Becoming Aquaman

In landing a highly prized role in the blockbuster film “Aquaman,” fledgling actor and firefighter hopeful Kekoa Kekumano proves he can do some pretty amazing things on the big screen and elsewhere, even when his instinct might initially tell him otherwise.

If there’s a line that Kekoa Kekumano has mastered in his young acting life, it’s his defiant declaration, “I don’t wanna do it!”

Thing is, he’s not even acting when he delivers the line because it’s never part of a script he’s reading. Rather, it’s his instinctive response whenever he’s tasked with doing something he’s not down with — like auditioning for a certain TV or movie role.

“My mom was always wanting me to get into acting, and I didn’t really care for it,” confesses Kekumano, 20. “She’d tell me, ‘Go! You gotta try out for the part,’ and I’d get irritated and be like — ‘I don’t wanna do it!'”

Kekoa Kekumano appears with local film director Brent Anbe at a special screening of the movie Aquaman on O‘ahu last month. Keeping fans entertained in the background is none other than Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa. FILE PHOTO

That youthful recalcitrance first surfaced when Kekumano was in his mid-teens, after he was encouraged to go out for a role in the TV series Hawai‘i Five-0. Since then, the declaration has been a somewhat recurring line for him, even rearing its head outside of the audition world.

During his senior year at Kamehameha Schools-Kapālama, for example, the 2016 graduate was asked to hold the Hawaiian flag at the dramatic conclusion of hō‘ike, the halftime show during the schools’ annual song contest at Blaisdell Arena.

Guess what his response was? “I told them, ‘I don’t want to do it,'” Kekumano recalls, chuckling at the memory. “I was so scared. I didn’t want to drop the flag.”

Ultimately, he reconsidered his stance and agreed to hoist the banner — just as he would eventually listen to his mom, his agent and others by trying out for and winning a few TV and film roles.

As for that proud moment when he was alone in the spotlight, holding the Hawaiian ensign in front of thousands of spectators, the happy-go-lucky Kekumano recounts, “I really thought that that would be the coolest moment I’d ever be a part of. I was planning on showing my (future) kids video of that moment. They’d be like, ‘Wow! My dad was so cool!'”

Of course, things have been so much cooler for him since he decided to dive in to one particular movie role — essentially upgrading his ripple of a moment with the flag for a tidal wave-sized move with a trident.

Transformation Into An Atlantean

“Yeah, I think I pretty much topped raising the flag when I landed the role in Aquaman,” he says, laughing.

In being cast as the 16-year-old comic book version of Arthur Curry — the half-human, half-Atlantean superhero in the just-released Warner Bros./DC Films blockbuster Aquaman — Kekumano not only beat out a number of hopefuls for the coveted role, but thrust himself into the limelight before millions of moviegoers across the globe.

As expected, he wasn’t at all interested in auditioning for a role in the film when it was first presented to him in early 2017. (To be clear, Kekumano had no idea the movie was Aquaman and that he’d soon be rubbing shoulders with notable actors such as Jason Momoa, Willem Dafoe and Temuera Morrison.) Thus, he had to be wooed into the audition with the promise that the part was for “a really big production.”

“So I’m reading the script, and the lines are so random — they were talking about swords and tridents — and I’m thinking this part is for some medieval movie,” he recalls. “That’s when I told my agent and my mom, ‘I’m not interested; I don’t wanna do it.'”

But with the encouragement and help of local casting director Rachel Sutton, who eventually revealed to Kekumano the name of the movie he would be auditioning for, and buoyed by his remarkable resemblance to a young Momoa, the Honolulu resident decided to take the plunge. As a result, he received about six callbacks before film producers concluded that he was the best person to play the teenage version of Aquaman.

In the summer of 2017, Kekumano flew to LA to be fitted for his transformation into an Atlantean. New accessories included a wig and contact lenses, the latter of which was a particularly difficult process for him.

“I had never worn contacts before, so I had to have someone else put them in for me. I mean, I can’t even open up my eyes under water, let alone put contacts in!” he explains, still squeamish over the experience.

Soon after his fitting, Kekumano traveled to Australia, where he would spend nine days on the set at Village Roadshow Studios in Gold Coast, Queensland. On most mornings, make-up artists would work on covering his real tattoo of a tiger shark and place fake tattoos on his neck, arms and torso. After lunch, he’d train for his beach fight scene with Dafoe and read lines with a veteran coach.

Still, he desperately needed some one-on-one time with Momoa in order to accurately represent the movie’s leading actor. One evening, Kekumano got his wish when Momoa invited him over to his rented home in Queensland for a barbecue.

“Jason’s a larger-than-life guy, and he’s super cool. And because he knew I was from the islands, his local boy came out,” recalls Kekumano. “While we were hanging out at his house, Jason began talking about his own mannerisms. That helped because when I eventually shot my scene, I wasn’t really thinking about me and what mannerisms I might want to infuse into the character; I was thinking about what Jason’s mannerisms were.

“For example, if you ever met Jason, you’d notice that he doesn’t really walk with his chest out like, say, I do; he kind of walks a bit hunched. I tried to match that. I had to think about how he acts, how he talks, how he walks and try to incorporate all those things into the movie.”

In explaining his big scene and how it establishes the super-hero’s backstory (spoiler alert), Kekumano notes, “We’re on a beach, and I’m training with the character Vulko, played by Willem Dafoe, who’s a mentor to young Aquaman. I’m at a kind of cocky stage in life, and we have this back-and-forth battle with the trident and staffs going on before Vulko knocks me on my butt. Then we go into a dialogue in which he reveals to me how my mom died. Up until then, I had always been questioning what happened to her, so it was a pretty emotional scene. I’m angry, I’m heated, and I’m pissed off and flying the trident around once I learned that she was killed.”

The oldest of three boys born to parents Scott and Karen Kekumano, the actor grew up in Pauoa before the family relocated to Mililani. A multi-sport athlete, he played football and wrestled in high school while also training on the side in mixed martial arts. But he soon discovered that surfing fit his personality best.

“I was kind of more on the lazier side of things; I was always slacking off and going to practice late,” Kekumano admits. “With that laid-back attitude, I kind of fell into surfing.”

An independent soul, he began navigating his own way to North Shore beaches at age 12.

“I would catch TheBus from Mililani to Waimea Bay,” he explains, “but after they switched up the bus routes and forced me to take multiple busses, I was like, forget that. So I would just stick out my thumb and hitchhike to Waimea or Keikis.”

His foray into the acting realm came when he was 15 and auditioned for a low-budget film. The movie producer had been looking for a mixed martial artist and went to United MMA & Fitness Center in Waipahu to hand out audition flyers. Kekumano’s uncle, Ken Lee, owns the training center and encouraged the then-teenager to try out for the part. Unfortunately, budgetary constraints wound up shelving the film project, but not before Kekumano gained some valuable experience in the industry.

“The cool thing about that film was that I got to do all my own stunts, all the fighting scenes,” says Kekumano. “I also got to roll down a hill into a graveyard. That was sick!”

Television turned out to be a friendlier path to acting as he eventually landed the recurring role of the character Nahele Huikala on Hawai‘i Five-0.

“You know, I didn’t really care too much at first about being in Five-0,” admits Kekumano, whose acting credits to date include a small part in an Inhumans episode and a role in Ty Sanga’s short film Hae Hawai‘i. “But then, when I started seeing the paychecks, I was like, ‘Holy cow! This is awesome.'”

Although Kekumano is hopeful that his appearance in Aquaman leads to more prominent acting roles in the future, he claims to be content with living an everyday man’s existence. Currently, he works a weekday job as a city lifeguard at Ala Moana and Waikīkī beaches, and dances hula on the weekends for Tihati Productions. And while his default line in life continues to be “I don’t wanna do it,” there is one job he would gladly do sans any fiery defiance:

“I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter,” reveals Kekumano. “I know that that’s something my dad always wanted to do, and if I were to do it, I know it would make him so proud.”

He pauses briefly to gather his thoughts, before adding, “I just don’t want to be someone that I’m not. So if acting takes me there and makes me happy, then I’ll continue to do that and be grateful. And if not …”

Then young Aquaman will proudly trade in his trident for a ladder, axe and fire hose.