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How Jason Momoa Turned Nontoxic Masculinity Into a $1 Billion Success

The “Aquaman” star offers an object lesson.

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This week, Aquaman crossed the worldwide $1B mark and its star Jason Momoa proved he’s not just another pretty face attached to 6 foot 4 inches of beefcake. What if he’s Hollywood’s Golden Boy and not A Star is Born auteur Bradley Cooper?

Jason Momoa, 39, has it all: looks, sex appeal, athleticism, a dry comic delivery, a family with wife, Lisa Bonet, and a refusal to take himself (or Hollywood) too seriously. Oh, and that little $1B movie. Or, as the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody aka @TinyFrontRow calls it: “an admirably ambitious, ludicrous failure.”

Um, right. Whatever.

Over his career, Momoa’s often been pigeonholed as an exotic. However, he’s 100 percent made in America: The only son of a Hawaiian father and a Midwestern mother from Iowa. That makes him an unlikely cross between Hawaii 5-0 and The Bridges of Madison County – a hybrid American.

For a fun look at Momoa’s deep Iowa roots, check out his recent trip to his home state to visit his granny in her nursing home, drive by his high school and gather with cousins, aunts and uncles for hash browns and gravy at a favorite local diner.

He began his career as a teenager plucked from the Hawaiian beaches to don the signature red swimsuit on Baywatch Hawaii. He seemed to be following in the footsteps of the mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger when he played the title role in the 2011 Conan: the Barbarian remake. A tepid reception at the time sank the movie – but it’s worth a rewind for the sheer beauty of the scenery.

While he was banging around before and after, part of the Stargate: Atlantis ensemble (recurring theme: get the actor wet) from 2005 to 2009, it was his commanding, red hot horseback-riding Khal Drogo opposite Emily Clark’s Queen of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen over ten seething episodes of Game of Thrones that manifested his star power to a wider audience.

Much has been made about George R. R. Martin’s penchant for killing off compelling characters, exemplified by the beheading of Sean Bean’s patriarch Ned Stark at the end of Season 1. But the sacrifice of the sizzle between Momoa and Clark played out in Bedouin tents while horses whinnied in the background might have been the bigger loss.

Momoa has said repeatedly that following his exodus from that Emmy magnet series, he couldn’t get a job. Why? In part because casting agents thought he couldn’t speak English! Is that method acting or what?

Nontoxic masculinity is his brand. He can access his testosterone for roles like Aquaman or Conan or Khal Drogo but he remains firmly grounded. When he appeared barefoot (and in pink pants) while hosting Saturday Night Live, he showed a man comfortable in his skin. He is unashamed to be strong and is still in touch with his feelings in a non-neurotic way.

While the benighted Cooper, 44 and a mere 6 foot 1, struggles to make eye contact and mumbles and blushes about the weighty work of being star, director and artist, Momoa just kicks ass. He’s smart enough to write and direct – take a second look at his rough and raw 2014 biker movie Road to Paloma. And, now, with box office clout, he’s only just begun.

But what sets him apart is a commitment to living in the moment. He’s not about spin or focus-grouping his image. Watch him over time and it’s clear that he’s a guy who relishes spontaneity – something that his red carpet Haka dance at the L.A. Aquaman  premiere proved. His Wildman Momoa isn’t an act. It’s authentic. He loves what he’s doing and that love is contagious.

Could he give The Rock a run for his money – or is that taking things too far? I think that he can – but why pick between the two? Is one giant movie enough to solidify his place? To me, he’s been showing his stuff for years (um, Khal Drogo). It’s just taken some time for audiences to catch the groove and Hollywood to figure out how to deploy him.

Aquaman will be followed by Aquaman 2.  The actor also has See, a futuristic series from Peaky Blinders‘ Steven Knight directed by Francis Lawrence on deck, and Brad Peyton’s espionage thriller Just Cause. He’s now a bona fide blockbuster movie star.

And what I love about him is the feeling that I get that, even if he walked off the set of Aquaman 2 and never made another movie, he would take that life force with him, drinking beers with his boys, dancing barefoot with Bonet and their kids, and living an authentic life. It’s that unique ability to enjoy life and celebrate it with his audience that makes him Hollywood’s golden boy.