You might not think there's a downside to playing an unforgettable role on one of the most popular shows on television, but there actually may be. The actor who played Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones did his job so well that multiple people didn't realize Jason Momoa spoke English and not, um, Dothraki? And it actually kind of messed with his career. In an appearance on The Tonight Show earlier this week, the actor told Jimmy Fallon that he struggled to find work after his character was killed off in GoT's second season.
Momoa had done other work in the industry, but the Dothraki warlord who marries Daenerys Targaryen was his breakout role. As his bride begins to learn her husband's native language, the Great Khal picks up phrases in the Common Tongue, which the show portrays as English. But his attempts, while impressive, are heavily accented, and the horselord communicates mainly in subtitled Dothraki throughout his time on the show. It's a choice that's perfect for the character, but has proven a "challenging" obstacle for Momoa to overcome, in his own words.
The 38-year-old told Fallon that when he met fellow Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen, the Portlandia star shared that he was a GoT fan, but said to Momoa, "I didn't even know you spoke English."
What language he thought the actor spoke is unclear, since Dothraki was created entirely for the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but invented or otherwise, apparently Momoa's dialect and tonality were so convincing that many fans didn't think English was on the table. And while it's an impressive feat, it's not an all-around positive. "It was heartbreaking," Momoa continued, through a half-laugh, "I was like, 'That's why I'm not getting any jobs.'"
As great as it is when an actor immerses themselves that deeply in a character, anytime the lines are blurred between the two, it can present challenges later in your career. Even if you're seemingly as American as they come, born in Hawaii and raised in Iowa — because yup, that's Momoa's background — all of a sudden you're being viewed through the lens of this nomadic, shirtless horselord who speaks limited, accented English. And even if you crush that role, which the actor indisputably did, when is another opportunity like that one going to come along? As Momoa quipped to the late-night host, "You're not gonna put [Khal Drogo] in a comedy."
The role you play in your most high-profile project tends to be the way you're seen as an actor, which is both a wonderful thing and hurdle to overcome for many of the Game of Thrones actors.
Because there just aren't that many roles as powerful as these ones in the rest of the industry. Think about Cersei Lannister, about Daenerys, about Jon Snow. Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, and Kit Harrington are inhabiting layered, powerful, larger-than-life characters that it's hard to imagine other actors playing. And vice versa, it can be hard to imagine those actors playing anyone else. (Sort of the opposite of how you might feel anytime a Friends actor does another project post-show. "Why is Ross the paleontologist defending O.J. Simpson in court?")
It's a great problem to have, because it means you're crushing it at what you do, in a very visible way, but can trip you up down the line, as in Momoa's experience. He had to get a personal invitation from Zack Snyder to come read for Aquaman in the Justice League film, and even his co-producer and wife Deborah Snyder felt like the choice was "out-of-the-box." And that's for a literal superhero and underwater king, which is a role on a similar power level as a Dothraki screamer.
Momoa booked the role, of course, and with four films in various stages of production at the moment, his career seems to be back on track. But it's just one of those bizarre things that doing your job really well as an actor can sometimes hamstring you down the line. In a show as popular and niche as Game of Thrones, it can be hard to branch back out once your time on the show has wrapped.