Twenty-three floors above city pavement, Jason Momoa leaned on a window at the Ritz Carlton and stared down at the bright lights of his Hollywood hopes. “There it is, look at that,” the 32-year-old actor said, nodding toward the huge “Conan the Barbarian” banner and waiting red carpet at the Regal Cinemas across the street. “You know, I’ve never owned a suit before but I got one for tonight.” Many of Momoa’s fans have never seen the brawny star in a shirt much less a tuxedo. Not only is he the star of Lionsgate’s “Conan” he portrayed the even more ferocious Drogo on 10 episodes of the acclaimed HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Next up is Walter Hill’s “Bullet to the Head” with Sylvester Stallone and Christian Slater. Our Geoff Boucher sat down with the Honolulu native before the premiere of “Conan,” which went on to $10 million in its disappointing opening weekend.
GB: There’s so much history from the bookshelf, in the comics and on the screen. Does that add a particular type of pressure?
JM: I don’t know if it’s ignorant or just confidant or just that I’m really stoked but no, I can’t see a Conan fan not liking it … everyone that worked on this movie was a fan. We all bled for it — we beyond bled for it — so I’m excited about it. We brought a new version of the character to life.
GB: The 1982 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and the vintage paintings by Frank Frazetta are probably the signature images of the character for contemporary fans. Talk about those and how they affect — or don’t affect — what you’ve done.
JM: As for the movies with Arnold, I feel this is totally different. It’s like Sean Connery and Daniel Craig are totally different Bonds but equally great in what they do. You don’t replace a guy like Arnold, you just do a different thing. As far as the Frazetta fans — and the Robert E. Howard fans — I think they’ll all be pretty stoked. We took the character from the Frazetta paintings, ripped him off the canvas and put him on the screen.
GB: Tell me about one major hurdle you had to overcome to get this movie or your performance where it needed to be.
JM: I had a big battle at the very end of the shoot they wanted me to hold the sword up [poised above my head] and I said, “That’s not a Frosty thing, that’s Arnold’s thing, that’s a bodybuilding pose. That’s not my character.” If you watch the movie, whenever I fight with my father’s sword, it’s reversed until I kill [one foe at a key moment] … I studied all these samurai movies and it planned and calculated that way. Then in reshoots, at the end of day, they said we need you to turn it around for this one shot. I wouldn’t do it. Everyone was very angry with me … it was very hard but I didn’t want to be a cookie-cutter [version of Arnold] and I don’t want a regurgitated character. It got heavier than it should have. There were so many cooks in the kitchen. At the end of the day, though, I’m the guy up there. It’s got my name on it. I’m the one that gets castrated [if it goes wrong]. I told them, “You show me one picture of Conan holding the sword like that anywhere before the Arnold movie and I will do it. It’s his pose.” You fight the battles because you’re the one up there on the screen. I’m not here to remake something.
GB: What other choices did you make as far as putting together your Conan?
JM: When I signed on I told them it had to be a character that had my stamp on him. I wanted to put a certain amount of sense of humor and vulnerability in him, a sexuality, I wanted a complex character that wasn’t just a stone-faced barbarian. He’s young, too, he’s all fire and no ice and doesn’t know how to cool it off. He’s [chasing] women and drinking and being a pirate. He also gets saved by a woman he had no respect for in the first place and there’s some vulnerability there. You need layers or it gets real boring real fast.
GB: “Game of Thrones” on HBO is one of the most memorable success stories of 2011. You portray Drogo of the Dothraki, the warlord of the nomad nation. Is there a memorable moment you can talk about from the making of the show? Something that illustrates what you brought to the character or what you took away from the experience?
JM: The most fantastic moment was probably while working with Dan Minahan — he was the director on all my big epsiodes — and as an aspiring director and storyteller, I just want to work with those kind of guys and learn everything I can. One big thing for me was one of the few scenes that wasn’t in the book is the scene that I wrote where I ripped the guy’s throat out. I had just come off Conan and I had killed a billion guys a hundred different ways, but Drogo needs to be so much worse. He killed way more people than Conan. He doesn’t even need to use swords anymore. The bad-ass guys in my life, they just come up and whisper to you. So for this scene where Drogo has to deal with a situation — it’s right after his wife has stopped a rape — I wanted to not even use weapons. I just wanted to bob and weave and let you see how quick he is, how good he is.
GB: There’s a real coiled menace and madness to that scene. You get a sense of why Drogo has never lost a fight.
JM: In the books you never get to see Drogo fight anyone; he’s this great warrior but there’s no battles. So in this scene we had him lean into the sword and get this self-inflicted pain and the whole time he’s whispering to the guy. I’m going to [mess] you up. He throws away his weapons, too, that was an idea from David [Benioff, one of the show’s executive producers]. The ideas were coming in from everyone, even the stunt coordinator, but my idea all through it was “I want to rip the guy’s throat out.” He [insulted] my wife, I want to use his sword on his throat and then reach in and rip his jugular and his tongue out. I said, “I know it’s last minute but we can get a chicken breast and cover it with blood.” They made up this thing and I have it at home. You can see the sinew and the tissue and the taste buds. I keep it my room. It’s a trophy. You know in the book he gets scratched by a lion and he kills the lion and brings it home to give his wife a coat. That felt so disconnected.
GB: Did you ever hear from George R.R. Martin about that sequence and diverging from his book?
JM: I got the greatest compliment from George Martin. When you take a role on you become so passionate and you get into that character’s mind and life. You come up with ideas. And things aren’t always written in stone; I’m not here to rewrite things but there are moments when you say, “I think this could be better. Here’s an opportunity.” And that was an opportunity where it led to something great. They got bummed after that because everyone came to them about writing their own scenes and writers hate that … for me, I’m not trying to steal the camera; there’s 50 characters in this thing and I just wanted something that would pop. If I don’t bring my paint to the canvas, what did you hire me for? Martin is a genius but with Drogo, I lived it more than he lived it. He’s focused on every character, I was the one living in Drogo.
— Geoff Boucher
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