Jason Momoa on Speaking Out for NoDAPL: ‘I Don’t Mind Standing Up for What I Believe In’
The star of the new Netflix series ‘Frontier’ opens up about the show, playing Aquaman, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and much more.
As a general rule, movie studios are rarely thrilled when their multi-billion-dollar franchise stars pipe up about politics. Fear of alienating half a tentpole’s potential audience sometimes drives CEOs to make conciliatory, contradictory statements like, say, “[Rogue One] has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made...and that is not a political statement, at all.” (Sure, Bob.)
He just doesn’t give a shit about breaking it.
To his overlords’ chagrin, Momoa and his fellow Earth defenders—Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Ezra Miller (The Flash), and Ray Fisher (Cyborg)—issued a collective YouTube “shout out” last year to the Oceti Sakowin water protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. In an Instagram post, Momoa urged fans to sign a petition against the oil pipeline which, according to activists, threatens to pollute water sources and disturb sacred burial grounds on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
In an interview the week of Trump’s inauguration, Momoa, who is part Native American, held out hope that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ suspension of the project would hold. (“I’m pretty spooked to find out what happens,” he admitted. “It’s really scary.”) It lasted all of four days. An executive order unblocked the project and, on Friday, the Trump administration sent law enforcement to clear the area of dissenters.
Momoa held no regrets about rallying fans to the cause, despite resistance he met from higher-ups. He laughed about it. “Man, we were definitely gonna be the ones who were gonna get in trouble for that shit,” he said. “[Studios] always want that but it’s like, at the end of the day, I gotta live with myself. You know what I mean? I don’t mind standing up for what I believe in.”
Miller recruited him to the cause, he said, relaying how close the Justice League actors had grown on set. That chemistry, he promised, signals a brighter, more “fun” take on the DC superheroes than what we’ve seen in grimmer tales like Batman v Superman and Man of Steel.
“To be able to get along and to have your personalities match the way they’re supposed to for the roles, it’s great, and we’re really supportive,” he said, earnestly. “We’re a pretty lovey set. And lots of laughs, we like laughing a lot. So I can’t see why that wouldn’t show up in the film.”
In the meantime however, Momoa is talking up his latest project, the freshman Netflix historical drama Frontier. As Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish fur trader bent on revenge in the Canadian wilderness, Momoa—an imposing, ultra-magnetic screen figure—tears into what he proudly calls his meatiest role to date. For the 37-year-old, the chance to delve deep into a complex, leading role is a long time coming.
The Khal formerly known as Drogo talked to The Daily Beast about Frontier, standing up for NoDAPL, and what it’s like, after 15 years in television, to finally get the roles he deserves.
Your character, Declan, is in a fairly unique position among the fur traders as someone both half-Irish and half-Native.
Yeah. What’s super interesting about it is Declan is obviously raised by the evil man, Lord Benton, and he wipes out my whole family. I fall in love with a Native woman, we have a baby, he takes out my whole family in the village. And when you pick up the whole story, it’s about me rising from the dead. So I’m back to pretty much kill all the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company, which monopolized the Canadian fur trade in the late 1700s]. This is weird to say but it was really fun and challenging as an actor to go to those places, but pretty horrific just to think about. You know, being a father and being a husband. That’s why I signed on, because I don’t get too many of those chances to play something like that.
What about him gave you a chance to dig deeper?
Well there’s definitely more meat to him than any of the roles I’ve had. I think—not to say that Drogo was one-note, or Conan. [Drogo] evolved a little bit obviously and fell in love with a woman and, you know, I’m only around for a couple of episodes. But this has a lot of depth and character to him. He basically starts out as a shell of a man, someone who’s completely dead and doesn’t care if he dies. How does he love again, how does he let anyone else in again, how does he keep his troops together, how does he make people fight for him, how does he remain a leader, and at the same time be completely vulnerable, and make people follow him into war? There’s just a lot of stuff I never really had the chance to play in six hours. It’s good to be able to get the roles. You gotta get to the top of the pecking order, is what it comes down to. People actually want to see you, so that helps. (Laughs)
Did you see that begin to change more significantly after you got cast as Aquaman?
Well someone brought this up earlier, they were like, “Did Game of Thrones change your life?” And I was like, yes? Yes and no. You know, obviously people want to see me now, so that helps. Like, “Oh, I really liked him in that show. I’ll check this out.” But then sometimes it doesn’t help. No one’s really seen anything of Aquaman, it’s all talk, right? I mean, they’ve only seen one scene from Batman v Superman. They’ve seen pictures of the stuff, so they can imagine, knowing some of the roles I’ve done, what’s gonna happen when I play Aquaman. But I’m never gonna be able to do some of the stuff that I do on this in Aquaman, you know? And there’s stuff on Aquaman that there’s no way they can even come close to making here. So it’s really just emphasizing the other parts of my creative brain. But it was cool to get to disappear for six weeks, go up to Newfoundland, and play with some really great material. It’s the same time as shooting something big.
You’d worked pretty steadily in TV before Game of Thrones, on shows like Baywatch, North Shore and Stargate: Atlantis. Had you ever found yourself boxed in by your looks?
I mean, it’s never been easy. Like, you now, it’s a specific look [on me], obviously. Sometimes it works and sometimes it works against you. I’m sure all actors have trouble. The guy who always plays the funny guy, he wants to be taken seriously. And there’s the action guy who wants to do serious stuff. Everyone’s grass is greener. Yeah, they’re always trying to box us in. But that’s kind of the thing, I know about this industry and I want to use my name. There are too many stories I want to tell. And it’s so rare to get really good material. And like I said, it’s the pecking order, so fuck it. I’m just gonna make art myself. I have a lot of ideas of things I wanna do and really talented people and friends I’m around, so we decided to make our own thing and set out to do it. I’ve had a movie that I’ve had to wait until Aquaman comes out [to make], so I won’t be able to direct it for a while. But it’s a story set in Hawaii, in the 1790s, kind of my dream role. It’s a beautiful film. I can’t wait to show the world that one.
There’s been some trouble with The Crow reboot you were attached to a while ago. Are you still onboard with the project?
You know what, I have always been talking to Corin [Hardy, the director], he’s got an amazing and beautiful vision for it. I am not 100 percent. I haven’t signed anything for it.
I know you can only say so much but now that Justice League has wrapped filming, how do you see it shaping up differently from previous DC movies?
I can only say so much but I mean, it’s gonna be fun for sure. It’s all action-adventure. And all of us get along really well. I had this experience when I was just looking around at [the cast]. They’re all dressed up and I’m just staring at all of the characters. And there’s really no one else that’s supposed to play those people except for them. Like Gal [Gadot] is supposed to play Wonder Woman, Ben Affleck’s the perfect Batman, Henry [Cavill], there’ll never be another Superman. You’re like, shit, you’re sure as hell fucking Superman. Ezra [Miller] is perfect for The Flash. Ray [Fisher], I mean, we’re all the ones. And that’s a really cool feeling. And just to be able to get along and to have your personalities match the way they’re supposed to for the roles, it’s great, and really supportive. We’re a pretty lovey set. And lots of laughs, we like laughing a lot. So I can’t see why that wouldn't show up in the film.
It was great to watch you guys speak out as a group in support of the NoDAPL protesters.
Well we all have our own things we like to support. I think Ezra was really the man behind everything. He was on the front lines and I know all his friends were out there. So he’s really the one who started all that and I wanted to back him up. He got me really involved and obviously being a Native and seeing what was going on, I researched more and did as much as I could. At the time we were all pretty stuck over there in London. But it’s definitely something I try to support as best as I can. I was pretty happy when all that stopped for a little bit. I hope it stays that way. I’m pretty spooked to find out what happens when Trump gets in there. It’s really scary.
Studios often prefer their franchise stars to stay mum on political issues.
Oh yeah. Man, we were definitely gonna be the ones who were gonna get in trouble for that shit. They always want that but it’s like, at the end of the day, I gotta live with myself. You know what I mean? I don’t mind standing up for what I believe in. You get your hand slapped for doing something and you’re like, “Eh. It’s something I believe in.” It’s tough. It’s tough for them. Some people don’t see their views, I get it. People are like, “Oh, there’s some actor out there doing this and doing that.” I just prefer to put it out there because you can use your social media to get out some things that people may not know about. It’s how I find some things out, so I just want to be able to pass it on.
The great debate: whether actors should stay out of politics.
I mean, I tend to think you’re smart enough that if I say something you aren’t just gonna fucking follow me. You’re gonna take your own perspective on it, you know what I mean? But I do embrace—if someone wants to speak up about it and they’re passionate about it, you’re like, “Go for it, man.” I don’t have to agree with him. It doesn’t mean I have to fucking hate him or like him. I’m like, “He’s passionate about it. At least he’s standing up for what he believes in, whereas he could just be quiet and not do anything.” I mean I spoke up a lot about Mauna Kea and fought for what was happening on the Big Island. There’s a lot of things I would definitely go to bat for in Hawaii. I’ve been all over that stuff. If someone told me to be quiet about that because of my profession, no. That’s my people.
I’m curious to know what you thought of what Kit Harington said about the way we objectify male actors. He finds it “demeaning.”
I don’t know. I really find it—how would I… I don’t really think of myself as a pretty face. I mean, you see me with my shirt off. I’m really comfortable with my clothes off. I don’t know. If it’s called for in the role. I mean, Drogo wasn’t supposed to wear a fucking polo, you know what I mean? When we were trying to figure out how Aquaman was going to look, Aquaman’s not going to look good in a polo. So I’m playing characters that just generally are that way. I don’t look at myself that way at all. I was raised in the Midwest. I wasn’t raised in Hollywood where I’m dependent on my face and all that shit. So it was always weird getting into this business for that. But I think to make for long-term, you gotta have some brains and some balls and some looks and some luck. There’s a lot more than just pretty. I’m not losing any sleep over it.