Let’s play word association. We say Jason Momoa. And — no surprise — you say Aquaman. Or Khal Drogo.
Either way, larger-than-life tough guys. Now, the American actor, better known for commanding, superhero roles, bucks type in his latest Netflix release, Sweet Girl. The 42-year-old stars and produces the film, which addresses male vulnerability in a way audiences don’t ordinarily associate with his body… of work. (Whut? — of course we meant work.)
He’s still playing a don’t-mess-with-me warrior. Only in this round, he takes on big pharma, after the corporate baddies obstruct a generic drug from going to market, making it impossible for him to finance his wife’s cancer treatment.
Without access to treatment, his wife (Adria Arjona) dies, sparking an outrage and chain reaction for Cooper and their daughter Rachel (sublimely played by actress Isabela Merced).
Sweet Girl follows the pair’s journey over the ensuing months, as they grapple with a fallout that up-ends their lives.
The deeply emotional turn, he told Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, “was tough — and that’s the reason why I wanted to play this role”.
“I wanted it to happen. It’s a real heartfelt family story, tackling a lot of intense topics, and it’s got a great twist in there. I think a lot of people are gonna love it. And hopefully they get to see another side of me.”
The authenticity of Momoa’s chemistry with Merced reveals a depth and breadth to his acting chops that previous outings never permitted (looking at you Baywatch: Hawaii). At once tender and fierce, the role is likely to transition Momoa into more mature roles that explore his range as an actor, not just as an action hero.
Over a Zoom presser — despite which his skin looks amazing — Momoa talks about drawing on his personal experience with fatherhood, and embracing more holistic roles with age.
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How did you draw on your personal experience as a father for this role?
I try not to bring my kids into any role that I’m playing, but there’s no way to get around the fact of what it feels like to be a father — what it’s like to do anything in the world for someone else. It’s a beautiful thing to be a parent.
What went into developing this onscreen relationship with Isabela?
With Isabela, there’s many things that attracted me to her — mutual friends, her career, what she had done up to then. I knew she was a great actor, we kind of resembled what each other should look like, you know, if we [Adria Arjona] and I had a kid. It was really effortless. … I just feel like when I met Adria, or when I met Isabela, it was really easy. And she’s just a very good actress. She made me feel at ease. But the things that I brought to it, it’s definitely like having my Lola bear [Momoa and wife Lisa Bonet’s teen-aged daughter]. There’s definitely moments and when I’m holding Isabela, it’s definitely a way that I would hold my daughter. … Me and both my kids are really close, but it just feels like with daughters, it’s definitely different than sons — there’s definitely more masculine playing — with the girl, it’s just way more nurturing. I don’t think most people have seen that in any character I’ve played.
So at one point in the movie [when Cooper’s wife dies] you really lose your s**t — we’ve never seen that side of you. How did it make you feel to go there as an actor?
It’s definitely emotional even talking about it. It’s a tough thing. … When we were doing that scene, I told him (director Brian Andrew Mendoza), you know, I can’t just do it right here. I would run away from this. Even though my daughter’s there, I’d have to get away.
I remember my father. He’d be really stoic. He told me that he would never cry around me. He said he’d go out into the middle of the ocean, and just yell and scream out on the water. And to me, it had to be something like that. I just had to get away from everyone. So I went down one hallway and it’s trapped, go down another hallway and it’s trapped, and find one area where it [the grief] just takes over. I felt that Brian was pretty accepting of that, and wanting to get away. And it was just a really beautiful tracking shot, and having to follow me through all this pain.
To be able to do this, while it’s an action film, you don’t get these opportunities in a lot of action films.
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How do you create or build that chemistry with your co-stars?
I got really lucky — I’ve only had one person I didn’t like, and it shows in the performance. So it’s just kind of like I’m really, really lucky. Depending on the characters you’re playing, you really want to spend time with those people to make sure that we’re safe and comfortable. Ultimately how I want to perform as I like to have a safety net. I generally show my aloha to everybody, and make everyone feel comfortable. I think a lot of actors don’t do that. I think they really want to focus on the role.
For me to be comfortable, I really like to make everybody feel 100 percent, so the grips, sound and just everyone. Maybe it’s how I grew up. …I feel like that’s what I want for the business that I want to do. It’s very much a family and we’re all concerned and care about each other.
As a producer, what drew you to Sweet Girl?
I’ve not really done that many contemporary films where it’s (the role) just a normal everyday man — the holding [responsible] of the pharmaceuticals, addressing some of the corrupt things that are happening in government and politics, how it affects the smaller people and wanting to take into your own hands and wanting justice. … I really like crossing those boundaries. This is my first really big movie, and it was great, because we have a really strong producer, and then Brian and I with it, we have a really great small team that can do many things. There’s a lot of proof in the pudding. So I’m excited for many more projects from this team.
How did you prepare for these two different aspects of the film?
Well, the action, I always say it’s easy because I’ve been doing it my whole life, and I never really get to do these harder acting scenes. But I’m getting older, heh, and it hurts. So we got to cram these action movies, because I’m ready for some comedies. I do enjoy the action, and I have a really phenomenal stunt team. So I feel very taken care of in that situation. And then as far as the acting, you know, I just been doing it now for a while and I really am hard on myself and I want to make sure that I succeed for myself and really disappear and go into that role. I have my own silly weird process. To some it may look like nothing, but there’s something in there that’s doing it. But I’m always kind of scared. I’d rather direct and produce, because acting is always very, very, very challenging.
Sweet Girl is now available on Netflix