'The birth of Scorpion': Mortal Kombat star goes behind iconic character's vengeful origins
Two words sent the cast and crew of Mortal Kombat into a frenzy.
The reaction came as a surprise to Hiroyuki Sanada, the lauded Japanese actor of stage and screen, known for roles like The Fool in a U.K. production of King Lear, the "Immortal" in Kirito No Séngyo, the titular Twilight Samurai, and parts in The Wolverine and HBO's Westworld. "I never played a [Mortal Kombat] game before," he admits to EW while taking a break from his latest cinematic venture, the star-studded Bullet Train. But for his role as Scorpion, an iconic fighter from this mythos, perhaps the most iconic, he "researched the character and his history" for some added perspective.
Even then, he was unprepared for the impact a seemingly fleeting turn of phrase would have on his colleagues. "He has two famous words, a punchline or something, that I really enjoyed," Sanada says. Those would be "Come here!" the phrase Scorpion often shouts across the Mortal Kombat games as his piercing whip launches and hooks onto an opponent. Sometimes he substitutes "Get over here!"
"When I performed that signature move with the words in the rehearsal on set for the first time, I had a great reaction from the cast and crew," Sanada recalls. "They said, 'Yeah! I've waited for this moment.' Then I realized how popular this move is."
The first trailer for Mortal Kombat, directed by Simon McQuoid, drops later today, at which time fans will be able to see Sanada, a skilled martial artist, in action as Scorpion. But until then, EW can reveal an exclusive still image of the man once known as Hanzo Hasashi before transforming into a vicious spirit of vengeance. "This was my first time playing a famous game character," the actor says. "Everyone knows his weapons and style. So, I felt a lot of pressure."
The film is, in part, about "the birth of Scorpion," McQuoid says. The opening sequence goes back to feudal Japan where Hanzo is set upon by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) in what is the latest move between two warring clans. It's at that moment Hanzo crafts his signature weapon: he takes the kunai blade his wife uses to tend the garden, fashions it to the tip of a whip, and unleashes hell. Sanada may not be as versed in gamer-speak, but, as someone who's been training in physical movement since he was 13 years old — martial arts, dance, singing, stunts — he strove to make the opening sequence feel authentic to Japanese culture.
"I discussed the fighting style with the choreographer and the stunt team and just jumped into rehearsal," he says. "I tried to create an original style. Since Hanzo Hasashi is a character of Japanese descent, I tried to make authentic movements."
It won't be centuries later in the timeline of the film, in the present day, until Hanzo re-emerges, this time with supernatural powers as the fully realized Scorpion from the games — and with him comes another varied fighting style to the character we first meet in the film's opening minutes. Sanada saw the transformation as "a very tasty role for an actor: family man changed to fighting machine." He likes to think of Mortal Kombat as a whole as "a family drama with excitingly brutal fighting." It was this mix between drama and action, two of his long-time loves, that sold Sanada on the part. "Each fight has a reason with the emotion," he says. "The audience can understand why he's fighting, what he's thinking during the fight."
To be clear, the needs of Mortal Kombat weren't as physically demanding for Sanada as his film roles in the '80s. (Samurai Reincarnation, Legend of the Eight Samurai, Sure Death Revenge, etc.) He said as much. "But this is more demanding than any movie I shot in the last 15 years," he adds. "I think."
Mortal Kombat will premiere in theaters through Warner Bros. Pictures and stream for 31 days on HBO Max starting April 16.
Quotes from Hiroyuki Sanada have been edited and condensed for clarity.