Jason Momoa and real-life wife Lisa Bonet star in SundanceTV's "The… (James Minchin / SundanceTV )
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."