When you’re making a movie like Conan The Barbarian (in theaters this Friday), it’s almost guaranteed that, for an actor, the production is going to be a gang of fun. There are swords to play with, elaborate action sequences to shoot, Halloween-ready costumes to don, and, for the males on set, tons of half-naked women running around and acting subserviently. As Conan himself, Jason Momoa, told us, shooting the latest adaptation of author Robert E. Howard’s fantasy stories, first written in 1932, was immensely enjoyable; for someone else on set, however, Conan The Barbarian was a diabolically satisfying experience.
Cast as one of the film’s primary villains, genre dreamgirl Rose McGowan relished in her wholeheartedly evil alter-ego, Marique, a sorceress who slits slave girls’ throats with her bladed glove and lusts after her father, the warlord Khalar Zym (Avatar’s Stephen Lang). McGowan, most known for role as a witch on Charmed and her machine gun leg in Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half of the exploitation homage Grindhouse, had to endure six hours’ worth of makeup work to become Marique; with a forehead that’s more like an eight-head, ghostly pale skin, and an exaggerated Bride of Frankenstein-like hairdo, her hell-raising Conan The Barbarian character is one of the gory and brutal adventure’s most memorable aspects.
Complex recently caught up with McGowan to chat about playing a baddie for a change, the difficulties in getting a Hollywood studio to approve of a father/daughter sexual dynamic, taking Marique’s freaky look home with her, and becoming a sexy snake.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)
Complex: Prior to shooting Conan The Barbarian, you’d taken a couple of years off from Hollywood. What was it about Conan that inspired you to jump back into the game?
Rose McGowan: Well, one, I really like outlandish stories and projects, because those kinds of roles allow me to create sort of iconic, really cool, and different characters. Two, my role was written for a man originally, so I knew it was going to be kind of a kick-ass, strong role; I knew it wouldn’t be some wimpy chick, and that was a really big attraction. If you’re going to be in a movie like this, it wouldn’t be any fun to play a wimpy character and watch everyone else have all the fun. Marique definitely isn’t wimpy.
With your role having been written for a man, how’d it end up getting presented to you?
It’s funny, actually. The script was sent to me and I was told to ignore the “F” at the beginning of the character’s name—the name was originally Farique, not Marique. And they told me to ignore the mentions of “he” and “him” throughout, which seemed pretty obvious to me. [Laughs.]
Again, I knew it was going to be a strong character before I ever cracked the script open. So I was predisposed to liking it from that first conversation; thankfully, after I read it, I loved the character. It seemed like it’d let me go a little bit crazy, and play a completely evil, badass chick, which I haven’t had the chance to do often in my career.
Marique has an Electra complex, which adds an interesting, perversely sexual bent to the role. She has this determination to seduce her father, and that gives more depth than just being a bloodthirsty sorceress. Was that side of her something that especially interested you?
That was something that I wanted to interject, absolutely. There’s nothing like a bizarre, deviant twist in a big summer movie, right? Initially, that obsession with trying to seduce her father wasn’t scripted; it was something that the writer and I talked about quite a bit. But, unsurprisingly, the studio was freaked out by it. A lot of the dialogue that we’d come up with to support that, and really give it a deviant, complicated feel, had to be taken out. So I just figured, “OK, then, I’ll just act it and make it as uncomfortable as possible without any dialogue!” [Laughs.]
It’s understandably an odd thing, so I wasn’t surprised that her Electra complex scared the studio. But, to my mind, it’s one of those things where…. You’re allowed to carry around two severed heads, right, but God forbid you love your dad a little too much. We can’t have that! [Laughs.] But, fortunately, we were able to work that element into the movie, and I think it’s really interesting.
Conan The Barbarian doesn’t really have that much in common with the 1982 original film, particularly with the introduction of your character, Marique, who wasn’t in the older movie.
You’re right, and that’s refreshing to me. Our movie goes more into the overall mythology of Conan, versus it being just an ordinary remake of the 1982 one. The guy who was creator of the original character, Robert E. Howard, died when he was 30, I believe, but I think he would be immensely pleased with this version, and with Jason Momoa being cast as Conan, because he wrote the character to be an authentic barbarian. I think we’ve found that.
Your co-stars Jason Momoa and Rachel Nichols have discussed how they’d never seen the 1982 movie prior to signing on to this new one, but, with your one-time attachment to a Red Sonja remake, it seems like you’re quite familiar with these ’80s fantasy films. Did you grow up as a fan of the original?
Not the films as much. My brother had the comics, so I would hang out in his room and read those. From doing that, I learned the basics about the characters and the mythology. But, you know what? I’ve never really seen that whole 1982 film—I’ve probably seen, like, five minutes of it here and there, on Saturday afternoon TV and that kind of thing. There’s really no point in going and watching that, though, to prepare yourself to do this movie. It’s a real 180-degree shift.
That makes sense, especially since the original feels a bit dated when seen today.
Oh, yeah. It’s campy fun, though. It’s a totally different vibe than our film. I don’t think that level of camp would translate well today, even though I’m sure they didn’t intend to make such a campy film at that time. For us, I think, the intention was to play it straight, but still keep it as entertaining and fun as possible.
One of the film’s most outlandish elements is your character’s rather insane makeup work. Were you able to provide input into that design, or was it all laid out in the script for you?
Well, kind of from the eyes down, I had input. But from the eyebrows, or lack of eyebrows, up, that was Scott Wheeler, who’s an amazing artist. He did a tremendous job. It’s actually really quite difficult to design something that looks like it’s perfectly coming out of somebody’s skin versus something where I could just sit back in the makeup chair and be all comfortable as it was happening. It was a very intricate, patient process; I had to sit still for six hours at a time.
To avoid having to sit in that chair any longer than was absolutely necessary, did you ever just keep the makeup on once shooting was wrapped for the day? And just walk around set and the surrounding areas looking like that?
Oh, totally! Of course. Before I’d go to wherever we were shooting that day’s scenes, I’d be walking around in sweatpants and a sweatshirt but, from the neck up, my head looking like how it looks in the film. We shot the movie in Bulgaria, so the people of Bulgaria were totally freaked out by me. They thought it was real—I absolutely loved that. It was hilarious. I could tell that they felt really bad for the poor girl with really huge forehead. [Laughs.]
People would look at me and their eyes would get really big. They’d avert their eyes so it didn’t seem like they were looking at somebody who had some deformity. It was really funny.
That definitely bodes well for the makeup’s effectiveness, no question. Looking back on your film career, like you said earlier, you really haven’t played many characters as evil as Marique. Your role in Jawbreaker was pretty dark, but that’s really it. Have you been itching to play a villain like this?
Yeah, though I see the character in Jawbreaker as more sociopathic. A lot of the roles I’ve played, though, have been, you’re right, pretty positive. I played a witch for five years [on Charmed], and then in Planet Terror I was saving the world, just a small-town girl who finds herself in a whole crazy situation with a machine gun leg, as it were. But I like to create weird characters that I’ll hopefully see people dressed up as on Halloween.
With Marique, what’d you have to do to get yourself to such a dark and sinister place?
It’s interesting with Marique. One, I used to be a ballet dancer, so I used my arm movements from ballet but I applied them to a more vicious situation, obviously, and used the character’s long, sharp nails as weapons that I somewhat gracefully twirled in front of my victims. I kind of thought of her as a bit of a snake, in how they go back and forth, with their mouths transfixed, and then they strike. So, really, if I based Marique on anything specifically, it was a snake.
Your co-stars all have pretty straightforward characters, but yours is the only one in the film that seems like it was totally open for playing it as insanely as possible.
I got to do whatever the hell I wanted, which is always fun. And, really, that’s one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to do Conan. A character who’s as wild and open to crazy interpretation as Marique is doesn’t come along very often. There’s no way I was going to pass an opportunity like that up. I definitely got to do whatever I wanted, because I didn’t have to color inside the lines.
There’s a cool scene in which Marique walks down a line of scared slave girls, cuts their throats with her blade-fingers, and tastes their blood for purity. That must have been a fun one to shoot. The snake movements really come out at that moment.
Yeah, that was my primary thing, that scene. It’s funny, that was my very first day of shooting, too, so it was a little scary. It was this monstrous set, and there are all of these people around. With the very first thing you do on a set, you’re always nervous. But, luckily, with the forehead makeup, and the hair, and the wardrobe, I kind of sank into it right away. Normally, whenever I shoot a first scene, my voice won’t come out loud enough, or something like that will happen. The way I looked really helped to free me up, though. I could be as bad as I wanted to be, which was really, really badass. [Laughs.]
Did you get a sense that the girls playing opposite, as the slaves, were actually scared shitless of you?
Oh, totally! It was awesome. I probably liked that feeling more than I should have.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)