At any given moment, Jason Momoa may brandish a sharp blade and plunge it deep into my aorta. Such is the enormity of his enmity. It’s evident in his green-eyed glare, the menace augmented by a lengthy scar above his left eye; a wound attained after a pint glass was smashed in his face at a bar, resulting in 140 stitches. As my eyes move down his 6-foot-4 frame, I spot a skeleton tattoo on his right mitt, resting on a pair of battle-tested khakis.
And then he smiles, and the peril evaporates.
Momoa has flown in to the Sundance Film Festival from Durango, Colorado, where he’s currently shooting a series of commercials for Carhartt (hence the rugged khakis). He’s recently wrapped filming on the second season of Aaron Guzikowski’s Sundance Channel miniseries The Red Road, which will premiere in April. In it, he plays Phillip Kopus, a violent member of the Ramapough Mountain Indians who teams up with Officer Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) to solve a series of mysteries.
“It’s three times crazier,” Momoa says of Season 2. “After Season 1, I went to Aaron and said, ‘Dude, give me everything. I want to do it all. Beat me up.’ And he literally broke me. I got injured badly, and I do things this season that I’ve never seen done on TV before.”
Wait a second, I say. Even crazier than ripping a man’s tongue out?
He laughs. “Oh, that shit’s easy! I do that all the time. That’s just another Monday at the Momoa house. ‘Who is it? Go away, or I’ll rip your goddamn tongue out!’”
To prepare for the role of Kopus, Momoa visited the Ramapough Tribe, and felt a certain level of responsibility in portraying a people who have historically been voiceless onscreen.
“There aren’t a lot of shows about contemporary Native American people,” he says. “It just turns into feathers and ridiculous stereotypes. Kill the Indian! So it’s special to honor these people who have been so dishonored.”
Of course, this isn’t the first feral tribal member Momoa has played. Despite only lasting a total of 10 episodes, his tattooed Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo emerged as a fan favorite on the HBO series Game of Thrones. A few months back, his audition tape for Drogo went viral, with Momoa breaking out into the Haka, a traditional Māori battle cry.
“When I did the Haka, I went in and it was so fuckin’ awesome and gnarly, and they didn’t know that shit was going to happen,” Momoa says. “ They didn’t even have a camera rolling, so they asked me to come back in and do it again. I did a nicer version the second time, because the first time my heart was pounding out of my chest and I was thinking kill, kill KILL! My adrenaline was out of control and I just called down to my ancestors and was ready to rape and pillage and defend the village. Then, I had to test a love scene right after.”
Ever since Drogo bowed out quietly in Season 1, Westerosi fanboys have been clamoring for his return. Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss even admit to missing Drogo the most, says Momoa. But when pressed, the actor does hint at a possible return down the line.
“I talk to David and Dan all the time and we always talk about possibly coming back and how we miss each other, but I’m not sure if it’ll fit into the world,” says Momoa, flashing a big grin. “But there can always be flashback sequences. You’ll just have to keep watching.”
In addition to his plum TV roles, next year, you’ll get to see Momoa in his biggest role yet: Aquaman. He’ll make his debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, before appearing in The Justice League Part One (2017), and top-lining a stand-alone Aquaman movie in 2018. For Momoa, it’s been a long, windy road to superhero stardom—one filled with throwaway TV movies and recurring roles on shoddy shows like North Shore.
“It’s awesome as an actor to know what your future is going to be because I have children and I’ve busted my ass to put food on the table,” he says. “It’s awesome knowing that I’m going to be in Justice League because my son is the biggest Batman fan and my daughter loves Wonder Woman. It’ll be cool for them to see me in something because they’re not going to be watching Game of Thrones or Red Road anytime soon, but now they can see Daddy kicking ass in IMAX.”
Momoa joins fellow ass-kickers The Rock and Vin Diesel as a new breed of ethnically ambiguous action hero. As a Hawaiian, it wasn’t easy for Momoa to break into Hollywood.
“I’ve had to bust ass to be in this industry. A lot of things are very black and white,” he says. “Aquaman is especially cool because being a Kanaka Maoli—being Hawaiian—our Gods are Kanaloa and Maui, and the Earth is 71 percent water, so I get to represent that. And I’m someone who gets to represent all the islanders, not some blond-haired superhero. It’s cool that there’s a brown-skinned superhero.”
The irony of playing Aquaman isn’t lost on Momoa. Fifteen years ago, after a brief modeling stint—including being named Hawaii’s Model of the Year 1999—he was cast in his first major acting role: as Jason Ioane, a hunky lifeguard on the spin-off series Baywatch Hawaii.
When I bring up the coincidence, he laughs. “It’s a trip,” Momoa says. “I spent 15 years trying to dig myself out of the Baywatch hole, and now I’m Aquaman. Life is very good.”