A Life Less Ordinary
Since her breakout role in The Cosby Show back in the ’80s, LISA BONET’s singular elegance and individuality have firmly set her apart from the Hollywood try-hards. She talks to SANJIV BHATTACHARYA about her inspiring personal journey and how family – including her pet donkey – always comes first
“Hi baby!” Lisa Bonet and I are walking up from her house into the five acres of canyon country she calls home, about an hour outside of LA proper, and she’s calling out to her animals. It’s quite a menagerie. “That’s Amba and Zion, my wolves. Well, half-wolf, half-Malamute,” she explains, as they come to the fence to greet her. Then we hear a honking sound and Bonet’s face lights up. It’s her auburn donkey, Freya. “Isn’t she beautiful? We’ll go walking later, honey.”
It’s a common sight around these parts – that actress from The Cosby Show walking her donkey around town. Bonet has lived here, at her “sanctuary”, for 24 years and made it her own. Tibetan prayer flags greet you at the gate; there are daily mandalas of pebbles and beans on the path. When she first moved here, it was just Bonet and her five-year-old daughter, Zoë, from her first marriage to musician Lenny Kravitz. Now she shares it with her Aquaman husband Jason Momoa and their two children, Lola, 10, and Nakoa-Wolf, nine. “I know people give Southern California a bad rap, but I love it here,” says Bonet. “You can create the life you want.”
Bonet, 50, has always carved her own path. It’s part of her aloof, bohemian cool. She appears occasionally on our screens, most recently in the crime drama Ray Donovan, but her acting has seldom been the key to her cultural presence. She’s that classic feminine archetype of the strong beauty and nurturing mother, but also the fiercely independent hippie, who will always, defiantly, go her own way.
Her life up in these mountains, she says, is “quiet, tranquil and, yeah, a bit reclusive. But that’s my Scorpio nature. I already have that loner personality.” She fits right in here, barefoot, in baggy pants and a wide-brimmed hat, dreadlocks framing her face and a Native American blanket wrapped around her.
“The world wasn’t ready for what I represented, the merging of these two races. [I tried] not to internalize the hate that was projected onto me”
She’s very much an earth mother. The Bonet household has no television, just one computer. And she never checks her phone in front of her kids. She encourages them to play on the land, use their imagination. “One of my proudest moments as a mom was when someone asked Nakoa-Wolf, ‘Well, what is life for?’ and he said, without missing a beat, ‘To protect Mother Earth, of course. But God also wants to play with Mother Earth.’ I just thought: my work is done!”
Bonet was born in the heart of the hippie movement, in November 1967 in San Francisco, to a white Jewish schoolteacher mother and a black opera-singing father. Her parents split up soon after she was born, and she has seen little of her father since. Her mother moved down to San Fernando Valley, near LA, and raised her alone. It wasn’t easy being a mixed-race kid at that time. “The world wasn’t ready for what I represented, the merging of these two races,” says Bonet. “I didn’t always feel welcome – in my mom’s family, in my school. So I sheltered myself by always withholding a bit, because I didn’t always feel safe.” If she could go back, she’d tell herself to love herself more: “Try not to internalize the disdain and hate that was projected onto me.”
“There was no knowledge on my part about [Bill Cosby’s] specific actions, but… There was just energy. And that type of sinister, shadow energy cannot be concealed”
Like a lot of self-described misfits, she found an escape in acting. At 16, she became Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and then its spin-off show, A Different World, at the time two of the most popular shows in the world. Have the revelations about Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct tainted her memory of those years? She looks evenly at me. “No, it’s exactly as I remember it,” she says. But did you have a sense that anything was happening? “There was no knowledge on my part about his specific actions, but… There was just energy. And that type of sinister, shadow energy cannot be concealed.” You sensed a darkness? “Always. And if I had anything more to reveal then it would have happened a long time ago. That’s my nature. The truth will set you free.”
At the time, Bonet was branded a rebel who tested the patience of the most popular sitcom dad in the country. She showed up late on set and posed topless in Interview magazine, contrary to his wishes. Cosby famously opposed her role in Angel Heart, in which she performed a nude sex scene with Mickey Rourke. “I don’t need to say, ‘I told you so’,” she says about Cosby’s current situation. “I just leave all that to karma and justice and what will be.”
It was around this time that she fell for Lenny Kravitz, and their marriage was like a firework, bright and intense, but ultimately short-lived. What did you expect, I tell her, you married a rock star! She smiles. “He wasn’t when I met him.” They were almost too perfectly matched – both half-Jewish and half-black; both dreadlocked and gorgeous; talented and young. Lenny was 23 and Lisa just 20. Just over a year after they met, Lenny got a record deal, and Bonet co-wrote some of the songs on his first album. When she became pregnant with Zoë, she says, “people were falling off roofs trying to get pictures.” The divorce, just six years in, was crushing. But with Zoë to think about, there was no room for recriminations. Bonet went through what she calls “a very accelerated time, spiritually and intellectually.” In other words, she grew up really fast. Determined not to burden their daughter with her baggage – “I didn’t want to pass on those heirlooms, and this fresh wound of a divorce” – Bonet reconciled with Kravitz and focused on her daughter. “I think there are probably times when these thresholds can either sink you,” she says, “or you can see who you are and rise and dust yourself off.”
“When your primary male figure couldn’t care less to show up, that can become a theme in your life, trying to fill this gap with different men”
It wasn’t an easy time. There was an earthquake in 1994 that put Zoë and Lisa out on the streets – “We were literally camping out!” – before finding the ranch where she lives today. Her mother was a huge help, but she died 20 years ago now – just saying the words still brings tears to Bonet’s eyes. “She was a good woman. She loved me,” she says, her voice breaking. There were professional disappointments, too. The few movies she did often didn’t succeed, and she seemed to recede from public view, busying herself with a non-profit, Operation Venice Heart, helping troubled incarcerated youth in LA. “We’d visit them in juvie, and just listen to them. It was real simple.”
In 1998, she appeared in Enemy of the State with Will Smith, followed by a star turn in High Fidelity, opposite John Cusack, with singing, too. It begged the question – why wasn’t Lisa Bonet a much bigger star? She laughs. “I don’t know! I always had one foot in and one foot out of the business, so that’s part of it. But also, it’s slim pickings out there! There aren’t endless opportunities for women of color, you’ve probably noticed.” At the time, Bonet’s love life was unsettled, a vestige from her childhood. “When your primary male figure couldn't care less to show up, that can become a theme in your life where you’re trying to fill this gap with these different men,” she says.
“Jason is an alpha male who stands for love and family. Having an absent father, then to be fully met by a man of that stature, is really incredible”
But in 2004 she met Momoa, 13 years her junior, at a jazz club in LA. “I can’t say it was full-on from the moment we saw each other, but we have been together from the day that we met,” she says. He needed a ride home that night, so Bonet took him, stopping at a café along the way for Guinness and grits. “In that moment, love came and it came big, and he did not run as I think a lot of men do.” She laughs. “He basically picked me up and threw me over his shoulder, caveman style!” They’re a picture of happiness now. Lenny and Jason are friends, the kids are all tight, Thanksgiving is a big event at their house – Bonet’s two families getting along famously. “It’s fantastic. It’s full-on family love,” she says.
I tell her that a lot of women envy her, going from rock star to superhero. She corrects me again – “He wasn’t when I met him! There’s a theme. What’s cool about Jason is that he’s an alpha male who stands for love and family. And to circle back to my own wounds, having an absent father, then to be fully met by a man of that stature, is really incredible. Jason embodies a rare form of masculinity in this day and age – he’s a leader; he’s generous. Just in terms of charisma, physique, the right use of power, responsibility, work ethic, you can go down the line.”
Momoa’s away on location right now, Zoë too, so Bonet has time to focus on the next chapter of her career. And it may not be as an actress. “Acting is how I’ve forged my way, but I don’t think it’s my passion.” So what will it be? “Maybe directing. I write also,” she says, vaguely. “I have ideas. There’s a movie, a children’s TV show, and a documentary short. I feel that I have the soul of an artist, but I don’t know yet which medium.”
We head back to the house. Momoa has suggested moving to Hawaii, or even New Zealand, but Bonet is resisting – “I’m not quite ready to disappear completely!” She’s considering Costa Rica, though. “I don’t think they have an army there. They took that money and put it into education – can you imagine?” But this is all for some distant future. Right now, more pressing matters await. “It’s time to walk my donkey!”