Legions of people first discovered Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo, the horseback-riding, knife-bearing, pony-tailed, tattooed warrior from the smash hit fantasy series, "Game of Thrones." But Momoa was lighting up the screen long before he landed that breakout role, and he has since grown into one of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood.
While Momoa’s look and hair have gone through impressive changes (brace yourself for dreadlocks and man buns ahead), he’s also discussed the ways he has transformed and grown as an actor and man. Despite his towering height and muscles, he’s proven himself to be more than just a stuntman. Sure, Momoa has captivated audiences as a hunky, muscly, hyper-masculine fantasy, but in recent years he’s been working on making his more vulnerable side visible, as he explained in an interview with InStyle. After proclaiming "I’m a warrior, and I will lay it down," he also mentioned how he was "exploring issues of male vulnerability," adding, "we all have the feminine and the male side in us, and we need to embrace both."
From a kid in Hawai’i to a teen heartthrob with a surfboard to the blockbuster actor we know him as today, let’s take a look at the transformation of the "Aquaman" star.
Jason Momoa is from Hawai’i and has indigenous roots
Joseph Jason Namakaeha Momoa was born in Honolulu, Hawai’i in 1979, per the Des Moines Register. His parents were artistically inclined; his mother was a photographer and his father was a painter in addition to being a marine biologist. They divorced shortly after his birth, and Momoa moved with his mom to Iowa when only 6 months old. However, he identifies strongly with his Hawaiian heritage, having spent much of his childhood traveling back to his birthplace to visit his father.
Momoa has been an active defender of the environment in Hawai’i, fighting to save a sacred mountain from developers. He told CNN, "I think there’s a lot of problems in Hawaii. There’s a lot of things that have happened in our history, a lot of injustice, and so we’re shining a light on it. People like myself or Dwayne Johnson, Bruno Mars, [are] trying to spread the awareness all around the world."
From his mother’s side, he is of German and Irish descent, and from his father’s side, he is of Polynesian heritage and can trace his roots not only to Hawai’i but to Aotearoa, or New Zealand, as well. He explained to News Hub, "The Momoa lineage goes back nine generations in Hawaii but we actually found out we came from Aotearoa — which means we left Hawaii, went down to Aotearoa and then back. That’s my line."
Growing up in Iowa wasn’t always easy but taught him a few lessons
"I’m definitely a product of two very opposite worlds," Jason Momoa told InStyle, describing his childhood. Though raised by his mother in Iowa, he also spent long chunks of time in Hawai’i where his father lived, and described the difficulty of being treated as an outsider in both places. In his predominantly white Iowa town, he said he was bullied for being mixed-race. "I got beat up a lot just for being slightly different — it was gnarly." Then in Hawai’i, "locals dismissed him as a haole from the mainland," the publication explained.
Difficult as it was, he credits his rural midwestern upbringing with helping him stay grounded in Tinseltown, especially when it comes to his sex symbol status. He doesn’t let it go to his head. "I wasn’t raised that way, I was raised in the Midwest where it’s a case of -– you grow up to do your workload. I wasn’t raised in LA, I don’t have that mindset," he told square mile. He also believes that growing up as the only child of a single mother helped form his personality, adding, "I think being raised by a single mother gives you more vulnerability and sensitivity as an individual. I can be tough when I need to, but that’s not the way I am in person."
Baywatch was the beginning of his acting career
While it’s been reported that Jason Momoa started out as a model, he later admitted those credentials were something he made up in order to get his first acting job.
As the story goes, he was 19 years old and working in a surf shop when he heard about the open casting call for "Baywatch: Hawaii." The casting directors asked if he had any experience, so he just started to make stuff up. "We just kind of bulls***ted our way in and then I met some managers down there: they kind of made up some stuff for me like, ‘Hawaii Model of the Year,’" he explained to square mile.
Luckily for him, he was offered the role of one of the main characters for the last two seasons of "Baywatch: Hawaii," portraying the character of Jason Ioane from 1999-2001. "I went from folding T-shirts in Hawaii to walking around half naked with really beautiful women, which wasn’t bad at 19," he told the Des Moines Register.
While the role led him to change the course of his life and pursue acting (he was studying to be a marine biologist before he landed the gig), he had trouble finding work after the show ended. "I fell in love with the art of acting," he explained in an interview with Esquire. "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."
Stargate Atlantis was a learning experience for him
Arguably the most dramatic appearance change of Jason Momoa’s career was between his stint on "Baywatch" and his first appearance on the sci-fi series "Stargate Atlantis," a show that ran from 2004 to 2009 on the SyFy network. The series followed the adventures of "a new team of explorers" who went "to the distant galaxy where Atlantis is located, where a primitive human civilization is threatened by a sinister enemy," per Rotten Tomatoes.
The series soon earned a decently sized fanbase, and the actors, Momoa included, became fixtures at fan conventions. While high-brow acting chops weren’t really required for the show, Momoa has said that his four-year tenure was a much-needed opportunity to learn the ins and outs of production. In an interview with Esquire, he looked back on the experience. "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 started dating his childhood crush in 2005
Remember being a kid and falling for an actor on TV and fantasizing that someday you would grow up and meet them somewhere and they’d instantly fall in love with you? For Jason Momoa, that fantasy became true life when he started dating Lisa Bonet in 2005. In an interview with Esquire, he confessed, "[She was] literally my childhood crush. I mean, I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t let her know I was a stalker until after we had the kids."
Twelve years and two kids later, the couple tied the knot in 2017, a fact which caused Momoa to exclaim, "If someone says something isn’t possible, I’m like, ‘Listen here, I married Lisa Bonet. Anything is f***ing possible,’" via Esquire.
Unfortunately, their match didn’t last forever. In early 2021, they announced they were splitting after a 16-year relationship. In a statement on Instagram that has now been deleted (via Vanity Fair) Momoa wrote, "We have all felt the squeeze and changes of these transformational times … A revolution is unfolding and our family is of no exception … And so we share our family news … That we are parting ways in marriage. We share this not because we think it’s newsworthy but so that as we go about our lives we may do so with dignity and honesty. The love between us carries on, evolving in ways it wishes to be known and lived."
His famous scar was the result of a bar fight in 2008
The gap in Jason Momoa’s left eyebrow isn’t a quirky style choice; it’s a scar. In 2008, Momoa was involved in a pretty nasty bar incident that he believes must have been a "gang initiation," he told Access. "It was crazy. A guy smashed a pint glass in my face. I got a little over 140 stitches in my face."
At the time, NBC Los Angeles covered the incident and reported that the man, who was a resident of Venice, California, was charged with "assault with a deadly weapon" and pleaded not guilty. It’s unclear if he was convicted, but Momoa doesn’t seem to hold too much of a grudge about the scar. "It helped [me] get those mean roles," he said in the interview with Access. And fans aren’t complaining either. In fact, they love the scar so much that they started a Facebook fan page for it, calling it a "sexy scar."
2011 was a big year for the actor
When Jason Momoa landed the title role in "Conan The Barbarian" in 2011, he must have thought his long-awaited big break was near. As it turned out it was, but not because of the box office disaster that was "Conan." At the age of 32, Momoa finally landed his first gig as a leading man, but it didn’t open the doors he expected. "It’s my first lead in anything, so I’m really pumped just to see it," he told Access. Unfortunately, audiences and critics weren’t as excited about the new interpretation of the classic tale. It was listed as one of the "10 Biggest Flops of 2011" by The Hollywood Reporter.
While "Conan" wasn’t the massive success he might’ve hoped for, Momoa did become a part of one the biggest shows in TV history when he slipped into the role of Khal Drogo on HBO’s "Game of Thrones" that same year. To this day, it’s the role most people recognize him for. But even his "Game of Thrones" breakthrough wasn’t much of a break. Despite the massive success of the show, he said he was "starving" and "couldn’t get work" after his character was killed off in "GOT," per InStyle. "I mean, where do you put Drogo? He’s not going in a rom-com. No one even knew I spoke English," he told Esquire.
Aquaman sealed his fate as a movie star
After landing the role of Aquaman and finding his superhero success, Jason Momoa felt like he could finally breathe. "Once I knew I had the Aquaman role … it took a lot of the pressure off," he told square mile.
The character first appeared in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice", and the director, Zack Snyder, needed someone who could compete with Superman’s muscles and Batman’s brooding countenance in order to shake the perception that Aquaman is silly. "Aquaman got made fun of a lot and Zack’s a big fan of ‘Game of Thrones’ and wanted someone to come in so they wouldn’t make fun of Aquaman anymore," he said in an interview with BBC Radio 1. Momoa was a perfect fit and has since taken Aquaman to the next level, going on to appear in "Justice League" films and "Aquaman" as well as an upcoming sequel. "Aquaman" is now "DC’s highest-grossing movie ever," per Mental Floss.
He’s become so synonymous with the superhero that he even had a part in creating the story for the "Aquaman" sequel. "I came in with a big pitch … with the whole thing mapped out, and they loved it," he told Esquire about his involvement with the second solo movie in the franchise. He strongly identifies with the character’s connection to the water and his outsider status, making it easy to take part in the storytelling.
We’ll be seeing Jason Momoa for years to come
"Dune," which premiered in 2021, was Jason Momoa’s latest blockbuster, but certainly not his last. He’s already finished filming "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom," which is scheduled to be released December 2022. According to Deadline, he also has a Western coming up called "The Last Manhunt." Momoa not only stars in the film, but also co-wrote and executive produced it.
Netflix Film tweeted about an upcoming film starring Momoa called "Slumberland," writing that it will be "a new adventure story about an eccentric outlaw (Momoa) who guides a young hero (Marlow Barkley) through a secret dreamworld," slated for a 2022 release. Deadline also reported that Momoa will be starring in a reboot of the 1993 film "Cliffhanger," which originally starred Sylvester Stallone, though IMDb still has the project labeled as in "pre-production."
Clearly, they’ll be no shortage of Jason Momoa screen time in 2022 and certainly in the years to come as his star continues to rise.