'Mortal Kombat's' Joe Taslim reveals hidden talents and his dream director wish list

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(L-R) JOE TASLIM as Sub-Zero-Bi-Han and HIROYUKI SANADA as Scorpion-Hanzo Hasashi, in "Mortal Kombat."
Joe Taslim, left, and Hiroyuki Sanada in the opening scenes of "Mortal Kombat." (Mark Rogers/Warner Bros.)

If you've seen Joe Taslim's punishing moves in action hits like "The Raid" and "Fast & Furious 6," you can picture him handily wreaking havoc in Warner Bros.' R-rated "Mortal Kombat" as Sub-Zero, the video game assassin famous for eviscerating his enemies in gory fashion. But even action superfans might not guess that between filming intense fights and those brutal fatalities on set in Australia, the Indonesian actor and martial artist could be found in his hotel room playing guitar covers of '90s R&B love songs by Babyface, Toni Braxton and Brian McKnight.

“'Ribbon in the Sky' is my favorite song of Steve Wonder’s," said Taslim over videochat from Jakarta, Indonesia, revealing his musical passion with a smile. "But I’m shy. I like to sing by myself at, like, midnight."

After breaking out internationally in the 2011 Indonesian hit "The Raid," Taslim quickly established himself as one of the top action stars of his generation, scoring studio gigs in “The Fast Saga” and “Star Trek Beyond” for director Justin Lin, wielding a blade in the South Korean film “The Swordsman” and facing off against “Raid” co-star Iko Uwais in Timo Tjahjanto's gory crime movie “The Night Comes for Us.”

Taslim, 39, has also starred for two seasons and counting as the enforcer Li Yong in Cinemax's martial arts-fueled period drama "Warrior," based on the writings of Bruce Lee. (A just-announced third season will relocate the series to HBO Max, where "Mortal Kombat" gave the streamer its biggest premiere draw yet.) But while he's simultaneously found more versatile acting roles back home, Western audiences have yet to see all he can do.

It was just over a decade ago that Taslim hit “send” on the message that changed his life. In his late 20s, the national judo champ had finally retired from competitive sports to pursue his lifelong acting dream, inspired by stars like Chuck Norris, Alain Delon and Bruce Lee, whose films had filled him with wonder as a boy. He'd landed only a few roles before he caught an action film, “Merantau,” that took his breath away. After finding the filmmaker on social media, he made a Hail Mary via Facebook: “Give me one chance to audition," he wrote. "If you don’t like me, just kick me out of the room.”

To Taslim’s surprise, Gareth Evans wrote back in minutes. He was, in fact, making his next movie and invited the self-described "judo guy" to try out. “Serbuan maut (The Raid)” would become a groundbreaking showcase for silat, a martial art Taslim wasn't trained in, but he was a quick study. His performance as a sergeant leading his squad through a relentless ambush, opposite co-stars and fight choreographers Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, would propel all three, plus Evans, into action history.

“That was the start of my career,” Taslim said, grinning. Now, in "Mortal Kombat," he breathes frosty life into the lethal assassin Sub-Zero — a character he came to view as a tragic figure, not merely a villainous cryomancer with a penchant for centuries-long vendettas and crafting makeshift daggers out of his enemies' frozen blood.

And once again, he's ready to manifest his next breakthrough role. "I love 'Phantom Thread,' by Paul Thomas Anderson," said Taslim. PTA, are you reading this?

Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero in "Mortal Kombat" manipulates ice.
Joe Taslim as the deadly assassin Sub-Zero, who possesses icy superpowers in the martial arts video game adaptation "Mortal Kombat." (Warner Bros. )

Was it an easy decision to say yes to playing Sub-Zero in a new 'Mortal Kombat' movie?

Honestly, it was not hard. I’m quite a nerd. I’m a gamer. Little Joe inside was like, “Eeeee!” But of course, I needed to read the script. Because I watched the two previous ‘Mortal Kombat’ movies and [I wanted to know] if they wanted to go in that direction, or they wanted to go more serious. While they’re both amazing, if they wanted me to be part of it, I’d want to give more. So I read the script and I really liked the beginning of the movie. In the first 10 pages of the story of what started the rivalry between Sub-Zero [and Scorpion] hooked me straight away. I thought, OK, I don’t need to read more. This is a definite yes.

Also, I asked my son for his opinion and he said, ‘All my friends say you look like Sub-Zero. You should play Sub-Zero.’ He’s 10. I said you can’t play the game, it’s too violent! But somehow behind my back, I don’t know … he’s a kid. [Laughs]

If you want an honest opinion, ask a 10-year-old. It can be a challenge to bring details to a character who spends most of the movie wearing a mask. We meet him first as Bi-Han, the person he was centuries ago, which humanizes Sub-Zero in a surprising way. Why was it important to show us both Bi-Han and Sub-Zero?

I researched a lot. I wanted to do justice to the character but I didn’t want to betray the fans, so I used all the materials I got from the internet, the producers and the writers. I had information about him before he’s Sub-Zero and after he transforms into another character.

He’s just such a sad character, I’ve got to say. Even though he’s the main villain of the movie … at the same time, if you look back, he was abducted as a kid. It was not his choice to be an assassin. The Lin Kuei attacked [his] family, killed the parents, abducted him and his brother, indoctrinated him to be an assassin — that’s sad. I told [director] Simon [McQuoid] that I wanted to use pain as the seed for me to play this character. Whatever I do in front of the camera, I want you to know that it’s not actually evil, it’s pain.

There’s a moment when, during their opening face-off in feudal Japan, Bi-Han speaks first in Chinese and then Japanese as he confronts his nemesis Hanzo (Hiroyuki Sanada). It's an intriguing linguistic moment; what did that aspect of the character mean to you?

There was an option to do it in English, but me and Hiroyuki [Sanada] and the director thought that we needed to do it right. It’s feudal Japan, and if you want to be honest to play this character and give it truth, we need to speak our own languages. For Bi-Han to be bilingual, or maybe more, is in my research as well, because the Lin Kuei organization is not old-fashioned. It’s actually high tech and full of resources. When they train assassins they don’t train them just in martial arts, they educate and probably teach them three or four languages because in order to be good assassins you can’t just have muscles, you have to have the brains. So for Bi-Han, I believed as part of my character that I needed to be able to speak at least three or four.

How did you get that dialogue right?

[Castmate] Ludi [Lin] taught me a lot about how to pronounce Mandarin. I speak very basic because in Indonesia, my mom when I was a kid used to speak Mandarin to me. I have this memory of the Mandarin language and a familiarity with the language. But to be able to perform the language right, I had a teacher from Beijing, research on how to pronounce it right, and Ludi helped me a lot. “Ludi, Ludi, come here, let’s practice!” Then the Japanese language, Hiroyuki taught me on set.

That’s one way it can pay to have a multicultural cast in your movie.

I’m very fortunate that in the process of shooting everybody was together, one family, and tried to shine themselves but at the same time you want to shine your co-actors. It was collaborative, beautifully diverse and it felt like family.

On set many of the actors performed their own stunts. Is there such a thing as finding action chemistry within a cast?

Trust is No. 1 and then you’ve got to always match the pace of your partner, because it’s like dancing … in a violent way! A violent dance. That’s why it’s so artistic. You can’t be too fast, or too slow. You’ve got to find the pace that you can both dance to together. Rather than, “I’m going to do this really fast so you can’t keep up with me,” or “I’m going to do it really slow so you look bad.” There’s an ego in actors, most actors, that want to look more badass than the other, and that’s the hard part of doing a good fight scene.

It’s about being brothers first. They have to trust me, because the last thing that I want to do is to hurt you and I know that the last thing you want to do on this project is to hurt me. Trust is the key, and then to dance, and then go all out and find the pace that you can both dance to. It’s about both of you dancing together in that music.

You mentioned that your mom spoke some Mandarin during your childhood. How would you describe your background?

I’m Chinese Indonesian, and I’m proud to be Chinese-born in Indonesia. Of course, I’m a double minority here in Indonesia because I’m not Malay and I’m not Muslim. It was hard to be a double minority in this country, and I grew up with all these energies against me. But you’ve got to be proud of who you are, because that’s your identity. I see myself as an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent, and for me to represent the country, the biggest Muslim population in the world and have Chinese blood — to be Asian now in Hollywood — I can probably give a little bit of energy to people in Southeast Asia especially, [to show] that everything is possible.

I’m so lucky to have this career, to represent, and to inspire people. Because I remember when I was a kid I watched Dustin Nguyen and Bruce Lee, and to see Asians in Hollywood made me believe that if they could do it, I could do it. So it’s not just fantasy. You’ve got to be real and be proud of your identity because it’s who you are, no matter how hard it could be. Especially now. Now is hard.

Now is a time when stateside we’re seeing an increase in instances of anti-Asian racism and hate. Did it feel significant to you that Sub-Zero is being played by someone of Asian descent when that hasn’t always been the case in this franchise?

I’m proud and I’m so happy. I respect Simon [McQuoid] for believing in that as well. I think to whitewash a character is an insult, that you think they don’t deserve, or they don’t have the talent. And now I think Hollywood is more open.

Some may see a skilled action star and assume they’re good at their job because of a martial arts background, but your martial arts background is primarily in judo, a form not commonly seen in the action genre.

For me, martial arts is like music. Probably people will disagree with that. I spent 15 years in judo where we don’t punch, kick or do all the stuff that you see in the movie. We wrestle. I believe, like in music, when you’re good in one instrument and you understand the core of the rhythm, the music, once you jump to another, the case is different but what’s inside is the same.

Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero with Mehcad Brooks as Jax in a scene in "Mortal Kombat."
Joe Taslim, right, as Sub-Zero with Mehcad Brooks as Jax in "Mortal Kombat." (Warner Bros. )

You made a movie in Indonesia a few years ago called 'Hit & Run,' an action comedy in which you also play a romantic lead. Do those kinds of opportunities allow you to stretch more as an actor? And are they the kinds of roles you’d like to do more of?

As an actor I don’t want to limit myself. I think in order to become a better actor you have to take risks and then do something opposite — do something that you’re not comfortable with. That’s the only way to grow. So I did it! I’m very fortunate that in Hollywood the industry puts me in a box as a very strong, violent, dangerous villain or antihero character, every time they offer me something. But in Asia I have so much freedom to do the opposite.

My dream is not to be a superstar in terms of superstars who have a lot of rules, where your manager’s going to say, “Don’t do that,” “Don’t do this,” because your image is of a tough, masculine man… I want to be an actor, and acting is a profession that explores a lot of emotion and characters. The only way for me to grow as an actor is to do crazy stuff, not only play one specific genre. So I’m happy because in Indonesia I can do whatever I want, and in Hollywood people believe that I can pull this specific strong, alpha male, vicious villain kind of character. I live in both worlds, and I’m grateful, because I know for a lot of my friends in Hollywood it’s very hard for them to cross genres.

What is a dream role you’d like to try outside of action?

This is probably quite obvious: non-action stuff. I want to get out of the comfort zone. I like stories about family. I like dramas … like “Minari.” And I love “Phantom Thread,” by Paul Thomas Anderson. That’s my favorite movie in decades. I love that movie so much. I want to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Bong Joon Ho. I’ll do anything! I know both of them probably think I’m an action guy, but the way I told Gareth to give me a chance — if you don’t like me, just kick me out of the room.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.