“Aloooooooha!” boomed Jason Momoa over the phone from New York, where he was in the middle of a press tour for his sure-fire blockbuster “Aquaman,” which opens in Hawaii .
The Hawaii-born actor launched his career almost 20 years ago cavorting in the surf as a hunky lifeguard in the syndicated TV series “Baywatch Hawaii” and is returning to the sea for his biggest role yet. And he’s given the titular superhero, portrayed in the DC comic books as a decidedly blond Caucasian dude in a skintight green and yellow bodysuit, a distinctly Polynesian vibe.
The traditional-style tattoos that cover most of Aquaman’s muscular build were inspired by the sharktooth tattoos on Momoa’s left forearm. The 39-year-old actor said it took two hours per sitting to apply the markings.
The half-human, half-Atlantean character he plays also is seen exchanging a “ha” greeting with his father (New Zealand’s Temuera Morrison), who later scolds him for not practicing his grandfather’s chant. And in separate action sequences, Aquaman utters a Maori battle cry before striking the deciding spear thrusts.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss them nods to Momoa’s Pacific Islander heritage — his father is Hawaiian — will elude most moviegoers but will surely delight local audiences in the know.
Momoa said the Polynesian moments in the film were improvised. Zack Snyder, who helmed the first films in the DC Extended Universe starting with “Man of Steel,” and was originally on board to direct “Aquaman,” encouraged the connection.
James Wan (“Insidious,” “The Conjuring,” “Furious 7”), who was brought on by Warner Bros. to replace Snyder and rework the “Aquaman” script, giving it a lighter tone than its predecessors, was also supportive.
“What Zack originally started with was wanting to have a bit of the Polynesian flavor of the tattoos that I originally had and wanting to have his father from that area, being a lighthouse keeper,” Momoa said. “I felt like it was important to put in there and I feel like James respected my choices … .
“We don’t have a lot of time in the movie to get into all the details of why he is the way he is and why he’s tattooed in those ways, even though we had done all the research,” Momoa said. “It may not appear in the movie, but we needed to make sure we had little hints of that flavor.”
ANOTHER POLYNESIAN touch is the New Zealand jade adze pendant Aquaman wears. Momoa’s wife, actress Lisa Bonet, had it made for him on Kauai.
“It has a lot of mana in it that I wanted to use,” he said.
The couple live in Topanga, Calif, with their two children, Lola, 11, and Nakoa-Wolf, 10.
“I used one in ‘Justice League,’ too,” Momoa said. “That was from an earlier time in my life. This one was from the love of my life — and we put it in the movie.”
Before his current role, the 6-foot-4 Momoa was best known as tribal warlord Khal Drogo on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” a role for which he famously auditioned by performing a fearsome Maori haka.
Audiences caught their first brief glimpse of his Aquaman in a cameo at the end of 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and cheered as Aquaman fought alongside Batman, Wonder Woman and other DC superheroes in the 2017 follow-up, “Justice League.”
The “Aquaman” cast also features Nicole Kidman as Arthur Curry/Aquaman’s mother, Queen Atlanna, who falls in love with his father, the lighthouse keeper, after she is exiled from Atlantis and he rescues her from crashing surf.
Just your typical “meet cute”: Boy nurses girl back to health, girl spears boy’s TV and swallows his goldfish.
(Fun fact: The Academy Award-winning Kidman also was born in Hawaii.)
Momoa’s other co-stars are Amber Heard as Princess Mera, Willem Dafoe as royal adviser Vulko, and Patrick Wilson as Aquaman’s half-brother Orm, who schemes to enlist the seven undersea kingdoms to conquer the whale-killing, ocean-polluting landlubbers.
“AQUAMAN” RELIES heavily on digital effects to create its technologically advanced underwater civilizations. Warriors sit astride weaponized sharks and armored sea dragons, and jet about the depths in sleek, hydrodynamic “space ships.”
With his scruffy looks and natural, goofball charm, Momoa is the most real thing in the movie: This is a beer-chugging superhero who’s in a hurry to finish a fight so he can get to the local fishermen’s pub in time for happy hour.
“I think it’s really cool to play a character who’s not perfect, with all these powers. The great part is that he’s human, he’s not just Atlantean where he can do these things,” Momoa said.
“He comes from a very strong bloodline; he comes from lineage like our monarchy. He comes from something very special, but just because you’re a king or you come from a kingly line does not make you a king.
“All the people that are around him love him very much and believe in him. He just doesn’t believe in himself.
“So I’m playing a very flawed character who drinks and covers up his emotions and probably doesn’t handle situations the best,” Momoa said.
“He’s a bit of a smart ass, he’s the outcast and not accepted in two different worlds. That’s another beautiful thing, him being from two worlds.”
Momoa can relate. His mother is from Iowa and his father from Nanakuli. When they split up, Momoa was raised by his mother in her home state and spent his summers in Hawaii.
“So I can understand what it’s like to be from two different worlds,” he said.
ALTHOUGH HIS fish-out-of-water experiences were similar to Arthur Curry’s upbringing in “Aquaman,” Momoa said he didn’t need to fall back on his childhood memories to identify with the fictional character.
“I mean, I had nothing in common with Drogo but yet I can play that character,” he said. “I think as an actor you just have to make those things real for you, in general.
“But I think this is what’s special about (‘Aquaman’) is that I get to put a lot of me into it, and I haven’t had a chance to put a lot of me into any character,” Momoa said.
“There’s definitely parts of the personality of Arthur that I can identify with and that definitely strike a chord in my heart.”
With foreign box office grosses at $266 million and counting, before its U.S. release, “Aquaman” is on track to become a bonafide international hit. Warner Bros. is already talking about a sequel.
Momoa said he hopes the movie’s success will allow him to produce some of his own passion projects.
He’s finished a script with writing partner Thomas Pa‘a Sibbett based on the true-life saga of Koolau and his devoted wife Piilani, who hid out in Kalalau Valley on Kauai for four years beginning in 1892 to avoid exile to the Kalaupapa leprosy settlement.
For now, Momoa must weather the storm of publicity surrounding “Aquaman,” and savor the immediate opportunities it has provided.
He fulfilled another of his dreams this month, he said, hosting NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” on Dec. 8.
“We finally did it. Isn’t that cool?” he asked giddily, before signing off with a hearty, “Auuuu-right!”