The man behind the myth is a legend, and now a movie star
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Design: Bennett Atkinson
Cinematic screenings of Peter Hamblin’s 50-minute, hyper-stylised film Let’s Be Frank – The Double Life of Frank James Solomon have been taking place worldwide (the South African premiere happens this Friday, 8pm at The Labia). The movie promises “a visceral journey through the unseen and unknown world of the big-wave surfer from South Africa, featuring hit men, drag queens and famous faces from the surfing world appearing in unfamiliar situations. The lines of myth, legend and reality are increasingly blurred while taking audiences on an intercontinental clandestine investigation that leads the viewer to ask – just who is Frank?”
Spoiler alert: Frank’s actually just a nice kid from Hout Bay with a good attitude and a dream. Having known Frank for a while now, not only is he different from the man in the movie, he’s also different to other pro surfers from SA. Frank was never really sponsored and didn’t get the same cushy treatment that the rest of the 90s brat pack did. Instead, Frank went to school, studied at university and then worked odd jobs without ever losing sight of his dream. And now he’s living it. Kind of…
Somewhat of a thrill seeker, Frank threw himself into this feature film as easily as he does the big waves that he surfs. People will always have their opinions – “Frank’s success has to be because he looks like 'this', and hangs with these guys, surely…” – however, these comments couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’ve got to where I am by being positive. When I’m around negativity it just bums me out. I went to school, loved surfing, loved competing and never dreamed I’d get to be a professional surfer. So I went to university, studied quantity surveying, got my degree, got a job and shortly after that I met Royden.”
It was while doing an internship on a construction site by day and delivering takeaways in Hout Bay on his Yamaha DT 50 by night, that Frank dropped off a pizza at Royden Bryon’s house, an Oakley international team rider who was one of the top 40 surfers in the world. He ended up moving in with him – Frank can be charming like that.
“I looked at my life, sitting in a container on a construction site, then looked at his life and thought, I’d do anything to have that. I think a lot of surfers in this country are so nurtured and get so much attention early on that when they don’t succeed by a certain age, they have nothing to fall back on. I haven’t done the tour and, sure, it might be hard, but it’s still better than sitting in a container at a construction site all day.”
On top of graduating from Camps Bay High School and his UCT degree, Frank is also a School of Hard Knocks alumnus, case in point when he decided to surf South Africa’s best-known big-wave spot, Dungeons.
“I’d asked some older guys to take me out to Dungeons with them and they said something like ‘Get lost, kid!'. So I told my dad and he said something like, ‘Cowboys don’t cry, just paddle out'. So I did, and when I eventually got out there, the older guys were freaking out.”
After a humbling first experience, Frank was walking back up the mountain (no booties), when he bumped into big-wave legend Grant Washburn who had been watching the wave from the top of the Sentinel. Grant was pretty blown away and told Frank about a TV show that he was working on, and based on this conversation and two follow-up emails, Frank made his first trip to the States.
“After a thirty-hour flight, I finally arrived and nobody was there. I had no money, I was so jetlagged, I didn't know where anything was. After six hours at the airport, I decided to spend one night and then fly back home the next day. After begging people at the airport for money, I caught a train to the city and ended up at this dodgy hostel in San Francisco, in a bunk bed below a gay couple that kept offering me drinks.”
Crying himself to sleep that night and dreaming of that container on the construction site, Frank woke up to find Washburn standing over him, who promptly dropped him off at his friend Jeff’s house.
Despite breakfasting on beers and saying that Frank was "nothing like Twiggy", a friendship formed and Frank kept going back to Jeff’s place three months a year for four years (Frank’s charming, remember). Working at a pizza place, a bar, and even considering going on 'dates' with older women, Frank did whatever he could in the hopes of being chosen to surf the competition at Mavericks.
“I was posting all these photos where I was trying to sell the dream of being a pro surfer, even though I had all these jobs on the go. I never told anyone besides my family that I was actually working four jobs. I sold the idea of being a pro surfer, but I was never a pro.”
After another year of making the alternate list but not surfing the contest, Frank went sailing across the Indian Ocean for three months, because it sounded like a fun thing to do at the time (and Frank being Frank, was never one to turn down an opportunity).
“When we got to Thailand, my new sponsors told me they’d get me a ticket to go surf Mavericks again. So I caught a bus to Bangkok and waited for the money to come through. Luckily I found a girl there because I had no money and an ear infection and ended up staying there for three months. Then, with one day left on my visa, the money came through.”
What Frank didn’t know at the time was that the money was from his dad who'd deposited it into his account anonymously. His sponsor was actually in liquidation.
“So I get on the plane with $10 and my 6’2, and because the recession had just hit America I had to bullshit customs to even let me in. I go straight to Jeff’s place and the next day knock on every door until I found a job. I got some really good waves on that trip and ended up coming back with, like, a thousand dollars!”
Frank doesn’t just act like someone from the old school, he looks like he’s from another era, too, and in a time of waxed-chests, pretty-boy tats, curated closets and creative facial hair, it’s refreshing to meet a man who in a different decade, could’ve easily stunt-doubled for Steve McQueen.
He also would have been a natural choice for the role of local surfing legend Frosty Hesson in Chasing Mavericks. Instead, it was Gerald Butler who got that part, but you can ask Frank about that the next time you see him.
So why not just become a professional male model?
“Because I love surfing. I grew up doing lifesaving from the age of six and so I grew up really comfortable in the sea, especially when the swell is bigger. Llandudno is my beach.”
And if it takes starring in a movie, which is loosely based on the story of his life, to keep Frank in the water and out of the container on the building site, well, he’ll try out this acting lark, because why not? Being featured in his own Hollywood movie might even assist Frank with his second love – women.