When auditioning for SundanceTV's "The Red Road," Jason Momoa wondered if his past might come back to haunt him.
No, he didn't have compromising photos or a sex tape on the Internet—although "most people have seen me with my clothes off," he joked, thanks to his role as Khal Drogo in "Game of Thrones." But the "Conan the Barbarian" actor worried "The Red Road" creative team wouldn't consider an action star for the role of Phillip Kopus, a Native American ex-con struggling to find a sense of belonging.
"No one's really seen me do this kind of work before," he said. "I had to go to some places I've never gone and shown things that I've never displayed before. It was really a challenge."
Momoa also showed producers Aaron Guzikowski and Bridget Carpenter a film he co-wrote, directed and starred in called "Road to Paloma," which is about issues on a Native American reservation and will be released this summer. The film was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival about the same time they were casting "The Red Road" and "definitely helped" land him the gig, he said. (Momoa's wife, Lisa Bonet, stars as his love interest in both "The Red Road" and "Road to Paloma.")
In the six-episode series airing at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Phillip returns from prison to the fictional Lenape Mountain Indian community where he grew up and resumes his law-breaking ways. His crime spree intersects with a crisis involving an old high school acquaintance, Sheriff Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson), and an old flame, Jean Jensen (Julianna Nicholson), who is now Harold's wife. Like a criminal mastermind, Phillip quickly takes advantage of the situation.
The charismatic Momoa downplays the role, making Phillip a quiet but completely intimidating presence. Yet the 6-foot-5-inch actor said Phillip, the son of an evil, drug-dealing dad and a mom who didn't want him, is misunderstood.
"When you chip it away, you kind of find out why he's that way and then [consider what] you would be like if these things happened to you," he said. "This guy got sucker-punched by life and that could happen to anyone."
Momoa compared Phillip to his "Thrones" character Khal Drogo, who "comes off as this guy who's just tough and strong and you think he's bad and then you find out he's got a heart and he's vulnerable and he's good."
Momoa can sympathize with someone challenging misperceptions. He's thrilled fans continue to embrace his past projects—well, maybe everything except "the B-word," as he calls "Baywatch"—but he looks forward to showing them the full range of his abilities in projects like "The Red Road" and "Road to Paloma."
"I think it's nice when people are like, 'He'll always be that [character]," he said when asked how he felt about being remembered for such roles as Khal Drogo, Conan or Ronon from "Stargate: SG-1." "And I'll take on another character and hopefully they go, 'He'll always be that guy,' you know?"
Momoa talked more about his roles, growing up in Iowa and how a trip to Hawaii to reconnect with his dad landed him his first acting gig—on the "B-word."
Sounds like they're working you hard?
They're working me hard? Nah. This isn't work. I grew up in Iowa [Norwalk, outside of Des Moines] doing hard work and this ain't work.
What kind of hard work did you do in Iowa?
My first thing was at a farmers market; that was my first job ever. And then Firestone..., I worked at the plant, but that was when I was really, really young so I was like working the cafeteria. And then a couple retail places. And my family's all construction, masonries.
Right before I got into acting I was in Hawaii and I was folding T-shirts, so that wasn't that bad. I was folding T-shirts in Hawaii and then I went to an audition to meet some hot women and I ended up getting into acting. It's kind of funny how it all works.
I was actually going to school for marine biology and then I switched over to wildlife biology. I went to school out in Colorado. I was living out in Fort Collins. I wanted to get to know my dad better in Hawaii, and then the TV show came and it kind of changed my whole life.
Yup, the B-word. I don't say it anymore. A long time I tried to get out from underneath that show.
Since you brought that up, I find it interesting people write or say, "Oh, he's always going to be Ronon from 'Stargate' or he's always going to be Khal Drogo from 'Game of Thrones.'" Do you ever worry about that?
Oh, not at all. Truly it's an honor. I mean it was an honor to play Drogo. There's nothing like him that's ever been on TV, so I mean that's an honor. Conan—shit, it's Conan, you know what I mean? Someday my kids will be able to watch that and my son will like that. And Ronon was a fun. It was four years of college, really. I'm still very dear friends with everyone on "Stargate."
I just think a lot of people just don't know who I am yet, and that's kind of the thing: No one knows I have a sense of humor, no one knows I'm married with kids, no one knows my softer side, no one knows that I just wrote with my friends and directed a movie. There's a lot of things people don't know and that's OK. And eventually they will or they won't. But I know who I am and that's all that really matters.
Do you ever consider it a challenge, then, "Look what else I can do?"
You know, everything's got to find its path. I feel like I could go force it down someone's throat, and that's just kind of douchey to me. ... The great thing is I know myself and I really enjoy the things that I'm doing and also my own personal endeavors. And if it gets out there it gets out there, if not I'm not going to, I don't know, pout about it. I'm pretty happy and will continue to do the things that I want to do. It doesn't get me down.
You have some scenes in "The Red Road" that creeped me out a little bit.
That scene in the water [in Episode 1] kind of creeped me out a bit. That was a really hard scene to shoot because you're like, "Fuck man." Those two moments in the cave and in the water: They're really hard to take down when you're reading it. And I'm like, "Man, how are they going to do this?" And I thought they did a really good job because it's creepy as shit.
As a viewer, I didn't know what any of you were going to do.
I know. And it keeps unfolding. Yeah, we're not pulling any punches on it; it's a creepy show. You're going to love it. It's so creepy.
Give me your take on Phillip.
A complicated man, we'll say, a very complicated man. He's misunderstood. ... It's one of those things [like] Drogo ... He's probably the nicest or at least the most honest person in "Game of Thrones." And I like that about Kopus; at first glance he's just an ex-con, he's a criminal and even his tribe doesn't like him. ... His mother doesn't like him and everyone's kind of wary around him. ... Under those circumstances that we've created for Kopus, obviously being raised by a drug-dealing father, he got dealt a bad card and then he got blamed for stuff that he didn't do. And that's going to put anyone's defense up.
I just like the fact that he's an outcast and at some point of being Native he finds his roots, and his roots find him again. Coming out of jail after six years, he has nowhere else to go and he's going back home. He's pissed in a lot of ways because he's been done wrong.
But he still works his angles and has his schemes going, right?
Sure, and that's what's great about him. He's always constantly thinking. He's sheisty.
There's a scene in Episode 2 where Kopus and Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) meet at the burger joint. Harold says Phillip doesn't have feelings for anyone. Something like that. Is that a true assessment of Phillip, or not really?
Yeah, "You don't give a shit about anyone else. All you care about is yourself." I think it's one of those surface things because I think he's been hurt so many times [that] where he could feel for someone again [instead] he's blocked it, he's buried it really deep down inside. Because right now it's his time and ... he's taking care of business.
When my wife [Lisa Bonet, playing lawyer Sky Van Der Veen] comes into it there's a perfect opportunity for him to fall in love, but he doesn't take it. And you're like, "Why don't you just do it already?" He just won't let himself; he's a very complicated a man. And he set forth on a mission where nothing's going to steer him wrong. So I think he definitely has the capacity to care and feel and it's in there, for sure, but he's a broken little boy. His mom left him when he was little and he was raised by the father and he's just buried that deep down inside.
Is his new criminal enterprise part of a long con? He's not just messing with Harold and trying to make a few bucks, is he?
No, there's a big plan.
You mentioned Lisa and I was wondering how it was working with her?
It was a great. I spent the last year-and-a-half or two years making my first film ["Road to Paloma"] and she's in it. She plays my love interest. And it was hands-down the most challenging thing I've ever done working with my wife. And it came out [in the film]. I'm really, really proud of the amazing performance because obviously we're showing an attraction and love toward each other in this movie, but it's not us. And that's a very hard thing to pull off—keeping your personal life separate from this.
[The movie relationship] is still very beautiful and passionate and loving and honest. We showed that to Sundance and it got very close to getting in. I think it was a big part of why I got cast in this show playing another Native American—because I played a Mojave character in "Road to Paloma" and I went there and studied and we did a lot of the traditional things. We spoke the language. We did a lot of ceremonies that were traditional and had the powwows and had dancing and songs that were native to that.
In this, even though our [Lenape] tribe is fictitious, I still wanted to find a place [from which] I could put pictures in my head that would be like [Kopus's] home. He's been in prison for six-seven years, but even though my character's not doing anything traditional..., I wanted to have something that resonated with him. So it did help going to study with the tribes around there.
So you did that kind of research?
We had a [Native American] consultant. ... Her name's Autumn Wind. It was just great going to meet them and just kind of being in the forest. I think we did a really good job with the look of the show and like keeping it legit, because we shot in Atlanta but the setting is based out of New York and New Jersey. [Note: the real Ramapo Mountains that border New York and New Jersey. The Lenape tribe is based on the Ramapo tribe there.]
Tom Sizemore plays your dad. How was that?
He's definitely one of the greatest artists I've worked with. I was originally going to be extremely intimidated because I really like his work and I think he's fantastic. And when I showed up it was just so easy and effortless.
At the same time he's fearless and that's very rare. Like I have so many fears and he just is fearless and tries all kinds of things and is not afraid to fall flat on his face and I think that's brilliant ... He gives it and I think that's really special and fun to work with because it elevates your acting. He definitely elevated my acting in my scenes with him.
It's fun getting berated by him. ... I don't have to fight, I don't have to do anything—he just makes me feel like a little boy. Who's going to make me feel like a little boy? And there are some great moments. He definitely gives it. I'm excited for the world to see Tom Sizemore.
What are you most excited for people to see in this show, or to take away from it?
I think there's a little space in TV right now that this slots into that's not really been around. And I think it's an interesting story; it's riveting and it grabs you. And when I was reading the scripts it just burned through story and that's very rare. Sometimes it takes a long time for things to warm up, but this just to burns ... When it takes off it's gone. These six episodes, when you get to the end you're like, "Holy shit, look what's happened!"
If I show you the last frame you're going to be like, "What?" If I could give you the image of the last frame you'd be like, "What the hell?" Just from the image you'd be like, "I'm watching this show."
Khal Drogo didn't last long enough in "Game of Thrones." If this has a Season 2, can we count on you surviving to be in it?
I definitely want to see what happens, because personally I'm like, "What the hell are they going to do now," do you want to mean? There are some really good twists, so that's always fun.
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