Interview: ‘Chasing Mavericks’ star Jonny Weston on Surfing Mavericks and the Pressure of Playing a Real Person
Chasing Mavericks tells the true story of Jay Moriarity who, at the age of 16, became an instant surfing legend when he rode one of the biggest and most dangerous set of waves in the world. The Mavericks, as legend calls them, are mythical waves that aren’t supposed to exist but once he discovers them, he enlists the help of local surfer Frosty to train him to survive the death-defying ride.
Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) – with a little help from Michael Apted – the film has some of the best surfing scenes ever put on film. It’s beautifully shot and you can truly sense the danger and exhilaration these surfers feel when they catch the waves and ride into shore.
The film stars Gerard Butler as Frosty, Jonny Weston as Moriarity and Elizabeth Shue as his alcoholic mother. It’s Weston’s first lead in a film and he handles it like a champ; I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next for him.
Weston grew up surfing but as he told me he was only 2 on a scale of 10. After getting trained and spending so much time in the water filming, he was puts himself at an 8. That’s pretty damn good for a guy who grew up in South Carolina.
In this interview, we chat about how he got the role, surfing those Mavericks, his co-stars and how he got his first agent.
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes
Chasing Mavericks is in theaters now
Johnny Weston: Yeah, I surfed about 10 years.
So on a scale of 1 to 10, how good were you?
Johnny Weston: I was a 2 and a half, 3. And they trained me and I came up to as far as professionals being a 10, I probably go up to about a 7. And by the time the film finished, I’d gotten up a little higher than that.
Johnny Weston: Yeah, I mean, I surfed mavericks one of the days.
How big was the wave do you think?
Johnny Weston: I wanna say the wave that I caught was probably about 30 feet. And it was part of a larger wave, but I got kinda on the shoulder.
When you’re up that high, do you look down and do you just say, “Holy mother.”
Johnny Weston: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you start out almost on water level and then you just rise and rise and rise and rise. You think you’re gonna stop, it’s like one of those drop zones where you think you’re at the top and it just keeps going.
But it’s over so quickly, you know, that it’s just a memory now.
Does it make you want to go back and do it again?
Johnny Weston: No. I wanna go… I’ve been invited for life to back and watch all the invitations and contests out there on Jeff Clark’s own boat, so I’ll be out there every year.
When you auditioned, do you not only have to read, but did you have to do a surfing audition as well?
Johnny Weston: No, no. No, they didn’t know I could surf.
Johnny Weston: No. I mean, they asked me and I said, “Yeah, I can surf. Yeah, sure. Of course.” But, you know, I actually recorded myself surfing. I got this girl to record me in the final chemistry with Gerard they weren’t interested in seeing it. I tried to show them and they’re like, “No, no. We’re fine. Thanks.”
Like Curtis Hansen, the director of 8 Mile and L.A. Confidential, he was like, “No thanks.
Johnny Weston: Yeah. So I thought I didn’t get it. I was like, “Wow, that’s it for me.” And then I got the part. So I think they were pretty psyched to find out that I wasn’t goofy footed and I was actually a regular foot surfer.
Did you have an agent at the time?
Johnny Weston: I did, yeah. So it’s just, you know, the regular Hollywood process of getting a role except… Brandon Hooper is the writer, he’s a purist. He’s absolutely not Hollywood. He was very connected to the source and the authenticity of Jay’s story and the surfing community. And so he was there for me, very personally there for me, to make sure. Because he knew that I was the same way and I’m not at all… did not at all approach this from a Hollywood angle.
How many auditions did you have for it?
Johnny Weston: 4? I think 4 auditions. They have to narrow it down from like 3,000 people. I know they sent out full casting things to actors in America and Europe and then they also sent out a casting call to all surfers in Surf Line magazine and Transworld, all over the world. So I’m incredibly, incredibly fortunate and honored.
Did you know anything about the story or the background of the Jay when you first went into the audition?
Johnny Weston: I didn’t know anything about Jay when I first got the script and I read it and then I found out it was a true story that same day. It’s funny, Jay passed away the day before his 23rd birthday and I received the script in my email the day before my 23rd birthday.
What’s the phone call like when they offer you the part?
Johnny Weston: When I get it? Well, I know that all my agents and managers… it was a group phone call and I always know that means good news.
What kind of research did you do? Did you watch videos of any interviews he did?
Johnny Weston: There are very few. There’s very few interviews. By the time I’d started filming I’d probably only seen one legitimate interview. And there’s this little clip on YouTube where some lost footage, where his friend is recording inside… they’re all sitting around the house and Jay’s sitting on the couch and looking at a magazine and the guy goes, “Hey Jay, what’s up?” And he lifts up his head, he goes, “Hey, hey!” Like that and he’s like, “What’re you doing?” He’s like, “Beer time?” And that was it. Those two little words he said, I automatically understood his character better than any other thing I saw.
But also Kim Moriarity, his former wife, and the real Frosty and Bob Pearson, his board shaper, all these people were incredibly, incredibly supportive for me, which was, you know, with the responsibility and the pressure playing a real life character I think that I would’ve not been able to perform under that pressure without their help, without their approval.
What is that like? I mean, you wanna do justice to the guy.
Johnny Weston: Absolutely.
Did you feel the weight of the world?
Johnny Weston: Oh, for sure. It was terrifying. And I would go in and out of it and be totally fine and then a couple hours later it would just kinda hit me and I think Kim Moriarity just telling me that watching a scene happen and say, “You’ve embodied Jay. You’re already there,” was what really helped me through it.
And then when we saw the Santa Cruz screening and Kim and Frosty came up to me together after the screening and told me that Jay would be proud. So that’s it. I mean, that’s it. That’s more important than anything the director had told me. He’s a brilliant director so that means a lot.
You worked with some really good actors as well.
Johnny Weston: Yeah. Gerard Butler and Elizabeth Shue. The list goes on. What an opportunity.
I imagine that sort of elevates you a little bit. What was that kinda like working with both of them?
Johnny Weston: I… well, you know, the situation was really intense with the director, with Curtis, getting sick and having to leave.
How much did he film of it?
Johnny Weston: Just over half. Just over half. But I didn’t know that that was abnormal for a director to leave or anything. I’m just like… I was just a lost kid.
Like, “Ok, sure.”
Johnny Weston: “Yeah. Sure, whatever. I’m just moving on.”
And I guess to have the two of them be able to help me without directing me, you know, is… it’s a nearly impossible feat. Because it was a fine line and if they had crossed it I would’ve felt entirely unfit for the part, but they’re just so good and they understand actors and we teamed up, literally just teamed up, and got in the trenches together and made a movie.
Does Gerard Butler, does he have to keep his American accent the whole time while filming? Or when they say cut he goes back to his regular accent?
Johnny Weston: Oh, he goes back. He goes back. Yeah. Yeah, when fans come up and everything he’s back to the Gerard Butler. But, yeah, that’s a sign of brilliance to be able to pop in and out of an accent like that. It’s hard to do.
I’ve surfed a couple of times and I hate cold water. So you’d have to get in the water at 7, 6am?
Johnny Weston: Yeah. I was freezing. It got down to like… it was in the middle of the winter it got down to about 50 degrees, 45 degrees. The water at one point was 48 degrees. We got a swell from Alaska and that’s the temperature of the water in Alaska. It was miserable. But I just kept… I always remembered that… who we were doing the film for, who I was honoring by doing the film and I pushed through all the hardships easily.
How long would you stay in the water for?
Johnny Weston: 12 hours. I’d get out for an hour at a time. But I was really out on the water 4 hours at a time, 5 hours. Pretty sure I got hypothermia for a day or two and we had to kinda cut filming for a while.
Wow. That’s crazy.
Johnny Weston: Yeah, I wouldn’t do it again. I didn’t think about that when I read the script.
Where are you from originally?
Johnny Weston: Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where I was raised basically.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Johnny Weston: No, no. I was 19 and I was in… I was taking a theatre class just for the sake of getting out of chemistry and I loved it so much that I quit college and moved to New York.
And what happened in New York?
Johnny Weston: I just moved out to New York and I got distracted by the party scene for a little while and then I got my head back on straight and I started working hard. So I probably was acting really, really harder than anybody I knew, studying harder than anyone I’d ever met probably for about 3 years before anything real happened.
This was in New York?
Johnny Weston: In LA. I moved to LA 3 years ago probably today. 3 years ago August.
How’d you get your first agent or manager?
Johnny Weston: I just walked in someone’s door and was like, “Hey, can you…” Like, I looked him up on the internet and walked in the door and I was like, “Hey can you hire me? I wanna start acting now because I’m tired of goofing around.” And he was like, “Sure.” And that was that.
Did he immediately start sending you to auditions?
Johnny Weston: No, he started out only sending me to commercial auditions and then I booked a commercial for Burlington Coat Factory.
I’m in it for a second and a half. And then he’s like, “Well, you must be good. So let’s start sending you out for stuff.”
And I had the wonderful, wonderful honor of sitting across from a table in an audition with Tilda Swinton before I had ever studied or anything. It was a fluke completely, but… yeah. I’ll never forget that. I think that was my first brush with talent.
Have you had any truly awful auditions yet?
Johnny Weston: I had a truly awful audition for theatre. Yeah. I was gonna go on a Broadway play. He just couldn’t wait for me to get out of the room.
What show was it?
Johnny Weston: I don’t know what the show was. I don’t remember. But it was bad.
Did you have to do a monologue?
Johnny Weston: Yeah. It was this big, long monologue and I forgot all my lines. I think I was just so nervous, I had so much respect for theatre and what kind of ability it takes and I was just… I felt like I was in over my head. But I think I’m ready for it now. I think I’m actually gonna start getting into it a little bit.