Interview: Jason Momoa, star of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

To celebrate the release today of Marcus Nispel’s remake of the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger action adventure Conan the Barbarian (2011), we caught up with the film’s star Jason Momoa. Perhaps best-known for his role as Khal Drogo in HBO fantasy epic Game of Thrones, Momoa’s star is rising quickly and the Hawaiian-born actor will next star alongside Sylvester Stallone in thriller Bullet to the Head (2012).

Russell Cook: Now that the remake of Conan the Barbarian is completed, a franchise obviously made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger, how do you deal with knowing that you are going to get a lot of comparisons between the both of you, both negative and/or positive?

Jason Momoa: I just try not to surround myself with that. I knew I could offer something that nobody else could. When I did Drogo, I was like “No one is going to take this role from me”, I had never wanted something so bad in my life so I went in and did the Hakka. I think what Arnold did you really can’t take anything away from – it’s like comparing Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, you really can’t compare the two, they’re both fantastic at what they did [Bond] but play their parts in a different way. I knew how Arnold played the part [Conan] but we wanted to honour the Frank Frazetta paintings, and if you look at Arnold’s work, I don’t see Frank Frazetta at all. I wanted to honour and really embrace that rawness, and the way he captured movement. I studied a lot of lions, like how they move and how they prowl. I wanted to make Conan nimble and like a product of his environment. In Fact I studied a lot of old samurai movies – I love Akira Kurosawa so I wanted to him wield the broad sword like a katana to bring a graceful Asian touch to such a barbaric character.

RC: With the roles of Khal Drogo and now the beastly Conan under your belt, do you plan to build on a career within the action genre or are you keen to diversify?

JM: Oh absolutely, I mean these two roles just happened to fall at the same time. It’s like just kicking the door down of Hollywood which is extremely hard you know. I was on Stargate Atlantis for four years and I’ve done tons of different shows but these are the ones that came along, and they’re although kind of similar to some people they’re not to me. I’d never want to regurgitate the same action hero in different scenarios. To me Drogo is an ultimate character, there is nothing like him on TV or in movies, whereas Conan is like a dream come true – as a kid I just loved the Robert E. Howard stories – how do you say no to that? I’ll kick some ass. Sure.

RC: Speaking of being a big kid, you seemed to have a lot of fun with the stunt work and the sword play in the film and one of the things I noticed was that I couldn’t really see where you stopped and the stunt team started. How much of your own stunt work did you do?

JM: About 90% of it all; you know Conan speaks through his actions and without capturing that movement – you know he’s not one for words – you really have to embody the character and transform your character and body into this machine; so I tried to train my ass off to get to that level where he [Conan] can express himself.

RC: What kind of training did you do?

JM: Everything from hardcore to hand-to-hand combat, learning how to fall properly, and then two hours a day we were doing Samurai training and sword training and finally heavy lifting for about two hours. So six hours a day for 6 weeks. You know I’d never volunteer normally, you gotta get paid to do that, but at the same time it’s really exciting because I would never normally do this, let’s see how it turns out…My wife was very happy!

RC: There are so many fun action scenes in the film and I got the impression it was quite a lot of fun to shoot with all of the large scale battles etc but were there any favourite scenes to shoot in there?

JM: One of my favourite scenes was that one at the prison which was actually the first day of Conan and I’m like shoving my finger in this guy’s nose – I was like, wow this is gonna be amazing! This is going to be a lot of fun for sure. In fact that was when I was the least injured. When I was in the jail lock up and I kill everyone with the chain and I rip his head off every knuckle was bleeding and I was like, “oh god, this is day one!” I had a steady flow of blood coming out of me throughout the whole movie.

RC: You mentioned injuries – did you pick up any nasty ones on the way along?

JM: Yeah, the whole thing was one big injury. It was the horse that I got injured on the most, getting bucked off and what. He was a [long pause] to say the least, an asshole. We didn’t get along too well and to be honest I just don’t wanna die. I love my life and my children and that thing almost killed me a couple of times – in Conan 2 I’ll be eating him in the very beginning [laughs].

RC: As somebody with experience of both acting and filmmaking, what do you prefer: being in front of the camera or behind it?

JM: I’d rather be behind it. I just love filmmaking. You can only have so many faces and I just love making movies. I have a production company called Pride of Gypsies which is just a bunch of writers, directors and actors who want to make films and create and do stuff and who are tired of waiting by a phone for a stupid movie that sucks anyway. I’d rather do something that means something and that people can relate to. However, I do like the balance. It’s exciting doing something like this [Conan] and then coming back to making films.

RC: How was it for you introducing Conan the Barbarian at its premiere at the Empire Big Screen?

JM: It was surreal. Especially right now as no one has seen it yet and you don’t know if it’s going to do well or good, or bad. It’s a dream come true to be up there but it’s crazy seeing your ass in 3D [laughs].

RC: How do you get yourself into the right frame of mind for playing those kinds of roles?

JM: Coffee works [laughs]. I listen to a lot of heavy metal like Pantera, Metallica, Mudvayne – I grew up with a lot of that – oh and I also listened to The Last of the Mohican’s (1992) soundtrack. It’s just one of those epic soundtracks.

RC: Who would win in an arm wrestle out of Conan and Khal Drogo?

JM: All I’d say is, if you lock up Drogo and Conan it’d be like locking up a silverback gorilla and a lion in the same room – you’d definitely want to watch the fight go down but no one is getting out alive…or they have some intense drinking competitions and plot to take over the world.

Read our Conan the Barbarian review here.

Russell Cook