Jason Momoa stars in Aquaman, which was filmed on the Gold Coast. Supplied by Warner Bros.
Jason Momoa stars in Aquaman, which was filmed on the Gold Coast. Supplied by Warner Bros.

Under the armour: Momoa plumbs new depths as Aquaman

For a man who's got a $160million blockbuster - and to some extent the future success of DC's cinematic universe - riding on his shoulders, Jason Momoa seems surprisingly relaxed.

It's July 4, 2017, on the Gold Coast, a holiday for Momoa and many of his American co-stars and crewmates, and I'm part of a small group of journalists visiting the Aquaman set - or the Ahab set as it was known during filming.

After a busy morning and lunch, the afternoon has hit a bit of a lull.

Patrick Wilson is filming a three-second clip for an underwater fight scene and with him surrounded by blue screen it's a very tedious, technical process to make sure everything is just right.

As the same clip plays on repeat on the screens we've been watching, I resist thoughts of a nap.

This is when Momoa, all 1.93m of him, bursts into talk to us.

As we scramble for our notepads and recording devices, he pulls up a folding chair.

His knees are covered in black sports tape, his unruly hair is tied back and he's dressed in relaxed exercise shorts.

"They're holding me together with some tape," he jokes. "There are a lot of takes. It's a huge action adventure film (and) I'm only human."

Those green eyes, which were so intense in Game of Thrones and shot him to international stardom, are friendly and smiling today. That lighter and funnier side is what he hopes shines through in Aquaman.

"This is one of the characters I've brought the most of me into; I'm nothing like Drogo," he says, referring to his Game of Thrones character.

"This has a lot more comedy and cheekiness. No one really knows I smile sometimes, so you're going to see me f---ing smile and maybe have a bit of a wink in my eye.

"My character is gruff; he's a smart-arse. He's this blue-collar worker and this brawler. He's someone who's been in the dirt. He understands people and he's got humanity."

 

Jason Momoa in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.
Jason Momoa in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros. Jasin Boland

The 39-year-old has made no secret of the fact that his favourite superhero is Batman and that he auditioned with Justice League director Zach Snyder for the role, which instead went to Ben Affleck.

"It was just a general audition, you know, it's always top secret. I was thinking why am I coming in? I don't even look like I have any money. He's (Bruce Wayne) a billionaire. I'm not the right material," he says.

"I got called back in the office - Ben had the role by that point - and he (Snyder) said 'Do you know who I want you to play?' He says 'Aquaman'. I say 'Come again?' I can't tell you the things that were flashing in my mind. I was thinking 'I'm brown; I've got a beard'. But when he told me the idea of how he wanted to make him I was like 'Wow, cool. I'm in'.

"We've seen 10 different Batmans, a few Supermans, but we've never been underwater. Here's a guy who's raised by his father, his mum could possibly be out there, possibly not, and he's been out on the road by himself. When he does discover that he has these special (powers) he doesn't know what to do with it, then eventually it's the man becoming king."

Being able to breathe underwater, swim at supersonic speed and communicate with marine life aside, Momoa can relate to Arthur Curry - the son of Queen Atlanna (played by Nicole Kidman) and humble lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (played by Temuera Morrison, an actor Momoa has idolised since 1994's Once Were Warriors).

With a mother of German, Irish and Native American heritage and a father of Hawaiian descent who grew up in Iowa, Momoa knows what it feels like to straddle two very different cultures and struggle to feel at home in either of them.

 

Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.
Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.

"That movie, Bridges of Madison County - that was basically one county over," he says.

"One of the cool things about playing this role is that, not that I wasn't accepted there (in Iowa) but there's not a lot of (different) races there. You definitely stand out. It definitely helped me, being the outsider. I like being able to be a bit of the outcast."

Momoa is no stranger to Australia, having spent three years living in the Barossa outside of Adelaide with a former girlfriend. He has fond memories of road trips in a troop carrier, going everywhere from Uluru to Coober Pedy, Coffs Harbour and the Grampians.

He was more than happy to call the Gold Coast home for nearly six months while he worked on Aquaman, which took up all nine sound stages at Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast.

External sets were also built behind neighbouring Outback Spectacular, The Spit, Coomera and Hastings Point on the Tweed Coast, which doubled as the location for the lighthouse where Arthur was raised by his father in Amnesty Bay, Maine.

For director James Wan, it was a case of world-making as much as it was film-making.

 

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.
Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.

This is a new environment for the superhero world, where characters can look and move in all sorts of interesting ways.

How do you make people move like they're underwater while filming on land?

With only 2percent of the movie actually filmed underwater, that required a lot of innovation.

For the hand-to-hand fight scenes, a rig shaped like a tuning fork was used to suspend an actor in the air by a waist harness.

Crew dressed head to toe in blue Lycra body suits - as unflattering as they sound - could then propel and tilt the actor as they punched, kicked or carried out whatever move was required.

The day I am on set, we see Patrick Wilson hoisted into the tuning fork so he can kick an unknown opponent while flying through what will be the water.

Wilson used a combination of Crossfit and power lifting to bulk up for the physical demands of the role.

 

Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.
Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros. Jasin Boland

"They spent hours trying to work out this rig and you want to make sure you can do it," Wilson says.

"I'm suspended in the water, but I don't want to be Superman in the Jesus pose.

"You want to be as realistic as possible and you have to act on top of that. It's a learning curve for all of us. Nothing like this has ever been done to this scale. Even the VFX (visual effects) people spend eight or nine months working right up until they have to deliver the film."

Having worked with Wan on five films across his Insidious and Conjuring franchises, Wilson had no doubt the horror master could pull off an epic superhero origin story.

"He's not intimidated by scale. You have more toys and it takes a little longer (compared to previous films)," he says.

"He's got a crazy imagination and he adapts."

Off screen, Wilson and Momoa bonded socially over their shared loves of music and MMA, and as fathers, with their children meeting on set.

"We got along swimmingly," Wilson says, pun most certainly intended.

"This is his movie and his franchise; I am here to serve the movie. I have no ego about any of that stuff."

On screen, they play half-brothers at odds over the relationship between Atlantis and the surface world.

With his blond hair and full Atlantean heritage, Orm resembles the comic book incarnations of Aquaman older fans grew up with - the polar opposite to Momoa's dark and stormy figure.

Even though he is the younger son of Queen Atlanna, Orm believes he is the rightful ruler of the seas and is working towards an alliance, somewhat forced, with the four tribes of the sea to become Ocean Master, a title with which he aims to wage war on the surface world.

Princess Mera (Amber Heard) and Arthur's former mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) believe only Aquaman can stop him.

 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a scene from the movie Aquaman. Supplied by Warner Bros. Jasin Boland

"In his mind, certainly, and the people he's surrounded with - most of them - he is the rightful ruler of the throne," Wilson says.

"He's a pure-blood Atlantean from a lineage of kings. His anger and frustration with the surface world having polluted his world for centuries is very easy to understand and sympathise with. Maybe the way he goes about avenging that is a little questionable, but that's what makes it a comic book movie. We start from a real place - a real heartfelt response to the destruction of his world and his reason for a fight."

Orm isn't Aquaman's only foe. David Kane, aka Black Manta, is a high-seas pirate and mercenary who blames the aquatic vigilante for the death of his father.

"As much as it's an origin story for Aquaman, it's also an origin story for Black Manta," says Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

"You meet him when he's on top. He experiences extreme triumphs and then a low - it happens really, really quickly.

"He's not a guy with plans to take over the world. He's not a bad guy; he's a guy who wants revenge. Revenge is a human thing, it's understandable. Everyone doesn't have to take it as far as this guy does, but I hope it's rooted in something that's real and relatable."

Aquaman opens in cinemas on Boxing Day.

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