Already firmly ensconced in the highest echelons of the modelling world, Jon Kortajarena is now becoming a regular fixture on screens both large and small. P. Ramakrishnan tracks down the peripatetic star to talk about work, family and what truly matters.
Jon Kortajarena is not an easy man to pin down. We originally planned to chat while in London, where our cover shoot was held, but as the day progressed there just wasn’t time. We then set a date in New York, where he was wrapping up a film, but there were production delays and he wasn’t available on cue. Finally, we tracked him to his office in Spain, where he was shooting another film.
You may know the face but can’t pronounce the surname (for the record, it’s Korta-ha-ren-nah); you’re familiar perhaps with the body (that Tom Ford campaign where he’s wearing nothing but glasses) but not the body of work. But the 33-year-old from Bilbao, Spain, has been in the business for 15 years. He’s featured in campaigns for brands ranging from Armani Jeans to Zara, music videos with Madonna, Fergie and Kanye West, and TV shows in Spain and the US. Currently appearing in the TV series La Verdad (The Truth) in Spain and Italy, Kortajarena can be seen next in feature film The Aspern Papers, alongside Hollywood heavyweights Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Tell us about how you got started. Did you always plan to be a model?
No, actually, I come from a family that lives very far from the [bright] lights, and this world of fashion. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know that I was interested in fashion. When I was 15, I wanted to earn some extra money and a friend of mine told me he was working in a modelling agency. And I said, “Well, I’m looking for something different.” But he said, “Just come and see what they say!” So I went. I was interested in doing events, accommodating people, taking them to their seats, working just to get some money for the weekends. That’s how it started. One day I met my Spanish agents, and now I’ve been with them for the last 15 years.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
One was the first time I worked with Tom Ford. While I was working with him, I realised how special [the opportunity] was, how much I was learning from that entire experience. Special times like this are so precious, so beautiful, but often you don’t realise how significant the moment is until it’s gone. But I recognised instinctively that it was an amazing experience, and I knew that it was changing me in so many ways.
How do you mean?
Obviously, in a professional way, because thanks to Mr Ford I was seen for the first time in the fashion industry, and he gave me the position and the opportunity to become a top model. In a personal aspect, I was growing a lot and when you’re 21, the influences you have around are very important, because you learn a lot from them. They become references for the man you want to be, and for me, Mr Ford was that reference. In values, in ethics, in class, in the way he treats other people, the way he treats himself, the world and his opinions, his voice – everything went much deeper than the aesthetic experience we were living with fashion. He has been my role model for so many years.
In this industry you meet many charming people but the difference with Mr Ford is he’s honest – some people act that way when they’re with you or if they have an interest in you, but he’s like that with everybody, whether they’re a prince or a pauper. That makes him incredible – it’s not only having that gift but also sharing it with everybody in an equal way. And I think that’s very humble, very classy and very big of someone in his position.
Apart from featuring in his fashion campaigns and commercials, you also appeared in ford’s film directorial venture, a single man. How was that experience compared to modelling?
I always wanted to be an actor. When I was 17, I told my mom it was my path. She told me, “Well, I can’t afford to send you to drama school in another city, to pay for your apartment.” I had a three- year-old sister and it was just the three of us, so my mom couldn’t afford that. She told me to keep studying and then in the future I could be an actor. Then the fashion industry came to my life. I started with no goals and – fast-forward – one day I’m on a movie set as an actor. It happened just as I dreamed it.
You worked with Colin Firth – who many believe should have won the Oscar for his role in A Single Man.
I remember the scene with Colin Firth – my feet were shaking and I could hear the noise of my shoes twitching on the metal rim of the car, you know? Imagine, working with the great British actor and it’s just my first movie. When you see it on screen it looks quite natural, but that was my first shot.
Did it get easier as you worked in other projects?
In other movies I’ve done, everything becomes more and more difficult. In the Spanish movie Pieles [Skins, 2017], about people who don’t belong in society for different reasons, I had a more intense character to play. Eighty percent of his body was burnt. And we were filming in Madrid in August with no AC – every day six hours of make-up and glue, with fake skin stuck on my face to make me completely unrecognisable. That was one of the hardest moments.
Considering your career is based on your looks, did you ask the director why he cast you and altered your looks so drastically?
That was his point. He wanted someone really beautiful to be transformed into someone who is not accepted for being really ugly. For me, personally, it was transformative physically and psycho socially. Because you already have an idea of how you are in the world, but when people react to you in an extreme manner, in a negative way, you have to reconsider everything. Who are you, really, without the exterior? Who are you inside?
How did you connect with that character?
I was connected to him not visually but by the soul. The face, body and everything else was different – but suddenly there was this wall, the body was a wall to express that he had a beautiful soul. And for me that was so meaningful and so challenging, and I had no doubts about accepting the role.
You’ve also been on TV, as Felix Cordova in Quantico.
Well, in Quantico my character wasn’t one of the main ones, but I had time to really prepare for my part. The set was very comfortable, the team was amazing – Priyanka [Chopra], the main actress, she was super sweet and she made me feel part of the team from day one. You feel very grateful, because when there is already a team and they know each other, the jokes they make, how everything works … Being the new guy can sometimes be difficult, but I never felt that way. And I was filming in New York, everything was really beautiful. I have my apartment in New York, so it was great.
Is Spain still home?
Yeah, I go to Spain quite often. I never spend a lot of time there, but I go quite often to keep in touch with my family. You know, I talk to them almost every day but sometimes you need to touch them, to feel them and hug them and to see everything is really OK.
What are the best things about bilbao?
The food! I come from the Basque Country and in my region the food is extraordinary. Actually, the other day I read an article that the Basque Country has more Michelin stars per square foot than anywhere else in the world. In our culture, food is very attached to our traditions. You know, like, eating good food, fresh produce and having these conversations after lunch about dinner, at dinner we talk about breakfast, at breakfast – and then we take siestas! We enjoy life.
At the moment the fashion industry is going through some seismic shifts. The #MeToo movement has lent voices to those in the margin who were oppressed, assaulted or abused by the big names in the industry. Have you ever had a terrible experience as a young model?
Oh yes, a lot. Absolutely. Now I’m working with great people, great designers, but it wasn’t always like this. Especially when you start out. I experienced abuse – not physical abuse, but abuse of power. In this industry a lot of people deal with very young people, and when you’re 18 you don’t have the tools to defend yourself. I guess everybody who has been in this business at a young age has lived through some terrible experiences of abuse. But they also make you grow and you learn. Step by step, they shape you and your values, and the path you want to take, so I’m also grateful for those experiences. I’ll never be ashamed of being a model or going through challenging times.
What’s been tough?
Honestly, it was really hard being apart from my family in the beginning. The loneliness of being in a foreign country with no friends, no family. I missed my little sister’s birthday and first communion because I was on the other side of the world. I was talking to a popular Hong Kong model about what male models have to do that makes them uncomfortable, and it came down to the nudity clauses.
I think you have to experience it and see how you feel. I think nudity, if it’s done with class and in an artistic way, it’s great. If it’s in nature, nudity doesn’t have to be sexual, it’s who we are and it’s honest. But the problem is that sometimes people have no boundaries, and they want something else. But when I’ve done photo shoots where I was naked, I’ve done it with great artists who I actually truly trust and that’s why I never felt bad or that it was a mistake. I obviously do know what my limits are, always.
What more would you like to do?
Well, I’m filming a movie in Spain and in October I start another TV series. Also, in a few months I’ll be appearing in The Aspern Papers. So those are my movie projects and in the meantime I’m also doing the Tom Ford fragrance [campaign].
You’ve worked with so many brands and been the face of Cavalli, Versace, Tom ford. now you’re The face of Bvlgari watches – how do you decide whether to take a parcular job?
How do I say yes or no? Well, having this long a career for a male model is very unusual. Before, I used to take whatever job came along, but now I need to choose products that I feel I can represent. I’m an ambassador for Save the Children and Greenpeace. Bulgari also works really closely with Save the Children, so being a worldwide ambassador for Bulgari watches I’m not only representing these amazing watches but also working with the social aspect. Two years ago, I went to Nepal and saw the schools they made from the money we raised with the campaign.
I’ve heard that you’re passionate about the environment.
I think if we don’t have a home, nothing else matters because we don’t have a place to live. When I see all the plastic pollution, I think we are forgetting the roots of who we are and where we are. We are destroying the world for future generations. I’m constantly posting this on my social media to create awareness.
Finally, I heard that one of your favourite books is Siddhartha, about a man searching for the meaning of existence. What are you searching for at the moment?
Exactly the same as Siddhartha. He’s on his path, and he’s following it with his values and what his family taught him. When you’re out in the world without your family, you discover who you are and what truly moves you. And that’s my goal, to never forget what I’m here for. I don’t want the lies, the ego and the ambition to blind me from what truly matters and what existence truly is.