Towering over six feet four inches tall, Hawaiian born actor-director Jason Momoa’s powerful presence on screen is unmistakable.
In the HBO series Game of Thrones, he is Khal Drogo, the fearsome Dothraki warlord who weds exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen. In Stargate Atlantis, he transforms into dreadlocked military specialist Ronon Dex. He goes mano y mano, as a mercenary opposite Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head (2012), and, reprising the title role that saw Arnold Schwarzennegger rise to fame, he witnesses all his enemies driven before him in Conan the Barbarian (2011).
But don’t let that action label fool you. Momoa is first and foremost, an artist. A smart, savvy independent filmmaker with stories to share. His feature film debut, Road to Paloma, is no exception, putting the “independent” in independent cinema with its gutsy style, beautiful cinematography, minimalistic crew, and microbudget. It opens in limited release today before arriving on Blu-ray and on demand July 18, and marks the beginning of something special for Momoa. He wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film: an eye-opening tale of redemption. Native American protagonist Robert Wolf goes on the run after avenging his mother’s murder. In the spirit of Jack Kerouac, the road changes Wolf, taking him on an unexpected, unforgiving journey.
In conjunction with the feature “Born to Be Wild” in our Summer issue (on stands now), we conducted an exclusive interview with the first-time filmmaker to learn more about his own journey to Paloma – which includes auditioning for Baywatch on the basis of an entirely fabricated modeling career!
Mark Sells, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What did you study in school? Did you always have an acting inclination?
Jason Momoa (JM): I was a marine biologist when I left school. I graduated high school early in Iowa and would go down to Florida on my breaks doing marine biology. Then, I changed over to wildlife biology so I could go to school in Colorado.
Back then, I was a big skateboarder. I grew up in a big football and wrestling community, but I was always into skateboarding and hockey. Rock climbing changed everything – it’s what really set me out on the road and traveling. I’ve been all over the world rock climbing, from Tibet to France and Italy. It was just something that I discovered when I was about 14 or 15. I remember going on a camping trip with my mother in South Dakota and fell in love with it.
It’s the joy of being outside, camping, playing guitar, sitting by a fire, drinking with your buds, and spending the day rock climbing. It’s a lifestyle thing. Very hands-on.
MM: So, how exactly does one go from ‘Hawaii Model of the Year’ to acting full time?
JM: That’s so funny! I made all that stuff up when I auditioned for Baywatch because you had to have a resume of some kind. My cousin and I came up with crazy things like modeling for Louis Vitton, Gucci, etc. I guess you could say that my acting career began by being full of shit! We made those things up for auditions to meet some chicks. Then, I met some managers in Hawaii and they helped me put different things together to try and get a career in Los Angeles.
That’s really funny you found that. Now the truth is out. I never did any modeling.
MM: How did your early experiences on Baywatch and North Shore help shape your career?
JM: I was working at a surf shop before I made it on Baywatch. And got into acting essentially, to study life. I fully committed to acting classes and learning the craft. They were small roles, but great experiences early on and helped lay the foundation for playing characters like Khal Drogo, a Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun type of character with a made up language, which was incredible and challenging to make real. Or playing Conan or a character on Stargate: Atlantis.
I love storytelling. And I love movies. No matter the role, studying life is what it’s all about. I could be a doctor or a serial killer. There are just so many beautiful and unique things you can dive into as an actor. For instance, the next film I’m doing and directing involves a lot of MMA fighting. So, you get the best of the best to teach you all of these things hands on and learn a ton. You don’t have to do just one thing. You get to jump into something every month or every six months, things that you may not voluntarily seek out on your own. And that’s also a lot of fun.
MM: What did you enjoy most about Game of Thrones?
JM: There are a lot of things I enjoyed. It’s probably the first role I ever really wanted. When I read the first book, I was absolutely obsessed. I knew no one else could play that part. I had to have it and it’s why I did everything I could to shine at the auditions.
The production was really a unit. I’ve never been on a show where there were so many characters, and yet, everyone was a family. It was such a great experience. There were only two Americans on the set. Me and Dinklage. And when I went over for the cast reading, I got there early and was the last one to shoot out. It was six months in Belfast. For me, it was a dream being in Ireland – one of the greatest times of my life. There were super supportive directors, the level and quality of directing and cinematography was top notch, and to this day, it’s the best thing I’ve ever worked on.
MM: And then your character dies!
JM: (Laughs) Yeah, it was a total bummer. Drogo dies. I was so bummed when I read about it in the books. But that’s why you love it so much. George is a fantastic writer, full of surprises. That’s why you get hooked.
MM: Do you aspire to be an action hero?
JM: I don’t think I aspire to be one. I’m going to be put into action movies because I’m a very athletic person. But the thing most people don’t know about me is that both of my parents are painters. I was raised as an artist. Art is my true passion. And now I’m a filmmaker, writing, directing, and producing art.
MM: What was it like working with Stallone in Bullet to the Head?
JM: I really idolize him. When Bullet to the Head came up, I didn’t hesitate. I loved Rocky. Even though it’s labeled as an action movie, there are only two fights in it. The whole thing is character-driven, where you really get to know and care about the characters. It’s not some random action film. I love doing action and I can do it very well. But I love those character pieces too. In fact, my next movie is going to be an action/character-driven piece.
Stallone was amazing to work with, very supportive, funny, and intelligent. He’s a self-made man. And I love those Renaissance men. I love having your hands into so many different art forms. It’s attractive to me as an artist and I will always remain that way.
MM: What advice did you give him?
JM: What advice did I give Stallone? (laughs) “Just stand there, let me do my thing, and I promise I won’t hit you!” Honestly, I don’t think I need to give him any advice. It’s one of those things where you just shut up and listen and watch what he does. He’s filled with advice, humor, and he’s a great teacher. Just observe and learn. That’s the best you can do.
MM: Why was Road to Paloma the right story to tell for your first feature film?
JM: It’s a story that we really wanted to tell about these rapes that are happening on Native American reservations and justice isn’t happening. A person could go on a reservation and commit a crime. The tribal police could catch them, but they could never prosecute them. So, there’s just this huge loophole and a lot of violence happening on these reservations. I felt it was a story that needed to be told. Being a father of two, a husband, and a grandson, if anyone was to mess with the women in my life and the law was not there to help me, what would I do?
I really wanted to question people in the world: what would you do? If you take these actions, this is what you’re going to lose. And when you lose those things, I wanted to play with the idea that every human can go insane at any given time. Even though this man has done something bad, something that was an injustice that happened to him, he’s doling out the best parts of his soul. I personally couldn’t be caged. Even if I did commit something. It brought up a lot things to me when injustice is happening, what would you do to protect your family? So, I wanted to explore that.
MM: And it’s a road movie.
JM: Right. I grew up rock-climbing and traveling a lot. I’ve watched a lot of road movies, but I never really saw one that I connected with; that was done just right. I loved ’70s cinema. I loved the book On the Road and I loved The Dharma Bums. I guess I wanted to make a film that was a cross between The Dharma Bums and Five Easy Pieces.
While we were making the short for “Brown Bag Diaries: Ridin’ the Blinds in B Minor,” there was another little short in there. A black-and-white silent film that we made that we never released. We did it so that by the time we got to the feature, we knew exactly what we were doing. Same with Road to Paloma. Now, I know what I’m doing from 14 years of acting and being around it all the time, but shooting, producing, editing, and finding film financing and distribution – it’s a whole other level.
We wanted to make sure we were ready.
MM: President Obama called violence on Native American reservations “an affront to humanity.” In addition to the film, what are you doing to bring the issue to light?
JM: No one really knows what’s going on and when they find out, they’re pretty baffled and surprised. For the film’s release, we’re making a website and including all the facts and statistics and sharing as much as we can with the festivals. I think we just have to get the film out there as loud as possible. It’s our single, biggest goal – to present this issue to the world and try to bring about change.
MM: What was shooting like? And how did you go about securing all of this great music?
JM: I hired two of my best friends and we hiked up 12,000 feet in the Sierras and took two bags full of beer, shoved them in ice, and we stayed up there for four days while running around in the mountains in the freezing snow and water. Basically, a crew of eight. We shot the whole end sequence up in the Sierras. We shot the whole movie in the can for $160K. The whole process was $500K. And we got approval for our licensing for the festivals, we got CCR, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, we got two Tom Waits songs (he’s my god!), we got Dead Weather, a bunch of blues, like Robert Johnson. It’s a beautiful, amazing movie and all of these people approved of it because of the cause and also how beautiful it was shot. We’re really excited to show the world that.
MM: Your next project after Paloma will be…?
JM: Well, our next film will be shot in Detroit, which will be fun. It’s called Kane. And it’s very much like the first Rocky meets Barfly meets On the Waterfront. It takes place in the winter time and it’s about a father who is down and out. It’s about second chances and redemption, about him trying to pull his family back together again.
MM: Final thoughts on moviemaking?
JM: I want to continue making my own films. I’m really happy to be working with my small group of friends, making art and creating stories we want to tell. Obviously, the big movies will come along and you do a few of those from time to time, but I’m mostly satisfied writing and making stories I want to tell and directing them.
We’re doing what we love and that’s the greatest thing – following our passions and making art. MM
Road to Paloma opens in theaters today, July 11, 2014, courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment. Photos courtesy of Road to Paloma LLC, Anchor Bay, HBO, and Lionsgate.
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