Game Of Thrones may be a sprawling fantasy drama filled with an entire planet full of characters to try to remember, but one figure stands out above all others, such is his imposing, shadowy aura. We’re referring to Jason Momoa’s turn as the hulking warrior, Khal Drogo, a barbaric warlord who, despite the fact that he speaks in an unintelligible language, quickly becomes one of the show’s most memorable characters.
Momoa’s also bringing his elemental presence to the role of Conan the barbarian, which is set to arrive this summer, and we were excited to be given the opportunity to sit down for a round table interview with the actor to discuss his roles as both Drogo and the similarly macho Conan.
Note: the interview contains some (very mild) spoilers for Game Of Thrones, and also some strong language…
Did you think of it as a safe bet, with HBO’s previous reputation?
When I got Stargate: Atlantis, I said, “man, I’d love to be on HBO. I’ve got two buddies who are on True Blood, and I said, I gotta get on HBO. My dreams have come true. When I got the role, when I read it, it was so interesting, because I get to speak this foreign language.
I read the book. I had two days and I was hooked. Right after the audition, I read the whole thing, and it’s so great, the way you invest in these characters.
You think, in the first few episodes, my character’s just this intimidating, badass king, but you slowly watch him fall in love and see how frail he is compared to this stoic- you compare him to the other characters, who are meant to be the good guys, and you think they’re totally the opposite. There’s such richness to these characters.
Some of the stuff I say, I’ve never heard said on TV or in the movies. So, to top it off with this amazing language that they’ve created-
Was it difficult to learn?
It was, but it was an honour. I don’t think I’ll ever get to play a character like that ever again. It’s just fantastic to submerge yourself in this foreign language. I can’t speak any other languages, it’s English and Dothraki now, but it was a trip. Even the script supervisor, she’s like, “You’re lost. You’re on your own.”
This is my hardest and greatest work to date.
Your character’s quite brutal towards his new wife. Didn’t that put you off playing him?
Yeah. How do you train? You just have to disconnect, and it’s brutal. I love Emilia [Clarke]. She’s like a little sister. It’s not like when you’re doing stunts, where you’re just playing. She’s crying. It sucks.
But then they fall in love. It’s this huge, beautiful arc you’re going to watch.
Were you approached for Game Of Thrones, or did you audition?
I auditioned. It took, like, seven months. I did an audition, and I thought I did it pretty well, but I didn’t hear anything for six or seven months, I think. It went on forever. I think what booked the job, apart from being absolutely fantastic and a great actor (I’m just joking) is that I went in and did the Haka. Do you know what that is? It’s a war chant.
I just thought, in the scenes I was doing, you don’t get a sense of what this warrior’s like. What it would be like if he was commanding his officers, or what he’d be like in battle? I wanted to represent that, and channel a little bit of my ancestry and heritage. I’m half Hawaiian.
I went into HBO and I said, “Don’t be scared or anything, but when you’re in front of a large man doing the Haka, you’re going to feel it. You’re going to feel some energy coming at you.”
These two little white women were like, “Holy shit.” People were coming out of their doors and wondering what was going on. It really sealed the deal. And it got me Conan. It’s a great way to start an audition. My heart was racing, and I’m sure theirs were too.
Were there a lot of stunts?
There wasn’t. I shot the pilot for this, went away and did Conan, and came back and shot the whole series. There was like one major scene we put into it that isn’t in the book. I went up to [writer and creator] David Benioff, and said, “I’m Conan. I’ve just done seventeen goddamn battles. You should probably have something that shows he’s this amazing warlord. He should have a little bit of a fight.”
I watch action movies, and you don’t remember when Jason Statham does a kick or punch. It’s character trait stuff you remember. Say, for instance, Indiana Jones, the guy with the sword. Indiana Jones shoots him, you remember that in the movie. The Joker in The Dark Knight, where he says, “Do you want to see a magic trick?” You remember that.
It’s certain punches you remember. I wanted to do something like that with Drogo. He never uses a weapon, he really gets in close. He’s such a badass. It’s like coming up against a silver back bear. You don’t look him in the eye. I wanted him to be that intimidating. I want to have that sense of, like, “Oh man, I’m fucked.”
I had this dream where I wanted to rip this guy’s tongue through his throat, and I thought that would be awesome. So, I had my dream come true. We did it. I said, “We don’t have to make a tongue. I can just hold a chicken breast covered in blood or something like that.”
They made a full throat with a tongue. So, I’m fighting this guy and he’s bobbing and weaving, and I’m talking in my Dothraki tongue, and he’s like, “You gotta kill me first,” and I’m like, “I already have.”
They made that come true for me. It was great to be part of all those great artists and writers. You could be free to create the character you wanted.
You tend to get these tough guy roles.
Yeah. I’m not that way, which is funny. I’m a big wuss, and not the king in the least.mM wife is. But obviously I look that way, so…
Do you fancy doing a nice little rom-com?
I love it. I’m funny as fuck, you know? And romantic. But I really love- Drogo’s amazing. There’s no one like him on TV. He’s fucking amazing. And Conan, he’s the same, but not. He’s a king, but not. I created both in two different ways.
I don’t want to be like Spider-man or Batman, the do-gooder kind of thing. I’m this drinking, fucking, eating machine. This pirate, thief, all these great things that I love. He’s an anti-hero. He doesn’t save the damsel in distress, he fucks the damsel in distress. After he takes over a kingdom, he slays some snakes. It’s awesome.
The stories that Robert E Howard makes, it’s so fun being this anti-hero. Because he is an anti-hero, but he’s in these circumstances that make him a hero. His life’s always on the line.
So, you like playing bad guys.
I like playing the bad good guy. I’m lucky to be playing this bad character that you love. It’s Dirty Harry. I love Clint Eastwood. I love these strong silent types who don’t have to say shit unless they need to say it, and when they do, you’d better listen. I’m so not like that. I’m so chatty and nervy. I’m not the strong silent type. Not once you get to know me, at least.
What was it like to play Conan?
It was hard. I’ve never been the lead of anything. It was my first experience of being a lead, the weight of it on your shoulders, performing at that level. Having to work out that much, staying in shape.How much training did you do?
A lot. Like, six, seven hours’ training a day. And you’re eating boiled chicken breast, which sounds good, but it’s not. It’s like wet cardboard. You eat wet cardboard every two hours. I put a lot of work into it.
I got to see a rough cut, and people are going to be stoked. We’re not remaking anything Arnold did. It’s a totally new story. The same legendary character. We’re taking these tons and tons of great Robert E Howard stories from the 30s, and combining a couple and bringing it to audiences in a way that’s new and fresh.
There’s obviously a lot of scope in Howard’s stories. Is it something you’ve talked about, returning to that role?
Yeah. Absolutely, trying to honour the Robert E Howard fans. That’s what I love. One of the biggest things for me was seeing the Frank Frazetta paintings. My parents were both painters, and seeing Frazetta – have you seen them? Of Conan standing on the pile of skulls? Those paintings are phenomenal.
So, there’ll definitely be sequels?
Oh, yeah. There are sequels to everything. There’s a Fast & Furious seven, isn’t there? There’s like four Pirates Of The Caribbean. There’s sequels for everything.
Are you prepared for the fanbase to explode when this film comes out?
I just hope they like it, because I’ve been bustin’ my ass, and I hope people love it, and embrace it. You’ll probably have dipshits who’ll be, like [adopts whiny voice] “It’s not like the 80s film.”.
Well, I hope not, ‘cause that was the fuckin’ 80s. There’s a lot more we can do now, dude. Some people will be like, “Oh, it’s not Arnold.” Well, no shit, Sherlock. I didn’t plan on being like Arnold. In anything.Would you care if Arnold gave you his blessing?
I don’t care if he gives me his blessing. I love Arnold. I respect him, and love watching all his movies. I love True Lies. I love watching everything from that to Kindergarten Cop. It’s a great career.
Obviously, I’m going into action, so I’m following in his footsteps in a sense, but I can’t ever compare myself to Arnold. He’s one of a kind. I’d never put myself in his shoes. So, I think he may like it, he may not. It’s not like I’ll quit acting if he doesn’t like it.
Do you think you could beat him in a fight?
No, I’m sure he’ll kick my ass. [laughs] I always thought that’d be funny, to be on Saturday Night Live, and do a little skit and have him come out and beat the shit out of me. I think that’d be funny. I’m always full of jokes, and I think it’d be great to just have him fuckin’ throw me around the room.
Did you have any injuries while doing these roles?
Yeah, I’ve got a few marks. But it’s character building. Chicks dig scars, right?
Were you an expert horse rider before?
No. I fuckin’ hate horses. [laughs]
You chose a bad genre.
Yeah! [laughs] What? Shirtless? No words? On a horse? I’m your man! You watch Conan, and think, “Wow, he looks amazing on a horse.” But inwardly, I’m shitting my pants. That’s me acting like I know what I’m doing. I hated every moment.
I was going, “I hate this horse.” Conan 2‘s gonna open up with me eating that fuckin’ horse, man. Straight up. I can’t stand that horse.
Having said that, on Game Of Thrones, I loved those horses. So, it was kind of like I started liking them again, then I went back for reshoots on Conan, and now I fuckin’ hate ‘em again.So, if either Game Of Thrones or Conan get picked up for another…
…I’m definitely gonna get a new horse. There’s no, like, “We want this one because it’s pretty and big.” I’ll be, like, “Nah.” I’m gonna find one that’s not dumb, and not gonna try to kill me.
You got thrown off a lot?
Yeah. Its feet gave out while we were at full gallop, and I slid down its neck and went ass over. I’m sliding on the grass.
The first time I got on the horse in Conan, I got on the horse and couldn’t stop him. I’m going like, mach one on this horse, and he wouldn’t stop. I broke my ribs before I even started. I got bucked off. Not a good start to a movie.
How did working on Game Of Thrones compare to Stargate?
Well, there were no horses and I got to wear clothes, for one thing. [laughs] I loved Stargate. I had such a great time and it was such a great training ground. It set me up to play the lead of a movie, you know, so it’s really a phenomenon for four years to be with a family and experiment.
You do a movie, you meet everyone, you go from place to place. It’s like joining a circus. Being on a show for four years, you know everyone. You know the grips. You feel safe and comfortable. You can play with your character a lot. It evolves over a long period of time. It was a great training ground that set me up for Drogo and Conan.
And also, being in that sci-fi fantasy genre, there’s no limitations to what you can do. If I’m sick or drugged out, I can play it like heroin times ten, or crack times 20. You can go to places that aren’t realistic, and that’s fun.
It’s worked out that I’m in these genres and I don’t mind it. It’s fun.Is that the type of genre you like to watch or read?
Not at all, which is weird. Not at all. I like to read. I don’t have a TV. I don’t have email. I don’t have a phone. I read books, I take care of my children, I play guitar. I love Japanese haiku poetry. I love Charles Baudelaire, biographies, whatever catches my fancy.
I’m a throwback. Maybe I am a barbarian!
Jason Momoa, thank you very much.
Game Of Thrones makes its UK premiere on the 18th April on Sky Atlantic. Conan The Barbarian is out in cinemas on 19th August.