Whether he’s playing a Dothraki warlord or the King of Atlantis, actor Jason Momoa’s all-out approach to life trickles down to everything he does, especially his training.
Jason Momoa’s uproarious laughter is hard to resist, even from across the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, in this case, I’m the source of his mirth, having just enquired how he feels about closing in on 40. He’s only 39, he bellows down the line from LA. “You did your research, didn’t you?” he says between guffaws. While I want to point out that I’d said “closing in”, the truth is, the way Momoa lives, works and perhaps most importantly plays, the question is kind of ridiculous.
This is a man who doesn’t measure life in units of time but depth of experience. One who appears to live beyond limits, more recently the terrestrial kind, diving into everything – from scale-plated spandex to a pint of his favoured Guinness – with the gusto of, well, an amphibious superhuman.
“I’m all about just having the best g*ddamn day I can have,” says Momoa of his full throttle approach to life. “If my wife tells me we’re having spaghetti bolognese for dinner I will work so much harder because I know we’re going to have a great night. I can train hard as long as I know there’s a reward. As long as I know there’s going to be a barbecue or something fun at the end of the night and we’re going to have a couple of beers and celebrate that’s it for me. I don’t like going to bed not having celebrated something. Life is too short.”
He’s right of course. And it’s an attitude that appeals, regardless of what your age happens to be.
TRAIN WITH PURPOSE
For a character who barely spoke a complete sentence over a two-season run on Game of Thrones, Khal Drogo has had an outsized influence on popular culture. Partly that’s due to GOT’s gargantuan cultural footprint – consider that it wasn’t the established Conan reboot that made Momoa a fanboy favourite but the brooding Dothraki chieftain.
And part of it may be due to the fact that Drogo was absolutely jacked. “With Drogo I could eat and drink and do whatever I wanted to because I just had to put on size,” says Momoa, looking back on his star-making role. Aquaman, however, was an altogether different beast, sorry, species.
For starters, Momoa who stands 193cm, weighs around 110kg and can put on muscle just by looking at a dumbbell, didn’t need size to inhabit the role. “I felt like I needed to stay a little slimmer,” he says, referencing the slighter builds of co-stars like Patrick Wilson. “I didn’t need to put on bulk because it just wouldn’t be right.”
In Momoa’s first turn as the King of Atlantis in 2017’s Justice League, he worked out with legendary Gym Jones founder Mark Twight. A fellow climber, Twight was more than happy to accommodate his charge’s passion for negotiating crevices, an approach echoed this time around by Mada Abdelhamid, a former WWE wrestler from Egypt, who joined Momoa for Aquaman’s six-month shoot on the Gold Coast. “He loves rock climbing with a passion so by including it in our training it made him work harder,” Abdelhamid says. “If you’re passionate about something you don’t need pushing. You can push yourself.”
Given the actor’s contempt for shifting iron purely for the sake of sculpting eye-popping sinew, it proved a wise decision. “I find it very hard to work out for vanity,” Momoa explains. “Looking in the mirror in a gym does not help me, it does not drive me.”
Instead, by applying a utilitarian lens to his lifting regimen, he’s able to see the weight room as a workshop and barbells as tools, equipping him to pursue more authentic goals. “My mind-set is that I need to set a goal in something that I love,” he says. “So I target a certain level of climb so that I have to train hard. I may have to do some cardio and I may have to get my weight down to pull off the climb. It doesn’t really matter what gets you there, so long as it gets you there.” In this age of gym selfies, the idea of training for an athletic or recreational goal sounds noble, almost quaint. But the payoff, be it a jaw dropping view or an extra yard of pace that allows you to burn off a defender, is arguably more fulfilling than the hollow validation of a legion of digital double-tappers.
The truth is, to climb at the level Momoa does, he needs to train. His enthusiasm for scaling rock faces is made all the more remarkable by the fact his hulking physique isn’t particularly suited to it. “If you think of rock climbers who can climb at his standard, not one of them is above 100kg and nobody is as close to him in strength,” Abdelhamid confirms. “He’s in a class of his own.”
But as crazy as Momoa is about pitches and pinch-holds, his passion is at least matched by Abdelhamid’s fervour for the gym. And while the actor might not have immediately liked it he responded to his workout partner’s enthusiasm. “I love being around people who are stoked at what they do and if he’s doing it with me and we’re going to get in there and beat each other up then I love that,” he says. “It’s very much a soldier mentality. We’re going to war.”
That’s one way to describe the manner in which two giants went at it, spurring each other on to some prodigious efforts on both the weights and a custom-built onset climbing wall. “We were doing hundreds and hundreds of reps, pushing each other to the brink of exhaustion,” says Abdelhamid, who stands 198cm, weighs 130kg and deadlifts 320kg. “It wasn’t about who was bigger or faster or stronger. It was who can work harder?”
In the burly Egyptian you could say Momoa found his workout spirit animal, someone he strived to better on a daily basis. In doing so, he pushed Abdelhamid to dig as deep as he ever has. “Very few people in the world can actually match me in the gym but for somebody who doesn’t work out for a living like I do, he comes pretty close,” the trainer says of the pair’s heavyweight workout battle. “And every time I kicked his arse in the gym, he’d kick mine on the climbing wall.”
Don’t get off on sets and reps or shudder at the thought of a solitary Sunday morning slog along the sand dunes? Find a trainer or a mate who loves the stuff. Chances are their passion will rub off on you, their expertise inspire you. In the crucible of competition and shared pain, you might just find the motivation you need to reach new heights, or depths, as the case may be.
CLING AND WIN
Born in Hawaii and raised in Iowa, as much as Momoa might pepper his speech with “bros” and “dudes”, there is something of the Aussie larrikin about him. Perhaps that’s because the six months he spent on the Gold Coast in 2017 shooting Aquaman wasn’t his first time here. Momoa lived in Adelaide for a stint back in his early twenties, proudly declaring, “Port Power is my team,” before proceeding to praise the rough and tumble nature of Aussie sports and their way of life more broadly. “I love the Australian spirit and I feel like Aussies love me,” he says. “They have such a great attitude to life. They work hard, they play hard.”
Just how much Momoa himself embodies that same maxim was evident in the diet he followed during Aquaman’s six-month production: meat, veggies and Guinness. While certainly not an optimal carb source, the so-called ‘ebony nectar’ was crucial to sustaining Momoa’s equilibrium and motivation after long days on set.
“It comes down to overall calorie intake so when we’re looking to lean down we just cut the Guinness down to a certain number per day,” says Abdelhamid of ensuring Momoa’s love of the black stuff never hampered his weight loss goals. “If I’d made him cut it out completely he wouldn’t have performed as well.”
If the Aquaman set is starting to sound like a testosterone-fuelled frat house that’s because Momoa doesn’t really do downtime in the traditional sense. Alongside the state of the art gym equipment was a drum kit, Fender bass guitar and a 1959 Gibson Les Paul played by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. And, of course, looming over it all was the climbing wall.
While the challenges presented by his physique are one reason Momoa might gravitate toward this most elemental of physical pursuits, the other might surprise you. “I’m scared of heights so it’s about overcoming those fears,” he says, before waxing with something approaching an addict’s ardour on the pastime’s purity of movement. “It’s like a dance or martial art where you’re in this flow and the way your body moves feels comfortable and it feels alive,” he says breathlessly. “You’re holding onto literally nothing, using every toe, every fingernail, everything is being activated. You have to be there 100 per cent or you fall.”
It’s fair to say Momoa’s taken a tumble or two in his personal life since landing his first role in Baywatch Hawaii as a 19-year-old. A scar skirting his left eyebrow from a glassing in a Hollywood bar in 2008 required 140 stitches, shoring up his bad boy bona fides while also causing him to reflect on his wild ways. He’s been saved, he says, by the women in his life, his mother and his wife, actress Lisa Bonet with whom he has two children, a daughter Lola, 11 and son Nakoa-Wolf, 10. He’s also stepfather to actress Zoe Kravitz. “I’d be dead right now if it wasn’t for women,” he says quietly. “Female power is the ultimate power. I don’t think there’s anything stronger than a woman.”
If his family has saved him from himself, from indulging his appetites unchecked or pushing himself too far in his myriad of adrenaline-fuelled hobbies, his instinct as a father is to want to save them. “My biggest fear now is my babies getting hurt,” he says, almost murmuring. “You just find yourself saying ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ but you have to let them go do those things.”
For a man who’s made his name playing battle-hardened behemoths and is now donning impenetrable, scale-plated armour, Momoa isn’t afraid to show a softer, more vulnerable side. Perhaps that’s because he’s not so larger-than-life after all. “I’m just like you man”, he blurts out before signing off. Or perhaps it’s because he knows that it’s only once you’ve acknowledged the fragility of life, that you can resolve to squeeze the most out it.
Aquaman is in cinemas now.
This article originally appeared on the December 2018 issue of Men’s Health Singapore
By Ben Jhoty; Photography By Damian Bennett