Dialogue: 'Conan the Barbarian's Jason Momoa is a Sensitive, Artsy Ass-Kicker

Dialogue: 'Conan the Barbarian's Jason Momoa is a Sensitive, Artsy Ass-Kicker

Aug 18, 2011

If you’ve seen HBO’s impossibly successful new series Game of Thrones, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the brawny, charismatic actor Jason Momoa. But after Conan the Barbarian is released on August 19, expect Momoa to become a household name in his own right as he takes the classic character and gives him a contemporary energy. Movies.com sat down with Mr. Momoa at the recent Los Angeles press day for Conan the Barbarian, where the actor was wrapping up a long day of interviews. After charging us with asking him a question he hadn’t been asked – or at least not to inquire if he planned for follow in former Conan actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s footsteps and go into politics – Momoa discussed the challenges of reinventing an iconic character from both the silver screen and printed page. Additionally, he talked about the sorts of challenges he’s tackling next, and offered a few insights about what he wants to do in Hollywood going forward, both in front of and behind the camera.


Movies.com: Because this is such an iconic character, what sort of responsibility did you have in the process of reinventing him, and what sort of opportunity did you feel like you had?

Jason Momoa: The responsibility was that my Conan was Frank Frazetta’s. I wanted to bring that character off of that painting. Those paintings inspired me to read Robert E. Howard, so I wanted to respect that. I wanted to use a couple of their stories, and also the Dark Horse Comics; that’s who it was my job to respect. As far as my own personal vibe, whenever I read Robert E. Howard and I used to read those stories, to me [Conan] was just a lion – he was a product of his environment and king of his jungle. So I went to the zoo and I watched documentaries on cats because I wanted him to be nimble, how he stalks, how he preys, how he looks – to have that catlike quality. I also studied a lot of samurai movies, because I wanted him to use that broadsword and wield it like toothpick, like a katana.
I wanted him to have that style and grace, an elegance to his fighting style that could be barbaric, but when he goes from fire into ice, I wanted his stances to change and for him to be more calm in the way that he fights. I also did a lot of studying on Geronimo and Cochise; I wanted to have that spirit that if your father’s murdered in front of you, and to have a real hatred towards something. I guess I really wanted that native quality. The training that the Apaches did was really interesting to me, so I did a lot of research on that. Not to bring something more, but to further that, and kind of those three things really influenced me.

Movies.com: Because barbarian movies are not always taken that seriously, what did you feel this film needed to have in order to convey a gravitas, and yet still be fun?

JM: We had to start with the origin, but I think when you see the origin of where somebody comes from within that world, it’s obviously not just a revenge story. You see where he comes from, and there’s a fine balance of making him charming and also that it’s not just slaughtering and killing people. You want to feel for him and you want to see him change and see him emote – you want to see him lose and you want to see him triumphant, and learn throughout that process. I think we tried to do the best we could; it was a pretty crazy process of making this one, because no one knew the other Conan, and they were worried. But hopefully if people like it, Conan 2 will take him to a whole other level.

Movies.com: What did you see as his journey in the film? Was it primarily the resolution of his feelings of vengeance, or did you see him going through a different kind of emotional trajectory in the film?

JM: Well, as the script was being made, we kind of wrote it as we went. It was difficult, because it was about 26 pages when we first started, so it was constantly evolving. And yeah, I wanted more than just his revenge story, I wanted him to learn something from it. And I think it was really essential both for me and Rachel to make Tamara help him [draw some emotions] out of him, and also see a softer side of him. You want to see the code that he lives by, because you can’t relate to somebody who’s just going around slaughtering people. But I definitely think the root of it is to get that revenge, obviously.

Movies.com: How can you interject storytelling and character development into action scenes?

JM: That’s one of the great things abut working with 8711, the guys from the stunt team. They did The Matrix and 300, and they’re very passionate. But sure; for instance, you think of some of the greatest fight scenes in the world, like when you’re watching Raiders and the guy [pulls out a sword], and he pulls out his gun and shoots him. That’s a character choice, and that’s beautiful. Or if you watch the Joker in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger says, “do you want to see a magic trick?” where he takes the pencil, that is memorable. It’s like you don’t want to just be like, I’m here swinging this sword. You want to have nice character beats that come through, and that’s something that 8711 is very passionate about. It’s not just about going from set piece to set piece, you want to make sure, even if it’s the smallest things. And I personally feel that the action will always become easy for me, and as Conan, it’s going to be there, but you want to put as much as you can into the character. But yeah, I’m looking forward to Conan 2.

Movies.com: What’s the opportunity cost for finding success in a lot of action-oriented roles? Not just playing action heroes, but being a big physically-imposing guy, how tough is it to make sure people see all of the sides of you that you want to present? Looking back at Schwarzenegger, for example, he was sort of the exception, not the rule for that kind of success.

JM: Well, I’ve been doing this for 13 years and it’s just now that everybody knows who I am, so it’s not just like I pulled this out of my ass. So I know absolutely what’s inside me. For instance, I wrote a script that’s absolutely phenomenal, and we got $4 million for it and we have some really big names attached to it, and we shot a little short that you can check out on Vimeo. It’s called Road to Paloma – we made a four-minute short, we sold it, and I want to direct it. I want to be behind the camera – most people don’t know that – but most people don’t know that I’m extremely charming and extremely funny (laughs). But yeah, it’s very hard to get into this business, so yeah, now that I’ve kicked the door down, I’m going to smash it.

Movies.com: Do you have to be strategic about what roles to take or avoid?

JM: At a certain point you’re going to have to be strategic, because like if Conan goes well, I want to play him. It’s like Christian Bale, though, because he does Batman and then he does all of this little artsy stuff too. I mean, I don’t want to fit into some format; like Clint Eastwood, he wasn’t just pigeonholed into playing westerns, he’s a great director. It’s like he’s a visionary. I mean, it’s not enough for me to just do these action things there’s only so many faces you can have, and there’s some roles that come up when you start just doing it for money. But I have to be making art. I love going to movies, coming out with a different perspective, and sometimes you step out and you’re reborn in a different way. And I like to be moved. I love art.
My parents are painters, and it’s the ultimate art form – it’s music, its storytelling, its writing, it’s acting, and it’s composition. Terence Malick is my favorite director in the world, and I just want to do that and be behind it. Just being in my trailer waiting to do my acting scenes is just not enough. I’m obsessive-compulsive and want to be part of a collaboration, and that’s why I started our company, Pride of Gypsies, and it’s a bunch of collaborations of artists that get together with a bunch of equipment. And if I’m holding the boom [microphone], that’s fine – I love doing and making our art, not waiting by the phone for someone’s audition. We’re all capable human beings and we all have a story we can do, even as the shortest of shorts, and we can perfect our craft. Most people don’t know that, but that’s fine – they won’t see the left hook coming at you (laughs).

Movies.com: Is Conan an important counterpoint to the sort of more human or vulnerable heroes of action movies from recent years?

JM: If the sh*t were to hit the fan, this is the guy I would want to be with. I love the idea that he’s just a fighter – he fights, f***s, drinks, and parties. He’s loyal, he lives by a code, he is a soldier, a wandering, vagabond drifter that goes from town to town. And I love the fact that he can take over a kingdom, or he can just go off and be by himself. He’s a flawed human, and I love the fact that he does great things in a time of need, and he does a lot of bad shit too, and it’s a great thing to play as an actor. I don’t want to play a do-gooder, I really find him a very interesting, complex character that’s fun to play.

Movies.com: Frazetta and John Milius really tapped into the core of Conan’s masculinity. Is that something you think is important to portray today?

JM: Absolutely. I mean, the people that I look to when I looked at this character are like the buddies that I have that were in the Marines that have these unbelievable stories, but are just true, true man’s men, and I really respect that because I’m truly not. I mean, I grew up with my mother, and I’m a sensitive alpha male and I’m in touch with my feelings; I’m very artsy in obviously a very masculine body. I love the arts, but at the same time, I have an appreciation for the guys that are those true men’s men. I have a lot of buddies like that, and those are the guys I follow. And you can incorporate that stuff, so I love those characters – and there’s not a lot of them around. Like Robert Mitchum, he was a great character actor, and I love those guys. So yeah, I do miss those men’s men, but I think I’m at the forefront of what that is in Hollywood, I’ll tell you that much.

Movies.com: You’re working with Walter Hill next, right?

JM: Yeah, I’m shooting that now.

Movies.com: He seems like another filmmaker who explores those ideas.

JM: Yeah, we’ve got that one covered. It’s fun – I play this whole SWAT assassin, the guy’s a shark, and he’s this cold-blooded killer. It’s fun to play. We just had this big-ass fight with Stallone, and it’s crazy, man.

Movies.com: How have you been juggling directing projects with acting roles?

JM: That’s been hard. The thing is we’re shooting all of the time, so we do a lot of shorts, so we just work on editing – like we travel around in Airstream trailers and we set up editing bays in them. But ideas come and we just shoot, so it’s always about constantly staying creative, whether it’s on a big level or a small level. And now that the script’s done, we get the financing and it can only get better. I basically have a beautiful bottle of wine that I’m putting on a shelf, and at any given moment, I can pull it off and drink it. So it’s going to be good. And I’m working on the next one, so it’s like we have these ones that are going to sit, but when it hits, or if there’s a couple of projects I really want, I’m going to do them, but I still have these beautiful gems in my pocket - and I’m going to do them.

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