Actor (Hoges, Any Questions For Ben?), writer/director (The Little Death, Long Story Short) and Aussie TV regular (Have You Been Paying Attention, Thank God You’re Here), Josh Lawson plays Australian mercenary Kano in the new action belter Mortal Kombat, which is based on one of the most popular video games of all time. It’s the story of a mysterious intergalactic tournament of ancient martial arts, produced by legendary Australian James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring) and directed by local feature debutante Simon McQuoid. Josh Lawson sits down for a lengthy chat with FilmInk to discuss his first big franchise film role and what it takes to write and direct his own projects.
How did the role come about for you? Was it a case of auditioning, or did you get a call from director Simon McQuoid?
“I had to audition. I was in Los Angeles at the time, and the opportunity to audition came up. I thought I was a long shot, so I didn’t really give it too much thought. Many months later, I was in Australia in pre-production on my movie, Long Story Short, when I got the phone call. The agent said, ‘Hey, do you remember that Mortal Kombat audition you did?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, vaguely. That was a while ago.’ And then they went, ‘Yeah. Well, it’s yours.’ So it was a long time between audition and phone call, but presumably a lot of people said no, or had scheduling conflicts.”
I doubt that very much, Josh…
“Hey, listen, I’ll take a job anyway I can get it. There’s no shame in being fourth or fifth in line. I don’t know that for sure, but I know that most of the jobs that I’ve gotten, it’s been a similar story. Hollywood’s full of stories like that. The famous one is Paul Hogan being offered Patrick Swayze’s role in Ghost. He turned it down. The rest is history.”
Where was Mortal Kombat shot?
“Adelaide, South Australia…it was all in Adelaide.”
I’ve seen the trailers and you deliver a very amusing Aussie line of dialogue…is there a hint of comedy in the film?
“Yeah. Kano, more than any of the other characters, has a comedic bent, but he’s not the comic relief. It’s more the lens through which Kano sees the world; it’s probably a little less earnest than some of the other characters. He’s an outsider in the film, and the way that he sees the world can be funny to some people. It’s very Australian. He loves taking the piss. He doesn’t take things too seriously, and that’s to his detriment sometimes. If he did take things more seriously, perhaps he wouldn’t get his arse kicked as much. There is comedy from all different characters, but Kano is a special sort of character. There is a bit more fun to be had with him.”
Growing up, did you ever play the video game for Mortal Kombat [released in 1992, by Midway Games]?
“Yeah, I did. As a kid, down at the corner store, I’d put my 20-cent pieces into the slot. That was my era.”
Mortal Kombat has quite a history; does the film delves into that?
“What’s happened over the years with games like Mortal Kombat is that the lore of it, the history of it, has become so specific, and so detailed. As the decades have gone on and the games have continued, there is a rich complicated history to the characters now and their evolution and the backstories, not the least of which is Kano’s involvement with The Black Dragon. But yeah, he’s had alliances and feuds that have evolved and changed over the years. But there’s only so much you can put into one film, because the history of the game is decades in the making and pretty rich and full. The fans certainly have a love for all these characters. They feel like they know them now, because there is such a rich backstory to them all.”
So how do you go about creating your characters? Research? Training?
“Oh yeah, definitely. I was training as much as I could, given the timing. I was juggling another job in pre-production, so I was doing my best to get the fighting and the martial arts stuff and the physical transformation as much as I could, because obviously that’s important with these fighting games. You’ve got to make sure the fighting looks realistic. The stunt team was great, and I personally had an excellent stunt double, Ben, who really made me look as good as he could. I was certainly deficient in the fighting stuff, because, Paul, I’m a lover, not a fighter…”
Good on you, mate.
“…but Ben thankfully stepped in and kicked arse on my behalf.”
“In terms of the emotional stuff, all I could really do is go from the script. The first thing I do is ask questions, ‘What is the script telling me? What is my function in this movie? What has Kano done? What does he represent? And what’s the information that I have, based purely on the script?’ And then, from that, you delve back into the game and start building upon that and see if you can flesh it out based on all the work that the gamers have done over the years. And from that I built a character that I hope is true to the game and true to the script.”
I imagine that you worked in front of a green screen a lot for this film?
“Less than you think, to be totally honest. Simon McQuoid was really specific. There is obviously CG; how could there not be? But Simon really was trying to do as much in-camera stuff as possible. He wanted to give it that raw ‘70’s verite feel, where you can sort of tell, even from the trailer, that there’s not a glossiness to it. It’s quite dark and shadowy, and a lot of the things that we were reacting to were way more in-camera than I was expecting. It wasn’t as much acting to a tennis ball as you might think!”
Are there any sequels in the pipeline?
“There’s potential, so fingers crossed, because it’s fun to do. I put my actor hat on, or even my filmmaker hat on, and go, ‘There’s just more for these characters to do.’ There’s more evolution. There’s fun to be had in seeing how these characters grow and change, depending on who they interact with. See, that was always the fun of the game. Is it Sonya Blade versus Kano? Is it Sub-Zero versus Johnny Cage? Is it Sub-Zero versus Sonya Blade? It’s the match-ups that will change the dynamics of the character, and we’ve just scratched the surface.”
You’ve been working on an Australian film called Blaze with Simon Baker and Yael Stone. Could you tell us about that film?
“It’s a real departure from the sorts of things that I’ve had the opportunity to do. It’s about a young girl who witnesses a violent crime. It’s an exploration into the effect that that has on this young woman, and it’s her evolution from girlhood into womanhood throughout the course of the film. I play the kind of character that I’ve never really played before. It’s quite dark, and it was an icky place to explore, but the fun of acting is that you get to go to different places. I always felt very supported by the other actors, and particularly director Del Kathryn Barton. I don’t think it’s going to be like anything that we’ve ever seen before in this country, so it’s exciting to be a part of something that feels so very original.”
You’ve made some classic Aussie films including [your feature directorial debut] The Little Death, as well as the Oscar nominated short The Eleven O’Clock. Did that open doors for you as a writer/director in the U.S?
“Not really…I don’t think it changed too much for me. It hasn’t been the easiest route to pave the writing and directing career, as much as I wished it was a little easier, but I keep going. I’m very grateful for the experience of The Eleven O’Clock. I really enjoyed that I got to make that film with Derin Seale, Damon Herriman and Mattie Toll [cinematographer], who also shot my next picture Long Story Short. But yeah, to answer your question, did it open doors? It didn’t feel like it. Perhaps it did in ways that weren’t immediately evident to me, but it’s always felt, with the writing and directing side of things, that it’s been a bit of an uphill battle. But I love it so much and I’ll continue to keep trying to do it, because it’s just a passion of mine. But each time I do it, I feel like I get a bit better at it, and so hopefully, the doors will open by virtue of the fact that I’m improving.”
It’s a passion project a lot of the time, in our industry.
“That’s exactly right. So I never venture into independent filmmaking thinking I’m going to get rich out of it. You do it because you have a story to tell, and you think there might be an audience out there, who might appreciate that story. I’ve been very lucky in that each time I’ve made something, I’ve found a little audience out there. I hope that I get to keep doing it and pushing new boundaries because I don’t ever want to keep doing the same sorts of things. I do like to explore different places.”
Being a NIDA graduate, do you find that there’s a difference in a stage performance, as opposed to a film performance?
“I don’t think there should be a difference. It should always feel truthful on stage or screen. But where I think the difference may come is that theatre teaches actors a wider array of discipline. If you look at The Little Death, it’s a great example of the point I’m about to make, and that is, the way I write, it’s actually deceptively challenging dialogue. It’s quite wordy, and almost across the board, every one of those actors was predominantly a theatre actor. Kate Mulvany, Kate Box, Damon Herriman, Pat Brammall, Alan Dukes, and Erin James are all theatre actors first, and they make it look easy. But if we were doing the play of The Little Death, I wouldn’t change their performance at all. It would be the same performance, but the discipline that they learn doing theatre meant that doing a five-page scene of dialogue is not a problem for them. Tarantino writes really, really long scenes. In a way, Tarantino’s films are very theatrical. I love them. But there is a theatricality to them. M. Night Shyamalan has theatricality to his films in a great way as well. One of my favorite films of the year is The Father, which is a play turned into a film, and it’s as good a piece of film acting as you’ll see. And yet, if you put it on the stage, I don’t know if I’d change anything. So it’s sort of a yes/no answer to that question. I often gravitate towards theatre trained actors, because their discipline for tricky dialogue is much stronger.”
What’s your favorite role and best film experience?
“There’s one that comes to mind very quickly. It’s a film called Becoming Bond, with Australian actor, Kassandra Clementi, and director Josh Greenbaum. It was a $1 million [budget] indie film for [streaming service] Hulu, but we laughed every single day on set. Those people have remained my friends. It was a very good movie…I don’t often recommend things I’m in to people, but it’s always one of the ones where I go, ‘You should see Becoming Bond because it’s a terrific film.’ You see the love on screen that we all had for each other. It’s the story of George Lazenby, who became the only Australian to ever play James Bond. It’s just an awesome film that I adored being a part of.”
What other projects have you got coming up, Josh?
“I do have a new children’s book coming out in June called The InterNOT. I’m also writing some new stuff, and again, there’s a couple of projects that I’m attached to direct that we’re just trying to get all the pieces in place for. These things take time. Hopefully, the planets align and we can get cracking on the next one ASAP, but right now, it’s a little bit of prep work.”
Mortal Kombat is released in cinemas on April 22. Click here for our review of Long Story Short.