Makin’ art is my passion. On every level. I don’t care if it’s making clothes, frickin’ making scissor cut-outs or playing music. Y’know, I like doing something creative. To me the ultimate art is painting, but [moving pictures] put to music, and beautiful acting— it’s such a collaborative process. Amazing…
- Jason Momoa

Ask him what the meaning of life is. Seriously, see if he knows.” I’m out drinking with some uber-geeks from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and I’ve just informed them that the next day I’m set to interview the actor Jason Momoa, the rumored frontrunner for the role of Conan the Barbarian in the Lionsgate remake. As anyone who’s seen the original movie might guess, the meaning of life for this crowd is, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” They add, “If he doesn’t know that, he can’t do it.”

Following Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role that made him a legend, the star of the remake will have to contend with protective fans who could very well be sharpening their long knives for this one.

But then again, there’s always the chance that a hero will rise…

I go out in search of this upstart on what turns out to be the stormiest day of the year in L.A. My tiny two-seater splashes past fallen boulders littering the Pacific Coast Highway and signs warning of floods. Jason Momoa lives high in the mountains. The closer I get to his home, the steeper the “roads” are, and my car starts to slip and slide like a golf-cart with bald tires. The whole situation is pretty harrowing for a city driver. Jason gallantly agrees to meet me at the Canyon Bistro, and troops in with two friends. He’s big and friendly, with a spring in his step, and he smells a little like wet forest. He’s about the size of a tree, too. 6’4 and muscular, the dreads I saw in old paparazzi photos now cut down to a mildly-out-of-control mane of shaggy, swingy dark hair.

He shakes off the rain and immediately orders up a beer and roasted chicken. His friends, cinematographer Brian Mendoza and musician Michael Hayes, raise their glasses and toast the news that he was officially offered the role of Conan the Barbarian last night. Even Arnold signed off on it. And, for those out there wondering, yup, Jason’s familiar with the previously mentioned meaning of life.

“You know, it’s an honor,” he says, “It’s gonna be fun. How I want to play [Conan] is totally different from Arnold. I appreciate what he did but I’m gonna go in there and do my take on it. People might like it, people might not like it. I think that’s why they hired me over a lot of people who came in doing the typical thing.”

Jason is definitely not a carbon copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger. First of all, ready or not, the world is going to have to deal with a Conan who is not a blonde white guy. Jason is of mixed ethnicity, Hawaiian and Caucasian, born in Hawaii. He grew up in Iowa, so this is not the first time he’s been in the position of being different from an established racial norm. “I grew up in a really white place. Farm town. Iowa. There was no Black, no Chinese, nothing. I’m not gonna get graphic—but you know, basically there are narrow-minded people.” I ask him whether he had a date to the prom and he leans forward to address the whole table. “You know what’s fucking funny? I never got with one chick from my school. Doesn’t that suck?” He pauses, “But there are open-minded people too.”

Looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of them.

Oh—and any Iowa classmates hoping to make up for lost time are out of luck. He’s married to the actress Lisa Bonet, and they have two children together. He laughs when I ask if, having been famous for longer than he, Bonet has been a mentor to him in his career. “Mentor? She’s my wife, she’s my lover, she’s the mother of my children. I’ve just always loved her.” I ask him to recall the first time was that he saw her and he grins: “Probably when I was seven years old watchin’ the Cosby show!”

Like Bonet, Momoa got his start as an actor in TV, in a recurring role on Baywatch. He went on to North Shore and Stargate Atlantis. Playing the lead in the Conan remake will be his breakthrough into features. “You know, It’s gonna be interesting. It’s scary. It’s my first major thing.”

The film will shoot in March in Bulgaria, and Momoa will begin his preparation for the rigorous demands of the role immediately. “There’s a group, 87eleven, that trained the guys from 300, so I start with them on Monday. Physical training for 2 months. 6 in the morning til 12.”

As to what it’s like to approach the iconic role of Conan, which has become synonymous with stoic masculine power, he says, “It’s funny because I’m an artist through and through. An artist stuck in this big guy’s body.” Mendoza and Hayes chime in that “He’s a very sensitive person.”

It turns out that the best way to understand the unique qualities that Jason Momoa brings to the table is to ask him about his artistic work. “Makin’ art is my passion. On every level. I don’t care if it’s making clothes, frickin’ making scissor cut-outs or playing music. Y’know, I like doing something creative. To me the ultimate art is painting, but [moving pictures] put to music, and beautiful acting— it’s such a collaborative process. Amazing.”

The son of two artists who used to wrap Christmas presents in brown bags to save money, Momoa is a vagabond storyteller at heart, and to that end, he’s become a passionate pedal-to-the-metal guerilla filmmaker with a production company named Pride of Gypsies. In fact, he’s just finished directing and acting in a short film, The Brown Bag Diaries: Ridin’ the Blinds in B Minor, the story of which is taken from a longer script he’s been developing for seven years about drifters and tramps. With a mood inspired by the loneliness and heart of the Delta Blues, the short centers on two vagrant brothers with beaten-up lives, who confront their past while riding the rails.

“My mother had a pretty hard upbringing. I didn’t. I’m just writing from that perspective—like being molested by your father or being beaten. And then you hit the road and you run away from that to protect your family and your little brother. Only to have an accident happen. You can’t save him and then there’s just all that on you. It’s the breaking point. That’s what we covered in this little short.”

Momoa set out to make the film with $3k, a crew of four, and a tiny Canon 7D, which draws little attention to itself. “It was a small camera, so it looks like you’re taking photos. It’s a whole new style of guerilla filmmaking.” He saw no reason to wait around to get the project started. “Literally, I have a career of ten years going and I wrote Brown Bags seven years ago to do something that’s just not out there…I thought: Why don’t I just write it and get my friends together and do it myself? And that’s what we’re doing. There are so many beautiful talented people I’ve met, and we’re tired of waiting around. It was like: let’s do this thing. It’s so cheap, and what cameras can do right now—I’m not an idiot. It’s so accessible.”

Brian Mendoza, who shot and produced the film, tells me that in ten years of living and working as a photographer and cinematographer in LA, he’d never met anyone else who matched his drive like Jason. They got up early and shot only at magic hour—5-7am and 6-8pm, which gives the film the emotionally evocative look of beautifully painted multicolored dusk. “We were listening to Johnny Cash,” says Jason, “flying through the desert, running down the sunset and diving to catch that train for our shots…that was two days of chasing trains…sitting by the train tracks watching them go by so we could get sound. Frickin’ freezing.” In Kingman Arizona they almost got arrested in a park for removing Christmas lights from an old steam engine so they could shoot in it.

I ask him about acting, mostly because of one scene in the Brown Bags short where his character discloses abuse suffered in childhood. The scene is emotionally naked and speaks well for his willingness to commit as an actor. Jason studied with acting coach Arthur Mendoza, a founding principal instructor at Stella Adler’s studio in Hollywood whose students have included Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro. “He kick-started my imagination,” says Jason, “Just all imagery work. Imagination. If you can make strong images then you can have strong truthful acting.”

Momoa is even now putting together a second short film, Brown Bags: Notes from the Wall, also derived from his full-length script. “It’s literally about a heroine addict and a bum. Lisa Bonet will play the heroine addict.” I ask him if he had to convince his famously beautiful wife to do the part, but it turns out that she came to him. He’d started showing the script to a couple of actresses and Bonet secretly got a copy of it, read it, and loved it. Now he’s explaining to her that he’d rather not play opposite her because he’d like to focus on the directing. “I’d like to get Tom Waits to play the Bum. We’ve got big dreams and he’s who we want. I love him as an actor. I love his music. His eye. His talent. We all come from the same kind of cloth. He’d be lucky to know us!”

No surprise that Momoa’s planning to squeeze the shoot in before he leaves the country, and then take Brian Mendoza with him Bulgaria to edit on their Mac mini.

The guerilla filmmaking experience will certainly ensure that Momoa appreciates the work of the crew on the set of Conan. “Craft services? I’ll be like: Need any help with the sandwiches? First day on Brown Bags we shot from 5-7, I got up at 4 in the morning and my son was teething. So I’ve got my son in a baby bjorn and I’m cooking bacon and eggs, and my whole crew—well, four guys— is sleeping on the floor, and there’s my kid on top of me, and I’m serving craft services. And then we go to the set, we shoot from 6-8am and then we break, and I have to drive down to Venice, go to the makeup artist, do that, pick up lunch, drive back set up at the next location, start shooting again…it was brutal.”

Jason’s gratitude is evident when he talks about the cast and crew of people he’s been working with. In a town where people often take credit for the contributions of others, his insistence that his collaborators be recognized for their work is the most memorable thing about this interview. He extols the talents of his co-stars in short, Augusto Aguilera and Lindon Chiles. Chiles, at 76, is a veteran of the industry with a list of credits a mile long, while Augusto is a first-time actor who stood out in an class with Arthur Mendoza. Jason invites me four times to come to the Piano Bar on Selma in L.A. where Michael Hayes plays with his band every Thursday night. Michael is “a sick blues man,” Jason’s favorite guitarist who created the original score that compliments the images and sets the soulful mood in Brown Bags.

Resistance is futile. I arrive at the Piano Bar at half past ten and Jason’s buying everyone a round of drinks. He’s jumping up and down at the news that one of his friends is going to have a baby. He’s packed the place full with what seems like members of a young urban tribe. He propels me through the crowd, and plants me in front of the band to make sure I get the full blast of the show. We’re inches from the mic, immersed the music and the feeling of celebration.

Michael, who is definitely the real thing, playing guitar like a house on fire, pauses and gives Jason a nod. “Ladies and Gentlemen: CONAN THE BARBARIAN!”

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