Film

Mortal Kombat’s Josh Lawson on Storytelling

This weekend you’ll see him as rogue mercenary Kano in Warner Brothers’ film reboot of the beloved ’90s arcade game Mortal Kombat. He played James Murdoch in 2019’s Bombshell. You’ve seen him in the Anchorman movies, Showtime’s House of Lies, and NBC’s Superstore. He’s been nominated for an Oscar for The Eleven O’Clock, a short film which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Written and directed two more award-winning, critically acclaimed shorts. He’s published a poetry book and two children’s books—his second, Internot, comes out next month. And at 39 (besides making us all look like absolute deadbeats), he’s just getting started telling stories. 

Here, we grilled Aussie Josh Lawson on his martial arts training, seeing things through, and how on the morning after the Oscars—it’s just another Monday. 

LEO: Let’s talk about your training for Mortal Kombat. Had you trained in martial arts before the film?

JOSH: I had boxed for a few years prior to Mortal Kombat, so I certainly knew the fundamentals of that. I had even gotten in the ring a few times, but I was by no means a pro. That was really the extent of my fighting experience, and then once I got the film, we went into a little more of the martial arts training and knife skills and that sort of thing. Kano in the film is a little bit more of a bar brawler, so western boxing is really his go-to hand to hand combat preference. He loves his knives as well. He’s got two big knives and guns. In the game I think he quite likes guns.

What was the process once you started training on the movie?

It’s tough because I was right in the middle of production on one of the films I was directing. The time commitments on directing a film are really intense so it was really tricky. I had gotten the job, and I thought—shit, I don’t have that much time to train. I would have loved to dedicate my entire pre-production and months leading up to the film doing nothing but training, but it just wasn’t possible. I was getting up at like 4 a.m. before having to shoot, and I would go to Sydney. My trainer was Alexa Towersey. She was a great trainer and was really putting me through my paces, trying to get my body into, as she calls it, “pre-hab.” But just trying to strengthen me up to the point where I wouldn’t injure myself. Once you get injured you’re out of commission entirely, and that’s just the worst possible situation.

We tried to strengthen our joints and stuff, and then when we were in a place where we had a good solid foundation, we would just build on that and started getting strength training and conditioning in. I had a nutritionist as well. It was really tough because film sets of course are basically these all-you-can-eat buffets of food, and I was just sitting there with a little plastic container of porridge and protein powder inside. It was just pathetic. It was really hard. That was like the longest four or five weeks of my life directing that film and training at the same time; I feel like I didn’t sleep that whole time.

Did you play the game growing up?

Yeah, when it first came out for sure, but I wasn’t a devotee or anything. I was a bit surprised when I revisited it for the film and discovered how much it had changed and evolved, and just how graphic it has become.

This will be one of the first major films to come out in theaters since the pandemic. Are you feeling any of that pressure?

Well, no because that stuff is so out of my hands, you know? I can only control what I can control. I think I would be more affected by that if I had directed the film—which I’ve done a couple of times. That feeling is very, very different when you’re directing something versus when you’re acting in it. When you’re acting in something, and you leave at the end of the shoot, you really do disconnect.

Especially with such a big film.

Absolutely, yeah, it’s so much bigger than you.

“Kano in the film is a little bit more of a bar brawler, so western boxing is really his go-to hand-to-hand combat preference. He loves his knives as well.”

You’re a filmmaker yourself. When you get on a set, do they let you chime in?

I mean [laughs] I don’t know that they let me chime in. Hopefully as an actor, even before I was making films, I hope that I could have some sort of creative clout because I’ve been acting now for over 30 years. I had probably been on some of the sets longer than some of the group. It definitely doesn’t mean I know everything, far from it; I never will, but I certainly know how to hit a mark and streamline the process. I try not to hold things up. But, look, in Australia I know a lot of the group. I’ve worked with a bunch of them either in different jobs or in my own films. When you’ve been around as long as I have—and I don’t say that with pride, I say that with depression [laughs], in Australia you just know people, so you’re always going to see a dozen or so familiar faces anytime you step on set.

In LA, we call that the Australian mafia. All the Australians in the industry know each other.

Oh God. If there were an Australian mafia it would be disorganized crime, I promise you [laughs].

I know it came out a couple years ago now, but where did the idea for [Lawson’s Oscar-nominated short] The Eleven O’Clock come about?

That was an old script, really really old. I had made it originally as a short play. It was performed a bunch of times in Australia and even won a bunch of awards and things. I had been wanting to make it into a short film for a while, but couldn’t quite get it together. Then I was talking to my friend Darren Seal, who is a commercial director here. He said he’d love to do a narrative short, and asked if I had anything—and I said that I did, and that it was very simple and that it was just two guys essentially in an old-school kind of Costello type routine as they battle wits. We shot it in a day and then off it went. It had a big long life as a short film. I have always been a fan of old school Vaudeville, The Three Stooges and the Marx brothers…

You have a comedy background and studied at Second City.

Yeah, so I’ve always been interested in that old school comedy. Even Looney Toons in a lot of ways is Vaudeville. It’s that same kind of humor. I just really love the idea of: what if there were two people that thought they were the straight guy in a comic double act, and if there was a straight guy and a crazy guy. It was sort of funny to me if they both thought that the other was the wacky one, and how far that could go. And that was really it; that’s sort of where it all stemmed from. So it was lovely to see that that old style of comedy was embraced, when it was remade as a short film. It was great cause I just went, that stuff isn’t dead; it just needs to be repackaged a little bit—that old Vaudeville kind of back and forth. I do think that type of comedy will never die; it just needs to be contemporized a little.

So when you make a film that gets nominated for an Academy Award, where do you go from there? Do you run with that? Do you leverage that to make more shorts or to make a full feature?

Well, that was certainly the plan. I’ll be totally honest, I think it’s really transparent when you see short films being made so that they can make a feature out of the short film. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that; I just prefer when short films work entirely as a short film. That, to me, is what makes them different—that they can do a beginning, middle and an end in 10-15 minutes. That’s so interesting to me.

As opposed to just an audition tape for a director.

Totally, and a lot of people do that, and that’s absolutely no problem. There isn’t one way to skin a cat, you can do whatever you want. I just love the discipline of making a complete short film. The short film category very much used to be that at the Oscars and festivals around the world. It very much used to be the discipline of telling a story in 10-15 minutes, but it has changed over the years, and now it’s very much more to either make a bigger version of that or to leapfrog into something bigger.

Also, we were never expecting to go to the Oscars with this. It was a bit of a surprise that it went that far. To answer your question completely honestly, it would have been great to have leveraged that to do other things, but the truth is that it didn’t change anything at all—not for me personally. The Oscars was something I had dreamed of since I was a little boy and to get to be there was incredibly emotional and overwhelming, but then the next day is Monday.

It’s not necessarily what people think it is.

No, it’s not. I will say, what I’m so grateful for about being nominated for an Oscar is that, amongst other things, it freed me from ever aiming for that again. Not that it’s not a noble thing, it can be that, but it certainly shouldn’t be the reason you make anything.

You know that whole cliché, “It’s an honor just to be nominated”? That’s all fine, but then when you’re in it, you sort of want to win. You know what I mean? Because then it’s not just an honor to be nominated. Now that you’re nominated, you’re so close you can taste it—that you just want to win, and everyone just wants to win. It sort of brings out this ugly side of art, because art should not be competitive. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? You might like one thing, and I might like another, and we’re both right. I did see a change come over everyone in the Oscars lead-up, where it was like, gosh we’re all hungry for this now. I didn’t like that side of it.

Once you make it to the Super Bowl, it’s not enough to just have made it to the Super Bowl—now you want to win.

Exactly. But I think it certainly has disabused me of that fixation on it for sure. I no longer have that.

And maybe you have less of a sense of having to prove yourself because you got there.

Yeah, and there is something nice about forever being known for—you’ll always have that “Oscar nominee”. In a way, that takes the pressure off. If you do have a bucket list, you can now tick that off and focus on other things.

“You know that whole cliché, ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated’? That’s all fine, but then when you’re in it… you’re so close you can taste it—that you just want to win, and everyone just wants to win. It sort of brings out this ugly side of art, because art should not be competitive. I didn’t like that side of it.

You’ve now written and published two kids books. How does someone who doesn’t have kids decide to write kids books?

I just love telling stories, and some stories that I come up with I’m like—this doesn’t feel like an adult story; this feels like something that could connect with a younger reader or viewer or whatever. When the stories come to me, I never really pull back. I never sort of go—oh, that’s a kids story, that’s not for me to write. I’m like—well, I can tell a story, you don’t have to like it, but I’ll tell it and see what you think. I just sort of wrote the first one, which was Shoo Grumpers Shoo! and it was really about trying to help kids understand the feeling of being grumpy and upset. I’ve seen my friends’ kids when they get grumpy; it’s really hard to break them out of that cycle.

I have three kids so I know all about that.

Well there you go. You know it’s like—ah, they’re in the mood now, how can I break them out of this mood? It’s hard for kids to understand emotions—gosh, it’s hard for adults to understand emotions. So I pitched it out to a publisher here in Australia and off we went. I just found that there was another part of my brain that really enjoyed telling stories like that.

Is this upcoming second book a sequel or totally separate?

Totally separate. It’s called The Internot, and it’s about a young girl who’s obsessed with the internet and her gadgets, her iPad and iPhone. But one day, the internet breaks, so it shows how she discovers the joys of the outside world.

Oh, that’s great.

Yeah, so it’s a beautiful little story, but also like any good children’s book, it has a lesson that adults can learn as well. The illustrations are gorgeous by this very talented illustrator. I’m very excited for that one. That comes out in a month or so.

Would you want to make a kids film out of the books you’ve written?

Totally, yeah. I can’t think of anything I’ve done so far that feels like it could be reformatted for that, but there are certainly ideas that I’ve written down in my little baby book of ideas that could be a children’s TV series or a movie. There’s a real purity to that sort of storytelling. There won’t be too many people who can argue that Pixar writes some of the best scripts that come out of Hollywood.

Absolutely, they’re the only kind of flawless projects being made really.

Exactly, and that’s just a lot of heads in one place. I was lucky enough to visit Pixar studios one time to see the way they work; it’s very much a collaborative effort, obviously spearheaded by the people who are credited, but they do have such excellent screenwriting. They’re children’s films, I suppose, but there’s some really sophisticated and elegant filmmaking going on there. Maybe writing a children’s movie is harder than making something else. I’ve yet to find out.

“It’s really frightening when I think about leaving my career in the hands of someone else. That, I don’t think I could live with anymore. That’s okay in your 20s because there’s sort of a thrill to that, like—aah, am I gonna work this year, who knows? But now as an adult—this is life and death now.”

I don’t know if this is what you were going for, but your poetry, specifically the first one about the rocks, which I loved, reminded me a little bit of Shel Silverstein.

I’ve heard that. I haven’t read Shel Silverstein really, but other people have likened me to him. I will say that Roald Dahl was a very big influence on me.

Reading it, I could hear the Australian accent.

In the forward of the book I mentioned that my rhymes are in my Aussie tongue, so there are some rhymes that won’t work in the American accent but do in the Australian accent.

It gives it a nice charm.

We have these Aussie bush poets that we studied in school; one is Henry Lawson, no relation, and the other is Banjo Paterson. They have a similar sensibility, a bit of a sing-songy type of poetry that is clearly intended to be read around a campfire sort of thing, so very much storytelling. Edgar Allan Poe is a big influence as well, and Dylan Thomas. That sort of epic storytelling type of poetry. That really appeals to me where even the poem has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

You have a real discipline when it comes to seeing all of these projects through. Most people in your shoes would just be satisfied with the acting career.

So where does that come from? Fear and anxiety. The fear of not working. The fear that if I don’t work now on my own stuff, then I just won’t work at all. It’s really, really scary particularly because I’m almost 40 this year. It’s really frightening when I think about leaving my career in the hands of someone else. That, I don’t think I could live with anymore. That’s okay in your 20s because there’s sort of a thrill to that, like—aah, am I gonna work this year, who knows? But now as an adult—this is life and death now.

And it must allow you to take the reigns of your own creative endeavors.

Yeah, and the truth is that I just have enough stories to tell. I love storytelling. I’ve got more stories that I want to tell than I’ll ever be able to tell in my lifetime. I’m not worried that I’m going to run out of ideas for stories, because I’ve got plenty.

I believe ideas beget ideas, if you know what I mean. The more you have them and see them to fruition, the more come to you.

Yeah, absolutely. The advice I would give to anyone is just to keep writing. I am getting better at not getting hung up on a scene, and not saying—this scene sucks, and I can’t move on until I get it right. Now I just have to move on and come back to it later. Things will make more sense when you’ve written more. So the more I write, the more I’m able to identify the problems in the things that I’m writing. The more I do it, the better I get at it. I look at these things that I’ve written 10 years ago, and at the time I thought it was my magnum opus—and now I go, oh boy. I’ve learned a lot. 

They say the best way to become a better writer is to write more.

There’s no question. Also, I would say if you can get one or two people in your life that you can trust to give you good feedback, that’s actually good. I wouldn’t trust myself to be the echo chamber of the only feedback I get, because I don’t think that would be helpful. There are a couple people in my life that give me honest feedback, whom I respect, and that has helped me enormously.

It has to be the right people. The wrong people giving you feedback can backfire.

It’s awful. And I think that is such a good lesson. Don’t give it to the wrong people, because I have learned that the hard way, where that has hurt me so much. I don’t even think it’s good feedback—and now I just want to burn the script.

“I love storytelling. I’ve got more stories that I want to tell than I’ll ever be able to tell in my lifetime.”

When you’re writing do you put yourself on a schedule? On a clock? What is that process?

No, I tend to write better in the mornings, but everyone’s different. When I’m in the flow, I’ll write solidly in the mornings until lunch or early afternoon, and then I’ll step away because my brain gets foggy. It isn’t one of those things where I have a strict schedule. Only at the start will I force myself; the first few dominoes to knock over are far and away the hardest ones. 

Getting started is the hardest part.

It’s always the hardest. So I force myself those first three or four days, but I do find that after that I get excited about finishing. It’s not a chore at that point. I guess the lesson would be: I know it feels shitty to start something, but in my experience, that isn’t how it stays. It’s not going to be shitty the whole time. It’s not going to be a struggle the whole time; it’s just at the start. It’s like anything, dieting or exercise. It always feels crap when you first do it, but then the more you do it, you’re like—I actually really enjoy this.

During the pandemic, when everyone was just bored out of their minds watching Netflix and unable to figure out what to do—you’re not that person, so you must’ve been keeping busy.

I was lucky during the pandemic because I was on my film Long Story Short, and that really did keep me busy. The post on that was grueling and long and challenging, so while everyone else sort of panicked about being indoors, I was in an editing suite doing mental acrobatics everyday for six months. I was really lucky to have been kept occupied. Had I not been occupied, I probably would have been writing. But I’m still writing, I’m writing all the time. You’re right, I’m not the kind of person that would have let the grass grow under their feet. I’m also so used to being a homebody, and as an actor you’re so used to not working. As a filmmaker, you know what unemployment feels like.

You’re used to going months-long stretches between work.

Right, and as a writer you know what it’s like to be locked indoors and to sit at your laptop. I would say the best prepared people for the pandemic were out-of-work actors and writers.

If you had to choose one thing, and it was the only thing you were allowed to do—but you were able to do so very successfully, which would be THE ONE?

I would have to probably choose writing. I think it would hurt me so much not to be able to tell stories. I feel like that’s the one that would hurt me the most.

You’re a real renaissance man.

[Laughs]. Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t do it for that, I do it because I can’t shut my brain off. If I don’t do it, I feel like a shark; if you stop swimming you die.

CHECK OUT JOSH

OUT NOW

As Kano in Mortal Combat

BEST OF

As director, writer, and actor in Oscar-nominated Best Live Action Short Film, The Eleven O’Clock 

As James Murdoch in Bombshell

As Kench Allenby in the Anchorman movies 

As Doug Guggenheim in Showtime’s House of Lies

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