It’s fitting that Jason Momoa is catapulting to international stardom in a movie titled “Aquaman.”
Like the comic book superhero he portrays in the Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe blockbuster that opens here Friday, the Hawaii-born actor is a true waterman who learned the ways of the ocean from his ohana and a close-knit network of mentors.
Also like his half-human, big-screen alter ego, Momoa, 39, is a product of two distinct and vastly different cultures.
Momoa’s mother, Coni, is from Norwalk, Iowa, and his father, Joseph, from Nanakuli. The couple separated when Momoa was an infant, and he was raised by his mom in her home state and spent his summers in Hawaii starting at age 12.
“I was born in Hawaii. I’m basically from Waianae, Nanakuli, the west side, Makaha, you know what I mean? My dad grew up in a Quonset hut on Hakimo Road,” said Momoa in a phone interview from New York. “I would spend my summers there and it was very, very different growing up in Nanakuli, which is beautiful, with the most loving family, with all my cousins there, because there’s not too many white people down there. But my mom made it over there in the ’70s and met an amazing Hawaiian family and had me.
JASON MOMOA CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
>> “Aquaman” (2018): Title role in Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe film series.
>> “Frontier” (2016-2018): Starring role as 18th-century outlaw fur trapper Declan Harp in Netflix series.
>> “Justice League” (2017): Co-stars as Arthur Curry/Aquaman alongside Batman, Wonder Woman and other DC superheroes.
>> “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016): Audiences catch first glimpse of Momoa as Aquaman.
>> “The Red Road” (2014-2015): Co-stars as Native American drug dealer Phillip Kopus in Sundance TV series.
>> “Road to Paloma” (2012): Co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in film about a Native American on the run after avenging his mother’s death.
>> “Game of Thrones” (2011-2012): Major role as tribal warlord Khal Drogo in HBO series.
>> “Conan the Barbarian” (2011): Remake of 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
>> “Stargate: Atlantis” (2005-2009): Played dreadlocked alien Ronon Dex in Sci-Fi Channel series.
>> “North Shore” (2004-2005): Role as bartender Frankie Seau in Fox TV drama shot in Hawaii.
>> “Baywatch: Hawaii” (1999-2001): Role as lifeguard Jason Ioane in Hawaii-filmed syndicated series.
“That marriage never made it but she came home to a very, very white family in a place called Iowa, where it is awesome.
“I love the Midwest, and it’s the same people (as in Hawaii) — people who don’t want to leave their land, who are very content where they’re at. They take great pride in being farmers. It’s the same thing; it’s people who love being where they’re from, but there’s just not a lot of diversity,” he said.
“And with no diversity you definitely have a singular view of what the world is and you’re not accepting of what it’s like somewhere else … so I can understand what it’s like to be from two different worlds.”
Momoa’s “Aquaman” follows on the barefoot heels of Disney’s 2016 animated hit “Moana,” which offered moviegoers a more authentic picture of Polynesian culture and lore while propelling its lead characters, Moana (voiced by Mililani teen Auli‘i Cravalho) and the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, who is part Samoan), into mainstream pop culture.
As with the “Moana” protagonists, Momoa’s likeness is showing up on everything from action-toy figures, Halloween costumes and Hallmark ornaments to a newly unveiled wax figure at the Madame Tussaud’s attraction in Orlando, Fla.
That two of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars — Johnson and now Momoa — are of Polynesian descent is not lost on the Hawaii actor. In Momoa’s case, he is redefining for newer generations an established comic book character who first appeared in the 1940s as a wholesome, blond Caucasian.
Momoa’s scruffy, muscle-bound version is wrapped in traditional-style tattoos inspired by the actor’s own mano, or sharktooth, markings. The movie, directed by James Wan, provides other flashes of Momoa’s Polynesian heritage, especially in Arthur Curry/Aquaman’s interactions with his father, portrayed by Maori actor Temuera Morrison.
The 6-foot-4 Momoa, who lives in Topanga, Calif., with his wife, actress Lisa Bonet (called “Lilikoi” by her Hawaii ohana), and their two children, Lola, 11, and Nakoa-Wolf, 10, said he is embracing his role as a “brown superhero.”
“It’s going to be 2019 here in a second, and we’ve never had one,” he said. “I think it’s just kinda cool for anywhere — from Malaysia to Singapore to China to Japan to South America, Chile, Mexico — there’s some brown skins out there and there’s mixed race, and I cannot believe that I’m going to be representing something on such a high level in such a large movie, and it’s an honor.”
WATERMEN AS MENTORS
Momoa’s own role models were part of his extended family comprising some of Hawaii’s top watermen and surfers, including the famed Keaulana clan. One of the first participants in Oahu’s Junior Lifeguard program, Momoa recalls meeting Sonny Garcia, Kelly Slater and his other surfing heroes during his summer visits.
“From a tadpole to Aquaman, that’s Jason,” said Makaha’s Brian Keaulana, 57, who enjoys a career as an in-demand stuntman and second-unit director.
“He was bred for that part. That’s the whole thing, his whole upbringing to where he’s at now. And it’s not just the film, it’s the man himself, with his wife and ohana. When you talk about being rich, it’s not just rich in money, it’s rich in the family values that we share. That’s why we all live west side; the way we’ve been brought up with ‘village values’ — it takes a village to raise a child.”
Those who knew him from his summers here say they are not surprised by his success. Many of them encouraged the handsome, genial Momoa to pursue modeling and acting after he moved back to Hawaii as a young man.
“You knew when he started with the movies he was destined for it all. He’s just a natural,” said Titus Kinimaka, 65, who Momoa named as another of his influences. “When you give him a hat to wear, he becomes that person. He knows how to play the role.
“He’s actually a real big teddy bear. He’s just the most awesome guy to hang around with. Everyone in Hawaii just loves him so much. We’re so proud of him.”
Kinimaka, who owns a surfing school in Hanalei, said, “He spent a lot of time in the water here in Hawaii. He developed into a pretty substantial waterman.” He’s also a skilled rock climber.
Keaulana said Momoa “always excelled no matter what he did: acting, swimming, even training.” He said he encouraged Momoa to take a free-diving course to prepare for his role in “Aquaman.” Afterward, the instructor told Keaulana, “Wow, this guy’s not acting.”
“His father is a great waterman himself. He sails canoes, paddles, surfs, hydrofoils — he was just out this morning,” Keaulana said last week.
LEARNING TO BE HAWAIIAN
Joseph Momoa, 63, still lives in Nanakuli, working with students at Ka Waihona o Ka Na‘auao Public Charter School in Waianae and running sailing canoe tours with Hawaiian Ocean Adventures at Disney’s Aulani resort in Ko Olina. A modest, soft-spoken man, the elder Momoa said he’s never before commented publicly about his famous offspring.
Joseph Momoa said he visited Iowa when Jason was a boy, and even stayed for extended periods “to see if I can handle it, but it’s very hard for a Hawaiian guy. I explained to him when he got older that it’s hard for a Hawaii boy to go up there on the mainland, you get so homesick.
“His mom is awesome. I’m so proud of her hanging strong and teaching him things you don’t learn much about here in Hawaii,” he said.
In Iowa, Momoa also learned he was Native American on his mother’s side, as well as German and Irish.
“My son has both Indian and Polynesian bloodlines. Hoo-hoo!” his father beamed.
When the younger Momoa, an only child, finally got to meet his Hawaiian family at age 12, “he was stoked,” his father said.
“‘Dad, this belongs to me?’ Yeah, you’re Hawaiian, this is your home, this is where you were born.
“I think it’s almost the story of Aquaman. When his mom has to leave him and jumps back in the water, that’s me, I have to leave my son. Oh my god, that’s a flashback.”
As much as his teenage son wanted to live and attend school in Hawaii, Joseph Momoa said he pushed him to get an education on the mainland and take advantage of other opportunities that might not be available to him in Hawaii.
“I told him, you need to go and gain all this knowledge, and when you graduate you can come back here any time you want. Hawaii is always here. This is a place to rest, a place to gather your mind.”
During the summers that followed, “he learned how to be Hawaiian,” Joseph Momoa said.
“Throughout his life I taught him what aloha means, how to … never be higher than anyone else. It’s a simple thing I could teach him but he took it with him. I told him the cameraman, the grip man, chefs, the people that clean your rooms, these are the true people, so you need to stay near them and give them the time of day and respect, and trust me, everything will come good.”
He also learned from his father and mentors to love the ocean and the importance of honing his water skills. Those lessons stuck, the actor said, and fueled his interest in his Pacific heritage and the environment.
“Even when I was a kid in Iowa I took marine biology courses so I could do that as a profession, that was my passion for the ocean. I think that’s just from being Hawaiian,” Momoa said.
At age 19, after launching a modeling career here, Momoa was cast in the syndicated TV series “Baywatch Hawaii.” Other TV and movie roles followed. Before his current star turn as Aquaman, Momoa was best known as the ruthless tribal warlord Khal Drogo in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
With his movie career now in full swing, Momoa said he isn’t able to visit family and friends on Oahu and Kauai as often as he’d like. But when he does, “Ho, first thing is go Zippy’s. That’s tradition, that is 100 percent tradition,” he said, emphatically.
And when he’s on the west side, it’s grind time at Hannara Restaurant.
“Every time he pops over here, he calls and says, ‘Hey, cuz, we go eat breakfast,’” Keaulana said. “He orders half the menu. But the great thing is that our community is super respectful. They really give you your space. They’ll wait until you’re finished eating before they come over and introduce themselves.
“It’s different down this side. Everybody has a lot more aloha.”
FOLLOWING UP A HIT
With “Aquaman” scoring $179 million so far at the overseas box office, Warner Bros. is already talking about a sequel. In the meantime, Momoa remains busy with other projects, including his starring role as 18th-century outlaw fur trader Declan Harp in the Netflix action series “Frontier,” which released its third season Nov. 23.
Momoa will play another fearless warrior, Baba Voss, in Apple’s new sci-fi series “See” that has started filming in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was announced to star in the movie adaptation of the “Just Cause” video game.
Another of his movie projects has a working title of “The Last Manhunt,” which Momoa described as “a Native American Romeo and Juliet story” set in 1908. The film features Kinimaka’s daughter, 21-year-old surfer and model Mainei Kinimaka.
Momoa said he is hoping to parlay “Aquaman’s” box-office success into backing for his passion projects. For the last six or seven years, the actor has been working on a script with writing partner Thomas Pa‘a Sibbett about Hawaiian outlaw folk hero Koolau, a paniolo and expert marksman who contracted leprosy, and his devoted wife Piilani.
In defiance of a government order banishing leprosy patients to the remote Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai, the couple fled to Kalalau Valley on Kauai. When troops were sent to capture him, Koolau killed a deputy sheriff and two soldiers. After he died, Piilani buried her husband in secret before leaving the valley.
“The focus is on Piilani,” Momoa said. “It’s finished, I just need ‘Aquaman’ to be a big success to make something like this because it deals with the woman’s story, it’s a period piece, it deals with leprosy, what’s going on with our government, it deals with the overthrow of the kingdom.
“There’s a lot of things that are against us to raise the money to make something like that happen, so I need ‘Aquaman’ to get to that level” of blockbuster success.
“Aquaman” can most certainly expect a rousing welcome from local fans. Momoa has never been shy about sharing his Polynesian roots. He opened his Dec. 8 hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” with an exuberant “alooooha!” and broke into a Maori haka war chant on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere of his new movie Thursday.
Momoa said he is planning a private screening of “Aquaman” with family and friends in Hawaii this week.
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