Conan the Barbarian wants to talk about Baudelaire, Kurosawa, his hopes and dreams. He’s 6 foot 4 and covered in tattoos, and somehow able to make me forget he hacks his way through a bloody ancient battlefield in this weekend’s reboot of the Conan franchise.
Sitting in the lobby of a New York hotel, Jason Momoa comes off as an affable, creative guy looking for a way up the ladder in Hollywood. But as Conan, Momoa is ruthless. In what may be the year's goriest film, the Hawaii-born actor racks up the body count in almost every scene. He captures, beheads, mauls. He utters threats like "I will follow you to hell." He's dismissive to women and unflinchingly brutal to his enemies. Of course, Conan also saves the world, but that's a bonus—he was only out to avenge his father's death.
It's all in service to a myth that stretches back to the 1930s, when pulp author Robert E. Howard created Conan as a tribeless nomad, scouring a fictional ancient universe in search of adventure and a good fight. Since then, the character has taken on a life of its own, popping up in TV shows, movies, videogames, board games, and even one play-by-mail game. To his legions of fans, Conan is a legend—and the new filmmakers bringing him to the screen hope he’s an antidote to the men in tights passing as action heroes lately.
Momoa, physically imposing and ethnically ambiguous, is well suited to drag the role into the 21st century. He's so dedicated to his craft that he asked a buddy to break his nose for the film (he thought it would look cool), and he’s a longtime fan of the Howard books. Plus, he already has a pedigree in the fantasy genre, after playing the savage warlord Khal Drogo on the cult favorite Game of Thrones, HBO's adaptation of the bestselling novel series by George R.R. Martin.
Off screen, though, Momoa is already looking past the world of on-screen sorcery. “I’m a huge art buff,” he says in an interview with The Daily Beast. “My favorite movie is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I grew up with artists.” His muscles and tattoos become slightly less intimidating after he points out that the inscription inked on his right arm is a quote from the French poet Baudelaire: "Always be drunken.”
Even his passion projects ooze sentimentality. The trailer for Road to Paloma is a quiet compilation of lush countryside and meaningful stares—if not a discernible plot—starring Momoa and his wife, Cosby Show alumna Lisa Bonet. “It’s a total art-house flick that I wrote while I was doing Game of Thrones,” he says. If there isn’t another Conan film to shoot next year, Momoa plans to direct the full feature. He's also developing an idea he calls "The Samurai," described as a "post-apocalyptic Mad Max" and a mash of the styles of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and spaghetti-Western guru Sergio Leone. “I want to do festival-quality stuff while I’m doing [action films]," Momoa says. "Gotta kick the door down some way.”
The idea isn’t so farfetched. As Momoa points out, Clint Eastwood was able to parlay his famous roles as a gruff leading man into a second act as an Academy Award–winning director. Same for Mel Gibson. But playing Conan invites a thornier comparison: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took on the role in several '80s movies and became the face of the barbarian brand for a generation of moviegoers. Schwarzenegger, unfortunately, tripped on his own sword this spring with the news that he had fathered a child out of wedlock, and the ensuing publicity disaster thwarted his future film plans.
Momoa isn’t worried about the Arnold connection, and agrees with critics that Schwarzenegger took a more wide-eyed, instinctual approach to the role. “I can’t ever be him,” Momoa says. “He can’t ever be me. I always compare it to Sean Connery and Daniel Craig [as James Bond]. They’re both amazing, you can’t weed them out. It’s Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger [as the Joker in Batman]. There’s no way I ever thought Heath Ledger could beat Jack—and he destroyed him. But you still can’t take away the campier version of the Joker, you know what I mean?”
For now, Momoa is happy to pour his creative energies back into Conan. If the reboot strikes a chord and a second installment is ordered, he's content to put aside his other projects to have a hand in writing the script. “I’m just a fan of it,” he says. "There are eight decades of source material. No one’s gonna know what to pull out of Conan more than I do. I want to make a good story, too. It’s not just about going and killing shit. It’s gotta have some heart in there."