Though he’s widely recognized for 1984’s sci-fi classic The Terminator, and its subsequent sequels, former bodybuilding champion Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career first took off in 1982, with the release of the sword-and-sorcery adventure Conan The Barbarian. Based on writer Robert E. Howard’s fiction serial, launched in 1932, Conan centered upon Schwarzenegger’s titular character, a Cimmerian warrior who heads out on a warpath against evil tyrants and mythical creatures. A massive success, the flick even spawned a sequel, ’84’s lighter Conan The Destroyer, which cemented Schwarzenegger’s ownership of the Conan role amongst fantasy aficionados.
So when the inevitable remake was announced last year, all eyes were focused on who’d land the coveted part of film’s toughest barbarian. When word surfaced that relatively unknown Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, at the time only recognized from his work on the SyFy Channel hit Stargate: Atlantis, eyebrows arose. But then HBO’s hit fantasy series Game Of Thrones debuted this past April, showcasing Momoa as the mostly silent but always badass Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo; soon after, feelings changed.
After watching Drogo rip a dude’s throat open in one particularly gruesome episode, Conan purists undoubtedly breathed sighs of relief—their beloved strongman was in good hands. In theaters this Friday, Momoa’s take on Conan The Barbarian, directed by Marcus Nispel (the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday The 13th), is darker than the ’82 original, adhering closer to Howard’s older tales than Schwarzenegger’s campy film.
Will fantasy purists give Momoa’s Conan their all-important thumbs up? We’ll soon find out. In the meantime, Complex chatted with the 32-year-old actor about the direct connection between Game Of Thrones and his first starring role, his interpretation of a legendary character, and why it was important for Conan 2011 to cavort with topless beauties.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)
Complex: Conan The Barbarian is coming right on the heels of HBO’s Game Of Thrones, in which you played an exceptionally badass warrior, Khal Drogo. Is that just a happy coincidence, or have you been seeking out these types of sword-wielding fantasy roles?
Jason Momoa: I guess you could say it was more of a coincidence than anything else. Game Of Thrones was first, and, actually, I got Conan because of Game Of Thrones. This Conan project wasn’t something that I was actively looking for; circumstance led me to it.
With Game Of Thrones, that was something I loved, from the script to the source material, and I had to have that role. Once I got that, I was more than happy, but then the opportunity to audition for Conan came about, and I couldn’t pass that up.
Did the producers of Conan get to see early test footage from Game Of Thrones?
No, they didn’t, actually—it was the same casting director. Kerry Barden, the casting director, happened to be in the room when I was audition for Game Of Thrones, and he was like, “You should audition for Conan.” And then I met with [Conan The Barbarian director] Marcus Nispel after that. So it was really that casting director who brought about this whole thing.
There doesn’t seem to be many actors out there who could convincingly play Conan, in terms of the character’s physicality. Was the role yours for the taking at that point?
Yeah. I knew I had a clear-cut idea on how I wanted to play the character, and I think Marcus Nispel had the same sort of idea. It was a little hard to convince some of the powers that be, because I wasn’t a huge, known name at the time. But the audition process wasn’t that extensive, and the part was something I knew I could handle. I did a lot of action during my time on Stargate: Atlantis, for the SyFy Channel. So I knew I could offer something a little better than most others. [Laughs.] But just the idea of how I wanted to play it, Marcus seemed to appreciate my take on the character.
In recent interviews, you’ve talked about how you hadn’t seen the original, Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Conan The Barbarian prior to making this new one. Since you had a clear slate with the character, how did you approach him, as an actor?
Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of Frank Frazetta, so I wanted to take the character that I loved from his old illustrations and put it on the screen. Really, I wanted him to have a little more humanity, as well as a fun sense of humor. I know Marcus wanted Conan to have that Sean Connery twinkle-in-his-eye kind of thing. We tried to have a little bit of that. Initially, I studied a lot of samurai movies, and watched how they used their swords and wielded their katana blades. I also wanted him to move very nimbly, and be very quick, so I studied a lot of big cats, so he could have that sort of intensity whenever he hunts and prowls.
For me, the primary source material wasn’t the original movie—it was Robert E. Howard’s original comic books. I’m a huge comic book fan, especially the Dark Horse comics. So that was what I wanted my Conan to most resemble and pay homage to.
If you go back and watch the original Conan The Barbarian today, it’s still a lot of fun, but it’s also incredibly campy. There’s that hilarious scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger punches a camel, for instance. This new Conan doesn’t have any of that campiness, though. Why was it important for you all to lose that and keep the movie more stone-faced with its action?
Everyone wanted to look at that world in a more serious way, I think. The world that Robert E. Howard created is such a really cool world. I don’t know if they went out there to be campy when they made the original movie—that was thirty years ago. Certain things don’t translate well over time.
I just watched the original for the first time the other day, and I can imagine that it looked amazing to audiences back in 1982. Back then, when they’re doing the whole thing with that witch who turns into fire, I think that must have been really neat to see back at that time. But we can do so much more with technology now. The game has changed. So our movie is fun, loose, and has 3D monsters. It’s about time for an update, I think. A whole new audience can experience Robert E. Howard’s world now, and I think that’s really damn cool.
Was it a priority of yours to finally see the original movie once you finished shooting, or did you just happen to see it one day on a whim?
I wanted to watch mine first, for sure. Arnold had seen mine, and he called me to tell me that I did a good job, and he seemed stoked about it. So I wanted to make sure I saw his then. And I definitely dug it. I just think ours has a whole new, different, and exciting energy to it. They’re completely different movies.
You mentioned earlier that you wanted your Conan to have more humanity. The first thing we see him doing in the movie is freeing a cage full of topless, super-hot slave girls. Now that’s some real humanity right there.
[Laughs.] Yeah, absolutely. He knows what he’s doing.
The scene establishes that, yes, Conan kicks a lot of ass, but he’s also a regular dude who has the same interests as most other men; i.e., hooking up with girls. Right after he frees the girls, we see him with one of them on his lap. For you, what’s the importance of showing that side of Conan right off the bat?
Well, I don’t think you could relate to him if we didn’t have that kind of stuff in the movie, especially near the beginning. You need to see him hanging out with his friends, you want to see him having a good time, and that’s important, because the rest of the movie takes on this revenge theme. Also, at first, you see him on that vibe of, “Woman, come here.” But then you see him warm up and you see his soft underbelly, when he falls in love with this girl [played by Rachel Nichols] after she rescues him. So there’s a nice little arch of him learning.
At the beginning of the movie, you see Conan in his prepubescent years. At that time, he’s really, really agro, and all fired up. You see his dad [played by Ron Pearlman] calming him down and teaching how to control his emotions. He has a nice little arch, so by the time you see me as Conan, there’s a motivation to everything he does.
Some reports surfaced recently that you’re interested in writing a Conan The Barbarian sequel. Seems like you’re really invested in the character. What excites you most about where Conan can go from here, assuming the movie is a success?
Well, when you’re making a first movie, you have to establish who the character is and hit all of the necessary set-up points. But we now have our Conan, and we’re happy with him. We know the world that he’s a part of, and we have all of this extensive source material to work with from Robert E. Howard’s stories. Now, I know what I would want to do as an actor, some of the places I’d want to get to and emote, and, really, no one knows Conan better than myself at this point. I love the idea that it’s really about this strong villain coming in, and what that’d mean for Conan’s next step.
It’s really just a matter of me being a huge fan. It’s just a passion of mine now. If this movie does really well, I want to get right in there and work on the next one. I wouldn’t take on the actual role of screenwriter, necessarily; I have enough on my plate already, as is. It’s just a matter of getting in there and presenting my ideas for the character. I love the fact that I’m the new Conan. It’s pretty amazing.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)