For every million struggling actors in the world, there’s one guy like Jason Momoa. He never even really dreamed of becoming an actor—until one day, there he was, starring on a hit TV show. “It was a dream job that literally fell into my lap,” Momoa—referring to his big break on Baywatch—recalls with a laugh. “It was such a shocker to me because it was the last thing on earth I thought I would ever be doing. But it gave birth to my love and passion for acting. It just opened up that world to me.”
Momoa, 32, has parlayed a stint wearing those iconic red bathing trunks into a regular gig on the sci-fi hit Stargate: Atlantis and his most recent (and highest-profile) TV job as Khal Drogo, a savage warrior on HBO’s critically acclaimed series Game of Thrones. This month, Momoa takes on his biggest role yet: starring as Conan the Barbarian on the big screen.
We talked to Momoa as he drove through Los Angeles (alongside his wife, Lisa Bonet) about skateboarding, doing his own stunts, and his familial tattoo.
Inked: Struggling actors must hate you for falling into show business so easily. How exactly were you discovered?
Jason Momoa: My father lived in Hawaii, so I went to see him during a semester off from college. I was 19 years old and working in a family surf shop. Baywatch Hawaii came down there, and so my cousin and I went down there to meet chicks. We thought maybe we could make $100 a day being extras.
Ah. So it was all about getting chicks.
Yep. But you’ve got to have a résumé to get in the door, so we made up a whole bunch of bullshit that we were Gucci models and Louis Vuitton models, and that got us in. Then a month later, I got the lead role on Baywatch. And my whole life changed after that.
So your Wikipedia page is a lie?
Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s hilarious. You had to have something to get in the room, so we made that up. We were just bullshitting.
As a good-looking guy, did you always get a lot of girls?
Barely. I barely even kissed any girls in high school, man.
That’s hard to believe.
It’s true—because their mothers never liked me. I had some girls who were friends, but I didn’t date many people. I wasn’t very big with girls. I had some problems of my own. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I was a virgin until I met my wife. Well, that’s what my wife just told me to say. [Laughs.]
You were born in Hawaii but grew up in Iowa. Were there any kids that looked like you in Iowa?
No, it was all white when I was growing up. It was a farm town, a pretty small town. I was an only child with a single mom. It made me an individual. But I love Iowa. You can eat so much fuckin’ food there, biscuits and gravy and all that stuff. So I lived there but I’d spend summers with my father in Hawaii. Life as a gypsy, you know?
What were you like as a teenager?
There were a lot of wrestlers in town, but I was a skateboarder. Though I wasn’t really a troublemaker. I was actually a good kid until I got out of school.
What about that 2008 bar fight where you got hit with broken glass?
Yeah, I walked into a bar with a friend and a guy hit me in the face with a pint glass, and I had to get 140 stitches. They had to put my face back together. I think he got, like, seven years in prison. He was already on probation for carrying a loaded firearm, so he was a real piece of work.
Was it random?
Yeah—I think he attacked the biggest guy in the room.
You’re 6´4? now. Were you always huge?
No, man. I was short. I started growing my freshman year of college. I didn’t get to 6´4? until I was out of high school. And I think I’m 6´5? now. I’m still growing.
Is it true that both your parents were painters?
Yeah, my mom went to art school, and my dad has continued to paint his whole life—he made that his career. My mom has such a great eye and has taught me to appreciate great art.
What was your first tattoo?
I got my first one before my daughter was born. It’s something my cousins all have, and it goes on the left side of your arm—it’s like a guardian. It’s basically like your power animal, whatever animal represents your family or your tribe. And ours is a shark, a mano. And then there are arrows that face out—out of your heart, that’s what it represents. I got it back in Hawaii. It took nine hours. It was pretty intense. I didn’t know what to expect, but it hurt like hell.
How did you deal with the pain?
Actually, it was not so much the pain of getting tattooed, as it was just really annoying hearing that [buzzing] sound for so long. It was just brutal. The last hour was pretty daunting. But I like tattoos now that are meaningful and small, like simple words. I’m not big on pain. It’s addictive. My wife and I have some special ones that are meaningful to us. I’ll probably do more with my family. There’s a tattoo artist in Hawaii who researches your family’s genealogy, and so at some point I’ll probably get that whole thing down my leg.
And your latest tattoo?
It’s a line from a Charles Baudelaire poem, which basically means, “Be happy.” I got it in London. My stepbrother got the same one.
Have you ever met a fan with tattoos of you or your characters?
No, but I’ve seen some pretty good Stargate tattoos. They love it, and that’s awesome, whatever floats their boats—I mean, I have a ridiculous Charles Baudelaire poem. And that’s the great thing about tattoos: You can wear them and express yourself.
Drogo, your character in Game of Thrones, knows how to express himself. And he’s not the greatest guy in the world.
What are you talking about? He’s a sweetheart! [Laughs.] No, he’s a good guy. He’s a savage, but out of the whole series, I think he’s the nicest and most decent person in the whole thing. It’s the greatest role I’ve even come across. It was the best experience of my acting career to date. At first all my buddies were busting my balls, like, “You don’t say anything, and you’re just naked.”
How did you get that role?
When I first read it, it was something that I knew was in my grasp. I was so stoked and I knew I could beat out the average Joe. I pulled from my family’s history, and I went in and did a Hawaiian war chant for the casting directors. So you could definitely see what this guy was like in battle. And I pretty much sealed the deal right there. And it was the same casting director for Conan, and they were kind of like, “There’s our guy.”
Have you had any bad auditions?
Many. I’m horrible at auditioning. Horrible. There’s such a technique to it. I’ve even taken audition classes. I’m just so bad at it.
Did you have reservations about being the lead in Conan—about carrying a movie?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I hadn’t ever seen the original with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I didn’t really want to. I just wanted to do my own interpretation of it. There’s so much source material, and I’m hoping it does really well so we can do more.
How did you make the role your own?
I weight trained and transformed my body and the way I walked. I studied a lot of big cats—cougars, lions. I wanted him to be nimble and quick. I didn’t want him to be this clunky, gigantic man who’s throwing boulders and lifting tree trunks. I wanted him to be a product of his environment. It’s really an origin story of when he was born, and growing up as a boy, and then it goes into a revenge story. He’s an antihero. That’s why people like him. He’s no bullshit.
Did you do your own stunts?
Probably 75 to 80 percent of the stuff. I had some great guys helping me out.
Speaking of Ah-nold, any thoughts on his love child scandal?
Nah. I don’t even own a TV. I don’t have a cell phone.
So you don’t follow the Hollywood gossip?
No TMZ for you? No, I’ve got enough shit on my plate. I don’t have time. I’d rather study and write and play music—just work with my friends and raise my kids and be with my wife. I just don’t have time to watch all that stuff.
That’s refreshing, actually. I don’t really need to hear positive or negative. Just show up and do your job, you know?
And hopefully they’ll hire you again.