Jonny Weston recalls a hairy day’s filming on Chasing Mavericks – the biopic of Californian soul surfer Jay Moriarty which marks the baby-faced actor’s first leading role – when co-star Gerard Butler was dragged underwater for more than 100 yards. “I was right there when a jetski finally brought Gerard back to the boat,” remembers Weston. “I’m like, ‘Dude, are you exhausted? Are you scared?’ He just looked at me, looked right through me, and whispered, ‘Everything.’ Then I didn’t see him for two days. He was a changed person when he got out of hospital.”
Already an experienced wave-rider, Weston’s underwater hold-downs weren’t nearly so traumatic, although even this self-confessed adrenaline junkie was left gaping in “awe and terror” at nature’s majesty during shooting. “Seeing a swell coming at you that’s 40-feet high and hasn’t broken yet? It looks like someone is pushing a mountain at you. It’s silencing and shocking.” Filming in and around the real Mavericks, the fabled Northern Californian surfing spot where waves have been known to crest at 80 feet, cast and crew had respond to ever-changing conditions.
The real Moriarty, one of the great big-wave surfers of the ‘90s, forged his reputation at 16 (the age Weston portrays him) when he endured a spectacular wipeout that was caught on film and made him globally famous. He died in 2001 diving in the Maldives, which heaped its own pressures on Weston. “I was so excited to get the role but I didn’t realise how much of a toll it was going to take on me playing a real character,” he divulges. “I wanted to honour him as a person and also honour the way that people saw him.” That included Jay’s wife and best friends, who frequently hung out on set. Ultimately, Weston credits them with being immensely supportive and “saving me, because it was not easy. I went back and forth between complete terror and complete joy until the very end – and to this day.”
Also in Weston’s corner was respected filmmaker Curtis Hanson, director of LA Confidential, who the actor describes as “soft-spoken, unintrusive and profound. It being my first movie, it would have been very easy to choke all the time but he didn’t let that happen.” Unfortunately, Hanson had to depart mid-shoot due to heart troubles and was replaced by Michael Apted who, says the actor, “came in and was immediately a father figure”. Weston’s own father was a local radio celebrity who now runs a Christian radio station, while his mother worked as an educational therapist in Charleston, South Carolina, where Weston spent the majority of his youth. He was a skateboarder before he was a surfer, competing throughout the state until he quit the sport at the age of 15, deciding that the beating his body was taking just wasn’t worth it. “I took some major falls, had to have hip surgery,” he exhales. “High-level skating is the most dangerous thing you can do to the human body.”
The nearby Atlantic looked far less painful than concrete skate park bowls, even if he learned to surf “on heavy, dumpy waves, which made me a lot better when I came out to California where the waves are really pretty”. Before LA, there came a three-year stint in New York City where “I was just a major slacker”. Weston had the idea to become an actor but wasn’t taking it all that seriously, although he did score a couple of major auditions with high-profile figures. When he made the shortlist on both occasions, industry folk began sitting up and taking notice – including the woman who’s now his manager, who tracked Weston down and convinced him to “go for it or bust” in LA.
That was three years ago and Weston – now in his early 20s (“although I look like I’m 12… when casting directors ask, I just say I’m over 18”) – has come to love his adopted city, sharing a place with a couple of friends also making their way in the film industry. If he’s not at home or on a job, Weston can be found – where else? – outdoors on a dirt-bike track, or riding the waves – “still the best thing in my life,” he says – or even, occasionally, on his skateboard. “I do random street stops and use it as a tool for exploration, maybe go find some stairs to jump down,” he says. “But you’ll never see me at a skate park. I don’t have the balls I used to… and I don’t intend on getting them back.”