When SYFY WIRE visited the set of the upcoming Mortal Kombat movie, it was clear that of all of the actors cast in Simon McQuoid's updated film adaptation, actor and martial artist Joe Taslim (The Raid: Redemption, Warrior, The Night Comes for Us) — who plays cryomancer Sub-Zero — was one of the biggest fans of the franchise.
“It’s so crazy that I'm playing the character that I played when I was a kid,” Taslim said. “It's a dream come true.”
Born and raised in Palembang, South Sumatra, Taslim studied the Indonesian martial art silat, as well as wushu and tae kwon do. He's won multiple Judo competitions across Asia, but it’s his work in the Indonesian action film The Raid: Redemption with fellow actor and Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais (Wu Assassins, The Night Comes for Us) that put him on the map.
“He was born to play Sub-Zero,” producer Todd Garner told us.
The first actor cast in the film, Taslim credits his son with helping him make the decision. (Ironically, his son was only 10 at the time and therefore not old enough to play the 18-plus-rated game). “When my agent called me about the offer, I asked my son, ‘Which character do you think fits me the best?’ He said ‘Sub-Zero,’” Taslim recalled. “I told my agent not to lose this job.”
If you had told Taslim that not only would he star in a live-action movie about one of his favorite video games, but that he would play opposite one of his real-life heroes, Hiroyuki Sanada (shown just above), who portrays Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion in the film, he wouldn’t have believed you. “Hiroyuki is someone I respect so much. He's kind of like my idol,” Taslim said. “In 2003, I saw The Last Samurai when I was just a boy from South Sumatra... When I found out who he was going to play, I watched the movie again!
"He's very patient, and even though he's almost 60, he moves like a real ninja,” Taslim gushed.
Taslim knows the MK storyline well. He told us he had a PlayStation 4 in his trailer and would often play the Mortal Kombat 11 game with his fellow cast members. His favorite iteration of the game may surprise you, though.
“Out of the 11 Mortal Kombat games so far, I’ve got to say, I like the classic game. It's inspired me so much,” Taslim said. “I dug a lot into [the lore] before I jumped into production. When you play an assassin who gets paid to kill other people, there's another layer of consciousness there asking, ‘Is this the life that I chose? Or did somebody choose it for me?’ That kind of dilemma is very interesting to me."
Taslim’s acknowledgment of the depth of Sub-Zero’s history plus his connection to the fans impressed the entire team. McQuoid was especially blown away by Taslim’s performance. “Joe manifesting Sub-Zero is a pretty exciting thing to see,” the director said. “He’s pretty amazing.”
Taslim put as much work into his character development as he did into physically training for fight scenes, in large part because he never viewed them as two different aspects of the character, no matter how daunting.
“Let’s say a fight is four minutes,” Taslim explained. “That's hard. There are no lines, but it's not just a fight. There's a story. Something is motivating those characters. What is the purpose of this fight? Does the character think he's going to win, or does he already know he will die? Or is he just toying with his opponent who underestimates him?
“When you see a good fight scene, it's never [just] a fight scene. It’s drama,” he continued.
All of Taslim’s fight scenes are incredibly dramatic then. Judging from his riveting work on The Night Comes for Us and his breakout performance last season on Cinemax’s Warrior, fans are really going to enjoy Taslim’s superpowered performance in Mortal Kombat.
Although many action-movie stars pursue characters to fit their fighting style, Taslim starts with a clean slate for every project he does. “Some action stars bring their style to each character they're playing. I have a little bit of a different approach. I had to learn everything from scratch on Warrior when I played a kung fu master,” Taslim remembered. “So for Mortal Kombat, I did the same. I trust them. My job is to be a blank sheet of paper that they fill in with the story. And I put the soul into the fight.”
Despite the grueling work, the 39-year-old actor is having the time of his life. “I'm living the dream. It’s crazy,” he mused. “What we're trying to do is to give the audience more than fun. We tried to give a soul to the character, a story that they can relate to, and [to give] the movie a home. So when they watch it, they get the fun and they get the story, and then they'll be looking forward to the sequel.”
Many international actors dream of Hollywood success, but for Taslim, his ambitions go far beyond his role as Sub-Zero or the Mortal Kombat franchise: “Not many Indonesians have made it to Hollywood. So we are representing 215 million people [at home]. If we can do well, we can help the younger generation.
“So for me, it's not just a job,” he concluded. “This means more than that.”
Mortal Kombat premieres in theaters on April 16 and will be streaming on HBO Max for no additional charge for one month.