LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jason Momoa may not be a household name from Hollywood yet, but neither was Arnold Schwarzenegger when he took on the title role of "Conan the Barbarian" in 1982.
Nearly 30 years later, Momoa could see a similar starmaking trajectory if moviegoers embrace him as the new, 3D incarnation of "Conan the Barbarian," due in theaters on Friday. If there's one person who hopes they will, it is Momoa.
"Conan (is) going to give me star status," he told Reuters of his hopes for a movie that breaks him out of the pack of Hollywood actors. "It's going to put me in leading man roles."
Based on pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery fantasy stories, the "Conan" reboot begins with the barbarian's early years when, as a young boy, he witnesses the destruction of his village and the death of his father.
As an adult, Conan embarks on a personal mission to avenge the death, which then turns into an epic battle to save an entire nation from a supernatural evil.
Unlike Schwarzenegger who, at 35, was a body building champ but a relative newcomer to Hollywood movies when he took the "Conan" role, the 32 year-old Momoa has 12 years of work under his belt. But only his hardcore fans, including followers of HBO series "Games of Thrones," likely know he's got the acting skills, not to mention the muscles, to wield Conan's weapons.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Momoa was raised by his single mother in Iowa, where he never felt like he fit in with his exotic looks inherited largely from his native Hawaiian father. After high school, in an attempt to "get to know my father better" Momoa went back to Hawaii where his looks became an asset. Modeling gigs followed, then came an opportunity he could never have predicted -- a gig on "Baywatch."
"I was 19 and folding t-shirts in a surf shop," Momoa told Reuters. "And I got chosen out of 1,300 people to play a lead role on 'Baywatch Hawaii.' I didn't even know how to act."
That led to another Hawaii-based show, "North Shore," which only lasted a year and after that, a dry spell.
"It took me five years to get an agent after 'Baywatch,'" said Momoa. "No one would take me seriously because it was 'Baywatch.' I lived in the shadow of that for a long time.'"
Eventually he landed the role of the dreadlock-wearing warrior Ronon Dex in the Sy Fy Channel TV series "Stargate: Atlantis," where he was quickly embraced by sci-fi fans. The show lasted on TV for five seasons.
His career took another fortuitous turn when he was cast as the powerful warlock Khal Drogo on HBO's "Game of Thrones," based on the popular "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy novels. After premiering earlier this year, "Thrones" became an instant hit with fans and critics, earning 13 Emmy nominations.
"It was the first project in my life where I was like, 'I have to have this, no one is gonna take this from me,'" said Momoa. "It was the first thing I've ever fought for."
Momoa's 6'3" frame and muscular body make him a strong choice for roles as tough guys who battle evil, and his exotic looks give him an eerie resemblance to Howard's original drawings of Conan.
But the actor, who is married and has two young children with actress Lisa Bonet, said it was being a father that made him connect with the Conan character.
"Conan's father is killed in front of him and as a father, if someone messes with your family, your children, you're gonna get primal on them," said the actor. "You're gonna go feral. It resides in everyone," Momoa said.
Clearly, going primal is one thing Momoa can do. His face bears a striking scar from a 2008 bar fight where, he said, "I took a pint glass to the face. It took a 140 stitches to put my face back together."
But those days are gone, he said, and the actor is focused on his future. Besides "Thrones," Momoa is currently shooting a villainous role opposite Sylvester Stallone in next year's crime thriller, "Bullet to the Head." He also has a couple of projects in the works with Bonet.
Though his career is moving at a faster pace now, Momoa paused to reflect about first seeing himself on the big screen in "Conan," complete with the physical transformation which included an additional 25 lbs. of muscle.
"There's moments you look at yourself," he said. "And wow, it's kinda cool."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte