SundanceTV has a decent marketing budget, but its second season of The Red Road got a jolt of free publicity on Feb. 20 when Justice League godfather Zack Snyder tweeted an image of his new Aquaman. Jason Momoa, who’d played Game of Thrones‘ Khal Drogo and Conan the Barbarian, is the fierce Maori-inspired face of DC’s underwater superhero, and The Red Road, which returns on April 2, just got a lot more interesting.
That’s not to say that The Red Road wasn’t already off to a solid start. In its first season, Momoa, Martin Henderson, and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) played conflicted characters who live around the Lenape reservation in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains. Henderson plays the earnest cop, Harold Jensen, and Momoa is Phillip Kopus, who wastes no time after his release from prison to set up his latest drug-dealing operation. When Kopus learns that Jensen’s mentally unstable wife (Nicholson) may have injured a young member of the tribe with her erratic driving, he thinks nothing of blackmailing the cop. But it’s more complicated than good guys versus bad guys, and at the end of season 1, the two men reluctantly found themselves on the same side of a deadly shootout with big-fish drug dealers.
In the exclusive trailer for season two, the boys are back: one’s been promoted and the other is recently released from another stint in prison. But they’re both back on the mountain, where the tribe is considering the construction of a casino. Momoa chatted with EW about the show, his early days on Baywatch: Hawaii, and his imminent return to the ocean as Aquaman.
EW: A year has passed on The Red Road, and it hasn’t been kind to your character. What can you tell viewers about what Kopus is going to face this season?
JASON MOMOA: I really go through hell this year. I went to [creator] Aaron Guzikowski before we started [season 2] and I’m like, “Give it to me. Give me everything. I want you to beat me up.” And he beat the shit out of me. Episode 1 kind of lays the groundwork, but the first scene in episode 2—it’s on. I’ve never been broken before, but Aaron Guzikowski successfully broke me this year.
You mean physically?
The last episode is hands down the hardest and the most emotional thing I’ve ever been through in my life, as far as personally and also as an actor. I’ve never really been to those places in my acting life. It was extremely tough and satisfying, and I’m excited for everyone to see it.
The show is filmed in Georgia, but have you ever ventured up to the Ramapo mountains in New Jersey, where the show is set, to meet the actual tribe.
Before we even shot season 1, I went up there. I’m very close to some of the people up in the Ramapo mountains. I went up there before the second season, too. My biggest thing, when we originally started, being a native, being someone who obviously respects and loves his culture, I wanted to go there and let them know, “You’re not going to like Kopus because this character is definitely the bad seed. It doesn’t matter what race he is or what tribe he’s from. His own mother doesn’t like him.” So I wanted to assure them that he’s going to find his path, but I wanted to let them know who my character is.
Was the reception any different when you went back before season two, after they’d seen the first season of the show?
There’s a lot of people that understand it, and they were really, really happy. They loved my character, obviously, even though he does the bad stuff. There was a lot of love for it, and there were also many who were mad, too. I spent a lot of time talking to them and [listening to] their reason why. And I sat down with them, and I think we’re all better for it. You have to let those people talk about some things too, and it’s my duty and my honor to do so. But it’s not a true story. We’re making a TV show, so there’s obviously drama. Some people take it a little harder and I wanted to spend time with them, so I did. I continue to want to make them happy and obviously I see both sides [of the argument].
What kind of a kid were you growing up in Iowa?
I was an outcast. I was from a town of wrestlers and football players. I was a skateboarder when I was little; I still skateboard, I teach my kids how to skate. Both my parents are artists, so that just makes me look at everything slightly different. I listened to different music, I dressed differently. So I kind of grew up without following the pack. When I did play team sports, I was into soccer and hockey. I loved hockey. And then rock climbing became the thing that got me out of Iowa and I traveled the world for rock climbing. I really loved the, I guess you would say, dirtbag lifestyle of not eating much and traveling the world and slipping into different cultures and just observing.
So you weren’t in the drama club, but was acting something that was always in the back of your head?
No. Never. It totally found me, which is a blessing. I debated it many times and then I did at one point quit—just went climbing and traveled the world. Really, it was hard for me in my younger days, with acting. I didn’t want to wait by the phone for auditions and be in L.A. I left and just worked on my self. Then I came back and got into acting classes and I loved the idea that we’re students at life. I get to be all these other people. What a great job. I love traveling and studying people, so it worked out.
Your first big job was on Baywatch. Was that a good experience for you or was it part of the frustration you’re describing?
I had the time of my life. I was 19. It was fun. I fell in love with acting because of it, but it was sort of the hardest thing because people think you’re from Baywatch. And you’re like, “Dude, I’m not f-cking anything like Baywatch, buddy.” And you kind of get labeled as that. I couldn’t find an agent for four years after Baywatch. They don’t take you seriously. They think you’re a pretty boy, this and that. It’s just, “F-ck you, man. This ain’t me.” So I spent a lot of my career trying to dig myself out of a hole of something people try to put you into. It’s hard—no one really makes it off that show. I’m still very close with all my friends from it, and it gave me this passion for acting, but I still think most people don’t have a clue where to put me and who I am.
It’s a good time for The Red Road‘s return because your profile is going to be amplified, especially after that poster of you as Aquaman arrived.
That was a shocker for sure. It was supposed to be a surprise in 2016, so it definitely helps [our show]. I’ve been holding that secret for a long time. Zack Snyder called me up and said, “I’m posting this picture now.” He’s just a genius and I love him to death. He sent it over and we’re in the middle of the editing suite for the thing I’m doing right now, and we all freaked out, man. It was so amazing to see it come out.
I know it’s superficial of me, but one thing I really like about the potential of the DC movies is that its actors are actually pretty imposing. By that I mean, when I see you—who’s 6’5″—or 6’4″ Ben Affleck or 6’1″ Henry Cavill throw someone through a wall or get thrown through a wall, I feel like there’s really some damage being done. Have you filmed any action sequences with them yet?
No, we haven’t done too much on the action yet. You know, Justice League is still quite a ways away. But I’m looking forward to it. Henry’s a sweetheart, Ben is a badass, so I’m really looking forward to when we all shoot Justice League.
How much can we expect to see you in the Batman v. Superman movie?
Well, it’s Batman and Superman, it’s not my movie. It’s the first time in history to have them both on the screen together, and I’m just excited to see those two up there.
There was actually some speculation that Aquaman was meant to pop up in Man of Steel, in the underwater scenes after Henry Cavill is blasted off the oil rig. Were you ever involved in those discussions?
Well, you know, I think that’s left for the genius of Snyder to kind of reveal that. There’s definitely a plan in this whole universe that he’s designing, and it’s amazing to be a part of it. I think everything that you see that is building, there’s a purpose behind the whole plan. So I wouldn’t want to take anything away from Zack, because he loves revealing all those things. And… you never know, man.
Aquaman is much different than Conan the Barbarian because with that character, there was so much you had to live up to—because of Arnold more than anything. Aquaman is different because he’s been ignored a bit. But then when the Aquaman poster arrived, there was almost this sense of “Wow! This might be something different than we thought.” Do you sense that optimism towards the character?
Oh, absolutely. The whole mythology of Aquaman is pretty amazing. There’s so many things to tell, and there’s a whole backstory that’s just amazing. There’s a lot of surprises coming. I think, yeah, he’s been cast aside. But, um [laughs] times are going to change now, buddy.
Conan was really hard, because you have 15 different types of fans and so many things to respect and honor. To do it right it’s got to be bloody-bloody-bloody-bloody-bloody, and not a lot of people go see that anymore. It’s not the ’80s anymore. It’s a really hard format. We busted ass, but there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen on that one. What’s great about this is Zack, man. We don’t want to just reinvent it, but he’s a got a whole idea of what Aquaman should be and I’m really honored to be playing it. I’m excited for the world to see it.
Is it true that you studied marine biology in college?
Isn’t that a trip. The funny thing is it happened in Iowa, so we would actually take the yellow school bus all the way down to Florida over spring break and spend two weeks on the Keys. But yeah, I studied for two years, and we would travel down to the Keys and that was something I wanted to do. And then I transferred to Hawaii—being a native, I could get in-state tuition. Some of my family are like some of the greatest watermen in the world. I was over there training, just toeing the big waves. Then Baywatch came, and I went down there to meet chicks. Nineteen years old, and not a care in the world, and I ended up getting a TV show. The next thing I know, I’m an actor. It’s weird how it found me. Life’s a trip, man. A Hawaiian raised in Iowa and the next thing you know, I’m Aquaman. It’s the last damn thing I thought I’d be doing.
You have young kids. They must be excited to have dad play a superhero.
My son’s obsessed with Batman, and it’s great. It’s cool to be able to do this, and I’m not in a lot of things that my kids get to see, so it’s really a fantastic opportunity—they’re going to see their father on the big screen with superheroes. But after the poster came out, I’m really getting hit up now [in public], so I try to keep it away from them as much as possible. People come up and they say things, but we try to be really private people as much as possible. I just want to be papa for right now.
With all the action movies that are on your plate, can you continue to fit The Red Road into that schedule?
I would love to. What’s great about it is we shoot six episodes in less than two months; it can totally fit in there. I would love to do two more seasons. Kopus is an amazing character to play. I’m going to direct my own stuff, work on Red Road, and obviously, I’m excited about kicking some ass on the DC Films. It’s fun to be able to dress up and go play a superhero. It’s a pretty choice job. And to be able to honor my native culture is another badass thing. I’m definitely living the dream right now.