Conan The Barbarian is many things: a sword-toting bruiser, a Cimmerian warrior, a potentially star-making role for actor Jason Momoa, the titular hero in the new Marcus Nispel-directed adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s 80-year-old, Weird Tales magazine stories. One thing he’s not, however, is soft, so it’s only natural that Conan’s love interest is a woman who’s equally resilient, similarly capable of whooping ass, and, of course, a total hottie. No high maintenance, prissy, afraid-to-break-a-nail kinds of ladies need apply.

To that end, it’s no wonder that Nispel and company cast Rachel Nichols as Tamara, a sheltered monk with bloodlines to necromancers who rescues Mr. Barbarian from potential death, attracts his romantic side, and then takes him to bed.

The role requires an actress who can believably maneuver through several high-stakes action scenes and hold her own in brutal fight sequences; for Nichols, that was nothing. In 2009, the model-turned-actress packed heavy firearms and beat the piss out of fools as Scarlett O’Hara in G.I. Joe, which harkened back, albeit in a much more elaborate way, to her days as a livewire CIA agent in J.J. Abrams’ hit ABC series Alias.

For Conan The Barbarian (in theaters tomorrow), Nichols utilizes her ride-or-die chick expertise to play a fantasy woman who’s both vulnerable and badass. Complex recently spoke with Nichols to discuss the character’s toughness, the art of fighting, trading blows with Rose McGowan, and an unexpected Comic-Con highlight.

Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)

Complex: Before working on Conan The Barbarian, in which you perform several stunts and even get your own girl-on-girl fight sequence, you shot G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. Did the action-heavy G.I. Joe prepare you in any specific ways for Conan?

Rachel Nichols: Yeah, definitely. I’m not a stranger to roles that involve a lot of action. It started with Alias and it just hasn’t stopped since. With G.I. Joe, we had the luxury of weeks of training, and we worked with some very talented people; mixed martial arts, fight sequences, and learning moves, for that sort of dance that is a fight sequence, and I loved every minute of it.

Obviously, you have muscle memory for stuff like that. With Conan, it was the first time I ever had to use a sword. So, learning some of the swordplay led to a new talent that I acquired while working on the film. But any fight sequence, even one with swords, is a dance, and I was greatly helped by G.I. Joe, yeah.

When you and the rest of the Conan cast were training with swords, I hope they didn’t give you real swords. Was it a plastic toy sword, in hopes that you all didn’t kill each other before shooting even began?
[Laughs.] They’re not super-soft plastic, they’ve got a little bit of weight, but they’re by no means full-on, actual, stab-you-at-all-in-the-heart, potentially-kill-anyone swords. There were no accidents while rehearsing with the swords, thankfully. Maybe a jammed finger or two, but that’s not so bad.

That’s good to know. What about Conan appealed to you initially?
To be honest, I’d never even seen the original movie. It came out right after I was born, actually. I was drawn to this movie for a couple of reasons, though. One, thirty years have gone by, and I think this classic film was ready for a reintroduction and a reinvention, sort of a little bit of a facelift. I started reading the script, and you’re introduced to Tamara, and she’s a monk, and then, five minutes after you’re introduced to her, she’s stripping an invader of his knife and threatening him with it. I thought, “Oh, wow, she’s definitely not going to be a damsel in distress here; she’s going to show up and kick some ass,” which she does.

She does give Conan some attitude in the beginning, and they decide to join forces. She ends up being more of a counterpart than a subservient damsel in distress. I’m a big fan of strong, butt-kicking female roles, and this one promised that I’d get to kick some serious butt.

Butt-kicking roles must be a lot of fun to play.
Yeah, and I like seeing other actresses get to kick butt when I watch movies. Recently, in other action films and horror films, if they have a female as one of their lead characters, she’s most likely kicking butt and taking names, and I like it. That makes for a good role model, and it’s a nice, strong message to send, as well. Girls can do it, too.

That seems to be the way you approach new projects. Throughout your career, you’ve never had to play a damsel in distress; going back to a film like P2, a horror-thriller in which you whooped plenty of ass.

I had to be really careful, Tamara couldn’t bust out and suddenly be this ninja warrior killer, with perfect sword movements and fighting skills, That would make no sense.

Absolutely. P2 was definitely the most physically demanding role I’ve had, and I loved it. I really like that demeanor of, “I don’t need someone to save me—I can save myself.” Obviously, in Conan, Conan does in fact save me. [Laughs.] I’m strapped to a wheel and he has to come to my rescue. It was very important to the structure of the story that I save Conan when we dive off the cliff, where I swim with him and drag him onto the boat after he’s been poisoned by Marique and he’s wounded. And then he saves me by freeing me from the wheel, and then I get to go and throw down with Rose [McGowan], which was awesome.

What’s interesting about Tamara is that, yeah, she can kick ass, but it doesn’t seem like she’s been trained to do so, or that she’s somehow programmed to fight. It’s more of a reactionary, survivalist, on-the-fly type of fighting style.
Yeah, and I’m so glad that you said that. When I was learning the swordplay and training for the fight scenes, I had to be really careful because she couldn’t bust out and suddenly be this ninja warrior killer, with perfect sword movements and perfect fighting skills, because that would make no sense. You wouldn’t know where it came from. So, I learned the swordplay and I learned the fight sequences, but, on my end, they had to be a little messy; that way, you could believe that instinct was kicking in. It also had to be obvious that she wasn’t trained for this, and that she’s not some kind of robot. [Laughs.]

The fight training wasn’t downloaded into her brain right before she was attacked; it had to look as though she was becoming this warrior just because that’s what her personality would have done. That’s a bit tougher to play than just a character who ruthlessly and systematically takes people out, but also more fun, I think.

That seems beneficial to an actor such as yourself, who doesn’t have any real familiarity with swordplay; in a sense, you can approach the character with a mindset of, “Well, I don’t know how to use this stuff, either,” and that can give the performance a much more naturalistic feel.
Definitely, and the guys at 87eleven—they were the American counterpart for the stunt team that was over in Bulgaria—were great. A lot of times, one of the most important things you learn when you’re training for a fight sequence is how you’re going to avoid punches that are thrown at you. [Laughs.] There’s a strong reliance on sense and protection. It’s not only learning how to throw a punch, but also learning how to take a punch, as well.

Have you been in any real-life fights?
I’ve never actually been in a real-life fight, except maybe with my little brother. [Laughs.] Alias was the first time that I ever had fight scenes, and then my most epic and favorite fight was the one I had with Sienna [Miller] in G.I. Joe, because we’re good friends. We had a fantastic time putting that scene together; it was a long fight, but it was also really cool. We got a lot of compliments on that fight, which is always gratifying. Many of the compliments were from men—go figure. [Laughs.]

The praise was well-deserved, no question. Going into your fight with Rose McGowan in Conan, was there a thought in your mind of, “I’ve got to top that G.I. Joe fight somehow?
Yeah. Well, we had the luxury of six weeks of prep time on G.I. Joe, to get all of that fight’s steps down well. We learned MMA, and we played with different props and different weapons. We had this beautiful dance choreographed way before we shot it.

We didn’t have that luxury on Conan, though. A lot of it was on the fly, because the script was changing a lot, and we had to sort of be ready and able to do anything that was asked of us. But I did want to win! [Laughs.] Because I lose to Sienna in G.I. Joe, and I hated losing. Although Jason [Momoa] does save me in Conan, I do get to [SPOILER ALERT] kick Rose and send her down to her death after he cuts her hand off, and that was pretty awesome.

Speaking of Jason Momoa, obviously a major part of the movie hinges on his performance. To you, what makes him such a good choice to take over the Conan mantle?
I give him so much credit, because Jason’s Conan is fantastic. In that same breath, Arnold’s [Schwarzenegger] Conan is fantastic, too, but they’re very, very, very different. People who like the old one, they’re allowed to like the new one. It’s not a competition.

Jason has this insane ability to move, for a guy who’s as big as he is and as muscular as he is, with this sort of grace, sleekness, agility, and speed; it’s these fluid motions. It’s this sort of sexy sleekness that he has, and it sets it apart, I believe, from any other kinds of movie heroes that we’re looking at in films right now. He did a really good job of being respectful to who the iconic Conan character is while also bringing in a lot of himself.

For those die-hard fantasy fans, it also helps that he did such a great job of being an ultimate badass on HBO’s Game Of Thrones. Those who watched Thrones must have thought, “Oh, nice, this guy can kick ass. He knows what he’s doing.”
Yes, I totally agree with you. Game Of Thrones was the best form of PR Conan ever could have had, because he was so good in it, it got his face out there, people loved him, and the show became so popular. Now, they’re like, “Oh my god, he’s gonna be Conan! That’s awesome!” [Laughs.] It couldn’t have worked out better.

Fans of these sorts of sword-and-sorcery, fantasy properties can be super obsessive over their favorite characters, stories, and movies. Have you encountered any of that extreme fandom while promoting Conan?
I went to Comic-Con for the first time this year and I loved it! I was amazed by the whole thing. Every four seconds, I saw someone in an awesome costume that I’d want to walk up to and say, “Can I take a picture with you?” [Laughs.] It was really kind of exhilarating. It was important to see all of these people who are so dedicated and fascinated by this stuff. Just the amount of stuff that they know and the preparation that goes into their costumes, it’s unreal. These people keep this industry alive. They’re the ones who sit in seats and watch the movies; you want to walk up to each and every one of them and personally thank them.

Did you actually go up to anyone and request a picture?
I wanted to walk up to people and ask them directly, but sadly I didn’t. I didn’t know what kind of trouble that would get into. [Laughs.] Although I did have my picture taken with Taylor Lautner, and he’s kind of cute. I can thank Conan for that.

Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)