Jason Momoa is King of the Wild Things
Jason Momoa did not steal the dog. He wants to make that absolutely clear. He’s just borrowing him for a little while. Sure, yesterday he walked off the set of his new Apple TV+ show, See, with the slobbery German shepherd puppy who plays one of a scrappy pack, and sure, he brought the puppy back to his Vancouver hotel suite to cuddle with him in bed for eight hours, and sure, he immediately renamed him Rama, which was the name of a dog once belonging to his wife, Lisa Bonet, but this is all just a temporary arrangement.
That is, unless his wife says he can keep him. (The nostalgic name was no accident, you see.) Bonet, whom Momoa has been with for fourteen years and officially married in 2017, rules the roost. What she says goes. This is why, he tells me as we sit under an umbrella on the patio of his room at L’Hermitage on a recent sunny August afternoon, drinking ice-cold tallboys. Bonet’s section of their house in Topanga, on a sprawling five-acre ranch where she does yoga, is the nice part, while his man cave (yes, he uses the term “man cave” a lot, as in “I feel like Tom Waits and Neil Young might stay the night in my man cave”) is . . . the less nice part.
“Goddesses belong up there,” he says, holding one hand high above his head. Then, lowering it to the ground: “Dirtbags down here.” He has to be delicate about how he plays this. He already has two dogs at home—both half malamute, half wolf—as well as two kids under thirteen plus a donkey that he bought Bonet as a gift. This is already a large menagerie to manage.
And though Momoa tries to spend as much time at home as he can these days—he tries never to be out of town for more than a month, he really does—his filming schedule is jam-packed for the next three years. It won’t be him taking on the feeding and brushing and cleaning up after a new mutt, and he knows it. So he has some convincing to do.
He began his campaign by introducing Rama to his children, Lola, twelve, and Wolf, ten, over FaceTime first thing in the morning. Of course they went nuts over the dog—a crucial chess move in the adoption process—but they don’t have the final say in the matter.
“It’s up to Mama,” Momoa says in a baby voice, looking tenderly into Rama’s big, wet eyes. “Mama is the boss—everyone knows that.”
Rama yawns and lets his tongue tumble out of the side of his mouth, a dippy, derpy gesture that shows me he doesn’t quite understand the stakes of this situation. Play your cards right, I want to tell him, and you could be Aquaman’s dog. Don’t screw this up. Then Rama walks over to the side of the deck, squats next to a planter, and proceeds to take a long, dramatic dump.
A gleeful smile appears across Momoa’s face as he starts to applaud. His claps sound like thunder. This grown man—who’s forty, and a dad, and the lead in a major entertainment franchise—is getting pure, ecstatic joy from Rama’s fecal theatrics.
“I’m not, like, an old soul,” he says. “I’m a young puppy.” He turns his attention back to the dog. “All right, buddy!” he hoots, bursting with pride. “Good boy! And the smell following right behind. This interview smells like s**t!”
He’s wearing a slouchy T-shirt with an illustration of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea on the front, dirty pink flip-flops, a ratty pink velvet scrunchie holding back his sun-streaked mane, and a pair of black-and-gray-striped “boardshort pants” that he designed himself for his new label, called Aloha J.
He got the name for the surfwear line (which is coming soon, he swears) from the regular sign-off he delivers to his 13.4 million Instagram followers; he trademarked the phrase in May.
Momoa—who posts under the handle @prideofgypsies, which was also the name of a filmmaking collective he started with a few friends back in 2010—is an avid, almost obsessive poster of Instagram Stories. He is constantly filming himself, whether he’s climbing his in-home rock wall, doing a table read, or head-butting the camera. His face—weathered and bearded, with cheekbones like ax blades and eyes the iridescent green of a katydid—looks menacing in movies but softens on a phone screen.
The scar that slashes through his left eyebrow, the result of getting hit in the face by a pint glass during a Hollywood bar brawl in 2008, looks less like a grisly battle trophy close-up and more like an alluring quirk. Momoa uses social media not to reinforce his reputation as an actor but to subtly undercut it; he’s not the scary Dothraki king from Game of Thrones who ripped out a man’s tongue with his bare hands. He’s just a dude who takes bubble baths and razzes his friends and snuggles random dogs. The only part of his life that Momoa says he won’t put online is his relationship with Bonet.
“She’s very, very, very private,” he says. “I’m the opposite, like, Come on in!”
The day before we met, Momoa invited his followers inside a broken elevator between the fifth and sixth floors of L’Hermitage, where he, Rama, and several friends were stuck for two hours before the fire department arrived. Momoa live-streamed the whole thing, chronicling the increasing absurdity of this six-foot-four, 240-pound man trapped in a six-by-six-foot box with a clumsy dog and no easy way out. At one point, he attempted to play action hero by ripping off the ceiling panels, only to find there was a second ceiling above them. In the end, the fire department lowered a ladder into the shaft, and Momoa climbed it, with Rama in his massive arms. It’s just the sort of thing you do for your bro, you know?
After I tell him that he has to keep Rama now, that they are meant to be together after surviving that ordeal, he gives me a mischievous nod. He’s already instructed the dog’s trainer, Tony Nikl, to teach Rama a few Momoa-specific tricks.
When Rama hears the word paparazzi, he growls.
When Rama hears the word ‘shaka’, a Hawaiian surfing hand gesture that roughly means “hang loose,”
he shakes. If you want Rama to cock his head sweetly and stare at you like you are a god? All you have to say is “Guinness.” Rama is still working on that one.
Momoa is in Vancouver to finish filming See, created by Steven Knight, who wrote Eastern Promises, and directed by Francis Lawrence, who helmed the Hunger Games sequels. The dystopian drama, about a future world in which everyone is blind, is one of the first series for Apple’s new platform, Apple TV+.
And the company has bet big on Momoa by casting him as the lead. Though he’s already carried a successful superhero franchise—Aquaman
is to date the highest-grossing film based on a single DC character—See marks Momoa’s first time shouldering a television series. As a show of confidence, Apple reportedly spent somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million on the pilot alone.
“It is the biggest pilot that was ever shot,” he says in a near whisper, a proud smirk appearing at one corner of his mouth. This is debatable, but it speaks to his sense of pride in the project.
It occurs to Momoa that perhaps it’s something he should not have mentioned. Apple likes to keep these things tight.
“But let’s be honest: People leak s**t,” he sighs. “Like, don’t f***ing tell me, because I’ll say something. That’s why I’m not the best at interviews, because I start saying s**t I’m not supposed to say.”
He jokes that he can’t even keep his own kids’ secrets, and that they know not to come to him to divulge their misdeeds.
“I’d tell Mum right away,” he says, laughing. “I’m not going to get busted over your s**t.” Still, he has managed to keep the conversation about See spoiler-free.
When I visited the show’s set the morning before I met Momoa—while he was bonding with Rama back at the hotel, as evidenced on Instagram—I saw why he and Apple want to keep the series so under wraps. The company has poured a phenomenal amount of money and effort into the production.
I walked through an abandoned mental asylum that had been converted into a derelict school for the show, and I saw an enormous pool that was drained and artfully distressed and filled with broken tiles and debris. The overall effect was so creepy that I felt my limbs go cold. Another room had become a cavernous, dark library full of dusty books, which set designers had aged and decayed to appear hundreds of years old.
In the world of See, a devastating illness wiped out most of humanity centuries ago. The earth has begun to renew itself; plants now thrive, green and feral, vining through the foundations of old buildings. The few humans left in this verdant paradise have gone blind. They live in small clans and communicate by sound and touch. Momoa plays Baba Voss, the patriarch of an indigenous tribe on an isolated mountaintop. He wears animal pelts and carries around a walking stick and a samurai sword forged from steel, which future humans call “God bone.”
When a pregnant woman wanders into his village and gives birth to two infants who can magically see, Baba Voss takes them under his wing and leads his followers on a migration across the plains.
This is Momoa as we haven’t seen him before—as a sensitive husband and father, yes, but also as a blind person, one he plays with extreme specificity and reverence for those with the condition. He worked closely with a blindness coordinator, Joe Strechay (who, oddly enough, looks like a mini Momoa, which became his nickname on set), to make sure not only that he was respectful of the visually impaired but also that every move was an accurate reflection of them. Blind people are so rarely portrayed well onscreen, according to Strechay, who is blind.
“In some shows, they might go up to a person and start feeling their face,” he says. “That’s a very, very intimate thing. We don’t do it often, if we do it at all.”
Momoa wore sleep shades for a couple weeks in order to properly experience being blind. “It’s just amazing how everything else just opens up your body,” he says of wearing the blindfold. “You’re so fooled by your eyes. You cut off all these other senses but just feel and smell and hear, and you can echolocate.” It was Momoa who helped bring some echolocation details into the show; he suggested that his character might navigate by splashing through water and listening to the current.
Momoa invites me to the See wrap party at the Parlour, a ritzy pizza place nearby. He has rented out the back room for the cast and crew, and he says I am welcome to tag along and watch him “turn up.” We ride the elevator down— it has been fixed, thank goodness—and pile into a black Suburban with a few of his friends. He has changed into jeans and a T-shirt that says harley davidson museum on it. He still has the pink velvet scrunchie in his hair; he tells me it’s the same one he brought to Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi as an inspiration for the custom suit he wore to last year’s Oscars.
During the ten-minute drive to the industrial, gentrified waterfront neighbourhood Yaletown, he plays gregarious tour guide. This is not the first time Momoa has shot in Vancouver, though the last time he stayed in the city, his life was entirely different. He was twenty-seven and living in a dingy studio apartment down a back alley. He was a regular on Stargate Atlantis, a Sci Fi Channel potboiler about a military team that explores the galaxy. He appeared in seventy-eight episodes. He didn’t love the work, he admits, but it was a steady gig, and it became for him a sort of ad hoc film school.
“It was where I learned how to shoot, how to write, how to do it all. We made twenty-two episodes in nine months. Day in, day out. The machine.”
He was splitting his time between Vancouver and Los Angeles, where he was living with his dream girl. Those are his words, and he wants me to know he means it when he says dream girl. Lisa Bonet was not just a woman he’d met randomly one night at a jazz club in L. A. She was “literally my childhood crush,” he says, blushing. When Momoa blushes, a pink hue spreads quickly over his bearded face, like a tropical sunset.
“I mean, I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t let her know I was a stalker until after we had the kids.”
Momoa was in Canada, he says as we pull up to the restaurant, which happens to be across the street from his old apartment, when he almost missed the birth of his first child because he was asleep. He regales the carpool with the tale.
“It was the hottest day, July 20,” he says, pointing at the second loor of the shabby brown building where he lived at the time. Bonet’s water broke early, so he was not expecting to hear from her.
“There was no air-conditioning in these places, so I was sleeping in the front window. I missed about seventy calls. And I woke up and freaked the f**k out.”
He is really getting into the story now from the front seat of the Suburban.
“So I call the Stargate office, and the badass producer is there, and he’s like, ‘Jason, get in the f***ing car, get to the f***ing airport!’ So there’s one seat left on the f***ing back of the plane . . . and I tell the lady, ‘Listen, I’m having a baby—make sure everyone sits down so I can get off the plane first.’ ”
At this point, Momoa is out of the car, acting out the scene on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
“So I come barreling out of the terminal, like the Predator, like, ‘GET OUT OF THE WAY!’ ” As he says this last bit, he booms his voice out of his chest with such a rumbling baritone that it scares some children walking past. He pauses at the Parlour’s host stand to stick his nose into a big bouquet of flowers (“I’m Hawaiian, I can’t help it”), then launches back into the story.
“I’m running through the airport, and I get in the car. I go, like, ‘Dude, I don’t care, run all the lights . . . I’ll pay for everything.’ And I made it in the nick of time. I had about two hours with her in the tub, and my baby girl was born. Oh, and this is the best part! Benjamin Bratt was on the plane! He was in first class. And when I ran past him, I’m like, Oh, s**t, Benjamin Bratt! And he was like, ‘Go, go, go.’ ”
Benjamin Bratt is an actor perhaps best known for playing a detective on Law & Order. Not galactically famous, but Momoa was starstruck—and he still seems to be. As I learned throughout the day, he speaks reverentially about nearly every actor who is not himself. He almost has something of a complex about it. Several times during our conversation, he referred to himself as “more of a stuntman” than an actor.
Perhaps that’s because he fell backward into the profession. His first-ever role was on Baywatch Hawaii, which he auditioned for on a whim when he was twenty, beating out a thousand other candidates for the part. Momoa’s life until then had been full of wanderlust: born in Hawaii; grew up in Iowa after his parents divorced when he was an infant; lived for a while in Colorado, where he logged some time as a snowboard bum; moved back to Hawaii, where he worked at a surf shop and helped “tow in the big waves” for his father’s family, a bona fide local surf dynasty.
Playing a smoldering, coconut-oil-coated lifeguard lit a spark, Momoa says, but it went unrequited.
“I fell in love with the art of acting. But no one took me seriously. Baywatch isn’t known for its . . . quality of acting. I couldn’t get an agent to save my life.”
So he moved to Los Angeles, in the most Momoa-esque of ways: He bought an Airstream, let his long hair thicken into dreadlocks, and wandered some more—“I did the whole vagabonding around,” as he puts in. In California, he lived in a trailer and worked as a bouncer until he got a part in a Lifetime movie, which led to four years of delivering lines about interplanetary lasers on Stargate. It was a winding path, with several pockets of self-doubt. But his willingness to take opportunities as they came eventually paid off, and not just with his career. “If someone says something isn’t possible,” Momoa says, “I’m like, ‘Listen here, I married Lisa Bonet. Anything is f***ing possible.’ ”
At the pizza place, which is busy with a well-heeled happy-hour crowd, Momoa leads the group to a private room in the back that features low lighting, caramel leather banquette seating, and its own bar. The space has started to fill up with the See crew: hairstylists, costume designers, Momoa’s stunt double, Momoa’s sword-fighting coach.
Even as he orders a round of drinks for everyone in his line of vision, all these people who have their jobs because he agreed to star on a series, he continues to be hard on himself. “I’m not known for my acting,” he says. “I’m known for action. I don’t say a lot of things or use big sentences.” And then, adding air quotes, he says, “I’m not ‘very smart.’ ”
At first, I take his modesty as a kind of aw-shucks bit. Sure, he’s known his share of flops—see: the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian—and he spent most of his twenties hustling his way into unremarkable roles, but his star has been on an inexorable rise ever since he landed, at thirty-one, a major part on the biggest prestige show of its generation. Then again, by his own admission, his role on Game of Thrones—Khal Drogo—didn’t exactly showcase the actor’s full range. “I mean, where do you put Drogo? He’s not going in a rom-com. No one even knew I spoke English.”
This constant self-abasement almost makes me want to hug him, especially once I remember something he said earlier that day, on his patio: “I think of Brad Pitt as a movie star. You know what I mean? Like George Clooney is a movie star. Those guys are like, boom.” He just worked with Timothée Chalamet on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, coming out in December 2020.
“I would never be able to handle what he does,” Momoa said, reflecting on how his career had a slower burn. “He’s so f***ing talented, man. I don’t know. I’m a little dumber, needed some time. Which is probably the best for me, because it would have been bad if it happened when I was younger. I just would have f***ed it all up.”
Momoa didn’t become famous until his thirties, and he often appears to be making up for lost time. He always seems to have his hands in something on the side, cooking up a little extra business, milking whatever opportunities he can. He loves to trademark things. (Remember that Aloha J clothing line?) He is manically entrepreneurial; he seems to start a company every other week. At the moment, the list of products he is making or investing in includes but is not limited to: nylon surf pants, pink rock-climbing shoes, rock-climbing chalk bags, oversize camping backpacks, handcrafted knives, fine leather bags made from old mule straps, and reusable water bottles. While we were sitting on the deck during our interview, he ran inside to his room to grab two different bag prototypes he is developing. He plopped them at my feet like an eager door-to-door salesman.
“It can become a tote or for water sports or surfing,” he tells me, showing off the expandable pink bag. “Just put s**t in there and just throw it over your back.”
Momoa actively takes an “all boats rise” approach to celebrity, at least for the men in his life. If he’s winning, then so are his friends. Take Mada Abdelhamid, his current right-hand man (aka his travel companion/tech support/new dogsitter). The two met when Abdelhamid, who is bald and Egyptian and jacked and even taller than Momoa, became his personal trainer. After the former professional wrestler got Momoa’s abs in rippling shape for Aquaman, he just sort of . . . stayed on, indefinitely, maybe forever. This tends to happen around Momoa; he collects people and puts them on the payroll. “My original trainer, before Mada, is now one of my producing partners,” he says.
“Everyone just kind of moves up.” Momoa is squeezing as much out of stardom as he can, inviting everybody he likes to pull up to the feast.
It dawns on me that on the HBO show Entourage, a movie star surrounds himself with a gang of yes-men as he prepares to play Aquaman, and now the real-life star of Aquaman constantly hangs with a bevy of dudes who high-five him and keep his fridge stocked with ice-cold cans. When I bring up the parallels, Abdelhamid says that they laugh about this all the time. But unlike Entourage’s Vince, who was a toxic bachelor, Momoa often takes his children on the road, and he invites all his friends to do the same. The gang, Abdelhamid estimates, can sometimes swell to thirty.
Momoa wants his kids to have a lot of access to his life, to understand what their father does all day. “They got raised on the Justice League set,” he says. “Running around with the Batmobile . . . wearing the tiara from Wonder Woman.” But he also wants Wolf and Lola to develop a respect for the world outside the sparkly arena of a film set, so he has been teaching them how to openly agitate against climate change and to fight for environmental protections.
Earlier this year, he and his children stood with the indigenous people of the Big Island as part of a peaceful protest against the building of a new telescope on top of Mauna Kea, a volcano that many Polynesians consider to be a sacred site. Momoa highlighted the cause on Instagram, which led several of his friends, including Dwayne Johnson, to add their voices to the effort.
Of all of Momoa’s side hustles, his environmental activism may be the most noble, and also the most sincere. When he was young, he tells me, what he really wanted to be was a marine biologist. Over two spring breaks in high school, he traveled from Iowa to Florida to study the dying coral reefs. He says that as a Hawaiian who visited the islands a lot as a child, he has an inherent understanding of the devastation humans are wreaking on the planet.
“Everyone just has no idea what you get to see firsthand when you live on an island,” he says. “All the s**t and garbage that rolls up. The rising of the tides.”
Lately, Momoa’s most ardent cause has been eliminating plastic waste. He has seen too much marine life choking on old bottle caps, and he aims to do his part to stop it. This year, he’s launching a line of canned water called Mananalu that he hopes will raise awareness about the amount of plastic in the oceans. If there’s one thing Momoa really hates, it’s disposable water bottles. I saw his contempt up close, when we were standing outside the Parlour. He crouched down to pick up a discarded water bottle from the curb, crushed it in his hands like a bug, and chucked it into the trash can in disgust. “This f***ing thing,” he mumbled.
One of the reasons he was so excited to play Aquaman, he tells me, is that the character is the rare superhero who fights for the oceans. He was so enraptured by the idea, he says, that he signed on to appear in multiple films without realizing how long he would be locked into playing the eco-warrior. “I signed that, what, five years ago? And they’re like, ‘You’re not doing anything? We’re going to make you sign a four-picture deal,’ ” he sighs. “Like, you’re going to do all of those and they get you. You know what I mean?”
Next year, when Momoa starts filming the Aquaman sequel, he will be able to bring even more of his ideas to the role. He’ll be working more actively with the creative team in the development of the project. “I came in with a big pitch,” he says. “I came in with the whole thing mapped out, and they loved it.”
Though he’s busier than ever—he’s booked solid with jobs through 2022—he still tries to make time for the hobbies he had before he was a big name. He’s been rock climbing since he was fourteen and says it’s the one activity that truly centres him.
It’s also how he keeps his superhero physique. He installed a rock- climbing wall in his house, and he is teaching Lola and Wolf to belay. One of the first times he hung out with his stepdaughter, Zoë Kravitz, Bonet’s daughter with the rock musician Lenny Kravitz, he took her and Bonet climbing. She was a teenager at the time. He figured it would be a nice metaphor; he wanted to show her that he wasn’t going anywhere, that he would be there for her at the end of her rope.
At forty, Momoa is really pushing himself, adding as many hyphenates to his name as possible. He’s trying to do all the things: end plastic pollution and prove his acting chops and protest mega-telescopes and hire all his friends and be a good dad and a good husband and an action star and a filmmaker and an entrepreneur and a rock climber and a conscientious citizen of the earth.
So he laughs at poop and has a man cave full of leather and rare guitars and custom-made knives and Edison bulbs and heavy-metal records. So he drinks a few pints and starts bear-hugging everyone at the bar, a Falstaffian party boy dominating the room. So he stocks his house with “toys,” including several motorcycles, seven Airstreams, and a pink 1955 Cadillac. He’s fully, giddily enjoying the perks of being Jason Momoa, and he’s doing it right now, because he knows what it feels like to be on a hot streak after several years out in the cold. So he borrowed an adorable dog from a set and let him sleep next to him under the covers, but just temporarily.
(That is, until he speaks to his wife.) And really, wouldn’t you, given the chance, do the same?
At one point, he asks me to stand up so we can compare heights—he has a full foot and a half on me, which he finds hilarious. He rests his elbow on the crown of my head for effect. I meet his regular stunt double, Kim Fardy, who looks like a lumberjack in a plaid flannel shirt. As we’re talking, Momoa leans over and says to me, “Tell him he’s a f***ing a**hole,” and then, in the same breath, “No, tell him he’s the godfather of my children.”
It’s unclear if either statement is true. As I leave the party, I see Momoa sling his arm lovingly around Fardy. I can’t tell if he’s going in for
a warm embrace or angling for a noogie.