x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The new Conan the Barbarian weighs in

The actor Jason Momoa talks about type-casting, living up to expectations and surviving the stunts involved while making his first major movie.

The name may not be immediately familiar, but Hawaiian-born actor Jason Momoa is about to grab the world's attention, taking a much-loved role into the 21st century in the new remake of Conan the Barbarian.

It's a project that has been in development for years, and rumoured ever since the 1980s when the previous Conan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, made his name playing the savage, ruthless warrior. Momoa, standing at just over six foot three inches, and with a physique that would no doubt win the approval of his predecessor, has become a foreboding presence on television, with roles in the cult sci-fi series Stargate Atlantis, and more recently as the tyrannical Khal Drogo in American network HBO's newest hit show, Game of Thrones. Evoking an era of muscle-bound action stars that peaked in the early 1990s, Momoa emerged as the obvious choice after many actors (including, at one point, Schwarzenegger himself) canvassed heavily for the role.

But what does it take for a relatively unknown actor, with only a few television credits to his name, suddenly to become a blockbuster star?

It's clear that, for any actor, taking over a role made famous by such a large personality, and before that, by a series of well-loved books, is no easy feat. Momoa himself is very mindful of the history, and understands the trepidation of many of those who love the Conan series, having been a fan himself. "I understand that watching this movie will be people who have entered the world of Conan in different ways," he explains. "Most will probably be fans of Arnold's films, some will love the books, and for some people - maybe younger audiences - this will be the first time they've seen this character in any form.

"I first was a fan of the paintings [by Frank Frazetta] as a kid, then came across the books as I got a little older, and was a big fan of those. Of course, I'm also a huge Arnold fan, although I didn't watch his Conan movies. I think it's important to me, and the people who made this movie, that people who enjoyed the previous films will enjoy this because we're all Arnold fans ourselves."

The shadow of the Austrian action legend looms over this project, and for Momoa the focus was to take what had been done and move in a different direction with it.

"I can't make people forget Arnold's take on the character, nor would I want to because it's made the character an icon to many people," he says. "I think with so many familiar characters getting rebooted, like Batman or James Bond, it's easier to introduce a new interpretation of the character than it used to be.

"We tried to give him humour, a sense of vulnerability and also some swagger - like perhaps Bond might have."

Momoa's introduction to the project came from a very similar, physical role - that of Khal Drogo, leader of the Dothrai people in the television series Game of Thrones, adapted from George RR Martin's successful books.

"The casting director [for the show] was also working on Conan, and so he introduced me to Marcus [Nispell, the director of Conan]. Khal Drogo is a very different character, but the training required for that part gave him an idea of how I could look physically for Conan, and that it was just a matter of discussing how he envisioned the character, and what I thought I could bring to it. As it turned out, we had very similar ideas and wanted to achieve the same things, and that's how I got here."

Once he got the part, there was the small matter of the intense stunt work and on-screen fighting involved.

"You can't do a movie like this and not come home injured," he says with a grin. "Every day I went home with some cut or bruise, but I think it shows on the big screen when the fights look that realistic."

At times, he faces various outlandish creatures who were brought to life by computer animation, but was it difficult fighting against CGI opponents who would be "invisible" on set?

"It took some getting used to," he replies, "although there's not a lot of it in the movie, I wasn't used to working with it, so it was a learning process. But as I said, there wasn't much used, and I think the movie has an authenticity to it - the sets are real, the actors are real, my bruises are real!"

The end result has been a lead role in a major Hollywood studio movie, and with the positive reaction to this and his Game of Thrones performance, it would appear the next move will be an important one in Momoa's career. The actor believes, however, that variety is the key to longevity.

"When I started out in Baywatch [Baywatch Hawaii, his first major acting role] I was young and just wanted a way in - any way I could get it. It meant playing 'the Hawaiian guy' and being cast because of my background and the way I looked, which was fine, but obviously I wanted to do more than that. That's why this role and Game of Thrones meant so much to me because I got to play different roles.

"The masculinity I brought to Khal Drogo, and combining that with a kind of instinct and intelligence to play Conan - these are things I hadn't done before."

For the moment the future involves doing something he has done before - staying in the action genre, with a role in Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head, directed by Walter Hill, the filmmaker behind such films as The Warriors and Southern Comfort. Momoa is aware that, despite his ambitions to play different types of roles, those with power in the industry may decide to typecast him in the future. "It's always something you are wary of," he shrugs, "and if a big role that's interesting is offered to me, I'm not going to turn it down because it's an action movie, or whatever.

"You just have to keep making films that will be the best quality you can make them, and I hope to keep challenging myself in the future."

Conan the Barbarian is out in the UAE this week