Raised in Iowa by way of Honolulu and born of German, Irish, Native Hawaiian and Native American blood, Jason Momoa first turned heads as Hawaii’s Model of the Year in 1999, thanks to his imposing stature and exotic looks. This success led directly to his first acting gig on Baywatch: Hawaii, which he followed up with a few small films and another TV series, but his true breakout came in the role of Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis. Most recently, Momoa was seen in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, a bona fide sword-and-sandal fantasy drama, which gave audiences a taste of what he might bring to Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian as the titular Cimmerian warrior.
Though some might be quick to dismiss Momoa as simply another action star stepping into an established franchise, he was only too eager to talk about his longstanding affection for the classic Robert E. Howard character. A self-professed art and movie lover, Momoa also found it near impossible to narrow down his Five Favorite Films, speaking with overwhelming enthusiasm about his favorite actors and the writers and artists who have inspired him. Read on to see what he had to say about his favorite movies, his new film, and his ultimate career aspirations.
The Shining (1980, 88% Tomatometer)
I’d say The Shining. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m a huge Jack Nicholson fan. He’s obviously… Everything from Five Easy Pieces, another one that’s just phenomenal to me… Yeah, he’s a god to me. I love him. I don’t know how to properly explain why, but he’s just fantastic. His sense of humor, his intensity, his charm, you know. There’s only one Jack. I love him.
Last of the Mohicans was like my childhood favorite. I love that movie. The soundtrack to that is probably one of my favorite in the world. My favorite movie is probably the life of Daniel Day-Lewis. If you watched Gangs of New York, it sucked, but then you see him as Bill the Butcher, it’s unbelievable. You really want to say Gangs of New York because he’s so amazing, but then you want to say There Will Be Blood. I mean, really, he’s so amazing. My Left Foot, Last of the Mohicans; the guy is just a freak of nature. He’s like a national treasure. That’s what he should be considered. Mindblowing, absolutely mindblowing. I can’t wait to see him play Lincoln. Anything Daniel Day-Lewis is in, that’s pretty much my favorite movie.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorites. I love the book. Terry Gilliam is phenomenal. I love Terry Gilliam, I just love his mind. I love that, you know, he doesn’t even do drugs. The guy’s just f***ing crazy. Absolutely mad genius, and I love him to pieces. So, Fear and Loathing, to make that book come true, I mean, I can’t think of another book that would be harder.
So you were a fan of the book before the film.
Oh yeah, I’m a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan, and I’m a big Charles Bukowski fan. So that’s the thing. My movies stem from people that have influenced my life, like Rimbaud, Beaudelaire, you know, the great writers… and painters. I’m attracted to artist films, whether they be biographies or stuff like that; I’m just more attracted to that.
Midnight Express is so… That and A Woman under the Influence were the first two movies I ever watched and went, “That is not a movie.” You do not see anyone going, “Cut! I’ll be in my f***ing trailer!” You watch that s*** and you are like, you are in that. So Midnight Express; that is really great filmmaking.
Next, Momoa talks about his love for the arts, his respect for the Conan legacy, and how he wanted to make the character his own.
RT: A lot of your favorite films feature standout performances from notable leading men. Is that something that strongly influences your movie taste?
Jason Momoa: Not entirely, because I myself write and direct, too. I want to go off directors, too. You know, originally growing up, some movies are alright, but you see performances that blow them away. Like Barfly; I loved [Mickey Rourke] in that. Watch Rumble Fish, it’s f***ing amazing. I love Rourke’s performances; I mean, some of them are really fantastic.
I mean, there’s so many more. My mom raised me with Rear Window and Gone with the Wind, you know what I mean? I was raised by someone who loved cinema. Midnight Express, State of Grace, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I always liked Raging Bull; that’s kind of a no-brainer. You know, Basquiat and Pollock are very influential to me.
You seem to be a fan of the arts in general. Was acting something you knew you wanted to do at an early age?
I think I wanted to do more of the arts. I really wanted to be a painter. I love the arts. Music, writing, directing… I think acting is phenomenal, because you get to be a student of life, you know? I can be anything I want to be, and I love that. Actors have to study life. It’s really fun. I mean, I’m a nice guy dad, and I’m playing a barbarian that slays and lops people’s heads off!
Truth be told, I don’t want to play a superhero; I love Conan. He’s an antihero. If I’m going to play otherworldy heroes, you know… He fights, he f***s, he loves women, he loves to drink, he’s a pirate, he’s a thief, he wanders alone through this crazy world, he’s a king, he’s a soldier. At the end of the day, every man in the f***ing world would follow him. If s*** hit the fan, it’s like, “I’m going with that guy. Whatever, Batman; it’s cool, man. I’m going with that guy.”
How familiar were you with the legacy of Conan?
I was really familiar, because I was a big comic book geek. Both of my parents were painters, so I grew up with a… [Conan artist] Frank Frazetta really captured a world and elegance and movement and raw power in his paintings, and it inspired generations to read those novels and read those short stories. I wanted to take Frank Frazetta off of the canvas and make him me. That was my Conan, you know, the Dark Horse comics.
When I read Robert E. Howard’s work, I really find Conan to be like a lion or panther. He’s a product of his environment, you know. He’s the king of his jungle. I wanted him to be this lion, the way he prowls and stalks. And I’m a big fan of Akira Kurosawa, so I wanted to study all those samurai movies, just because I wanted him to have that code of honor, and at the same time, that intensity and grace. It’s like, he’s not barbaric; he’s extremely witty and he moves very smoothly. He’s dynamic. So I wanted to incorporate that.
And I did a lot of study on Geronimo and Cochise and the Apache Wars. I wanted to have that level of spirit. I think, you know, when you learn about Geronimo and the things that he went through and how his family died, you can understand his pain and where he’s coming from and what he’s fighting against.
I’m not all that familiar with the source material myself; is the story in this new film an adaptation of an existing Conan story, or is it completely original?
Yeah, it’s a collage of a couple Robert E. Howard stories and some comic book stories. I think that’s what we were really trying to honor. There were really no ideas to remake the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. You know, there’s eight decades of source material to go off of, so I think we’re really just here to kind of reimagine that whole franchise. Obviously it would have to start with an origin story; there’s 30 years of fans who may not know who the hell he is. So we had to start at ground zero, just understanding that, you know, he’s born on the battlefield, he’s cut out of his mother’s belly, and he tastes her blood before her breastmilk, and then he was raised as this gifted warrior. He had to watch his father die in front of his face, and he was raised with wolves, and the guy’s just a true warrior. And when you catch up with me, I’m in my pirate days and having fun and f***ing women and drinking, you know, just being a degenerate, which he was, and that’s fun. But also you see him come across someone who killed his father, and the tides shift, and he’ll do whatever it takes to track him down. In the meantime, he comes across a woman and uses her as an object to get what he wants, and, you know, finds something deeper.
[Note: The following paragraph contains a spoiler]
We shot a couple different endings. I wanted to have her die, just because turmoil always follows this guy, but we chose for her to live.
Were you involved in the screenwriting process?
Yeah, I was involved in it. It was a very complicated process, but I think later when Conan 2 comes out, I want to take a stab at writing the second one. I think I have a couple good ideas what I want to do with it.
The Conan movies of the early 1980s were kind of a turning point in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, and after those, he became this huge action star. I know you enjoy writing and directing, but is that a path you’re looking to follow?
I mean, I enjoy playing characters in action films, but Drogo [from Game of Thrones] didn’t do any action, really — it was all character-based — and Conan is the farthest thing from who I am, so that’s fun to play. The next things, the ones that are all action-based… Once again, I?ve never shot a gun before, and now [in Bullet to the Head] I’m playing this assassin. You know, that stuff comes easy, but I want to do it character-based; I don’t want to regurgitate the same acting within some action stuff. I don’t want to be that guy. You know, Arnold plays Arnold, and Stallone plays Stallone; it’s a trade. I don’t want to find myself doing that.
I want to do these small movies. I want to go to festivals. I want to create and be a painter, you know, I want to paint movies and write stories. You do it because you love it. I’m not there to make money; I want to do it because, as an artist, I want to make movies. So that’s where I want to go; I lean more towards directing.
Conan the Barbarian (2011) opens this weekend in the US.