Television drama The Red Road debuted last week on Sundance TV, much to the delight of Indian country and fans of Jason Momoa, who plays the shady Ramapough Lenape tribal member Phillip Kopus. The show's second episode airs tonight — Thursday, March 6 — at 9 PM.
Taking some time out of his schedule just before embarking on a massive press tour, Momoa, a veteran actor most recently known as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, told us what he likes best about working on The Red Road and what it means for spreading the awareness of indigenous people in today’s film industry.
Phillip comes from a dark place — how did you get inside his head?
Once I first got the role, I did not know to the extent of what his back story or what his life was. When [The Red Road's creator] Aaron Guzikowski gave me the bible to what his back story is — I was like, phew, I don't live with those types of secrets or these types of things that have happened to me.
You use your imagination to figure out what he would be like. There are so many layers that can affect you, in terms of what you'd want to cover up. There is also subtext. He is a very, very complex character. That was the big draw for me. In the first episode there is some creepy stuff I do.
There was definitely a lot of subtext, with respect to your character, in the first episode.
There is a big mystery to it, you try to figure him out, you try to peg him until things are peeled back slowly you don't really know who he is yet.
The show portrays a love-hate relationship between the townspeople and the Ramapough Lenape — is any publicity is good publicity?
When Aaron Guzikowski wrote the piece, he was definitely inspired by the Ramapough Lenape. We definitely didn't want to [portray them as being] good or bad — we want to use fictitious characters. It is most interesting that we are portraying a tribe that does not have federal recognition. People will say, "boom, I want to know more about this. How is this even possible?"
We also address all of the paint spillage that has been happening there that was addressed in [the documentary] Mann vs. Ford. It is heart-wrenching; it is great that the writer brought this attention that shit like this happens up there.
As someone who is native — I’m Hawaiian — there have been a lot of things taken from us, and this is a contemporary piece. I was very concerned about how the tribe would feel about all of this. So let's let them know that it's not something against them.
What else do you like about your character?
My character — his own mother does not like him. I was attracted to that
When I was making my movie Road to Paloma, the Mojaves brought me in to teach me traditional things such as their arts, their songs, dance and sports — we learned all of these traditional things to incorporate into Road to Paloma. However, on the flip side, this character, Phillip, doesn't give a shit about his tribe.
Phillip's best friend is Mike Parker, played by Native actor Zahn McClarnon. How did you like working with him?
Ahhhh, he’s alright (laughs) — the problem is that we got along too well! I don't want to give anything away on the show but he is definitely my rock. He is one of the better performers I have ever co-acted with in a scene. One time I forgot my lines because I was just watching him and enjoying it.
When you have a really good talent — you're watching them, and then you think "wow dude, you are killing it!" Then you think, "oh shit, my line!"
He had one scene that he just knocked out of the park and they kept every moment of it — it was beautiful.
Some viewers may be surprised by the African American and Native American racial mixture of the Ramapough Lenape, which is depicted in The Red Road.
I think everyone thinks that a Native looks like a guy with a feather, which is not true in this day and age. There are a lot of people I have met who have been Apache or Comanche, when I was studying for Road to Paloma, guys that look Dutch who are full-on. It's in their blood, just because you don't look like you stepped off a horse or slept in a tepee — that doesn’t mean you are not Indian.
What's the significance of this show in the landscape of mainstream entertainment?
It is great to have a contemporary Native American piece. They also tackle a lot of things — there are good Natives in this, and there are bad Natives in this. As there is in every tribe, and in every walk of life.
The second episode of The Red Road airs tonight (Thursday, March 6) at 9 PM on Sundance TV. If you missed the premiere — or just want to see it again — it's viewable online at Sundance.tv.