Warner Bros. Pictures Josh Lawson as Kano in Mortal Kombat
Speaking with PEOPLE ahead of the release of Mortal Kombat, the 39-year-old Oscar nominee says he was honored to get to play the multi-layered Kano for the newest film installment of the "iconic" bloody video-game franchise, and how signing on was a no-brainer.
"When you're a gigging actor and a movie like Mortal Kombat comes along, you're going to say yes. It's a big opportunity," says Lawson. "Even if I wasn't a big fan of the game — which I was — I probably would have said yes to it."
Adds the Australian actor, "I was so excited about doing the movie. It was something I'd never done before, and I'm surprised I got the opportunity to do it. I just didn't think that I was the kind of guy that [would fit]. But I auditioned for it and I suppose [they saw] something in there they felt they could use in the film."
"It was a combination of like, holy s---, being in something that I used to play as a kid — a bit of a childhood dream come true — coupled with the fact that I was just so glad I was cast in this thing at all," he adds. "I've been an actor for 30 years; I know what it's like to not work. And so I was genuinely just so grateful to be [a part of the movie]."
Below, Lawson chats with PEOPLE more about suiting up as Kano, a few behind-the-scenes tidbits from the film, other upcoming roles he's exciting to sink his laser eye into and more.
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Oliver Begg Josh Lawson
PEOPLE: How did you prepare to step into Kano's shoes, both physically and otherwise?
Josh Lawson: One of the things I was so thankful for was the fans of the game [who've] essentially cataloged the history of Mortal Kombat online. They've been so diligent about tracking the evolution of all the characters and worlds and the universe. It's really easy to get online and do the theoretical research of it, because the fans have been so good at that.
[With] the physical stuff, I wish I had more time; the time I had from getting the role to shooting was pretty limited. I feel like I must've been one of the last ones cast, because it was pretty tough; it was a tight turnaround. But I said, "Look, let's get into this." Got a personal trainer; I was doing fight work. I was trying to eat right. I was trying to do Kano proud.
I would love an opportunity at a sequel, because I would love to push those [physical] boundaries even further.
PEOPLE: The movie is pretty gory. How much fake blood did you guys go through on set, and what was it like filming the numerous fight scenes?
Josh Lawson: Simon McQuoid, who directed, wanted to use as little CG as possible, so you could really get that visceral, gritty sense of the gore and the blood and the martial arts. And I think you feel that in terms of the look, style and tone of the film.
So yeah, we went through a s---load of fake blood. It was plenty with ripping the heart out, all of that stuff, and actually holding on to some of those [props that] are pumping out [fake blood]. I mean, it was crazy how practical some of the effects were.
We had a really great stunt team. They had choreographed all the fights — and there's a hell of a lot of them — within an inch of their life. And at any time, if there was a move I felt like I was not going to be to sell properly, [I would say], "This might be a job for my stunt double — not because I can't do it, I just don't think I'll do it as well as he can."
With all the stunting, they did a pretty unreal job with making us look a lot tougher than, certainly, I am. A lot of the guys have a martial-arts background, as well, so they did a lot more of their own things than I did, because it's in their bones a bit more.
PEOPLE: What was your favorite scene to film, and the most difficult?
Josh Lawson: Well, I think they're all my favorites. The Reptile fight was one of the first big ones I got to do. I remember that being particularly fun because I was like, "Holy s---, this is real. Blood everywhere, and the sets are awesome. I'm fighting Reptile."
One of the more difficult scenes was when I grow my arcana, over the dinner table. And Kano is there needling ... to elicit that rage — the fury to unlock his arcana. That was a particularly difficult one, but it was good because it was sending a very clear beginning, middle and an end, and the end climaxes into this cool and violent discovery of what his power is.
Warner Bros. Pictures Josh Lawson as Kano and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat
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PEOPLE: On top of acting, you're also a screenwriter, director and producer who was nominated for an Oscar for your short film The Eleven O'Clock. Can you speak a little bit to how your experience on Mortal Kombat was different from your career thus far?
Josh Lawson: Actors are the last people, in a sense, to enter a film production and the first to leave. All that pre-production comes first. ... So as a writer/director of your own stuff, you're beginning the production before you even roll camera in front of an actor.
And so when I walked up on set to work with Simon McQuoid on Mortal Kombat ... I'd just gone through my own private nightmare making my film so I was like, "Simon, whatever you want, man. I want to make this as easy as possible for you. I know how difficult doing the movie is — I'm currently in the middle of it — so I'm not going to make it any more difficult for you than it has to be."
I was just excited, really, to be directed; it was like a holiday for me, because directing is so time-intensive and so exhausting. So even though Mortal Kombat was martial arts every day, physically demanding and all that, it was a vacation from directing. So I was having the time of my life. I think you can see it onscreen.
PEOPLE: What do you hope fans take away from the movie?
Josh Lawson: I hope it feels like a reward for their fandom. I think they are owed a really good movie based on a game. I mean, it's the way of Hollywood, isn't it? They often take these video games and turn them into movies. I think Mortal Kombat fans, they got their '90s film and that's great, but the games have developed for two more decades beyond that. And I think it's time for us to give back a decent film for them.
I can tell you that every step of the way, Simon and the actors and production team were always saying, "We've got to do right by the fans. We can't do something if it's disrespecting the fans, or if it flies in the face of what they've come to know and love." So the fans were always on our minds as we were shooting the film. I just hope it feels like a reward for them.
And there's stuff there that I didn't understand. I mean, there was stuff in the production design, they were like, "Oh, the fans will know that this is this, and this and that and that." I was like, 'Wow.' I mean, that was so much detail for the fans who want to watch it over and over again. Trust me: In the background, the film is littered with Easter eggs.
PEOPLE: You mentioned the potential of a sequel, and this movie ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. What would you like to see out of another chapter?
Josh Lawson: The franchise potential is massive. There's so much you could explore not just from the characters we haven't met, but also the characters we have. Even in the games, those characters have evolved — their alliances differentiate, their feuds. There is evolution in the game, so why not in the films, as well? I just think there's more to explore with those characters.
I hope the fans come out en masse and give us that opportunity [for a sequel], because I would give Kano 2.0.
Warner Bros. Pictures Mortal Kombat poster
PEOPLE: So many amazing actors we know and love in the U.S. — Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth and more — hail from Australia. Is there something in the water over there or what?
Josh Lawson: I think in Australia, we're driven less by fame and fortune. I think ultimately the love of the craft of acting is what motivates a lot of the actors from Australia ... as opposed to getting that job that'll land them a million dollars or on the cover of GQ or whatever.
We also have a little bit, just culturally, I think more of a relaxed culture in Australia. ... And relaxation does help with acting. Tension is the enemy of good acting. When I first went to the States and saw actors in waiting rooms, the Americans would be very tense and earnest. You can see them wound up in the waiting room and going over their lines. And the Aussies are like, "Mate, what are you doing here? Let's grab a beer afterwards." It's not that we don't care about the job — of course we do. I just always get the sense that the work has been done before going into that waiting room.
But all of that is theoretical; I have no idea, really. And I don't even know if it's true that Australians are better actors and maybe it just feels like it is because confirmation biases, that you keep seeing us everywhere. But all I can say is it's a struggle — no matter who you are, where you're from, you'll get rejected more than you want.
PEOPLE: What do you have coming up next that you're excited about?
Josh Lawson: Long Story Short is my second feature movie that I've written and directed. And that's coming out in the States I think in July. It's a romantic comedy about a chronic procrastinator who finds himself jumping forward every couple of minutes to the next year of his life. It's really about the value of making the most of the limited time that we all have on this earth — life is short; we all know it — and valuing all the things we have in front of us that we've come to take for granted.
Blaze is something altogether different, which I was just in as an actor, directed by an amazing artist called Del Kathryn Barton, here in Australia. It's a story of a young girl who is forced into an accelerated womanhood when she witnesses a really violent crime. It's full of visual creativity and imagination, and it's about going inside of her inner world. It's really a film unlike anything I've ever done before. And I'm excited for the world to see it because it's completely and wholly unique.
All I've ever wanted to do was to have a career that was interesting, and to do films that were different. I'm lucky enough to have gotten to do a bunch of those in the last few years. I'm not drawn to any one [genre]. I just want a good story, well told, with good people, and I'll be happy if I can do that for the rest of my life. I'm set.
Mortal Kombat premieres Friday in theaters and on HBO Max, but fans can catch the 7-minute opening scene now on HBO Max.