“The Red Road,” a new drama coming to SundanceTV (formerly Sundance Channel) on February 27th at 9pm, features Jason Momoa as we haven’t seen him before. For one, he gets to wear a shirt, and for another, he’s not in the middle of a fantasy or sci-fi landscape. A striking 6’4″ tall and of a mixed heritage that includes Hawaiian and Native American ancestry, Momoa made a name for himself playing a series of memorable genre tough guys, including Ronon Dex on “Stargate: Atlantis,” the title role in Marcus Nispel’s “Conan the Barbarian” remake and the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo on “Game of Thrones.”
But “The Red Road” finds Momoa operating in the all too real world of a small New Jersey town divided along lines of race and class. He shows off some impressive dramatic acting chops as Phillip Kopus, a charismatic ex-con and member of the local (fictional) Lenape Mountain tribe who returns home and gets mixed up in a tragedy involving police officer Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson). Created by “Prisoners” writer Aaron Guzikowski with a pilot directed by James Gray, the series finds Momoa making a serious and justifiable bid for A-list leading man status, ambitions he’s been furthering with his own recent forays into directing. Indiewire spoke with Momoa in Los Angeles about the new series, playing a Native American character and the filmmaker he most admires.
You’ve had this string of standout genre roles playing some very popular characters. Does that come with a burden —where casting directors see you in this particular niche?
I think they do see me in that niche. That’s why [“The Red Road”] was refreshing, I had to work hard to get Aaron to believe that I could do it. It was in my interest, because it’s a unique role, being a Native, you know. It’s very specific, so that helped. But, yeah, a lot of people think I’m just that.
I’ve spent a good part of the last two or three years writing and directing my next movie and you’re going to get to see a different side of me. And I know who I am and I get to play some really fantastic roles that I just love. There is no way that I would just not do them, they’re great and I look forward to doing the comedies and the dramas — there’s a whole side that people haven’t seen.
Hollywood does not have a history of great portrayals of Native characters — traditionally they’ve been ones getting shot a by cowboys or offering up mystic wisdom to the hero. Were you concerned about the type of depictions out there when going into this project?
I’m extremely concerned about that, being a Native, how they’re represented. But on this, we are doing something fictional, though it’s inspired by [real] things. This guy’s own tribe doesn’t like him, he’s an outcast. That’s appealing as an actor, you want to play that, to play the bad guy — that’s where the drama is right? But at some point, his tribe’s going to bring him back, and he’s going to do good things for his tribe and not going just be selfish for himself, and he’s going to learn. That’s the road he’s going to have to walk.
So that’s appealing — he can give a rat’s ass, but the tribe obviously does. So we represent them well, but at the same time my guy is kicking up dust with the cops, with everyone. No one likes him, but at a certain point, you’re going to, and you’re going to see how and why he was made that way, and you’re realize that maybe he would have been, if this didn’t happen. He would have fallen in love and he would have had children and he would have been fine and he wouldn’t have done bad things. Truth of it is, even though he is a Native, he was raised by a white guy who was a drug dealer [played by Tom Sizemore], and it’s like…
…That’s a tough start.
Yeah, and it’s not a historical thing that we’re trying to represent. I just directed “Road to Paloma,” which was loosely based off the Mojaves. I play a Mojave character, so I went there and lived with them for about a month, and asked the questions, did the traditional things that are in it. I’m not doing anything traditional as far as my character is concerned in “The Red Road,” but what I did want to do is go up to the Ramapo Mountains and find that serenity.
This guy walked up to the forest a lot — the tribe is based in the mountains and the forest and I wanted to see that forest and find that, when I’m locked up for six years, what are those images in my head. Coming back home, I wanted to feel what it’s like coming back home. I wanted to make that image in my head, so there’s that calm. He could have had this nice home and he could have had a mother that loved him, and his mom doesn’t even hug him. He talks to the little kids and they don’t even like him. It’s fun to play the antagonist, antagonistic to my own tribe.
He rolls into town like he’s ready to kick up trouble. Do you think he thinks of himself as a bad guy at first?
He’s hurt. The guy’s just hurt. He’s wounded and he’s a lone wolf. He just doesn’t trust anyone, he doesn’t have anyone loving him, and that’s what we want as humans, is community, to belong. It’s the polar opposite of me, I was raised with a single mother who loved me to pieces. He didn’t have that — he was raised by his father who was obviously a bad guy.
Deep down inside, Kopus wants to be loved, but he’s been done wrong, and so he has that shell. We all put up those walls, and that’s what’s fun, acting and playing all those things. I personally haven’t stretched this far ever, as an actor, so that was fun too, to have that kind of drama.
Tell me about switching between television to film. You’ve been on both sides, do you have a preference?
There’s nothing I’ve ever worked on that beat “Game of Thrones” — that’s a 10-hour movie, they put a lot of money in it. Everything from costume design, the writing… so, going off my experience, TV has been the best. And Sundance, it’s amazing — the quality, the writing on the show, is unbelievable. We have great directors, an amazing cast, it’s a no-brainer. It’s pretty exciting, I really really hope people connect with it, I’m super pumped. And I’m excited about wearing clothes, you know, talking, using words.
You have played a lot of strong silent types.
Yes, which is hard, you just sit there and brood, I’m like, whatever.
One of the things that’s really interesting about the setting of “The Red Road” is that it has a lot of race and class tensions. The tribe, they aren’t federally recognized, and so they don’t get assistance from the government.
They don’t, right. And it’s messed up. That’s why, to me, it’s compelling and provocative, to have that fiction that they don’t get recognized — who’s holding it back, and why? There’s something with the casinos, and who’s the money guy, and there’s always something like that. I like that it brings attention and kicks up a little dust — that’s what we like in our stories right?
So tell me a little bit about directing — you have the first movie, “Road to Paloma,” and you’re working on a second?
Yeah. I loved it, that’s what I want to do is be behind the camera. Unfortunately I’m in it, so that was hard, doing both jobs. I was inspired by a couple articles in the New York Times about the rapes that are happening on the Native American reservations and how a non-Native can come on and commit a crime against a native and tribal law can arrest them, but they can’t prosecute them. There’s something crazy, like, 60% of the cases were non-Natives, and they were just getting tossed out, because terrorist acts, Homeland Security, they don’t have it, it’s just a small case. But this injustice was crazy — being a father, son, grandson, husband, if you fuck with the women in my life, and the law won’t take care of it, what are you going do? Probably something bad.
It’s the story of a man going to get his mom’s ashes — he’s taking her back to where life began for the Mojaves. It’s up in the mountains, and he spreads her ashes and goes to the Colorado River. It’s not a chase movie, but they’re tracking him down, the FBI. He’ll never love again, he’ll never see his father or sister. It’s kind of a sonnet, it’s him saying goodbye to his life and doling out the better parts of his soul even though he did do this heinous act. You see the other strangers that he meets and what mark he leaves in this world.
What made you want to be a filmmaker and who were your influences when you made this first film?
Ah man, Terrence Malick is a big one — I love Terrence Malick. John Hillcoat, I love. You know, it’s funny — when I originally got “Conan the Barbarian,” everyone was like “Oh, you got Conan!” I was raised with a single mother in Iowa, and we’d watch “Rear Window” and Gone With The Wind.” It looks like I watched nothing but what my buddies did, like “Zulu,” but I just never saw. The stuff that I’ve seen is because of my mom.
I just love stories and I love movies, learning and seeing the world. Growing up in Iowa, it was like, you wanna see the world? Movies can help you do that. And now that I’ve worked in the business for so long, I know how to do it, and I want to tell stories, and it’s hard to find good stories and I’m not at the top of the list to get into those great stories, so I’m like fuck it, I’m going to make it myself, and I’m going to find the funding and do those acting gigs, but make my true art, to tell the stories I want to tell.
Is it a way for you to get to do the kind of roles that you want as well?
Not so much. The one I did for “Road to Paloma” wasn’t really an amazing role — it’s more about the people in it. The directing was what I was focusing on. I didn’t really have to stretch for the character. But the next one I’m gonna do is pretty big. It’s a historical piece I’m going to do in Hawaii, set in the 1890s, so it’s really dear to me. It’s going to be honoring the tribe, and that will be fun. I’ve got some of the script already done but I need some more time.
So, aside from working with Terrence Malick on his next movie, what type of roles would you want for yourself next?
Well, I would love for “The Red Road” to go a second season because he’s a great character. When people see the first six episodes, it’ll be like “wow!” I’m having a lot of fun doing that. This role that I wrote, it’s amazing and I think that’s the beauty of being in this business, there’s stuff that you can’t even fathom yet. I wouldn’t have known about Drogo, even though it’s out there. If Terrence Malick reads this article, when I get big enough, maybe he’ll hire me.
What’s the Hawaiian film about?
It’s a whole historical piece based on true events. There’s this character called Koʻolau who was a ranch hand, and he got leprosy and so did his son. When they were going over to the other side of the island to take him away, they wouldn’t let him bring his wife, so according to police records, he basically shot the sheriff to be with his family.
They called in martial law, brought in howitzers and cannons and basically bombed the island to get this guy out of there — this one guy against an army. He just wants to die with his family, and his wife ends up burying him and their child. She comes out four years later and writes the whole story. The white man brought the disease in, they’re taking their land, this is when the provincial government was just starting, so it’s a pretty gnarly story. Jack London wrote a short story about it, but the story’s never otherwise been told. It’s uplifting, it’s not victimizing, it’s beautiful. It’s kind of like a “Braveheart” to my own people, and I would love to do that.