In a way it’s somewhat rare to see an actor pop out on the screen so much given the vibe they exude, especially when it involves being a complete badass. There are some actors who certainly can create an aura for themselves, but at times it may feel manufactured or even become monotonous when it’s seen in different productions over the course of time. Yet in the case of veteran actor Dan Southworth, the man simply is a talented actor that is perfect when it comes to playing a hero that’s simply badass.
Best known for portraying Vergil in Devil May Cry 3, Dan has had a rather extensive career, both in-front of the camera in theatrical/television projects, in addition to lending his voice in video games as well as being a performance capture artist. While we may have to wait an eternity to see Vergil appear in a proper DMC game again, Dan has lent his talents to help bring the character of Kenshi to life in Mortal Kombat: Legacy II.
Filling the shoes of the blind sword-wielding warrior may be perceived as tough given this is the first time the character is appearing in a live-action setting, though as evident by Dan’s performance in the series he absolutely knocked the role out of the park. Mixing elements that the character is known for in addition to adding a new layer of complexity, along with a nice smug attitude, Dan’s performance as Kenshi is easily one of the most standout elements about MK: Legacy II.
In this extensive interview with Shogun Gamer Dan shares some insight on his career, producing original content, building upon the character that is Kenshi, and his work on an unreleased Mortal Kombat game.
Ian Fisher: Throughout the years gamers and fans of cinema alike have seen you in various projects ranging from Power Rangers, Devil May Cry, and now Mortal Kombat: Legacy II So going back to the start of your career, what made you want to pursue acting and have that become your life-long profession?
Dan Southworth: Well I think it was the Bruce Lee movies when I was a kid. I was electrified by his performance. When I was growing up I was the only Asian kid on the block and I looked a lot more Asian when I was younger. So it was amazing to me when I saw my first Bruce Lee movie, I think it was “Enter the Dragon”, and I didn’t realize he was the star of the movie. I was five years-old and I saw it in Chinatown in San Francisco and I didn’t even think he was the star of the movie. I just thought he was some guy that was going to get beat up until I realized he was kicking everybody’s ass and that he was the hero.
That was an experience that proved my ethnicity had nothing to do with what who I wanted to be, who I was going to be able to become, or what I wanted to do. That was an important thing for me to realize at that age because like I said I was the only Asian kid on the block. Whether or not there are ever overt stereotypical slurs or attacks, you still feel like a minority when you’re sort of one of the few of your ethnicity. And culturally we were sort of different you know. I had an Asian mother so foods were different and the way we related to one another was a little bit different. That can be intimidating when you grow up in a predominantly Western-European descended community.
Ian: Over the years you’ve done quite a bit of acting as both a voice artist and a motion capture performer in an array of video game and theatrical projects. Can you talk a bit about how you made the leap into that field of the entertainment industry?
Dan: It was Devil May Cry 3. Reuben Langdon is a very good friend of mine, and he owns a production company called Just Cause Productions and they’re a motion capture company. Before they became as big and successful as they are right now, they were a couple of guys that had an office in a warehouse and they made some connections with Capcom.
So we flew to Japan to do Devil May Cry and during that whole process he [Rueben] asked me to come in and audition. Reuben knew me from Power Rangers since he was a stuntman on that as well. He knew me from when I was acting on the show and he asked me to come in and audition for one of the lead roles. That was kind of how I got into the motion capture business. Reuben was pioneering the field as an entertainer thirteen years ago, this was around 2000 or 2002, and he was bringing all the talent that he knew personally. Then we did Devil May Cry 3 and it became very popular among the fans.
When you make a product that does well people want to have you work on their projects. So it opened a lot of doors for me to do more video games and of course the more video games I did the more experienced I became with motion capture performance, which is kind of a specific way of performing and way of working; the schedule is a little more demanding and there’s hardly any rest time and no walking off to your trailer to wait for your scene. You have to be in every scene and often times they’ll cast you in multiple roles so that they can shoot more.
Ian: On the topic of your motion capture performance work, what has it been like in a way to see the technology to evolve from when you doing it back in the days of Devil May Cry 3 to what it is today with things like James Cameron’s Avatar?
Dan: It’s not that much more advanced. What has become more advanced is the power of the game engine or the capturing engine in the computers. Computers have become a lot more powerful so they can process more information. We still capture it using reflective balls, the only difference is that when I first put on the spandex it actually started out at dots and they weren’t very effective because they were flat. So they could get a better image if they used 3D spherical balls that they could attach to you. And they started out as wooden which was not comfortable to land on when you’re doing stunts and fight choreography. Then they started to get become like this rubberized foam looking thing that tears off your body when you do some hardcore stunts so you have to replace them a lot. They’re getting better and more resistant though.
I remember doing one project for Neil Blomkamp (District-9, Elysium), when I worked for him for some of the Halo shorts that he was putting up on the web. They were using LEDs for that shoot and we were smashing them up left and right. They thought they would be indestructible, but the problem with the LEDs is that it would take a minute and a half to resolder it onto the suit, whereas with the reflective balls they could just pop one off and screw another one in. So in that sense, the actual physical equipment that we work with has made some slight improvements, it’s more of the technical aspect that has improved by leaps and bounds. For example we could have a max of two or four actors in the volume and we couldn’t capture individual finger movements. Now we can have more people in the volume and do more things at the same time. It makes the gameplay feel a lot more realistic.
I just finished Killzone 4 and it’s pretty amazing what the final product is going to look like. It’s very realistic and it’s very lifelike. I also finished another project and I can’t say what it is, but it’s a rival game to Call of Duty, and it’s the same thing. The cinematic moments that are interweaved into gameplay are so amazing that it made me want to go out and buy a console. I haven’t had a console in years since the problem is that I would spend 40 hours a week playing games and I don’t do that so I keep myself productive. But this other game and Killzone 4 were so amazing that it made me want to go out and pick up a console and spend some time playing the games.
I did get a chance to work on Avatar for a couple of weeks during the testing phases and they did develop these fiberglass helmets with these booms that come down and have cameras attached to them. That was pretty freaking cool. I think they were actually developed for Beowulf and a few of the other shows that came out before Avatar. Since the technology has become more powerful, you usually have to wear a hard drive attached to your body that captures the facial data from the dots that are placed on your face. All of that has shrunk in size and it’s getting easier work with and allows you to perform more naturally.
So the technology has come a long way even though all of it still feels very similar to what I was doing ten years ago. I’m still acting on top of wood crates imaging that it’s a horse or a mechanized robot, but it’s still the same for me at times.
Ian: One somewhat common trait amongst the roles you’ve played over the years is that they’re all rather intense warriors, whether it be Vergil or even the Quantum Ranger. As an actor do you enjoy taking on roles like that and trying to put a unique spin on them?
Dan: It’s fun when you get to do that. For most of the stuff that I do there’s an archetype for the character and there’s usually a particular archetypes that the producers or the director are looking for and you just sort of plug them in. What makes them unique is that you bring 90% of yourself to the character if you’re a giant tough guy or some kind of mage. But a lot of times I’m plugging in an archetype to the character role and them trying to find something real in the dialog and the script to connect to. When I say that I mean as an actor you try to bring moments from your life to connect to with what’s going on with the character during the scene that are analogous and that’s what allows you to find a truthful response and a way of being in the moment that’s real.
I usually get to play a lot of leading characters or supporting characters so those are usually bound by the perimeters of their archetype, but every once in a while I get to play bad guys or characters that are more zany or outside the main goal or thrust of the plot so those are really fun to portray.
Ian: One of your latest projects is portraying the blind warrior Kenshi in Mortal Kombat: Legacy II. When I talked to Larnell Stovall during the first season he mentioned how Kenshi was one of his go-to characters if a new season ever happened. So have you roughly been in talks to portray Kenshi for a while now or did you learn about the project fairly recently once actors were being sought out for various roles?
Dan: Actually the stunt coordinator approached me about doing the first season. I was busy at the time so I couldn’t do it. Then he let me know that they were doing a season two and I thought that was cool so I told him to let me know if there was anything that I could come on and do. Then a few months went by and I got a text from the stunt coordinator and he said, “Hey, there’s talk that they’re going to bring this character Kenshi to into the script and you’re their first choice.” So I said that’s great and there’s probably other choices so whatever. Then I got an offer from the casting director and to an extent the offer said, “The director would really like you to play the role. Here’s the offer, do you accept?” After seeing what the first season had turned into, the quality of the show and the quality of the work, I realized that this is a project that I should be involved in just for the sake of doing work that’s going to get noticed and that’s interesting.
I’m very interested in supporting a good web-series production and being a part of them at this point in my career. So that was how that worked out. I didn’t meet the director until the first day of rehearsal, but I think he’s great and he’s really good at what he does. So I was relieved since you never know how the director is going to be. He was very collaborative and he was very interested in my ideas and this was a much more exciting role than the ones that I usually get to play because I had a lot of ideas for how to humanize this character. The director let me play with a lot of those ideas so that was really cool.
What was also very fortunate about this character was that he’s a Japanese sword-wielding samurai/ninja. Because of all the motion capture games that I had done up to that were a lot of Japanese games, one of them being Ninja Gaiden 3 in which I did the motion capture performance for Ryu Hayabusa, I had a lot of experience with this type of character. I was also sort of familiar with the cultural backstory of this character and where he would’ve come from and how he would’ve developed from a samurai into a ninja. So I did a lot of research on the character and I spent a few weeks researching Ninjutsu history and I did as much reading as I could about the character whenever I got the chance.
Ian: Earlier you mentioned that you were able to collaborate with Kevin, the director, in building up the character of Kenshi, but as an actor what was it like for you taking on a character that has already been established in the games and has a huge fan following? So what was it like to honor what the fans want out of Kenshi as a character while still putting your unique stamp on the role from an acting perspective?
Dan: So part of that is understanding the character archetype that you’re about to portray. If you look at it, there are a lot of similarities in heroes that we like across cultures and across time. So you sort of remember to stay within those parameters, remember that there are certain aspects of the character that people love and you try to incorporate those into some of your own ideas who this character is. I happen to be a little bit of a fan myself, so I know when I’m sitting down and looking at this character where or how to approach it and where his story arc is. Because I’ve worked in video games for a while now I understand the genre and I think that’s very helpful.
Ian: Since you’ve worked in the video game industry for so long, did you really know a lot about the Mortal Kombat franchise, both the films and games, prior to joining the cast of MK: Legacy II?
Dan: When the first Mortal Kombat movie came out it was kind of an exciting and new with the special effects that were used. It was pushing the limits back then a little bit, but I didn’t think the movie was very good. Nevertheless, I had several opportunities to audition for the lead role in the television series [Mortal Kombat: Konquest], and I’ve met Larry Kasanoff himself when he was producing the films. I figured that would be a good stepping stone for me to get into as a leading character/action guy. So I was following it for a little bit. As I said earlier, to me I thought the films weren’t very well produced so it was no skin off my teeth if I didn’t get the role, but I tried.
I also did the revamp Mortal Kombat game when they did a reskinning of the characters from the original game. I did Nightwolf and Sub-Zero for that. It was supposed to be an anniversary release, but I don’t think that ever saw the light of day. So I was pretty familiar with the franchise, and like I said I was not too interested in the first season because of what I knew of the franchise in the past. But after watching it and seeing how well it was done, I was definitely interested when I had the chance to jump on the second season.
Ian: Since you were able to really add some input to character of Kenshi with your performance, what was your standout moment whilst making MK: Legacy II? Were you fond of working with a particular actor or was there an action moment that really stood out for you?
Dan: I enjoyed working with all the other actors. Casper Van Dien surprised me. You never know what an actor is going to be like when you work with them so I didn’t know what to expect. But Casper turned out to be great guy and he’s a fantastic actor I think for Johnny Cage. I think he did a great job with the character and I really enjoyed working with him. He was a pleasure to work with and so was Mark Dacascos. It was good seeing Mark again since I used to be his stunt double years ago on a few films. So we knew each other from that and he’s such a sweet and great guy to work with.
All the cast members were great to work with since I didn’t think anybody was stuck up or thought they were bigger than they were. Everybody was great and there were a lot of other stunt actors as well. Up and coming stunt action people like myself who were working on the show so it was a very comfortable set to work on. The production company that produced it was the same one that produced Act of Valor and I happen to know one of the directors over there since he and I were in an acting class ten years ago. So they were great people to work with too.
It was one of those rare moments when everybody from the top down on the set is a great human being and is and is good at their jobs. That doesn’t happen too often in this industry since there’s a lot of stress involved. It can be very stressful when you’re working with a deadline and trying to make it not look cheesy. So I definitely enjoyed working with this show. I can’t say that I added a whole lot to character, but I was able to do some cool things. If you watch the character in the background he’s always doing something. I tried to make him look like a real seasoned ninja warrior from whatever time period he comes from since that’s sort of ambiguous about the character.
Other than that, what stood out for me was Kenshi’s backstory. It was really cool to play a samurai and they went the distance as far as making it look as authentic as they could for their budget. All in all I think it came out very good and I’m really happy with how the director approached the scene and executed it from page to production.
Ian: MK: Legacy II isn’t your first time working on a web-series since you also have a series that you helped to create called Divergence. Can you give us an overview of Divergence and how you came up with the concept for that project?
Dan: That’s the thing that I was busy on when the stunt coordinator approached me about doing the first season of Mortal Kombat: Legacy; I was producing my own web-series at the time and we were just about to enter production as well. What I saw back then, I’m talking about around 2010, when we first started about the story elements of Divergence, on the internet and the genre of web series is a field to be pioneered. This was now a moment that’s very similar to the recording industry where technology has allowed people to have access to the same quality production that before was difficult to acquire. Now you can get equipment for $10,000 or less that can produce something that’s on par with stuff that cost maybe around $200,000 to purchase or $50,000 to rent for the period of a shoot.
So because everything was accessible, and I felt like I had enough experience doing films/ television/video games, I wanted to produce something of my own and put my money where my mouth is as a filmmaker to see if I had what it takes to produce and create something of my own. If I do become successful at this I’ll be able to hire all of the people that I like working with, which is a thing that I think contributes to an amazing product.
I got in a touch with a friend of mine who is a talented writer, we created the story together and he wrote it since he’s a much better writer than I am. My argument was that since he wrote it he had to direct it as well since we were making this for a very low budget. So that means you have to understand how it is that you’re going to create the images you want to create as you’re developing a story. The tradeoff then was that I had to physically produce it.
Here we are with web-series becoming very popular and I wish that we had the manpower to pump our series out a little quicker, but nevertheless we are getting it out there. We have the first six episodes up on YouTube and you can go to our website (whatisdivergence.com) and read all about the show. Our plan as a production company, Popular Uprising, is to produce four or five series’ for the people by the people; that’s our motto.
Ian: I don’t know if it’s too early to release any details, but can you give us any hints about the next series that you’re currently prepping?
Dan: The next series is going to be about a Western. It’s going to be pretty damn cool. It’ll be a post-apocalyptic Western and that’s pretty much all I want to say about it right now.
Ian: Having co-created a web-series such as Divergence and worked on MK: Legacy II, do you think doing series, and possibly movies, released exclusively on the web and/or released online first is the way to go in the future? Obviously the main TV channels (NBC, HBO, etc.) will still have a place in the future, but do you think the somewhat less restrictive and not as competitive model of web-series could allow creators such as yourself to produce interesting content that has a shot at success?
Dan: You’re already seeing some of the big networks get involved in producing web-series. Mortal Kombat: Legacy II was produced by Warner Bros., so I think that you’re starting to see that. I don’t know if we’ll ever see companies that exclusively do that. The issue right now is how can you monetize this and make money off is so that you can continue to produce more.
Right now it kind of looks like it’s a public television/member-supported kind of formula. So you can go on Kickstarter if you’re good and if people know that then you can go there when you want to produce the next series. That’s one way that these things are getting made. If you get a lot of viewership then of course you’ll have lots of advertising dollars that want to get involved. I’m pretty sure that’s been the model for television as long as it’s been running. I don’t see why the internet wouldn’t be a place where you’ll have companies that are pretty much exclusively developing content for the web. My company may even be one of them if we continue to grow and do well.
Ian: For yourself where would you want to see your career go within the next few years? Since you have your own production company would you want to focus more on either writing or helping to create content, or do you still want to balance that with acting?
Dan: I may try my hand at directing in the future. I’m still very focused on my career as an actor/performer and I’ve probably got a few more good years left performing physically at the level where I’m currently at. I would like to try to get a movie out there and try to get a good television series out there and if it’s one of our web-series that would be great since that would lead me to producing. I’m producing now, but that would give me a little more wherewithal to produce the projects that I want produce. In the future I see myself as a producer and someone that’s good at putting content together and bringing the right people together to help create that content.
Ian: Besides Divergence and MK: Legacy II, do you have any other projects you want people to check out in the coming months?
Dan: Divergence! Check out whatisdivergence.com. Each episode gets better and more intriguing as you get more involved and invested in the story.
Originally posted on September 26, 2013