Jason Momoa is about to be huge, in every meaning of the word. The 35-year-old Iowa native of Hawaiian descent, who now resides with wife Lisa Bonet (yes, that Lisa Bonet) and their two children in California, is in the midst of training for the second of three turns as DC Comics superhero Aquaman in 2017’s The Justice League Part One (next year’s Batman v. Superman is in post-production, while ’18’s Aquaman has been officially announced). By the time shooting commences, he’ll be a more or less perfect physical specimen — no small feat for a guy who’s already flashed plenty of muscle as the title character in 2011’s Conan the Barbarian remake and Game of Thrones’ Khal Drogo.
But in terms of worldwide recognition, he’ll be simply massive. That ubiquity will signify the culmination of nearly two decades toiling in television and film, from a teenage Baywatch role up through his starring turn as thoughtful killer and wayward Native American tribe member Phillip Kopus in Sundance Channel’s meditative crime drama The Red Road, whose second season premieres April 2 at 10 p.m. On the phone from his manager’s L.A. office, the laid-back mountain-climbing enthusiast and auteur (he directed, wrote, and starred in 2014’s Road to Paloma, produced through his own Pride of Gypsies company) discussed bracing for mainstream impact, playing vengeful son to Tom Sizemore’s sociopath father on The Red Road, and why, despite what Sizemore says, he’s not Marlon Brando.
Is it nice to flex your acting muscles on Red Road before stepping into Aquaman’s tights?
I’d rather play characters than play someone who’s close to myself. The things I’ve done this year that [Red Road creator] Aaron Guzikowski wrote, I’ve never experienced that personally in my life, nor have I ever experienced that as an actor. Kopus is a very, very dark character that’s just fun to play. Even in acting class, I never went to these places, so it was a big challenge emotionally for me, and that’s an honor. It’s what I wanted for my career; it’s what I want to be doing. And I get to be a superhero too? Awesome.
Has it been hard to figure out where Kopus fits in among TV’s trend of morally ambiguous leads?
Not for Aaron. [Laughs.] He’s amazing at it. For me, there are certain moments in this season I’m trying to find these places within myself, reasoning with what [Kopus] was doing and these choices that he’s made. [Aaron] writes it, and it’s totally justifiable, and you go, “I have to go to these places,” and that’s a dream. It’s like when I first started Game of Thrones, you did not like Drogo, and now it’s the fifth season and people still love him. Same thing with Kopus. I went and talked to people and was like, “You are not gonna like me. You are not gonna like this character. He’s a bad example of his people.” But at some point, he’s gonna turn and he has to go that full circle, and you’re gonna see it in this season. It’s so exciting.
Is Kopus inherently bad or have circumstances molded him?
That’s what I love about him. He’s been sucker-punched by life. You find out this year why his mom left him and why she would leave her son with a father like that. Jason Momoa was raised in a beautiful household, and I’m like, “What would happen if I was a product of that environment and then made those choices?” You get to see him break people, and then when he’s around his dad, he’s just a little boy and you sympathize with him, and then watch him turn into a beast again. I think that’s why he’s a beautiful, colorful character.
Are you worried you’re going to have to monitor your personality once you’re representing the Justice League franchise?
Yeah, I have to now, and it’s a real bummer, and it’s also my duty now. I’m obviously in the light and people care what I say, so I’m like, “All right, well, they’re not gonna get my sense of personality.” It’s pretty much gonna hurt the fans. It just closes you off. As an actor, I’m a pretty open person and I love having fun. But you just have to smile and nod and don’t get to open up as much, so it’s a bit of a bummer.
You also have The Bad Batch, by A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s Ana Lily Amirpour, coming up with Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves. Is it intimidating to think about working with such big names?
[Sylvester] Stallone’s probably the biggest guy I worked with [in Bullet to the Head], but I don’t know, I’m pretty relaxed and down-to-earth and cool. I don’t get up in anyone’s space. I’m a pretty extreme character, so I’m not gonna really be Jason Momoa walking around set. We’ll be doing our own things, for sure. If you’re really committed to doing something on this scale, you’re living the character for a while.
Can you say anything about the tone of the movie?
Oh, that’s the great part about it. I love Lily. She’s a phenomenal woman, and A Girl is me and my wife’s favorite, so it’s an honor to be working on [Bad Batch], and I know she wants to keep everything for herself to release to the world, so my only thing is it’s just great being a part of it.
Being of Hawaiian descent with some Native American heritage, do you feel like you’re part of a growing movement of inclusion in casting?
I’m native Kānaka Maoli, but I was raised in Iowa. My mom’s Irish-German. She’s got some native in her, too, but I was raised in a very white farm town in Iowa. I don’t think of myself as just Hawaiian or just white, so it’s one of those things [like] where people try to put you in that box of, “I’m just an action guy,” and that’s why I went with my friends and made Road to Paloma, and then it got us The Red Road and we tried to change that perspective. I just don’t really think about those things.
Are you worried about having time for producing projects like Paloma?
That’s all I do have time for, and that’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. There’s too many stories I want to be a part of that maybe I’m not right for, so I don’t just look forward to the acting. I look forward to the storytelling. I love being behind the camera. After Paloma, we’ve already had our next [script], and I’m gonna wait till Justice League comes out and go make my dream project, my Dances With Wolves for the Hawaiian people.
Is there an actor who’s balanced physicality and creativity you feel kindred with?
I don’t really model myself after anyone. I’m inspired by all different types of artists. I want my kids to see their father happy, doing things he loves to do. I strive for it and maybe strike out, but right now it’s hitting.
What about Sizemore’s suggestion that you’re Marlon Brando–esque?
[Mocks tuning out.] Dude, that ain’t me. It’s just Jason Momoa trying to find Jason Momoa.