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Interview with Conan Stevens

Conan Stevens was one of the first actors that came to the attention of fans in association with the production, when it was simply still in development: he put out the word that he thought he’d make a fantastic Mountain that Rides.

Many months later—after a pilot was ordered, after it was considered, after a second season was green lit—he landed the part he set out to get. Below is our exclusive interview with Stevens, who discusses his early career, his views on the differences between Thai and American productions, and more.

Your background is really interesting, and the one thing I most get out of it when reading your biography is that you’re a man who’s driven to succeed. Was this something installed in you at an early age?

No, rather it seems I was too naïve to not believe that I could make it. I remember the school I was in had a Careers Advisor whom we all had a private interview with at about 15-16. He asked me what I wanted to do, I did not have an answer, then he asked what area of employment was I interested in, I did not have an answer for that either. (Funny that the only careers advised were traditional jobs).

Australia was an optimistic country when I was a lad, plenty of money about, low unemployment, an easy beach going lifestyle. You’d buy a nice car when you left school, then a house which you’d pay off by the time you were 40, faster if you made extra payments, life was pretty good, people were happy and even ‘poor’ people ate steak dinners nightly. Funny how the banks and the big multi-nationals are now posting record profits yet the average Australian has a decreasing quality of life yearly.

At school I was always told I could do better if I tried, I guess this helped fuel my personal confidence in this regard as I was already in the top classes hovering around the low 1/3 without doing any homework and barely doing any work in class – just listening to the teacher explain things. Once you understand something the answers are easy. Too many kids were trying to memorise everything without understanding it, which might get good exam results IF you can remember everything but you’ll never do any good in the real world.

School prepares kids to be hive workers sitting in their office cubicles happily until retirement day. If you are not doing well at school don’t worry, there are plenty of fun things to do throughout your life later on – being a hive worker isn’t one of them. It might also be that I read a lot when I was young. Lots of historic figures the Greek heroes, King Arthur, Norse Mythology. For example when I was 12 years old I read The Hobbit, Mein Kampf, Homer’s epic The Iliad, then the complete The Lord of The Rings trilogy.

My role models were valiant crusaders against evil with unstoppable willpower and (generally) strong morals – I guess at the end of the day that rubs off.

You mention that it was at sixteen that you decided you wanted to become an action star. Why sixteen? Was there some film that triggered it, or film/television idol that you wanted to be like?

I had started bodybuilding and this gave me the realisation that I had control over my life and could influence it. This of course completed my self confidence, I had always been overly confident concerning my mental prowess but physically I was the opposite though very active and extremely fit. This started with me being unhappy with my physique for a long time, I was skinny and unattractive with a bad haircut and I could program in several languages = NERD. At 16 years old some mates got some old magazines and started weight lifting in their basement, they took me to see the movie Conan the Destroyer starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Within 3 months of training I had put on 20kg, changed my body shape considerably and gained a lot of upper body strength, most importantly my confidence soared as I learned that I had control over my life. This is covered in-depth in the article on my website covering this time of my life.

After the initial successes my mates I was training with decided they wanted to be Professional Bodybuilders like Arnold. They asked what I wanted to do. The answer just came to me, it was in my subconscious as at the time at school we were also choosing our elected subjects for the next two years which would pave the way for entry to University and our entire lives.

Anyway it seems my subconscious had chosen a path outside the curriculum, and it excited me to think about it. You see, my favourite TV show at the time was WWF wrestling. So when my mates asked what I wanted to do I told them I wanted to be a Professional Wrestler like Hulk Hogan and use the fame from that to cross over into action movies like Arnold made. This whole idea excited me, much more than getting a job like everyone else.

Obviously, the move to Thailand was in pursuit of your goals as an actor and stunt performer. Was there much culture shock for you to begin with when you first set foot there?

I had been to Thailand first in 1998, and twice since for a total of almost 7 weeks in country before I sold off everything and moved there so you could say I had an idea of what I was getting myself into. In 1998, the first time I went, I studied massage at a Buddhist temple, Wat Po, located in Bangkok and visited a local TV station to see about the possibilities of working as an actor in Thailand. When I returned home I liked the people, loved the food (and even took up cooking my best approximations), but hated the touts annoying me everytime I put foot outside.

Travelling the next two times I visited most of the southern islands where everything was geared towards tourism and backpackers, again I loved the countryside, the heat, the hot food, and really HATED the touts, especially the Indian taylors and Tuk Tuk drivers in Phuket.

When I moved over, for what I thought was going to be a short term stay, I stayed with a friend of my best mate. He had lived in Indonesia for 8 years and in Bangkok for 6 years. He was fluent in Thai and had a growing business based there. I stayed with him the first three months and got a good run down of what to do, what not to do, what was acceptable and a basic understanding of Thai culture. I did not really get culture shock, I explained it to my friends back in Australia at the time as it being an adventure just going to the 7/11 convenience store to buy milk… and it still can be.

It is funny here, so much is diametrically opposed to what I was brought up with that it can be very challenging at times, this results in many foreigners giving up and returning home, often times hating Thailand – yet who is to blame when they more often than not cannot speak fluently and do not understand the way people think here?

It takes incredible discipline to maintain the kind of physique you do, and you’ve recounted some of the details. Do you ever want to just let loose, sleep in, maybe eat to a different schedule? I couldn’t imagine that level of self-control!

Yes I do. Often times I let loose and sleep in until like 8am!!!!

My life is very regimented but I do take time out, but it is not some random I’ll go out tonight because I am bored. If I have a night off and plan to drink and party then it’ll be done at full speed and planned out – as in I’ll have had all my gym work done for that week and would be due for a few days off training then I might plan a night of debauchery. Even saying that I’ll still eat pretty much every 3 hours instead of every 2 so there is always a discipline there, even when I am at my worst.

Though after years it becomes more of a habit than discipline, and I get hungry every 2 hours so I have to eat, it is not that I always want to but I have conditioned my body to feed like this.  Knowing and understanding food, I very, very rarely put junk into my body. I eat natural fresh foods almost exclusively and prefer my food that way as it makes me feel good. Given the choice I’d take a big juicy steak and chips as a ‘junk food’ meal, processed chain store hamburgers or pizza might make it into my diet once a year – if they are lucky.

The other motivating factor is that my physique is my product, it is a part of my life plan, it is part of who I am and part of the Conan Stevens brand – it is an integral part of my public face so to speak, I need it to continue with my acting career as this is what I am known for. So there is a deep subconscious motivation for me to continue on with this at all times.

Also after some time off from the gym, I start to feel guilty of not doing anything, I start to lose the muscle and I really want to go back into the gym, when I train hard I can actually hit a point where I feel the endorphin release, like runner’s high. It is almost like a drug hit in the middle of the gym, and it is a ‘hit’ I can actually feel the sudden release once my exercise hits a certain intensity. It’s awesome.

And of course I like looking good and feeling fit with “too much” energy.

We know that a fan let you know about the TV show being greenlit, and you started campaigning early, culminating with an audition for the pilot as Khal Drogo. What was your thinking behind pursuing that, and what was the process like of chasing down that opportunity?

My online petition started way before that, it started with a fan letting me know that the show was being considered. I wrote an article on my site and Search Engine Optimised (SEO) the article so that I would be noticed if anyone searched for the name of Ser Gregor Clegane.Like pretty much all my life plans I had no idea how to take it to the next level or how to contact anyone involved. Writing this article let others find me though.

And they did.

All the way through the process I was operating blind with no real idea how to get to the audition, I just kept taking small steps forward as each step revealed the next. In hearing (again from a fan) that Auditions were going on in Australia I contacted people I knew in Australia and found out who the Casting Agency was, next I got in contact with them and presented them with a previous audition take I did for another movie to support my application. They watched the audition take (for a US DVD movie) and accepted my application.

Several days later I got the Drogo sides (an extract from the script) to read and tape, which I did, then uploaded the audition take and emailed them a download link from my server. Since I was not Asiatic looking I played the part with a Russian/Arabic accent, though I can do a East Asian accent it does not sound tough at all. In my email I did stress that I could speak Thai. Having said this my idea was to get in front of the casting people in any way possible so that they would remember me later for the part of Gregor. To enhance my chances I did a size comparison with a 5’10” 200lb friend with my shirt off to emphasize my physique.

If I was to play Gregor I needed the casting people to know that not only was I tall that I was scary big.

I did not get the part, obviously I was not really a suitable candidate, but…..

After the first season was ordered, did they call you back to audition for Gregor, and if so, do you recall what your audition scene was?

Now here is an interesting story, I am glad you asked this.  As I said, I had auditioned for Khal Drogo, and more interestingly my audition application was accepted. When I heard that they’d take my audition I thought they must be really having a hard time filling this role. I knew I would not get it unless they were absolutely out of luck with all other prospects. But I wanted to get in front of the HBO casting people in some way so they would know about me come the right time.

I laughed inwardly at the time too, if I was given the role of Drogo I could speak Thai but make it more guttural as the Dothraki language (most productions don’t go to the effort HBO are going to with fantasy languages, actually most productions don’t go to the effort HBO is going to full stop.) If I had appeared on TV speaking Thai that would have made me a massive hit with the Thai people.

When the season was green lit I was starting to get stressed as the casting call did not go to Australia – the only place I had casting contacts in, I knew that castings for Gregor were taking place ande I know some of the other guys who tried out for the role but I did not know how to get in front of the casting people. I was online most days trying to work out a strategy to get me noticed quickly before they chose someone else. That was when I get the email basically saying you auditioned for us before would you be interested in the role of Gregor?

They not only short listed me but chose me entirely from the Khal Drogo audition take, even Mr Martin said I had the acting skills required – when things like this happen I start to believe them.

When you went over to the U.K., you had an intensive riding course to get you ready for the role. Finn Jones has noted a mystery to us, though, and so we’re putting the question to you: just why is it that you couldn’t seem to keep your shirt on?

Well you know Loras is a rather attractive knight and all that so I thought I’d see if Gregor could tempt Loras away from Renly…

I hope you realise that was a joke? The correct answer is far more pragmatic! I had been speaking to the real Conan/Khal Drogo – Jason Momoa – at the gym and I said that many people online were complaining about a Hawaiian guy being cast as Conan, I said to him “You don’t look that dark” he said something like try hanging out in Ireland for 2 months without seeing any sunshine and you’ll be white too (I am quite tanned most of the time).

Keeping that in mind when I was horse riding, I took the opportunity to get some sun as much as I could because when I returned to Thailand I had a photo shoot and interview in Men’s Health magazine so I wanted to keep my tan up as much as possible for that (your muscles show out better with a tan). Afterwards when I was training with Buster and Rory and I saw the “Making of” crew had arrived I took my shirt off and continued training until I saw them setting up camera. I knew my height and physique I attract attention.

As soon as they set up camera I asked Buster to stop for a moment, dropped down did a set of pushups (about 50) and got up pumped (blood goes into the muscle improving the shape and size temporarily) so they had something more interesting to film and to catch the attention of fans who were into muscle. You have to remember that I am a fairly unknown actor at this point and I need to constantly work on all angles to improve my visibility.

Not surprisingly I had told my manager my plan to get this additional attention even before I flew out to Ireland and it worked out exactly as planned. Think about it. It did catch everyone’s attention and I am the only guy in the teasers/artisan videos with my shirt off so I stand out – even to the point that some fans complain about me being shirtless but they noticed me amongst all the other actors. For anyone interested in muscle or health I’d catch their attention. There is almost always a plan to what I do and even the spur of the moment opportunities can appear if you are focused on the big picture.

I can defintely say that I made some additional eBook sales on weightlifting and diet as a couple of fans made fitness a new personal goal from this. I also picked up a few gay and female fans who would not otherwise have noticed me had I dressed to hide my physique (as I usually do when at home).

Another thing Finn mentioned was the fact that he practiced riding while holding the lance, as well, and basically given a sense of what jousting was like. Did you do the same, and what did you think of it?

I only had a week intensive course on horse riding so I did not get as much chance as Finn did, though I had ridden horses a long time ago in my early teens years I still had to pick up a lot quickly.

The final few days I had to trot around the yard with a lance, practice steering the horse between traffic cones with one hand while saluting an imaginary king with the lance. I did as I was asked but I did not take this too seriously as no matter how much I would love to have done a joust with a fall there was no way in hell the production would ever allow this.

How would you compare the process of choreographing fights and stunts in this production with choreographing in Thai films?

Ha! Very organised.

In Thailand and in China, India too actually, everything is done on the day. The fight is choreographed as you do the fight. You can work with the Action Director to build the fight shot by shot, both adding input until the sequence is done. Almost everyone in East Asian films is a Stunt Actor, if you can’t fight you just don’t get hired. This is exactly the method we used when I worked with Yuen Woo Ping (Matrix, Kill Bill, etc, etc) on em>True Legend, Master Yuen is considered one of the best Martial Arts Action Directors in the world.

With Buster Reeves, who is one of the best stuntmen in the world and a very talented fight choreographer, the production gave me a week of rehearsals for my fight with Sandor (Rory). After an hour Buster said, right, that’s i,t you’re ready. This is how I managed to get a week of horse riding instead. Having done 9 years of professional wrestling I seem to be rather good, if somewhat rusty, at following and remembering the choreography. For me it is like a dance, I just have to remember where my feet go, like dance steps and your sword will follow your body – which is where Busters expertise helped a lot, he designed the moves so that it all flowed and felt natural. If anything felt unnatural then I knew I had misstepped.

Maybe this is why some people think I am reasonably good at dancing? Having a lifetime of D&D, fantasy role playing, martial arts films and several years in the SCA, I am rather used to swinging a sword around so I feel comfortable, it is an extension of my arm, same as when I was in infantry training we were taught that our rifle was a part of us.

The armor you wore was very impressive, but it also looked quite heavy!  What was the process of trying it on for the first time like, and how was it when you were filming the tourney scene?

The armour was heavy and it was extremely well built. Again my SCA experience where I built my own armour gave me a good idea of how armour should be made. To keep armour from feeling heavy and tiring out the wearer the armour has to have an even weight distribution. For example poorly made armour will sit most of the weight on the shoulders, pulling you down as the muscles there get tired, this ends up aching then hurting like heck fairly quickly.

The armour I had fit me very well, it was tailored for me, and the weight did not sit on any one point significantly, so I had very little pressure point pain. When I first tried it on I could not find a mirror big enough to look at myself in, I had to go outside a trailer and look in the mirrored window. The first thing I did was to thank the costume guys and the armourer for making such a great costume that made me look huge. They had designed the armour with a few visual tricks to make me look wider across the chest and shoulders with a narrower waistline (which emphasises the top heaviness) and maneuverability was great.

I was very impressed, to say the least.

When you read about Gregor in the novel, what did you think about the character as a role? Was he more interesting as you delved a bit into what happened with him in future novels?

I read all the (available) books before I started filming to get as much background as I could and to figure out what made Ser Gregor such an angry man. I have developed my own theories, which are extensions or more specifically extrapolations of my own personality. This makes it easier to ‘be’ Gregor rather than ‘act’ Gregor. The problem is it takes a while to get into character and a while to come back out of the character. It is an emotional state and it gets very drains you physically and emotionally and you end up exhausted after each day.

Apparently this is called Method Acting, I read a book by Constantin Stanislavski and a book by Michael Caine and developed my own method as seemed natural. The trouble being Gregor is that there is not really much background for him, nor enough insight into what his thought process is. The killing babies and women… The killing of women and children is a rather common occurance thoughout ancient times, with many well know conquerers doing it. Pragmatically, it is much easier to kill a baby than to fight that same child as a young man bent on vengeance when you are 20 years older.

So, that aspect just reinforces Gregor as a professional soldier to me. The role itself is rather ‘small’ but impactful, the grammar there sucks but I think it gets the point across. When Gregor appears something happens, usually something violent and unforgettable. For that reason I liked the role.

As Big Mike in Hong Kong says “There are no small roles, only small actors.” And if an actor plays a role well and gathers public support for his character it would not be the first time a role was expanded upon. “Bull” in Night Court, went from featured extra to full character as the show progressed through its seasons. What I would like is for Gregor to gain some popularity and get a little more screen time and LINES. I’d like to do the 4 eyes, 6 eyes scene too.

Did you have a personal favorite moment from the first book—not necessarily with Gregor—that you’re looking forward to seeing on the screen?

This may be narcissism on my behalf but the scene I am really looking forward to in the first season is the tourney.

In the books may favourite parts are pretty much anything on the Wall and north of the Wall.

Now that we have a second season, what do you hope Gregor will be doing in it?

First of all the scenes from season 1 that we did not get a chance to shoot.

Personally I’d like to do some big battle scenes too, some more sword action sequences would be a good addition to my showreel (addition or complete replacement?) and some speaking parts. For me right now this is what my showreel needs (if it is still important?) but it something I would like to have to present to future possible employers if required.

One of the important thing to come out of your experience filming for this HBO production is that it adds a deal of lustre to your CV, at least in the eyes of some casting directors and producers. Where do you hope to go from here? What’s in store for you next?

LOL. Good try. Not yet.

I have something BIG that I cannot talk about just yet. But suffice to say that I have well and truly left the local movie scene behind.

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