Searching for Jay: The hunt begins for actor to play legendary Santa Cruz surfer

By WALLACE BAINE

In the Santa Cruz surfing world, the phrase “Mavericks is a go!” has a particular meaning. But this week, that mantra has nothing to do with the swell at Half Moon Bay. This week, “Mavericks is a go!” is Hollywood talk.

The long-rumored Hollywood film about the late Santa Cruz big-wave rider Jay Moriarity and his experiences surfing the infamous break at Mavericks got its green light last week and producer/screenwriter Brandon Hooper is ready to get started.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Hooper said that “Mavericks” is slated to start shooting in October, and that the film will be shot entirely on location in Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. On Friday, Hooper’s production company, Walden Media, announced that “300” star Gerard Butler has signed on to play the role of Moriarty’s surfing mentor Frosty Hesson. But Hooper said Tuesday that the crucial role of Moriarity has yet to be cast.

“We’re just now getting started,” he said of the casting search. “We’ve been waiting for months for this moment to say, ‘OK, let’s go find our Jay.’”

Hooper said that the film has brought on a prominent Hollywood casting director who will likely begin her search in Los Angeles.

“Probably what will happen here, is that we’ll be looking at all the major markets, looking at the talent market in Los Angeles, out of people who have cut their teeth in film and TV and who might be a really good surfer. And from there, we’ll migrate up and down the coast, and I think we’ll be hitting Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, if we have to look that far.”

Stressing that no definitive decisions have been made, Hooper said that it is likely that the film will have some sort of Santa Cruz casting sessions for extras, if not for the lead role itself.

“Finding a kid who has the qualities of Jay, and is hopefully a strong surfer, is a tall order. We’re lucky because we have a bit of runway ahead of us here.”

Hooper is also the film’s co-screenwriter, with Kario Salem. He said that the script focuses on one year in the life of Moriarity as he trained to take the wave at Mavericks. Moriarity, who grew up in the tight-knit surf community of Pleasure Point, was only 16 in 1994 when he was photographed by Santa Cruz photographer Bob Barbour plunging off the face of a 25-foot wave at Mavericks. The photo, known as one of surfing’s most famous wipe-out shots, was published on the cover of Surfer magazine, and suddenly the young surfer was world famous.

Moriarity died in 2001, a day short of turning 23, diving alone in the Maldives, a string of islands in the Indian Ocean. Since his death, he has been immortalized not only for his preternatural surfing instincts, but for his serene spirit and optimistic outlook. “Live Like Jay” bumper stickers have been common around Santa Cruz for a decade. The annual Mavericks surfing contest was this year renamed “The Jay at Mavericks” in Moriarity’s memory.

Hooper, who grew up at Lake Tahoe and in the East Bay, first heard the story of Jay Moriarity, fitting enough, while on a surf board.

“It came to me through my producing partner Jim Meenaghan, who also grew up in Northern California, and actually once bought a wet suit from Jay,” said Hooper. “I don’t know how we got on the topic, but we were out surfing one day and he started telling me about Jay Moriarity. And I had seen the ‘Live Like Jay’ stickers and I was, like, ‘Tell me more.’ The more he pulled me into the story, I was fascinated.”

Hooper and his team made the trip to Mavericks during the winter of 2010 to test some cameras and get a sense of how to shoot the notorious big wave. Director Curtis Hanson, whose films include “L.A. Confidential” and “8 Mile,” had said that he would not commit to the film until he was sure he would be able to shoot at Mavericks.

“He felt that if we’re not able to create Mavericks to the point in which (Mavericks veterans) Jeff Clark or Grant Washburn can turn to their significant others during the film and say, ‘This is exactly what it’s like to surf Mavericks,’ then he didn’t want any part of it.”

Hanson got his reassurances and signed onto the project. Hooper said that his ambitions for the movie is to put it in the conversation with other transcendent sports films such as “Hoosiers,” “Breaking Away” and “Chariots of Fire,” in which, he says, “it’s all about the relationships between the characters in those stories and that’s what made them shine.”

Hooper is also aware of the fact that “Mavericks” may replace 1987’s “The Lost Boys” as Santa Cruz’s quintessential calling card to the world’s movie audiences. “The responsibility on our shoulders is immense. That’s why it was such a coup to get Curtis, because he feels as we do that it is a badge that will be displayed before the world about Mavericks, Santa Cruz and the legacy of Jay.”

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