We recently chatted with the new Conan, Jason Momoa. He explained his inspirations for the character, how to move like a warrior and why barbarians are smarter than they look. Plus, he gave us some zoological insights into what sets Conan apart from his Game of Thrones character, Khal Drogo.
You say you haven't seen the original Conan the Barbarian movie. So what sources did you look to for inspiration? Did you look at the original Robert E. Howard stories, or the comics?
I am a huge Frank Frazetta fan. Both of my parents are painters, so I'd known Frank Frazetta's paintings, that's what I wanted to bring to life. I was a big comic book geek, Wolverine and X-Men, so we wanted to bring the Dark Horse comics and the Robert E. Howard stories to life. That's really the Conan we're making. We're not remaking the 1982 movie.
Was there anything from the comics or stories that really helped you get a handle on who Conan is?
When I read it, the great thing about the comics is all the movement and the positions and the poses. With Frazetta, you see this great barbarian warrior, and he's going over and doing the berserker and you've got these swords...just the movement that you can capture with graphic novels that I wanted to bring in. I looked for an Asian influence, I studied samurai training, I wanted to make him very much like a samurai but with a broadsword. With the movement, I'm 6'5", I brought everything down really, really low, make the stature very low. I wanted to make him like a cat. And I as I was reading the stories, he's a product of his environment. He's really just a lion in this kingdom. He's just a lone lion that roams and fucks and eats and drinks and is this pirate thief who can be the king or he can also just be this soldier. So I loved finding that wonder and I watched a lot of documentaries on lions and how they prowl and they move. I wanted to incorporate that intimidation and be cat-like when I fight. Those are my two biggest influences. I also did some research into the Apache Wars. I wanted to study some of those approaches to fighting - that was something I wanted to bring to it too.
One of the interesting things about existing in this heightened reality is that you can mix influences from all over the world - you've mentioned Japanese and Native American culture - and go for this melding of various traditions.
Yeah, that's just how I perceived when I read him. I thought that's what I could do to bring to the character to make him exceptional and those are the kinds of images that came to me.
Conan pushes the audience's understanding of what a hero can be to a certain extent. He definitely goes on an arc and is more heroic and sympathetic by the end of the movie, but how do you approach trying to get across this warrior morality where a woman can be seen as property and other things that a modern audience might find abhorrent?
Well, Rachel [Nichols] and I spent a lot of time just going over that. Where, you have to know where he's coming from, you know where he's trying to get to, he wants to get the man that killed his father so anything that is in his way, whether it's a man or woman, it doesn't matter. You're probably just a key to what he needs to get done. Whether it's a woman or a man, his goal is just straight ahead of him, that what's he wants to get to. So, it just happens to be her, but over time he does respect her and feel more about her, and you get to see a little bit more of a softer side. So I think that relationship is what makes it human and something you can relate to.
You've played two larger than life barbarian characters this year. With Conan, you're not just playing him in English, you actually get to keep your American accent, which is a bit unusual for fantasy films. Whereas with Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, you're speaking an entirely made-up language. What are some of strengths and weaknesses with both of those in terms of getting a handle on the characters?
Well, Conan is not the king, he's this lone soldier. He's a lot younger to me than Drogo, who is a king of four thousand screamers. To walk with that kingly state and be that elegant and be that fierce and run armies - I'm not even the king in my own home, my children and my wife run the house! So to have that power, that stature, you have to take one word and have it mean everything. When I'm doing something barbaric I want to take things back to the primal state. I looked at silverback gorillas. When you look at a silverback, you see the way that it sits, you look into its eyes, they're huge and massive and intense, and I wanted Drogo to have that quality. Conan doesn't have that yet. And obviously the language was huge for me, and you get to go a little deeper with Drogo into the romantic side, and I liked that. I don't think we got there in Conan or probably in the next one, because it's a lot to crack into in two hours. Whereas with ten hours you have more time to get into those things.
Conan's dad (Ron Perlman) tries to teach him about the concept of "fire and ice" when fighting, but young Conan only understands fire. How did you incorporate that whole idea into Conan's journey?
Conan is given this great gift that he is a warrior. He's absolutely, from the moment he was born, he's just born to be a leader, born to be this warrior. You see that obviously through the young Conan, and he burns bright, he burns hot. I've learned from my research that you have to have a fine balance and control in the samurai code, and I wanted that. You'll see that at the end where I lower my stance and take on this samurai pose. It's this little thing that most people won't see, but I start using all these samurai poses and become more grounded and controlled instead of wild. You want to see him grow from this total barbarian at the beginning and become more controlled and in command. Being a warrior isn't just instinctual, and that's what he learns from his father. That's what you want him to find that balance and become even deadlier and start taking over kingdoms, and not be that pubescent kid filled with rage.
Has he completed that arc? Will we see more of Conan's "ice" in a sequel?
I think you'll see it more clearly, yeah. I want it to be a lot clearer. The thing is, when you're barbaric, that doesn't mean you're an idiot or you don't know anything. Conan's very clever and he's very witty and he's very smart. I think some people might think of barbarians as a bad thing, but in the civilized world people are still raping and pillaging. Like, when you watch Game of Thrones, you see the people who are backstabbing, every other character in Game of Thrones is way more evil than Drogo.
He has a code and he sticks to it.
He sticks to it. He loves in a different way, he changes with his woman, but he's the most honest and wears his heart on his sleeve out of all of them. A barbarian in many ways is really just like an animal, he's really instinctual and he's not lying or deceiving like every other character in Game of Thrones. And I think it's the same with Conan.
I have to ask you about your original sci-fi character, Stargate Atlantis's Ronon Dex. We probably won't be seeing him again, but were there any stories you wanted to tell about Ronon that you didn't get a chance to?
Oh yeah, there was, but they didn't let me do it, and then they ended it. I actually got into huge fight and I wanted to do this whole story where he's actually captured and the empire actually gets him. And they break him, they torture him, and Sheppard wants to come and save me, but obviously Earth won't allow him to do it. I get tortured and basically go over to the dark side. I wanted Ronon to go to the dark side and take on Earth.
So from Chewie to Darth Vader.
Absolutely. I wanted him to go against Earth because they left me, and there'd be this woman who I fell in love with. And the empire tortured her and she died and that's what made me switch over.
And how do you think Conan would have dealt with the big love triangle between Ronon and Jewel Staite and David Hewlett's characters...
Yeah, that was a weird story.
You think he would have just got out his sword and cut through the problem, so to speak?
Oh yeah! He would have just clubbed Jewel over the head and killed David Hewlett...and eaten a piece of chicken.
So after playing someone like Conan, playing a character who can't solve everything by cutting off people's heads has got to feel a bit limiting?
It is. It is.
Conan the Barbarian opens this weekend.