Sub-Zero fury: Joe Taslim explains his 'Mortal Kombat' villain's rage and mysterious mask

·4 min read

There's one problem with having a legit martial arts actor like Joe Taslim play the uber-villain Sub-Zero in the new "Mortal Kombat" movie: He was too fast for the mask.

Legions of "Mortal Kombat" video game fans would demand their cold-harnessing, frozen-hearted assassin wear his signature mask in the film adaptation (in theaters Friday and streaming on HBO Max) just like the 1995 "Mortal Kombat" film.

But the mask couldn't keep up with Taslim, 39, a member of his native Indonesia's national judo team from 1997 to 2009.

"When I moved so fast, the mask would only follow," says Taslim. "It was quite a challenge fighting like that."

After it was reengineered for Taslim's head speed, the visage stayed, keeping the mystery. So who is the man behind Sub-Zero's mask? The thoughtful Taslim answered our questions and explained his notorious alter-ego:

Joe Taslim stars as Sub-Zero in "Mortal Kombat."
Joe Taslim stars as Sub-Zero in "Mortal Kombat."

Why Sub-Zero needs that rad mask

The origin story behind the assassin's face apparel is not explained in "Mortal Kombat." But Taslim's warrior, initially maskless and called Bi-Han, kills Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the rival warrior's wife and kid. That's all in the first five minutes. After that, he's masked and transformed to Sub-Zero.

Taslim has pondered this brutal killing for Sub-Zero motivation and has a mask theory (Hint: It's not about looking rad).

"For me, it's not just for the sake of coolness," says Taslim. "After Bi-Han killed Hanzo and his family, that's probably the first time he killed a little kid. So every time he looks at himself in a mirror, the nightmare just pops out. So that's why the mask, to hide the pain and all the guilt. And he goes from Bi-Han to Sub-Zero."

The maskless Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) kills Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family in "Mortal Kombat" while most moviegoers are still looking for their seats in the theater.
The maskless Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) kills Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family in "Mortal Kombat" while most moviegoers are still looking for their seats in the theater.

Why Sub-Zero has so much rage

"Mortal Kombat" is too busy introducing extreme warriors and more extreme ways of killing them off to get into feelings and backstory. But Sub-Zero has serious, unexplained rage issues.

Taslim's thought? "My approach is pain."

Not the pain Sub-Zero delivers to his foes, but his character's inner pain after he and his brother were abducted as children and trained to be assassins. Once again, part of the character's lore, not addressed in the movie.

"A lot of tragic things happen to him since he was born, a lot of pain," says Taslim. "I didn't choose the path to be an assassin. I was abducted when I was a kid. That's the energy I show in my performance. This rage and anger is combined into one whole energy."

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Why Taslim's wife saved his Sub-Zero angry face

Director Simon McQuoid knew he'd need plenty of close-ups of masked Sub-Zero, putting attention onto Taslim's intense eyes and, well, perfect eyebrows.

"It's all about his eyes," says McQuoid. "I even jokingly said 'Joe, you know, I only cast you for your eyebrows.' "

Taslim gives credit to his wife of 17 years, Julia, for saving his eyebrows before filming. "She was like, 'You need to do something about those, it's like a jungle, I'm going to cut them.' And then Simon told me I have the best eyebrows."

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Sub-Zero was not harmed by Taslim's true kindness

By all accounts, Taslim is the most gentle, kindest man. "He's just a lovely, giggly guy," says McQuoid.

That niceness doesn't harm his Sub-Zero. Taslim has a theory on that.

"To be a great villain, to be evil, you have to understand all the values of kindness first. And then you destroy everything and say, 'If I lost all the kindness in my life. What's going to happen?'" says Taslim. "It's just different when people are bad from when they are born. They don't have that layer."

Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and director Simon McQuoid on the set of "Mortal Kombat." McQuoid had to ask his star to slow down his moves for the camera. "He just gets on set and he just becomes this beast," McQuoid says.
Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and director Simon McQuoid on the set of "Mortal Kombat." McQuoid had to ask his star to slow down his moves for the camera. "He just gets on set and he just becomes this beast," McQuoid says.

How Taslim is even faster than Sub-Zero

McQuoid says there were times he had to instruct Taslim to literally move slower in his Sub-Zero fight scenes.

"It's really about his arm speed and knowing, then playing out, the fight choreographies so incredibly quickly," says McQuoid. "Sometimes it was like, 'Drop it into third gear, mate.'"

Taslim was even surprised. "I never think I have that superpower of being fast. But when I'm in the zone, I have to give everything. I didn't hold back. It made me faster," he says. "Then they watched it onscreen and said to go slower, the camera couldn't follow. So I adjusted."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Mortal Kombat': Joe Taslim explains villain Sub-Zero's mask, rage

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