[This story contains spoilers for Mortal Kombat]
Jessica McNamee was so determined to play Sonya Blade that she kept making self-tapes until she found that winning formula. While there have been many iterations of Blade since her introduction in 1992’s Mortal Kombat video game by Midway, McNamee’s decision to add a bit of levity to the character proved to be a deciding factor. In Simon McQuoid’s R-rated relaunch of Mortal Kombat, McNamee’s Blade is still a former U.S. Special Forces soldier and partner/friend of Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), but she also introduces Lewis Tan’s Cole Young (and the audience) to the world of Mortal Kombat. As a result, Blade is very much the glue of the Earthrealm champions.
Even though Blade’s storied rivalry with Kano (Josh Lawson) is a key subplot in the new film, their climactic fight almost didn’t happen.
“I love working with Josh [Lawson], and that fight was also a late addition,” McNamee tells The Hollywood Reporter. “As the filming progressed and we started to see this relationship come to light between Kano and Sonya, they were like, ‘Alright, I think we really need to end with some epic battle between the two.’ Initially, I think it had been a much more swift ending for Kano. So they added that fight late in the piece, and we learned that choreography maybe a week before we actually had to shoot it. They actually added an extra week of shooting so we could knock that one out.”
If all goes well, Mortal Kombat could lead to another four films in the series, and McNamee can’t help but anticipate future storylines involving Blade and Johnny Cage.
“Broad strokes, I know that she ends up having a relationship with Johnny Cage. She also has a daughter, Cassie Cage, as well,” McNamee recalls. “I would love to see Johnny Cage enter the mix and go up against Kano. They’re such big personalities and they’re both such narcissists in their own way. So I would love to see them go head-to-head, as Sonya would be stuck in the middle of it all. I also know she has a lot of history in terms of her father and her brother because they both died. So it’d be interesting to explore that.”
In a recent conversation with THR, McNamee also discusses her most challenging stunt as Sonya Blade and the bet she won in the process.
So was there anything unusual about the casting process?
So I was actually not in L.A. at the time. I was away for work, so I had to self-tape in my hotel room. I self-taped three times because I wasn’t happy with each tape that I put down. And I was like, “I really have a shot at this, but I need to nail it.” So, over a two-week period, I kept being like, “Don’t send that last tape that I sent you! Send this next one. I’ve done another one.” I was also roping other cast members that I was working with to come and self-tape with me after hours. They were like, “Just send it!” Anyway, after two weeks of me umming and ahing about which tape to send, I finally sent it, and then, for two or three months, it was just crickets. I didn’t hear anything. And then I was actually on vacation in Greece when I got a call. I’d turned my phone off for a couple of days because I was away, and when I turned my phone back on, I had emails, voicemails and text messages. My managers were private-messaging me on Instagram trying to get in touch with me because the director, Simon [McQuoid], wanted to speak to me over Skype; I don’t think Zoom was as popular then. And then I booked the role. But it had been like a two-or three-month period of nothing, and I literally went from a self-tape to booking it. There was no kind of, “Hey, can you send in additional footage?” or anything. It was a pretty crazy experience. It felt like it just came out of nowhere.
Of the three self-tapes, was each one wildly different from the other?
Yes, I would say so. You probably see the lighter side of Sonya in the movie. I think I went really hard to begin with and made her really serious. But as I played with it a little more, she became a little lighter and less serious.
Once you got the role, did you go back and look at the many different takes on Sonya so you could identify ways to separate your version?
So it was interesting. The footage that I watched was from the video game. I actually did a deep dive on YouTube and watched people playing the game. So I certainly took some liberty in giving her a bit more playfulness and lightness. She’s got this great relationship with her archnemesis Kano, as you see in the film, and I think that is so fun and exciting. There’s so much to play with in their relationship and dynamic. So I wanted to bring a bit more sass and banter that you see between the two. That’s something I definitely wanted to bring to the character as portrayed in the film.
Josh Lawson’s Kano is one of the most punchable characters I’ve encountered in some time. Oddly enough, Michael Rosenbaum’s character in your movie The Neighbor is another recent example.
Oh, that’s so crazy! I must really attract some punchable idiots. (Laughs.).
Did Josh’s performance as this insufferable brute make it pretty easy for you to get into character?
Yeah, absolutely. It was also very challenging at times because he’s so funny. A lot of his stuff was improvised, so we didn’t know what was going to be coming our way each take. And Sonya is quite stoic, so I found it challenging at times to keep a straight face. I know how beautiful he is in real life, too, so I found it hard to separate funny Josh from Kano. (Laughs.) So it was easy at times because he was such a pain in the ass, and then other times, I found it hard because he was so funny and would come up with these unbelievable one-liners.
In terms of training and fight choreography, did Mortal Kombat push you to your absolute physical limit?
Yes, more than ever before on any other project. I’ve had films where I’ve had to learn new skills. On Battle of the Sexes, I had to learn how to play tennis, and I had to be in great physical shape for that. And then for The Meg, we did a ton of deep diving and swimming lessons in the lead-up so that we were prepared to be in the water for long periods of time. So I definitely had put myself in those situations before, but this was next level. And I took the liberty of really deep-diving with it. As an adult, there are so few opportunities where you get to learn new skills, or you rarely have the time to learn a new skill. So learning martial arts and learning to perform stunts are things that I’ve always really been interested in doing. And having all of these experts that were ready and willing to teach me was just the best. So I really, really took to the opportunity and gave it a red-hot go.
Of your half-dozen fights or so, which one challenged you the most?
In the Reptile fight where Kano kills Reptile and rips his heart out… Well, I claim I kill him, actually; I stab him. Josh just takes the glory at the end. (Laughs.) But there’s a wire stunt that they allowed me to do, and I really pushed them to teach me the part where I do that flip in front of the flames. So that was a really tricky wire stunt that I had to perform about thirty times in front of a wall of flames, and it was really hot as well. Everyone on set knew that I had been working up to this stunt and that I’d been training really hard to try and get it. So I had a lot of observers as well, and I definitely felt the pressure. (Laughs.) In fact, Todd Garner, the producer, put a bet on how long it would take, and if I lost the bet, I had to run around wearing an “I Love Lewis Tan” t-shirt, when we were filming at another location in the desert. But I won the bet, so I didn’t have to wear the t-shirt. I still have it here somewhere because someone made it for me anyway. But yeah, that was definitely the hardest, and I definitely felt the most pressure there.
Conversely, which one proved to be the most fun?
The most fun was by far the one with Kano at the end. That was just the most fun to film. I love working with Josh, and that fight was also a late addition. As the filming progressed and we started to see this relationship come to light between Kano and Sonya, they were like, “Alright, I think we really need to end with some epic battle between the two.” Initially, I think it had been a much more swift ending for Kano. So they added that fight late in the piece, and we learned that choreography maybe a week before we actually had to shoot it. They actually added an extra week of shooting so we could knock that one out. So, yeah, it was really fun.
Sonya has two opportunities to get a marking in the first and second acts of the movie, but she opts not to. What was holding her back? Why was she not willing to take the plunge at those points?
I think she realized that she needed to fight for it. I don’t think she would’ve felt like it was justified if she went for these easy kills. And she also does things by the book. So I think she was like, “It’s just too easy. If I’m going to get one of these, I have to go about it in the right way.” So she was waiting for the perfect opportunity. And particularly the first fight with Kano, she needs him at that point, so she can’t. She can’t kill him because she needs him on that journey. She needs all the champions she can find at that point.
That’s a great point about not going for the easy kill since she could’ve killed Kano at any moment when she had him tied up in her bunker. But even though she doesn’t have a marking, she’s just as committed as anyone with a marking, if not more so. She’s the glue of the team, and she did everything possible to keep Cole and Jax’s heads on straight.
Absolutely. She really is the voice of reason throughout the film, and that’s a big responsibility when you’re playing that role. My character also had a lot of exposition to keep the viewers on track with what’s going on. So I definitely took it in stride. I knew how important that kind of role was for a movie like this; it’s cool. I tend to play all kinds of characters, but she’s definitely one of the more genuine and do-goody characters I’ve played. (Laughs.) She just wants to do what’s right. She’s a trained specialist; she does things by the book, and I admire that. I am not like that in my own life. (Laughs.)
As you mentioned, Sonya delivered a lot of the exposition about the world of Mortal Kombat. Do you dread exposition like most actors?
Well, that scene in the bunker — where Sonya describes Mortal Kombat to Cole — was my audition scene. So I found that hard, and I was dreading it because there was so much lore that I had to learn. It’s the lore of the whole world, and I was like, “I don’t want to screw this up because there’s going to be those fans out there that’ll pick apart everything that’s said.” They’ll say things like, “That’s not right. And that relationship isn’t right. And that’s not how Mortal Kombat works.” So I was feeling the pressure in that respect. And it was a mouthful. It’s a lot of dialogue. (Laughs.) You’re talking about a world that’s fantastical, so it’s kind of hard at times to keep on track with what you’re saying, but I had a lot of practice. Like I said, I self-taped so many times to get the right audition sent in, so I knew it pretty well by the time it came about. But still, I found it kind of cool! I liked that I got the opportunity to play a character who explains this world. I also found it particularly cool when they used a lot of that scene as voiceover in the trailer.
If all goes well, there’s a plan to make as many as four more movies. Do you know any of the broad strokes regarding Sonya’s future storylines?
Broad strokes, I know that she ends up having a relationship with Johnny Cage. She also has a daughter, Cassie Cage, as well. There are so many ways they can go because there’s so much backstory to all of these characters, but I would love to see that explored. I would love to see Johnny Cage enter the mix and go up against Kano. They’re such big personalities and they’re both such narcissists in their own way. So I would love to see them go head-to-head, as Sonya would be stuck in the middle of it all. So that would be cool. I also know she has a lot of history in terms of her father and her brother because they both died. So it’d be interesting to explore that. And her and Jax have a huge backstory, too, so there’s a lot of room to play there.
There’s a point where we’re shown photos of Sonya and Jax in military attire. Do you enjoy those days on set where you take photos to establish backstory? How much time is usually spent on those quick inserts?
Absolutely. It was really fun to dress up in our special forces gear. There were a bunch of extras as well, and we were carrying weapons that I’d never carried before. And it definitely helps you with the backstory, once you get on set. When you’re talking about your past and you’ve actually been in the costume, rather than just talking about this idea of the past, it definitely helps you. So it probably took half a day. We had to go and find an old, abandoned, kind of blown-up building as well. (Laughs.) It was to make it look like it was Afghanistan or Iraq. So it was a fun little day.
I swear there’s a point to this question, but do you remember the awkward feeling of hearing your own voice on an answering machine?
Yeah, of course.
I made that point because you look really cool as Sonya. But are you able to buy into Sonya’s level of cool like the audience has?
My God, no.
So watching yourself on-screen is reminiscent of hearing your voice on an answering machine?
Yes. Well, it’s also like watching yourself on camera if you’re not used to watching yourself on camera. You’re like, “Is that what I look like?” And I’m not good at watching myself, generally. So, yeah, I definitely don’t buy into Sonya’s “level of cool.” (Laughs.) But I’m glad you thought that, and I hope other people think that. But, yeah, I was like, “Aah!” I’m just not great at watching myself to be honest.
Your American accent was so convincing that I was taken aback when I learned that you were from Australia. Did a previous job train you above all?
I think it was living in America. I live in L.A., so I’m surrounded by Americans. But you know what? I would say working on USA’s Denis Leary show, Sirens. That was definitely a crash course in all kinds of training for me: comedy, improv, my accent. Because so much of that show was improvised, I had to be able to just do it on the fly; I didn’t have time to mess around. I didn’t have a set script every day, so I needed to have a strong accent so that I could play whenever there was an opportunity for improv.
What’s the most therapeutic job you’ve ever had? Which character helped you through something you were also dealing with at the time?
I would probably say The Neighbor so it’s interesting that you brought that up already. It was just a rough time in my life. There was a lot of transition, and I’d gone through a messy breakup. I’d also had a bit of drought in my career before that. So when I got on that set, it was so great. Bill Fichtner is just the most delightful person, and he was so committed to helping me deliver a good performance in that. He was so giving, so kind and so encouraging. I’d say that was probably my first leading role in an American movie. It was small-budget, but it was one of the bigger roles that I’d had at that point in film. So that was great. We were drawn into a month shoot with really long days and a very small crew. But I feel like I came out the other side of that certainly feeling a little more confident. I picked up some good skills from pros like Bill.
What’s the most impactful note you’ve ever received from a director, co-star, producer, etc.?
I actually got some advice from Bob Fisher, who was the showrunner of Sirens, the Denis Leary show. Actually, I got a couple great notes on that. One was just how helpful improv is for an actor. So I got advice to go and study improv, not only for comedic roles, but for how helpful it is for any role. And so I did. After I finished that series, I went and studied at UCB, and I found that to be some of the best training that I’ve ever had. It’s been the most helpful for many roles that have come since. And Denis Leary really encouraged me to not shy away from physical comedy. So I really appreciated that, and my physicality is something that I have come to love about work in any capacity. So I think that translates in the work that I do.
Did any of your improvisation make it into the final cut of Mortal Kombat?
Yeah, I think there’s a line in the arena where I say to Kano, “Do you ever shut up?” There’s also another one when we’re about to jump out of the plane and I say something rude to Kano. So there’s tidbits through there for sure, but they left a lot of the improv up to Josh. (Laughs.)
Compared to most sets, did the Mortal Kombat cast get pretty close off set?
Definitely. We were also shooting out in Adelaide, which is a fairly small city. And we had such crazy hours that we all spent so much time together just by default. But as a result — and because everyone was really fun — we did spend a lot of time together. We really got to know each other and we got along, which was really great. It made it a much easier environment to shoot such an intense film. When you’ve been at it for four months and you’re feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, it’s good to have those confidants and buddies to fall back on and to give you that extra push.
Lastly, what types of projects are you still dreaming about doing someday?
I’ve got a couple. (Laughs.) I really want to do a musical adaptation, or a project where I can sing and dance. And I also would love to do a rom-com.
Netflix has single-handedly brought the genre back to the fore.
I know! It’s great. The ‘90s just had it sorted with rom-coms, and I’m really glad to see some of them coming back. They’re still not as good as those ‘90s rom-coms, though. They’re just not. But I want to be in one of the great ones. That would just be a dream.
Mortal Kombat is now playing at movie theaters nationwide, as well as on HBO Max.