While growing up playing Mortal Kombat in Brisbane, Australia, 39-year-old actor Josh Lawson remembers one thing: cheating the game.
“We used to do this because we didn’t have money: You would drill a hole in a coin and tie a little fishing wire,” Lawson tells Inverse. “You put it in [the machine] and pull it back out. You use the same coin to play forever.”
Yes, it’s the ol’ Coin-on-a-String trick that Lawson and his pals pulled off at a corner store where the neighborhood played Mortal Kombat, the hottest game of 1992. It was, to Lawson’s memory, the perfect crime. “We would go to the store with a coin and play until they kicked us out.”
Now, 30 years later, Lawson doesn’t have to cheat to play Mortal Kombat — because he’s in it.
Warning: Spoilers for Mortal Kombat ahead.
In his first action-oriented role, Lawson plays “Kano” in the new R-rated reboot Mortal Kombat, now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Based on the iconic video game series, Kano — one of the original seven characters in the first Mortal Kombat arcade game — is a mercenary for the ruthless Black Dragon cartel. He reluctantly joins the film’s heroes, including his rival Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), in a quest to stop the forces of Outworld from invading Earth.
Though Lawson didn’t keep up with Mortal Kombat after his criminal youth, he did his homework after landing the role of the one-eyed killer.
“When I got this job, it opened up Pandora’s Box of what the hell I missed,” Lawson says. “I wasn’t prepared. I thought it was just a couple of extra characters, but no. This is dense, man. They did not mess around. There’s not just one movie in this thing, there’s 50. You couldn’t take it all in one film.”
That includes potentially more Kano, too. As Lawson previously told us, Kano may have lost his fight with Sonya Blade — with a gruesome garden gnome to the eye — but that doesn’t mean Kano is down for the count. “I can tell you that me and my agents think it’s very possible he can come back,” Lawson jokes.
In an interview with Inverse, Lawson reveals what it took to become Kano, what fate lies in store for Kano after Mortal Kombat, and what it’s like to hold a throbbing heart in his hand.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
INVERSE: What is your first memory of Mortal Kombat?
JOSH LAWSON: The arcade game. There was something sweet about it. It was a community thing. You’d meet other kids who would go to that same store. It was bringing people together, and I think it still does that. No one goes to the corner store anymore, but [Mortal Kombat] is this magnet bringing fans together.
INVERSE: Who did you play as?
JOSH LAWSON: There’s some irony in this, but I used to love Sonya. She was awesome, dude. When you think about it, that is some trippy shit. If you went up to eight-year-old me saying, “Hey, you’re going to be Kano,” I would go, “Who is this strange dude talking to me in the corner store?” It’s crazy where life takes you.
INVERSE: Actor Trevor Goddard played Kano in the 1995 movie. He’s so iconic that Kano looks like him in the games.
JOSH LAWSON: That performance of Kano is legendary. I have to thank him. Kano started off English, but I think through a bad accent, he became Aussie. So whatever glitch in the Matrix that happened, led to me playing the role. The Australian factor is a large part of how I got it.
“It’s crazy where life takes you.”
INVERSE: How did you approach Kano differently than Goddard?
JOSH LAWSON: He’s an anti-hero as much as he’s an anti-villain. You hate yourself for liking him because he’s such a prick, but you want him to stick around. But how the hell did I tackle this iteration? First, you read the script. Put aside the mythology. Who is this guy? He’s a mercenary, he’s cutthroat, he’s sexist. Then put the mythology back in: The Black Dragon and his relationship with Sonya. By the time we were done, it was the most fun to play. He was so realized. I get prosthetics, and when you look in the mirror you’ve got this bloody, dirty, tattooed piece of shit looking back at you. It felt like the acting was done for me by the look.
INVERSE: So much of Kano is defined by his contentious relationship with Sonya Blade. What is Kano’s dynamic with Sonya in this movie?
JOSH LAWSON: The inevitable collision between Kano and Sonya was hell, man. It was sick. Jess McNamee is an old friend, and we rumbled. It’s an actor’s dream to have a dramatic foil the whole time. It’s great to know the seeds are planted, a relationship already there to play with. It builds and erupts in the only way Mortal Kombat can. It gets dirty.
INVERSE: Kano practices Aikido in many of the games. What martial arts did you learn to become Kano?
JOSH LAWSON: We did as much martial arts as we could leading up to the film. Knife skills and all sorts. We took every step to preserve the original style of all the fighters. But on top of that, it’s a matter of how you put your character in. Kano is a brawler. He’s a drunk. He fights dirty. You’re still trying to tell a story through the fights. You don’t stop the story to have fights. The martial arts becomes a type of acting in a lot of ways. I know it sounds weird, but I’ve never done this type of stuff before. We’d done the work and took it seriously.
INVERSE: What’s it like ripping out Reptile’s heart?
JOSH LAWSON: Slippery. Those hearts have a mind of their own. I’m trying to hold the damn thing because they don’t stop beating. I don’t know how many hearts you’ve ripped out, but it’s got kicks. We tried to do as little CGI as possible, which is obviously unavoidable with something like this. But there’s a real tactile quality. It does feel more grounded, more real than CG films. Our prosthetics people were unbelievable. There were constantly carcasses and body parts and ooze and blood and god knows what else.
INVERSE: What was the heart made out of? Do you know?
JOSH LAWSON: I don’t know, but it’s pretty realistic. It really was pumping blood. As you’re holding it, blood is gushing out. It was as real as it could get without ripping it out of someone’s chest.
INVERSE: Kano stands out from the other Mortal Kombat characters as a sarcastic SOB. What makes him funny?
JOSH LAWSON: He’s got irreverence. A doesn’t-give-a-fuck-ness. The mythology is so serious, Kano butts up against all that because he feels more human than some of the characters. He is just a piece of shit. Kano is a fucking piece of shit drunk you would see in any pub. But he’s part of Mortal Kombat. Love him or hate him, you’ve got a friend like that, and he’s a prick. If you don’t know someone like Kano, you’re probably Kano.
INVERSE: I know Joe Taslim, who plays Sub-Zero, is a big Mortal Kombat player. Did you play together behind the scenes?
JOSH LAWSON: For sure. He would invite us to play at his joint. I binged-watched all the fatalities, that was one of my favorite things. You gotta be a crazy genius to come up with those.
INVERSE: Do you have a gross threshold?
JOSH LAWSON: None. I dare you to gross me out. The grosser the better. I was never offended by gore. I was impressed by the creativity of fatalities. I see this stuff and I go, “That’s brilliant!” I could watch the blood dagger in the trailer over and over. Who comes up with that?
INVERSE: I understand this is the first time you’re in something that has a fandom. What is it like knowing it’s not just people but fans with expectations?
JOSH LAWSON: To see people’s excitement is new. I do a lot of comedy. People just aren’t loyal to comedy as a genre. From the second I was involved, all people talked about was how to pay tribute to the fans. I don’t think a day passed we weren’t going, “Think of the fans.” They are the ones who’ve kept this alive. It’s for them. For better or worse, it was done with love.
INVERSE: What are you working on next?
JOSH LAWSON: Just finished my second feature, Long Story Short coming out in Australia in cinemas. Can you you believe it? We have cinemas. It’s streaming in a couple months. But in terms of acting, I don’t know. It’s a blank slate. But that’s my life. I’m used to the unknown and then, holy shit, I’m on a thing. Fingers crossed it’s Mortal Kombat 2.
INVERSE: Will Kano come back in Mortal Kombat 2?
JOSH LAWSON: Eric, I could tell ya, but then I’d have to rip your fucking heart out.
Mortal Kombat is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.