­get. Mo­moa is ex­plain­ing the al­lure of throw­ing an ax, the sense of sat­is­fac­tion and cathar­sis he gets from the thunk of a blade sink­ing into a wall, the testos­terone boost he be­lieves it de­liv­ers.

But I’m be­hind a beat—prob­a­bly be­cause I am 30 weeks preg­nant, with a belly that makes me look like I’m smug­gling a wa­ter­melon un­der my shirt. I’m in the fi­nal stretch for my first­born and un­der doc­tor’s or­ders to avoid any new phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties—“even yoga.” I brief ly won­der if Dr. Cald­well would count chuck­ing heavy axes as ex­er­cise, but Mo­moa seems un­fazed. “Heyyy, Mama,” he’d said by way of greet­ing when we met, point­ing to my gut. “Look at that!”

Now he pro­ceeds to hand me four sharp­ened tom­a­hawks. He de­signed them him­self, work­ing with a lo­cal out­fit to source the wood and forge the steel. The ax han­dle is as long as my arm; the blade is eight inches long. It’s heavy, and it feels awk­ward and un­wieldy as I cock it be­hind my head and aim at a wooden tar­get about 15 feet away.

“The trick,” Mo­moa says, “is to throw straight, re­lease early, and don’t bend your wrist. Peo­ple al­ways bend their wrists, like they’re throw­ing a foot­ball spi­ral or a base­ball.”

My eyes flick down to a bul­bous stom­ach be­low, and then I let the tom­a­hawk fly. The blade hits the wall flat. The sec­ond, third, and fourth tries drive into the dirt—i’m throw­ing down, re­leas­ing late.

“Should I, um, slow it down? Not throw so hard?” I ask.

“Fuck, no!” Mo­moa an­swers. “Throw it with all you’ve got.”

He’s pa­tient through more failed at­tempts, quick with en­cour­age­ment and tips. Step for­ward with con­fi­dence. Keep hips square to the wall. Throw harder. Yet de­spite the coach­ing, I can’t bury a blade into the wood.

Mo­moa of­fers to demon­strate. He backs up an ad­di­tional 15 or 20 feet—“i’m go­ing for the long shot,” he says. In quick suc­ces­sion— thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk—he sinks each ax into the cen­ter of a two-foot square on the wall and lets out a tri­umphant bat­tle cry.

He walks back over to me, grin­ning. “Isn’t it so fuck­ing fun?”

MO­MOA’S HOUSE IS PERCHED ATOP a holy-shit-steep cliff in a canyon way out on the out­skirts of Los An­ge­les. Spread around the prop­erty is per­haps the most im­pres­sive ar­ray of toys I’ve ever seen. There’s a 25-foot climb­ing wall, a skate­board ramp, a slew of Airstream trail­ers, an SUV, and an old Cadil­lac. I also see surf­boards, moun­tain bikes, skate­boards, a standup pad­dle­board, a 100pound medicine ball, and a gi­ant box­ing heavy bag. Ly­ing on a red-striped pool chair, there’s a four-foot-long sheathed sword.

I’m here with a Men’s Jour­nal photo crew. The orig­i­nal plan was to meet the ac­tor in a nearby canyon and pho­to­graph him boul­der­ing there. But a day be­fore the shoot, Mo­moa nixed that idea. He wanted some­thing that felt more in­ti­mate, less pro­duced. “It’s cool just to be at home,” he’d said. “It makes ev­ery­one feel more re­laxed, and you don’t have to fake shit.” The crew has ar­rived early to set up for the af­ter­noon cover shoot, and after un­load­ing our gear and tak­ing stock of the prop­erty, all we need is our sub­ject.

He pulls up right on time, astride a black Harley-david­son— en­gine revving, hard rock blast­ing, his long hair stream­ing be­hind a black hel­met and hand­ker­chief. He’s been on a beer run, he ex­plains. On Mo­moa’s list of shoot re­quests, he’d put Guin­ness at the top, and we’d come with an am­ple sup­ply. Still, he says, “I wanted to make sure you got the right stuff.” He puts two more six-packs of Ir­ish wa­ter, plus a sixer of Elysian Space Dust IPA, on ice in a pink Yeti cooler nearby.

He in­tro­duces him­self to ev­ery­one, shakes firmly, grins wide enough that his face scrunches and his Poly­ne­sian eyes dis­ap­pear. As the photo team sets up the first shot, he and I pull two rusty metal-wire chairs next to his climb­ing wall to talk. Mo­moa has in­vited a cou­ple of friends over for the af­ter­noon; he leans back in his chair, watch­ing one of them test a fresh route on the wall. “Feel free, Mariss,” he says, ab­bre­vi­at­ing my name as though the two of us are old bud­dies our­selves.

We’re here to talk about Aqua­man, in which Mo­moa stars as the tit­u­lar su­per­hero— a tri­dent-wield­ing deep-sea demigod with a con­flicted past and a mis­sion to, nat­u­rally, save our world. The ac­tor seems type­cast in the role, be­cause Mo­moa comes off as a kind of su­per­hero him­self, a mis­fit who climbs, skates, rides, and surfs, who rips into raw steaks and washes them down with suds. Has this al­ways been his vibe?

“Al­ways,” Mo­moa says. “I’ve been climb­ing since I was 14. Skate­board­ing since I was 8. I love the out­doors, camp­ing, I mean— ob­vi­ously you saw the Airstreams. I used to live out of that one.” He ges­tures to a sil­ver bul­let a cou­ple of hun­dred feet away. It was his home in his early 20s, when he was liv­ing the dirt­bag climb­ing life in Va­len­cia, about 40 miles north of Los An­ge­les, broke, with no act­ing ca­reer in sight, us­ing a pager in place of a phone.

He nods to the climb­ing wall. “This is my love. It’s al­ways kept me hum­ble, grounded, out­doors, and push­ing my­self, scar­ing my­self,” he says. “On the wall, it’s a flow— you’re prob­lem-solv­ing, cre­at­ing some­thing. It’s the per­fect real-world men­tal and phys­i­cal test.” He’s de­ter­mined to teach that ethos to his kids—daugh­ter Lola, age 11, and son Nakoa-wolf, “Wolfie,” who’s 10. “That’s the coolest thing, when your kids love what you do,” he says. “They do hula and African dance with my wife, and they climb, skate, and surf with me. And they dig mu­sic.”

This last bit seems to light up Mo­moa. He de­scribes how he taught his kids a song by the metal band Tool to sur­prise his Toollov­ing as­sis­tant while on-set for Aqua­man in Aus­tralia. “We played ‘Sober.’ My son played gui­tar, my daugh­ter played the drums, and I played bass. I could not be­lieve that was my chil­dren’s first song,” he says, shak­ing his head.

Dur­ing down­time on a movie set, Mo­moa will of­ten play mu­sic; he’d even pluck a gui­tar be­tween takes in his Aqua­man cos­tume. He’s self-taught, he tells me: “I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t wanna die not know­ing how to play the blues. I wanna be old and on a porch

play­ing bot­tle­neck slide and learn­ing Robert John­son.’ So I taught my­self how to play slide. And now I’m ob­sessed with the ukulele.”

Sud­den, fierce ob­ses­sions are part of Mo­moa’s DNA. “If I see some­thing I love,” he says, “I want to learn ev­ery­thing about it. There are just so many things I want to do in this life, from writ­ing to mu­sic to de­sign­ing to ac­tivism. I ac­tu­ally need more peo­ple to help me. I’m slowly build­ing a lit­tle army.” He glances again at his buddy on the wall, a loyal mem­ber of his crew, who is mak­ing his way up a new route of holds.

He ges­tures to­ward a dou­ble-doored garage. There’s “a lot of shit in there,” he tells me—props, clothes, rusty knick­knacks. “I love all that stuff,” he says. “I just got over think­ing ‘Why do I need that?’ in­stead of ‘Wow, I could use that some­day.’ ” The garage in­cludes some of his most beloved pos­ses­sions: his paint­ings (mixed-me­dia can­vases he’s been dab­bling in for years), a vin­tage mo­tor­cy­cle, his Le­ica cam­era, and a wall of gui­tars and other mu­si­cal equip­ment. “I think Neil Young and Tom Waits would be per­fectly happy mak­ing an al­bum in there,” he says.

The garage also houses his cur­rent fa­vorite piece of tro­phy gear: a Guin­ness keg with a tri­dent tap made for him by the brew­ery it­self. “They de­signed that fucker for me,” Mo­moa laughs. “They sent me three beers you can’t get any­where else—a sour, a blond, and an Ok­to­ber­fest. You know, I met my wife over a pint of Guin­ness. I knew it was love when she or­dered it first.”

Right. His wife. That would be Lisa Bonet, for­mer child star of The Cosby Show, widely (and, trust me, cred­i­bly) con­sid­ered one of the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple alive, and whom I’d spot­ted walk­ing along the yard’s pe­riph­ery in a long, flow­ing skirt and cut­off T-shirt. The pair have been to­gether since 2004 when a mu­tual friend in­tro­duced them at a jazz club. But Mo­moa’s at­tach­ment to Bonet goes back fur­ther, to when he first saw her on TV at the age of 8. He re­mem­bers think­ing, “I’m go­ing to stalk you for the rest of your life, and I’m go­ing to get you,” he told James Cor­den on The Late Late Show last year.

I un­der­stand grand, pub­lic procla­ma­tions of love, I tell him, but what about their dayto-day re­la­tion­ship? Say, Tues­days.

“I get in trou­ble just like any other dumb fuck­ing male,” Mo­moa says. “We love each other, have an amaz­ing fam­ily to­gether, but a re­la­tion­ship is work.” He asks me how long I’ve been with my part­ner. Twelve years, I tell him. About the same for him, he says, and re­flects on how much a per­son can change over such a long pe­riod. “That poor woman met me when I was 26,” Mo­moa says. “I was a ma­niac. I wanted to do all of these things, but I didn’t have an out­let, so I would just de­stroy. She’s stuck with me through too many me’s.”

DE­SPITE HIS EX­OTIC LOOKS, Mo­moa spent his child­hood in Nor­walk, Iowa, a town of about 9,000 out­side of Des Moines. He was born in Hon­olulu, son of a Hawai­ian fa­ther and Mid­west­ern mother. But his par­ents split when Mo­moa was young, and his mom took him back to her home­town. “I grew up where ev­ery­one was a wrestler or foot­ball player, and I was the skate­boarder, an out­cast,” Mo­moa says. He spent sum­mers with his fa­ther on Oahu, but he was an out­sider there, as well. “I wasn’t re­ally ac­cepted as a Hawai­ian,” he says.

At 19, while work­ing at a surf shop in Hawaii and do­ing some mod­el­ing on the side, he went to an open cast­ing call for Bay­watch: Hawaii. He beat out more than 1,300 ac­tors for the part of pretty-boy life­guard Ja­son Ioane. Mo­moa spent two sea­sons on the show and fell in love with act­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, he learned that it’s tough to be taken se­ri­ously when your main co-star is a res­cue buoy. Un­able to get an agent or book a job in the early aughts, he put his Bay­watch cash to­ward other pas­sions: climb­ing, trav­el­ing around the world, mu­sic, paint­ing, Bud­dhism.

Mo­moa con­tin­ued to act, scor­ing a sup­port­ing role on the TV show Star­gate: At­lantis and the lead in the film re­make of Co­nan the Bar­bar­ian. But his big break came in 2011 when he was cast as the blood­thirsty Dothraki chieftain Khal Drogo in Sea­son 1 of HBO’S Game of Thrones. Dur­ing the au­di­tion, he per­formed a ver­sion of the haka, a howl­ing, foot-stamp­ing, arm-wav­ing Maori war dance; he later learned that had helped him land the part. (A Web search for “Ja­son Mo­moa GOT au­di­tion tape” would not be a waste of your time.) Khal Drogo was a stoic, mus­cle-bound, shirt­less war­lord whose lines were grunted in the gut­tural, fic­tional Dothraki tongue. Sadly, the Khal was bru­tally stabbed in episode eight, fell into a cata­tonic state in episode nine, and per­ished in episode 10—when his beloved wife, Daen­erys, mer­ci­fully smoth­ered him with a pil­low. De­spite his new­found no­to­ri­ety, Mo­moa again strug­gled to book jobs. “Peo­ple didn’t think I spoke English,” he told Jimmy Fal­lon on The Tonight Show.

So Mo­moa took his ca­reer into his own hands. He made his di­rec­to­rial de­but in 2014’s Road to Paloma, a low-bud­get thriller that he also co-wrote, pro­duced, and starred in, along­side Bonet. The movie saw mild box­of­fice suc­cess, but more im­por­tant, it fu­eled Mo­moa, con­vinc­ing him that he was good for more than rip­pling pecs and whoop­ing bat­tle cries. Soon after, he landed the lead role in Fron­tier, a Net­flix drama about the out­law fur trade in Canada in the 1700s; he has since writ­ten and di­rected sev­eral episodes him­self.

And now there’s the role that could make Mo­moa a house­hold name: Aqua­man. The big-bud­get su­per­hero film, a spin-off of last year’s A-lis­ter-packed Jus­tice League, is the first ma­jor mo­tion pic­ture the ac­tor has car­ried. He stars as Arthur Curry, a half-hu­man, half-at­lantean with the abil­ity to com­mand ma­rine life. DC Comics orig­i­nally drew the

“If I see some­thing I love, I want to learn ev­ery­thing about it. There are just so many things I want to do.”

su­per­hero as a lily-white blond in shel­lacke­don green tights and an or­ange blouse. Mo­moa is his an­tithe­sis—a brooder with wild, dark surfer hair and a bare, inked-up chest and limbs. “It’s prob­a­bly the char­ac­ter I’ve played that’s most like me,” Mo­moa says. “Like him, I grew up a huge out­sider. I was just with my mother, he was just with his fa­ther, and I know what that’s like, not hav­ing a par­ent around.”

His co-stars say that Mo­moa in­ter­preted the role with nu­ance and care. “Ja­son loves to defy his phys­i­cal per­sona. I ac­tu­ally think that’s his big­gest strength,” says Pa­trick Wil­son, who plays Arthur’s half-brother and archri­val, King Orm. “The script pushes Arthur, brings out charm and hu­mor while never sac­ri­fic­ing badassery.”

Mo­moa and Wil­son en­gage in some epic fight scenes, and Mo­moa came away im­pressed with the help he got from his stunt­men on-set. “I love those guys,” he says. “They bled for me.” He re­turned the fa­vor by f ly­ing sev­eral of them to Canada to play small roles in Fron­tier. He also landed a Fron­tier role for Te­muera Mor­ri­son, a New Zealand ac­tor Mo­moa has ad­mired since child­hood, who played the part of Aqua­man’s fa­ther at Mo­moa’s in­sis­tence.

“If I fall in love with you,” he says, “I put you in my pocket and I take you ev­ery­where.”

“I FEEL LIKE it’s time for a beer, any­body else feel that?” We’ve been shoot­ing 30 min­utes. Mo­moa’s Warner Bros. rep brings the ac­tor an IPA and a Guin­ness; he grabs the lat­ter.

As the photo shoot pro­gresses, Mo­moa has had his hands in ev­ery­thing. He in­structs on when and where the light will be best, and after a se­ries of shots, he hud­dles be­hind the cam­era to weigh in. He’s in­sisted on wear­ing his own clothes for some of the pho­tos: Carhartts, thick leather belts with tar­nished­metal buck­les, washed-out shirts with Swiss­cheese holes. He’s Djing the mu­sic, which spans gen­res, from bluesy-acous­tic coun­try to New Or­leans croon­ers to Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones.

Dur­ing a break, we get to talk­ing about some of his up­com­ing projects. First up is See, the Ap­ple-pro­duced se­ries Mo­moa has just signed on to, play­ing a tribal leader in a dystopian fu­ture in which all hu­mans are born blind. Though he’s again play­ing the heavy, Mo­moa says he’s ea­ger to stretch out—to a com­edy, maybe even a ro­mance. He’s work­ing on a script, a tragic Na­tive Amer­i­can love story with a Shake­spear­ian bent. It’ll be a low-bud­get ven­ture, with the crew camp­ing in his Airstreams. The irony of a block­buster ac­tion star pinch­ing pen­nies is not lost on him. “I’m not gonna blow up any­thing spe­cial. There’s no fuck­ing spe­cial ef­fects,” he says. “This is one of those films that’s just sit­ting by a fire telling sto­ries—and it’s a great story.”

We’re in­ter­rupted by the pho­tog­ra­pher, who is beck­on­ing us over to the boul­der­ing wall for some ac­tion shots. Test­ing a few routes, Mo­moa yells and whoops—“aha, you fucker!”—as he reaches for a higher grab. His style is all ex­plo­sion and speed. He bounces in his heels be­fore go­ing for a big move, like he’s coil­ing be­fore let­ting loose to as­cend up­ward.

Stand­ing be­side me is one of Mo­moa’s friends, Dan Chan­cel­lor, co-founder of the climb­ing com­pany So ILL; the two men are ac­tive in 1Climb, a non­profit started by climber Kevin Jorge­son that aims to bring the sport to un­der­priv­i­leged kids. I ask Chan­cel­lor how he rates the ac­tor’s skills on the wall. “I haven’t met a climber his size that’s as strong as he is. Ever,” Chan­cel­lor says. We watch as Mo­moa com­pletes one last route, then pol­ishes off an­other Guin­ness and chucks the can to the side.

Bonet walks down from the house to a hud­dle of peo­ple be­hind the cam­era, re­view­ing shots of Mo­moa pos­ing in the cou­ple’s green­house, where they grow squash, egg­plants, car­rots, basil, kale, arugula, and col­lard greens. Bonet looks in closely at one shot, an im­age of Mo­moa hunched over a clump of car­rots, a slight pudge stick­ing out at his waist. She laughs and clucks, “Uhoh—look at that gut.” Mo­moa bel­lows back, “Baby, do not shame my stom­ach!” and slaps her back­side. “I told you I’m gonna go Brando on your ass.”

The shoot is all but wrapped, the crew pack­ing up. Mo­moa walks over. “Good luck, Mama,” he says, giv­ing me a tight hug good­bye. I look down at his arms and re­mem­ber I have one last ques­tion. Mo­moa is fa­mous for his tat­toos: He has his chil­dren’s names, in their own hand­writ­ing, on his chest; the name of his pro­duc­tion com­pany, Pride of Gyp­sies, is writ­ten out on his in­ner right fore­arm; a thick band of tri­an­gles, said to sym­bol­ize the teeth of a shark, his Hawai­ian fam­ily’s guardian an­i­mal, runs up his left fore­arm. Like ev­ery ob­ject in this com­pound, the tat­toos weren’t whims. They re­ally mean some­thing to him. But there’s an al­most il­leg­i­ble scrawl on the out­side of his right fore­arm, writ­ten in French, that I’ve been star­ing at all af­ter­noon. What does it say?

“That’s a Charles Baude­laire quote,” Mo­moa replies. “It’s from my fa­vorite poem. It means ‘Al­ways be drunken’—with wine, with po­etry, with virtue.”

“If I fall in love with you, I put you in my pocket and I take you ev­ery­where.”

Clown­ing with (from left) wife Lisa Bonet, son Nakoa-wolf, and daugh­ter Lola.

As Khal Drogo, with Emilia Clarke, in Game of Thrones; star­ring as Aqua­man.

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