Within any project it helps to have an actor that makes the role seem believable. Such a thing may be the base of acting in a sense, but having someone that feels like a perfect fit for a role, more specifically a natural one, is what can help elevate a project to new heights.
In the case of the Mortal Kombat series you need to have actors that not only can emote and convincingly say lines, even if consists of end of the world type stuff, but can look real when delivering a brutal kick to someone during an intense combat sequence. At times it may be difficult to find the perfect actor that can handle such physicality while still delivering a performance that is quality, but thanks to the natural talents of Eric Jacobus such a thing was achieved.
Yet another new face in the cast of Mortal Kombat: Legacy II, Eric assumes the role of Stryker. Taking center stage in the absence of Sonya Blade and Jackson “Jax” Briggs, a new spin has been put on the character of Stryker thanks to Eric’s talents as a martial artist. Mixing elements of the character which has subtle throwbacks to when he first arrived in Mortal Kombat 3, this version of Stryker as seen in Legacy II may ultimately make the character become a fan-favorite thanks to the natural performance Eric gives throughout the series.
In this chat with Shogun Gamer Eric talks about his background as a martial artist, his thoughts on the action film industry, and his time spent filming Mortal Kombat: Legacy II alongside Casper Van Dien (Johnny Cage) and Brian Tee (Liu Kang).
Ian Fisher: Since a lot of people are seeing you for the first time in Mortal Kombat: Legacy S2, can you tell us a bit about the man now responsible for bringing Kurtis Stryker to life?
Eric Jacobus: My name’s Eric Jacobus and I’m an actor, stuntman, and filmmaker. In 2001 I co-founded a stunt team called The Stunt People with Chelsea Steffensen. My goal was to modernize the 1980s action film in the vein of Hong Kong and American cinema, but without all the rapid-fire editing or shaky camera angles you see today.
Since then I’ve produced and directed over a hundred short films and some feature films such as Contour, and most recently Death Grip alongside my business partner Rebecca Ahn. Recently I started getting work in more mainstream projects like choreographing a fight for A Good Day to Die Hard and ultimately playing “Stryker” in Mortal Kombat Legacy. In my spare time I eat a lot of steak and read old history books.
Ian: Obviously one of your main talents is that you’re an accomplished martial artist and stunt performer. What made you want to pursue martial arts and how did taking that path lead you to becoming an actor and stunt performer?
Eric: Like any action fan I was disgruntled about the lack of good mainstream action films in the late 90s and early 2000s. I believe it was a combination of the 1980s financial boom and good vs. evil dynamism that delivered a surplus of quality, marketable action movies. Nowadays, rather than people like Jackie Chan or Arnold Schwarzenegger really owning the role of an action star, we get actors who dabble in the occasional action film without any of the physicality we came to expect.
So when I was 19 I decided I’d try my hand at bringing back the golden days of action entertainment, and my inspiration came largely from those icons from the 80s. I didn’t grow up a martial artist though – I was a weightlifter and had some gymnastics experience – so I built up my skills for over a decade, took acting classes, started taking martial arts at the late age of 20, ate a lot of steak, and here I am.
Ian: Over the years you’ve done some really nice short films/feature films that of course are heavy on martial arts goodness. When you take on a project, what sort of mantra or goal do you like to have when it comes to arranging the choreography of a scene and what sort of tone it’ll have throughout the project?
Eric: As an actor, I usually play comedic, underdog roles that demand a physical performance, and typically I’ll bring some gags to the table which will determine how the action plays out. I’ll do non-action roles, though usually I fit better into an action-based part.
But I work primarily in action because the action genre has a beautiful, simple premise: The hero performs an action in order to solve a problem. It’s a formal agreement with the audience that says, “If you watch my action film, you will be see action.” Action filmmakers sometimes miss this point and leave the gate going in the wrong direction: they obscure the action by shaking the camera around, over-edit the footage in order to create the “effect” of action, etc., to the point where we can’t even see the action that the hero is performing. Ultimately, these failed attempts at the action genre are less about showing the action, more about conveying it. In this case, the promise of the genre is broken, and the audience doesn’t get what it paid for.
This is no way to treat people who are spending time and/or money watching your material. So any project I take on needs to deliver on the promise of the action genre. If we can agree on that, then coming up with the choreography is easy: I just arrange moves that look good for the camera and walk away confident the audience will be able to comprehend them later.
Ian: When it comes to delivering skillful martial arts action that is devoid of any shakycam rubbish, you’re one of the figures at the forefront. So with that said, what are your thoughts on how the core film industry, (Hollywood), tackles action movies? We see a lot of good efforts from folks such as yourself and that your colleagues are a part of, such as Larnell Stovall’s work on Universal Soldier 4: Day of Reckoning, yet there’s an obvious decline in quality when it comes to big budget films that fail miserably at action choreography, The Dark Knight Rises being a perfect example. So what do you think the issue is when it comes to major films failing to deliver action that’s either acceptable or doesn’t satisfy the hunger of the audience?
Eric: It’s a real butcher job, to be sure. Hollywood’s never been very good at the martial art fight scene, unless it’s a cultural piece like a swashbuckling film or a brawny bar fight, things that are tied to our culture. They actually shoot these similar to how Hong Kong shoots a kung fu fight, and for the same reasons – they’re banking on the audience understanding them. But when you’re talking about action film budgets in the $200 million ballpark, investors can’t imagine how this translates into making martial art fight scenes. They see that money being spent on blowing up a tank in Times Square, so if you’re going to shoot a fight scene, it better be on a bullet train through futuristic Tokyo, which brings us back to the “Hollywood style.”
Drawing too much attention to a subtle hand-to-hand fight might undermine the huge SIZE of the world they’re creating. The martial art film, with some exceptions, is low budget by its nature. We can’t always expect to see tens of millions of dollars directed our way for this reason. Audiences are always hungry for a good fight scene, but that’s why they come to us.
The major cultural shift that is changing all of this is the explosion of mixed martial arts, which is really only fifteen years old or so in the States. When I started making films in my rural home town, nobody knew what a roundhouse kick was. It was all very “foreign” to them. They almost expected martial arts fight scenes to be filmed in a confusing way, or else filmed in a simple manner with simple moves like the Chuck Norris films of the 80s. But people catch on quick; after 10 years of watching MMA fights at the local bar they can tell you the difference between a triangle choke and an arm bar. They love martial arts now, so it’s up to us to show investors that there’s Western demand for clean martial art movies. We won’t hold our breath for a $200 million budget, but the money people can watch for now and jump in when they’re ready.
Ian: In the past few months you’ve been behind some really cool short films that people whose hearts are rooted in all things geeky would appreciate, a key example being the First Person Darth Vader Fight. So besides that, how much of a geek are you at heart? You certainly have a passion for action cinema, but besides that are you a big gamer or do you follow certain genre TV shows religiously as other folks do?
Eric: Oh God am I a geek. I swear by my Genesis-Sega CD X’Eye combo, I’ve got a Laserdisc collection for my Pioneer Laseractive with a PAC-S10 extension, and I think Snatcher and Policenauts are the best things Kojima ever did. I’m a follower of Breaking Bad and have a soft spot for Beavis and Butthead, but in terms of gaming I don’t play any blockbuster game titles.
I tend to stick to the indie titles because I can’t dedicate 40 hours to one game. So I’d call myself a mix of “geek” and “esoteric”, but as a content developer I have to remember that most people are not geeks, and the challenge is in catering to mainstream interests. Fortunately the mass market appreciates some things that really are geeky; the whole 8-bit craze, comic books, martial art films, Star Wars, and 80s retro-ism in general are all hot right now. For better or for worse, geeks are becoming empowered as a result.
First Person Darth Vader’s success was a pleasant surprise. I only shot the thing as a test since nobody else had done a lightsaber fight with the GoPro and I wanted to test it out, but I wanted to do it right with costumes and light-up sabers. Since then we’ve filmed the sequels as well as a bunch of other GoPro videos, from fan films of games to techy stuff like Google Glass. Seems the key to success on YouTube lies in being able to shoot, edit, and release videos in short order, almost weekly, while still maintaining a quality that will make it stand out. For me it’s action, and I’m confident that any action I do will turn heads.
Ian: One of your most recent projects is Mortal Kombat: Legacy II. Since you weren’t involved in the first season of the show can you talk a bit about how you snagged the role and went on to become the new Kurtis Stryker?
Eric: I met choreographer Larnell Stovall years earlier and we kept in contact, and then he told me to send in an audition video for the role of Stryker, which was exactly the kind of character I was used to playing; underdog, fish out of water, human, on the gruff side. This was really the result of 12 years of hard labor – self-producing multiple feature films and regular short content, breaking myself doing stunts, finding myself as an actor, and taking criticism daily (thanks to all the guys at the Stunt People Forum).
Every time I’d release something, it had to be better than the last thing. It helped that I always believed in everything I created, so even if the “big break” never came, I’d have a stream of content that I’d be proud of. So while talent is important in snagging roles like this, being productive is the bulk of it. The hard work is what makes the experience worthwhile anyway!
Ian: Mortal Kombat has been a huge video game franchise for years, but prior to jumping into MK: Legacy were you familiar with the franchise or followed it as closely as some of your colleagues did such as Kevin Tancharoen and Larnell Stovall?
Eric: Between chasing girls and playing in the dirt like any other kid, I spent a lot of my childhood in the arcade, and I even had the balls to ask Santa for a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet (still haven’t gotten one… maybe I need a bigger stocking). Mortal Kombat was one of those fighting games that was just fun. Hardcore gamers played Super Street Fighter 2 and the nutty ones played Killer Instinct, but MK was just right for me.
They brought it to another level with MK3 when they introduced all the extra secrets, hidden characters, fun fatalities, combos, and of course Stryker. I love the franchise and I’m glad Kevin’s at the helm. He’s not just some studio flunkie who never gave a damn about the game. Kevin’s a real fan who’s turning the franchise into something viewers will love. I’m hoping Kevin will direct a Flashback film next, starring yours truly. Because I got a mean front roll.
Ian: When it came to tackling the role of Stryker how did you approach things? Was there a certain element you wanted to portray with the character or even a combat move from the games that you were keen to utilize or include as a callback that fans of the series could appreciate?
Eric: Stryker might be only character in the game with no superpowers to speak of. The guy’s got a gun and a grenade, but otherwise he’s just some dude in a fantasy land. So I tried to play up the fish-out-of-water angle, something I was comfortable doing already. Plus being on a huge set with 80 crew members made me feel like I was in another world anyway. Larnell and Kevin created the choreography so I just let them decide and I’d do whatever they needed. Stryker’s got some joint locks mixed with the gunplay, which is where my Hapkido background helped out.
Ian: One of the fellow combatants that you interact with quite heavily is Johnny Cage (played by actor Casper Van Dien). Can you talk a bit about what it was like to work with Casper and the rapport the two of you build based on how different your characters are?
Eric: There was one night when we were outdoors filming in the rain at the campfire, and Casper kept making jokes between shots, which kept spirits high. Casper makes the filmmaking process into a party, and the shoot began to feel like a group of friends making a movie together, which was how I was used to shooting. You could say Casper robbed me of my first Hollywood experience because I had too much fun.
All my dialog scenes were with him too, and he gave me some smart advice since he’s been doing this for years. On the first scene of the day my mind started wandering mid-shot and I lost all confidence in my performance. Casper said, “If you’re not feeling it, just act like you’re not feeling it. Whatever your thing is at that moment, act that. I do that all the time.” From then on feeling out of place on this huge location shoot was something I could add to my character. I give actors on my films the same advice now too, and they ask where I learned it. I tell them Tarzan taught… err, I mean Johnny Rico taught me.
Ian: What was it like to film the fight scene you have against Liu Kang (played by Brian Tee)? It seems like Liu ultimately got the best out of you, but was it still fun to do such a brutal battle such as that and work alongside Brian?
Eric: Brian owned his fight scene. In between takes he’d put his head toward the ground and hyperventilate so his face would go bright red. It scared the hell out of me. I expected to see a real fireball come out at some point too. Brian beat the hell out of me with this prop gun loaded with blood, so it would just splatter everywhere when he’d hit me. That was fun. I only wish our fight had been longer.
Ian: Was there anything you wish you could’ve done in your time working on MK: Legacy (such as extending a fight scene or exploring another element of Stryker as a character) but couldn’t, either due to time or budget constraints?
Eric: I wish we would’ve had time to shoot more with the tonfa (baton). We came up with some great choreography with it that never got shot, including some action alongside Mark Dacascos. Shoots like these are tough when schedules are so tight, especially when trying to shoot outside before sundown in December. I also would’ve loved to play grenade baseball with Johnny Cage, or do the T-Rex animality. Because that’d be a hell of a way to end the season.
Ian: What was the most difficult part, if any, of filming MK: Legacy II? And on the flipside, which part was the most rewarding for you as a performer?
Eric: The hardest part of shoots like MK Legacy is that everything has to be scheduled so rigorously. It seems to be the nature of any big shoot that has a relatively low budget. On my first feature film Contour (now called The Agent) we could spend weeks on a single fight scene and go for gold every time. We must have spent 80 days, 4 hours a day, shooting that film. I suppose it made me a little soft. In Death Grip we limited the shoot to a 45-day schedule which forced me to think on the spot faster. Recently I managed to shoot a great 6-minute fight for Rope A Dope in two days. But just having four hours to shoot a fight is a luxury on big projects.
None of that really matters to me, though. The experience on set and the exposure were all worthwhile. I was able to meet some great actors and stuntmen and women, including Mark Dacascos, whose film Drive (1997) was one of the reasons I started doing this in the first place. Plus I got to reenact a character from one of my favorite game franchises, arguably the character that I’m most comfortable owning. I can’t say I would’ve been as comfortable playing someone like Kenshi… or Sheeva.
Ian: You’ve worked in some really cool projects over the years, but what would your dream gig be? Is there a particular actor or director you would love to work alongside and in turn deliver an amazing action driven experience to the masses?
Eric: I’d like to work with Scott Adkins or Michael Jai White. Those are two of the best “big” guys out there right now. The people I want to collaborate with are also stars of their respective films, so finding the right project to fit our personas together is tough. Hopefully I can develop a concept, if someone else doesn’t do it first. In the meantime I’ve got everything I need to keep making new films, both short and feature length.
But I’d drop everything if Takeshi Kitano would direct me. I’d be happy to do one punch for him.
Ian: Besides Mortal Kombat: Legacy Season 2, what other projects on the horizon can people expect to see you in next?
Eric: My next big project is Marine Core, which is about a marine Kurt (me) who’s set up as the target of a manhunt in the woods. The hunters are a motley crew of special ops from around the world, so it’s like Ninja Scroll starring John Rambo.
I’m always making new short film content for my YouTube channel athttp://youtube.com/stuntpeople. People can expect to see more fan films, original narrative content, and action filmmaking tutorials there.
And hopefully I’ll be doing some Stryker fan fiction as well!
I want to extend my thanks to Eric for chatting with me and sharing some terrific insight on his career, thoughts on how action is depicted in modern cinema, and his time spent filming MK: Legacy II.
If you’re a fan of general martial arts mayhem then I implore you to check out the videos Eric does on The Stunt People since its some stunning stuff that easily puts to shame what we see out of major Hollywood “blockbusters”.
You can also keep up with the latest happenings and geeky thoughts of Eric by heading over to his Twitter account.
Article originally posted on September 24, 2013