On the surface it may seem like fighting games are very simple since there’s always one common goal: beat up your opponent into submission. Things obviously started out very simplistic when fighting games first arrived within the arcades, but as the industry grew we finally saw developers start to build up the lore of their given franchise and create some rather compelling narratives and character rivalries.
One such rivalry that is iconic within the games industry is the seemingly never-ending battle that ensues between Scorpion and Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat. Back in the day things got off to a simple start since it was merely a case of the yellow clad ninja fighting against the blue one, but the battle got more heated as the MK dev team built a rather complex story arc for the two characters that weaved in additional characters and spanned through the ages.
Helping to bring the intense rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero to life in Mortal Kombat: Legacy II is actor Eric Steinberg. Taking over the role of Sub-Zero, Eric brings a sense of dimension to the role that plays off wonderfully to the performance of Ian Anthony Dale (Scorpion). While there’s still a nice amount of intense fighting between Scorpion and Sub-Zero in MK: Legacy II, I think fans will appreciate the amount of detail and care that both Eric and Ian put into their respective performances.
Eric chats about how he approached the role of Sub-Zero and how he joined Mortal Kombat: Legacy II in this interview with Shogun Gamer.
Ian Fisher: Right now people can see you as Sub-Zero in “Mortal Kombat: Legacy II” as you face off against Scorpion (Ian Anthony Dale). So can you tell us a bit about yourself and what motivated you to pursue acting?
Eric Steinberg: I guess I got into acting through the old-school kind of way. My father loved literature and great plays like Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, and whatnot. My mom was a soprano so I was exposed to the classic arts real early and that kind of sat with me and fermented until I started dabbling with it. I guess the way I started doing it was with Equity or Repertory Theater as it’s known here. I did that for years before I came to L.A. and started doing TV and film work.
Ian: A lot of people have different influences in their careers, so who are some of the actors you looked up to while you were growing up or even now?
Eric: For me when I was really little, which is kind of when those things set in when you’re real little and you don’t quite know how to differentiate the messages that you get, I wasn’t really allowed to watch a lot of American TV when I was a kid because my folks hated it. So that was kind of forbidden fruit for me. And when we did watch things we would watch it together. So I watched basically whatever my parents watched. So when we saw films I saw things like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman. So I had a whole different weird set of films growing up. I remember “Hidden Fortress” was one of my favorite movies and of course when I was a little kid my parents took me to a big screen to see “Ran” by Kurosawa. Things like that just blew my head off.
Even when my folks took me to see a re-issue of “Lawrence of Arabia” I was too small to fully get these things, but seeing people like Peter O’Toole or any of the big time greats was kind of it for me. So I grew up with those guys in mind. When I started turning myself towards acting I turned myself towards the guys who were two generations before me since that’s what I was taught. That’s what I was taught you know. I was taught to revere those guys and that the guys now were clowns; you know a lot of the things that parents teach you. [Laughs]
Ian: Can you talk a bit about how you joined the cast of “MK: Legacy II” and what the overall process was like as far as auditioning and all of that stuff?
Eric: Well I was very fortunate in this case. I got a call from a friend of mine Ian, [Ian Anthony Dale] who plays Scorpion. He’s a guy that I’ve known around town for years and he’s a good guy. He called me and said that he was working on this project and that they needed this character [Sub-Zero]. Ian said that the director [Kevin Tancharoen] asked him for suggestions and he brought my name up. So it was one of those great one, two, three things where you don’t really audition since they had seen some of my work; we just chatted and then I was on-board.
It was great to be on-board a project like this, but it was also great to be on-board a project in which you have so many Asian-American actors working together. It’s a rare thing and when you do have guys like Kevin that are in charge and it’s a great feeling. It’s rare that you get to work together and you don’t have to worry about racist perceptions or this and that. Kevin is fabulous so I really have Kevin and Ian to thank for that.
Ian: Following up what you just said, is that something that you’ve been subject to in the past as far as having directors, of any ethnicity, expecting a certain type of performance out of you and that not being something you dig?
Eric: Well I’m an old-school actor so I don’t mind playing repellant characters. That’s never my problem since I’ve played junkies and I’ve played doctors before. So I like the whole spectrum, but there’s no question that in my career such as it is that I’ve found that you always battle against racial perceptions. Being half-Asian and mixed race for me, it’s gone both ways in a sense. Often times I may be told that I’m a great actor but I’m “not Asian enough”. Then other times I may be told I’m a great actor but I’m “not white enough”.
So often I’ll get marginalized kind of into villain parts or off-centered parts, which is great from the play as an actor, but impossible to not be aware of the significance of that. I know a lot of the guys personally who worked on the show [MK: Legacy II] so I know that they have their own take on how race has either dogged them or they’ve gone beyond it in their careers. So I think we’ve made progress in today’s world, but there’s no doubt that all of us, especially Asia-American men, are constantly fighting against certain stereotypes in the business. I mean Hollywood is a surface business and it’s a superficial place you know.
Ian: What sort of approach and vibe do you like to go with in terms of the characters you portray, especially in the case of Sub-Zero for “Mortal Kombat: Legacy II”?
Eric: Well for me it can start either way. It can start intellectually if the concept is complicated or enticing, or it can start physically. In that case it was really about the physicality. Sometimes exploring the physicality or a certain aspect of it is a thing that leads you into the character and certainly in this case that’s what it was about for me. And I guess that’s true for a lot of the other guys, not just because it’s a fighting thing but because it is all about visceral emotion and visceral everything.
So it was definitely for me in this case about starting with a physicality of stillness and going from there. And everything falls into place because the script is so explicit you know. The characters are all about what actions they perform and most of the time when you have any sort of explanation it’s somewhat redundant you know.
Ian: As an actor what was it like to join a project such as “Mortal Kombat: Legacy II” in which there’s such an established world and lore to it already? Was that something that intrigued you as an actor and helped you to define your performance?
Eric: Yeah very much. I mean for me it wasn’t so much about the track of it time wise or what had come before, because frankly I had kind of missed that when I was younger – I missed the original Mortal Kombat games. So for me it was more about the nature of the piece and when they told me about the stylistic and fantastical nature of it that’s what kind of hooked me. Anytime as an actor when you have the chance to go somewhere that’s stylized and go somewhere that’s unique and strange it’s basically a lot of fun. It’s great fun to place yourself there and kind of create epic action to go along with those kind of epic scenarios.
It reminds me of Shakespeare in a way because I remember when I was a kid and was starting out in the theater in this Shakespeare place. I feel like a lot of American actors think they should try to bring it down to as natural a thing as they can. I remember the theater director telling me, “You American actors are always trying to bring things down. Try to bring yourself up”. He basically meant that we shouldn’t shrink the material that you’re doing to be natural. You should raise yourself to meet the scope of the material. I felt like that was such amazing advice and that sort of thing is amazing for something like Mortal Kombat because you bring yourself to a different level to do something that’s not just reality like a lot of dramas. You have to go to a different place and its great fun.
Ian: What was it like to build up the character of Sub-Zero, not only just in your performance but through acting with the mask on during certain scenes? Obviously having the mask on must’ve limited some of the range options you had as an actor along with requiring some post-production ADR, so what was it like to have that element in the equation?
Eric: It’s liberating to work with a mask. It really is. For me it goes back to my old-school theater training and one things that we would do for stage training is do mask work since you’re kind of exploring the physicality of your body and what can be communicated without communicating. So when they told me that I was going to have a mask my first reaction was one of delight since in a sense it means that you’re freed up. Also, what’s great is all of the vain things are taken away; you’re just left dealing with the emotion of it.
So I personally loved it and I was able to go back and look at Legacy 1 and the other Mortal Kombat stuff as I worked up to it and what’s not to love about the character? In the end, we are in the business of pretend and in that vein the more outrageous that you can be, the better. So my approach to it was very much in line with what I learned.
Ian: Since you mentioned you’re friends with Ian Anthony Dale, what was it like to work with him on the project in an extended capacity?
Eric: It was great. Ian, Brian Tee, and some of the other guys are people I’ve seen in the waiting rooms for years. We always run into each other, take a step aside, have a cigarette, talk and catch up a little. We always said while we’re sitting in these waiting rooms for the Asian doctor or the other Hollywood parts, that we’ve got to work together on a project. So in terms of my experience, Ian, Kevin, and all these guys were incredibly generous. And because we’re doing a project on a smaller level you know, it was a very relaxed set. We were just able to play and be open and Ian’s a great performer so it was a lot of fun working with him. I wanted to work with Brian as well. We didn’t have any scenes together, but when you get the chance to work with your peers you just want more basically.
Ian: With the Mortal Kombat franchise being very action heavy what was it like to delve into that element of the project? Were you able to do most of the action yourself before it was time to call in the stuntman, and overall did you enjoy that aspect of project?
Eric: Yeah I loved it. It was a lot of fun. For me we shot out in the hills of Ventura, which is a rural area, and it was just gorgeous. It was raining a little bit that day and atmosphere wise it was just incredibly fun. It also helps physically since once you’re there in that mud and the crows are crowing it really puts you there. I personally loved it. We did have a great stunt guy that did some wonderful work in the Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero fight when it got real complex for some of the moves. Those guys are always tremendous professionals.
But leading up to it, again it’s the kind of thing that you start out doing the physical stuff and for an actor doing the physical stuff places you there emotionally. Physical action creates the emotion. So for actors like myself or Ian we want more and more. Once you get in there and all the juices get flowing, that’s kind of what helps inform your character because the way they fight is also an expression of who the character is. So it’s like getting to do a great monologue basically.
Ian: Besides working with all the talented people like Ian and Kevin, did you have any major highlights for the project? Was there a sequence that really stood out the most for you while you were part of the project?
Eric: For me the first couple of days were the best as far as being gratifying. It was just great to be on location and outside to do the fight scene. That for me was the best since as I mentioned before being in the environment really takes you there. So once we get in the costumes and we’re out there in middle of this cow field, the rain and wind is going, you don’t have to work really hard since you’re there. That to me was the best part.
We also had a small crew who were great. The crew was outstanding and that just makes an actor’s job 100 times easier. We had a great choreographer so it was very easy to be honest. It wasn’t easy physically, but it was easy technically shall we say.
Ian: If we’re lucky enough to see another season in which your character is able to return or even if a movie happens, is there anything you would want to do to expand your portrayal of Sub-Zero?
Eric: Oh yeah. I would love to do more backstory but I know that stuff is difficult because there are so many adjoining stories to get to. But yeah, I would love just to have more. Once you start in on something very small like this, if you’re an actor who cares about what you do you eventually get tied to your character and care about the portrayal that you’re putting out. So I would love to flesh out Sub-Zero more and focus on the whole conflict with Scorpion and focus and what’s real and what isn’t and being duped by the so-called darkside of the characters. To me that was the most fascinating part that we just touched on, the betrayal of the situation. That’s what’s most interesting to me, that whole element of the characters.
Ian: Having worked in the television industry over the years, what are your thoughts on the rise in popularity of web series? Do you think we’ll slowly see web content gain more and more momentum compared to some of the established content on networks like NBC?
Eric: Yeah it’s a pretty fascinating aspect of this business because it is so young. It’s still developing so rapidly. I think there’s no question that people will get with it and people will get with anything when it’s relevant. I think the real danger is once things become mainstream. The real cutting edge stuff that people get excited about does take place in smaller pools that ripple out towards the larger pools like the big networks such as NBC. In that sense I think it’s great that these web series are almost kept away from the more commercial studios because then they’re able to be more free. If you look at a site like funny or die for instance, when it started years ago people said that it’s just not going to fly and be profitable. And yet we’re seeing it become more and more relevant and people refer to it.
So all these web series are just going to get bigger as people commercialize that forum more. The question really will be can these web series maintain their uniqueness and cutting edge nature once they’re backed by big money or once they’re part of the big money scene. Now it’s hard to say that Mortal Kombat is anything but big money since Warner Bros. is behind it and they’ve got big pockets. But conceptually I think the web series will be huge in the future despite the fact that people will make it more profit oriented. I think in the future it will essentially be where the new good stuff is going to come from since it essentially hands over the reins to the people who don’t have deep pockets.
Ian: Besides “Mortal Kombat: Legacy II”, do you have any other upcoming projects that people can see you in next?
Eric: I’m actually shooting right now since I’m doing a job for Warner Bros. that I do fairly regularly called “Pretty Little Liars”. It’s not the same focus group or the same intended audience at all like Mortal Kombat [laughs]. But that’s what I’m doing right now and I’ve been involved in that show for a couple of seasons.
Massive thanks to Eric for taking out the time to chat with me about his career and what it was like to join the epic Mortal Kombat franchise.
Originally posted on September 27, 2013