The sixth season of Game of Thrones kicked off last night with a bang: Brienne sliced her way through a gaggle of Bolton knights, the Red Woman (really) showed her age, and the Dothraki — everyone’s favourite tribal-tattooed warriors — made their triumphant return.
The leader of this new Dothraki clan is Khal Moro, played with gusto, machismo and a surprising bit of levity by newcomer Joe Naufahu. We chopped it up with the New Zealand-born actor about learning a fictional language, how his character will impact the Mother of Dragons, and his past life as a rugby player.
So, first thing’s first: How difficult is it speaking Dothraki?[Laughs.] It’s tough, man. I didn’t learn it the way I normally would for a role, where you go to language classes to learn the basic structure and rules. With Dothraki, I was just learning it phonetically and trying to match the words to the sounds.
I had a language expert who Skyped me twice a week in the lead-up from London. We’d spend a couple hours at a time going through the scripts. It was cool, man. I speak my mum’s language, which is Samoan, and it’s actually quite similar — there are a few words that sound alike — so that was lucky.
Did the language present a lot of challenges performance-wise?
Yeah. I had to learn all of my acting partners’ parts in the script as well so that I wasn’t just standing there like a wooden man and could really act. It was tough, man. But heaps of fun — it made for a lot of laughs on set as well.
Your character, Khal Moro, is among the first notable Dothraki we’ve seen on Game of Thrones in a few seasons. And while visually he looks somewhat similar to Khal Drogo [played by Jason Mamoa in Season 1], it’s clear almost immediately that he’s a very different man with a very different vibe.
Yeah, totally man. When the fans heard there was a new Khal coming to the show, I think there was a lot of anxiety and anticipation and comparisons being made. But after seeing the scene, it’s easy to see they’re quite different.
In terms of characterization, I tried to just play it with a little dignity. The Khal has all this power — he’s got it and he knows it and he doesn’t need to show it, you know? I tried not to push it too much and have a little bit of fun with the role. I hope that came through.
A lot of the comments that came through from fans this morning were good — a lot of Khal Drogo fans, especially, seemed quite happy that my character has a different take on things.
What was cool about that scene, for me, was how comedic it was — the whole “seeing a beautiful woman naked” bit.
It’s always tricky, because when you’re filming a scene like that you can’t play it for laughs — you have to act seriously and let the audience find the humour in it. And especially when you’re reading it off subtitles, you’re never sure if it’ll work. But I watched the scene with an audience at the premiere, and it got a good laugh. So I was quite happy about that.
Absolutely. It must’ve been a relief the joke landed.
It was awesome having [co-creator and screenwriter] Dan Weiss on set, because he knows exactly what he wants. I’d learned the Dothraki so well and so eloquently that he had to come and say, “Hey man, it’s almost like you’re speaking perfect English.” You know, how when you speak too perfectly it almost sounds unnatural and not conversational? So I had to dumb it down a little bit. [Laughs.] But it just helps having someone so involved on set to help guide you through it.
From a character standpoint, it was interesting that Khal Moro laughed off Daenerys’ boasts about being the Queen of Meeren and the Mother of Dragons, but the moment that she says she was Khal Drogo’s wife, he immediately believes her and backs down. What’s the separation there, in his mind?
He’s really respectful of his tribe and his people. He doesn’t really care where anyone’s from, but if you’ve become part of the Dothraki, and especially the wife of a Khal, that means something. I get the belief thing, I suppose — but he knows of this woman, and she definitely fits the description. He doesn’t want to be the guy who falls prey to not believing her, and wants to pay respect to Drogo.
I know you can’t say much about what’s to come, and I wouldn’t want you to, but can you speak more generally to the role Khal Moro will play going forward?
There’s a lot more to come — you’ll see some big steps and progression in Dany’s journey. Like you said, though, I don’t want to spoil anything. That’s the beauty of it: now that the show has caught up to the books, everyone’s waiting in anticipation together.
You mentioned earlier that you’d gotten some response from Khal Drogo fans. He became something of a sex symbol among a certain segment of GoT viewers — are you prepared for that kind of attention?[Laughs.] I guess so, man. I keep my feet pretty firmly on the ground. The people around me keep me pretty grounded as well: my agent is quite a head case, and my brothers and sisters and I all love mocking each other. So, yeah, I’m ready for it — the fans are going to say and do whatever they want, and you’ve just got to roll with it.
On that note: did you get a chance to speak to Jason Mamoa at all about taking on this role?
No, I’d love to meet him. He’s a fellow Islander — he’s from Hawaii, my folks are from Samoa and Tonga. It’d be great to meet another Islander, especially given how closely linked we are on the show. Maybe one day we’ll catch up.
Before your acting career, you played professional rugby. How did that experience prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Rugby is a fairly brutal sport, you know? It’s a sport where you have to be really close to the guys on your team, and you spend a lot of time with them. And especially with this role, I spent a lot of time with all the Dothraki crew — the other actors, the horse riders and all those guys. We traveled a lot together, we hung out a lot off set, and we built some real team camaraderie. It was really cool, and I feel really lucky to have found a passion for acting and an ability to do it after my rugby career ended.