Nerd Culture

Mortal Kombat's Daniel Pesina on Being Johnny Cage, Helping Create Fatalities, and Giving Scorpion His Spear

Daniel Pesina, the original Johnny Cage, Scorpion, and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat.
Daniel Pesina, the original Johnny Cage, Scorpion, and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat. Molly Pan
click to enlarge Daniel Pesina, the original Johnny Cage, Scorpion, and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat. - MOLLY PAN
Daniel Pesina, the original Johnny Cage, Scorpion, and Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat.
Molly Pan
Daniel Pesina has probably kicked your ass countless times.

Not in real life, mind you – unless you’ve faced down the accomplished martial artist, who’s earned black belts in multiple styles, across the dojo – but in the digitized realm of the first two Mortal Kombat arcade games.

Pesina, a Chicago native, portrayed several characters in the infamous fighting series from the early ‘90s, which blended martial arts and eastern mysticism with tons of blood and gore.

For instance, Pesina portrayed Scorpion, Sub Zero, Reptile, and other masked ninja warriors in both Mortal Kombat and its blockbuster sequel, Mortal Kombat II.

His most famous character, however, was Johnny Cage, the pompous martial artist-turned-Hollywood star that was a not-so-subtle riff on Jean-Claude Van Damme (who was a big thing in the early ‘90s, too) who was essentially the star of the game.

Pesina was part of the Mortal Kombat series from its earliest origins, owing the fact he was good friends with its co-creator John Tobias in the late ‘80s. As such, he helped formulate a bunch of the MK mythos and many of its concepts, including its infamous fatalities.

This weekend, Pesina and several of the other actors and martial artists who played characters in the first two Mortal Kombat games will celebrate the series’ 25th anniversary at Game On Expo 2017.

New Times got a chance to speak with Pesina via telephone recently in honor of the occasion and discussed the role he played in Mortal Kombat’s creation, and how he had a major fallout with the company behind the games.

click to enlarge A screenshot of Johnny Cage from the original Mortal Kombat. - MIDWAY GAMES/NETHERREALM STUDIOS
A screenshot of Johnny Cage from the original Mortal Kombat.
Midway Games/NetherRealm Studios
What's your background in martial arts?
I started martial arts in 1970. Mainly focused on traditional martial arts, traditional Chinese martial arts. So I do cha family, hua family, those family styles of martial arts, and a few animal forms. I continue my study until now.

In other words, you could probably kick our asses in multiple ways.
[Laughs] Basically, yes.

How did you become involved with the first Mortal Kombat game back in the early '90s?
Actually, we started filming it in November of '89. The creator of the game [John Tobias], him and I, my brother Carlos [Pesina], and another guy from Mortal Kombat [Richard Divizio], we used to play Dungeons & Dragons together when we were younger. Years later, John gets a job at Midway Games, and one day he called me up and said, "Hey, I got an idea for a martial arts fighting game. Will you come in? I'm going to film you guys and then I'm going to pitch it to my boss and see if we can make it." He said it was going to be just a "small game." Very small, like, "We're only going to be make 200 arcade cabinets."

So that's basically how I got on board. The boss later saw it and John, myself, Carlos, and Rich got together along with the boss, who I later found out was [Mortal Kombat co-creator] Ed Boon and threw out ideas for this game.

Was that before or after Street Fighter II hit big?
I think it was after Street Fighter and right before Street Fighter II.

Were the recording sessions long and brutal? Or did they just turn on the cameras and let you go?
[Laughs] Well, the first character was Johnny Cage, so we shot him. A lot of people think he's modeled after [Jean-Claude] Van Damme, but originally he's modeled after Daniel Rand from Iron Fist. I know Iron Fist is this big thing now on Netflix, but John actually thought the character would be Daniel Rand. Only until like right before the filming ... what happened was ... after we got all our ideas together, they took it to the owner of arcade company [Midway] to okay the game. And he thought it would be a good idea to get Van Damme to do the game. But Van Damme actually wanted money and these people just wanted to give him a percentage, so he nixed the idea.

So when we went back to the original idea, we threw in a little bit of Van Damme into Johnny Cage. Just a little bit. That character we shot, John and I shot, for three days, about eight-hour days, and we just did all types of martial arts movements and we learned a lot from that experience. It being a 2-D camera, we learned that, "Oh, if you come closer to the camera, you're bigger than if you go further away." So we studied that film for about six weeks and, in the end, after that we came in and we had a general idea of how to do the game.

How close were they to getting Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Uh, not very. Because, again, he wanted actual money ... because he knew his name was popular. I loved Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he wanted money and parts of the profit, but they didn't want to give him that much money, they wanted to give him residuals. So we knew within 10 days because John called us all up and said, "Hey, the whole project is canceled." And Rich bugged him and said, "Why don't we go back to the original idea? We've already done all this work on this stuff." And John asked if we could go back to the original idea.

Have you ever met Jean-Claude Van Damme in real life?
No, I have not. But he's awesome.

Why were you tapped to play the ninjas Scorpion and Sub Zero in the game?
For the ninjas, what happened is John asked me and Carlos and Rich, because it was such a small project, if we knew of anybody else that would help with the game. They really couldn't pay a lot for it at the time. So I was like, "I know [Liu Kang actor Ho-Sung Pak]," and I helped get [Sonya Blade actress Elizabeth Malecki] in, and I got my friend Tony Marquez, who later was Kung Lao. He was actually supposed to be the ninjas, but he dropped a 25-pound weight on his toe and broke it two days before we filmed. And because we were already behind schedule, they were like, "Why don't you go ahead and do this stuff?" So I threw on the costume and did the ninjas.

Did they know at that point that Reptile was going to be a hidden character? Or did that come later?
People outside of our small group started adding ideas. Like, "Oh, it would be cool if we did this and that or this and that." And that idea came out with Reptile. I think we shot Reptile before Ho-Sung, who was Liu Kang, was the last actor. So we went and shot Liz after the ninjas and then right before Ho-Sung, Ed got the idea, "Hey, we should add a secret character!"

Originally, we planned out a lot of characters, but because of time constraints and technology constraints, we didn't get to shoot them. Later on in [Mortal Kombat II], you see a lot of the characters we wanted to include, like Jax and Kung Lao. We wanted to include those characters in the first one, but ran out of time. So with Reptile, they just figured, "Hey, Reptile is one of the ninjas, so all the basic moves can stay the same and we just need to think of a few particular special moves."

Did you come up with the moves and mannerisms of each character you portrayed? Or was it a collaborative process.
Yes, they were invented by me. They came up with the idea, "Oh, we need a way to finish him. What way do you want to finish this character? We want to make it like you kill him in the end. He's helpless and you kill him." And then I was like, "Man, it would be cool if I punched somebody's head off for Johnny Cage!" And Rich, who's Kano, heard, "Oh, you punch somebody's head off," and he was like, "Oh man, I want rip somebody's heart out." And Carlos said, "I'm going to think of a way to electrocute a person" as Raiden.

So the special moves [fatalities] were ours and later on, people started thinking of other ones. As Reptile, I only thought of shooting acid at 'em. When they told me that character was going to be Reptile, I thought of the cartoon called The Amazing Spiderman when I was kid, and he fought a professor [Curtis Connors] who turned into a reptile who shot acid. And I was like, "We gotta have him to shoot acid." And so we put that in. He also uses a [force] ball and that was somebody else's idea.

So y'all were inventing the fatalities right there on the spot?

It was like you were figuratively inventing the Mortal Kombat mythos out of whole cloth, right?
Yes. Example is, they were like, "We're going to introduce you to the game, so you come out, wave to your fans, and get into a fighting stance." So I came out and blew kisses and made muscles and did a showy thing and jumped into a fighting stance. And we started adding the personality on the spot. None of that wound up in the game, though.

So it sounds like y'all were like a bunch of teenagers or chopsocky movie fans when you were coming up with the fatalities.
[Laughs] Yeah. For the first two games it was definitely that. Each of the actors for the first game and the second game got to kind of partake in creating their persona and stuff like that. For the third game and onward, they already had everything kind of set, so you couldn't veer too much from the formula. Because, again, there were a lot of things about the filming and the technology [that limited things.] We knew we couldn't do too many moves because it's going to take forever to put in, there's not enough memory in the cabinet to get to all the moves, and we just kind of put it all together with what we had, especially the first [game].

One of Johnny Cage's signature moves is doing leg splits and hitting someone with a nut punch. Has anyone ever tried to do it on you?
[Laughs] Uh no, but in the earlier days, a lot of people wanted me to do [leg splits] because I could do it without using [my hands]. Jean-Claude Van Damme uses his hands to go down, I don't need to. It's a move that when you're doing contemporary wushu, some of the forms have that move in there.

Were you also the one who came up with Scorpion's spear?
Yes. With Scorpion, Ed wanted Scorpion to use a lasso. He was like, "I want you to go like a cowboy and lasso somebody and you pull him over." And I looked at Ed — and we were goofing around on the set all the time, we were joking constantly — and said, "You know what, I'm doing any Wonder Woman." But there was a traditional weapon in Chinese martial arts called a rope dart, so I kind of explained it to those guys and John was like, "Okay, we're going to do that instead of the Wonder Woman thing." And as I was doing the move and pulling them over, Rich Divizio yells, "Get over here!" And that stayed in the game.

Do people still yell that at you?
Oh, all the time. People yell that or say, "Get outta here!" or in all kinds of different ways. It's hilarious.

Did you think the first game was going to be any good?
You know what, for me and Carlos and John and Rich, we were already set in mind to do a really good game, because we're geeks. Like I said, we played Dungeons & Dragons, we played arcade games, we go to all those geeky movies, we're into anime. So I always thought it was going to be really good. But I understand that people who weren't there from the get-go were like, "Holy cow!" or "You guys just got lucky." No, no. If you ask one of us, we always thought it was going to be pretty good.

click to enlarge Daniel Pesina as Johnny Cage on the first Mortal Kombat arcade game. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Daniel Pesina as Johnny Cage on the first Mortal Kombat arcade game.
Benjamin Leatherman
Would it be fair to say that you wound up being the face of the first Mortal Kombat game? After all, you were on the side of the arcade cabinet.
Yeah, yeah. John put me on the cabinet. He was like, "Man, thanks for doing all this work. We're going to put you on the side of the cabinet because you helped us create this game." So my reward was that. My brother, Carlos, got to be on the cabinet [for Mortal Kombat II] and Rich later on stayed with them and I think he was on the [MK3] cabinet.

Because Liu Kang wasn't always the central character of the series from the get-go, right? He later became that.
Uh, yeah. As we started going, the whole story started developing. And we goofed around a lot to kind of make the story. An example is, the ninjas. John was like, "Okay, these are Japanese ninjas." And I was like, "I'm not going to do Japanese ninjas because they're so mainstream. We have to make this game unique. There's a little-known Chinese ninja called Lin Kuei and we need to do that." And John was like, "Uhhh...I gotta do more research?" And I was like, "Yep. There's a book, go out and get it, read about it, and let's do the research." And so we kind of goofed around and made a story. John was like, "Okay, there are brothers and they're going to fight each other." And so we didn't do the complete story but a decent background as we went through each character.

What's the weirdest interaction you've had with Mortal Kombat fans over the years?
When I was in London, I was wearing like these Johnny Cage biker shorts in front of a production studio. And I'm signing autographs and I go in and some guy grabbed me by my sack. And I turned around and he started running away and I was just like, "One, I'm working right now, so I'm not going to run down and do anything to him. And, two, we're in London and it's just, you know, whatever." I just felt like, "Wow!" And [Elizabeth Malecki] was with me and I looked at her and she started laughing. She's like, "Oh my God, that's going to be a great story." And I was like, "You know what? It is kind of a weird-ass story." So that's the strangest interaction I've ever had.

Have people challenged you to fights, either randomly or as a joke?
Actually, no, because after they found out we were real people in 1992, when the game came out. During the interviews, [Midway] made sure that people knew that "Oh, this guy is actually a martial arts instructor." So a lot of people don't challenge me because they're like, "Oh, he actually knows martial arts."

click to enlarge Daniel Pesina (right) as Scorpion brings the pain to Liu Kang, played by Ho-Sung Pak, during the filming for Mortal Kombat II. - COURTESY OF DANIEL PESINA
Daniel Pesina (right) as Scorpion brings the pain to Liu Kang, played by Ho-Sung Pak, during the filming for Mortal Kombat II.
Courtesy of Daniel Pesina
So for the first game, the ninjas wore cloth costumes but for MKII you were wearing dirt bike gear?
No, actually that's an urban legend. The first costume and second costume are [mostly] the same. With the first game the budget was so small that ... well, here's a funny story.

I called up John, we're supposed to shoot the next day and he's like, "Guess what? We can't shoot." Why? What happened? "I forgot to ask my dad if I could use the camera and he's at work. So when he comes home, I'll already be at work. So we got to wait three days to shoot." But with the second game, the company actually bought a very good camera.

So since we had more detail, John came up with the idea, "Oh, I'm going to cut a paintball mask and but it on you.” And so we tried that, but realized that wouldn't work because without the top half it wasn't stable, it kept going crooked. So what we did was we took some regular footage of me just wearing the mask and he's like, "okay, I'll just cut this mask out and I'll put it on your face for the rest of the filming [in post]." So during filming, I only maybe wore that mask for like three minutes and he put it on my face afterwards, which was crazy, because there really wasn't PhotoShop at the time. He literally had to find an [editing] tool to cut it out and put it on my face. So there was a lot of experimentation trying to get that technology to work.

When you play any Mortal Kombat game, particularly the first two ones, which character do you like to use? Yourself or someone else?
I play Raiden.

So, as your brother.
Yeah, I play my brother. I wanted to really be that character but John said Carlos was going to play him. Originally, Styker was going to be the first character and we were going to shoot the Daniel Rand/Johnny Cage character later, but because Van Damme said no, we wanted to poke fun at him. Like, "We're going to make a real kick-ass game and we're going kind of like Van Damme," to be like, "See? You could've been in this game." And so we shot that character first.

Is it weird kicking your own ass in a video game?
It was really kind of cool and shocking. The first time I saw a fatality, only Johnny Cage was playable, so it was Johnny Cage versus Johnny Cage. John called me in and was like, "Hey, you need to check this out." So I went into the office and I knew I was going to punch someone's head off, but at that point Ed had added blood to it. He had tons of blood. It was like a Japanese samurai movie. So when I punched my own head off, all this blood came out and I was just shocked. I was like, "John, can we do that? That's kind of really violent" He was like, "It's for the arcade, we can do whatever we want." I think the fatalities started to get more gruesome after that.

It's almost like some weird, existentialist nightmare thing where you see your own murder and even make it happen.

Why was there a falling out between you and Midway over Mortal Kombat?
When we started making the game, as I said, we were supposed to do only 200 cabinets. And when it became big, I was like, "You know what? We really didn't agree in our contract that we're going to make a home console game. You guys are all getting bonuses and we're not getting and we helped create the game." And so John and Ed basically told me, "Don't worry, these guys will take care of you."

So this happened for a while and then when they asked, "Hey, do you want to do the movie?" it was suggested that I would be signing my rights away [to royalties] to do the movie. And I was like, "Oh, these guys are not going to pay me for what I made before, they're going to try to pay me off with the $20,000 I'l make on the movie. This does not sit well with me." So at that point, the group from [the first two Mortal Kombat games] kind of split up and my brother and Rich went to work for Midway. John Parrish, the guy who did Jax, Tony Marquez, and most of the other people were like, "We came in later. You, John, and Ed created the moves for the game. We don't really have any intellectual property, so we don't have a right to go after them." But the rest of the [actors], we took [Midway] to court. But that's another story.

How did you get involved with other fighting games like Thea Realm Fighters?
Actually, Ho Sung started a production studio. He had some contacts and wanted to do some video games and he already knew that I knew how to choreograph for video games and things I learned from doing Mortal Kombat. So he was like, "You gotta come and help me make these games." And again, I knew Ho-Sung before the original concept of Mortal Kombat, so I was like, "Sure, I can help you with that."

So the whole story about Midway cutting ties after you did an ad for the game BloodStorm for a competing company was an urban legend?
Yeah, that was actually done by Midway to try and hide the fact that they didn't want to pay me what they promised. They didn't have anything in writing, so I recommend for anyone reading this to get your [deals] written down, no matter what. Sometimes your friends can't help you get things that are due to you. That whole BloodStorm thing is an urban legend.

What was your reaction to Midway killing off Johnny Cage for MK3?
I think that was kind of personal. I think that management wanted to be, just between us, "fuck you" to me, or however you want to say it. They just wanted to say, "Up yours, we don't need you. We don't really need you as a character."

What did you think of Linden Ashby's Johnny Cage in the first Mortal Kombat movie?
Um, I though they should have made him know at least a little martial arts. And when the movie first was going to come out, they approached us and we did a bunch of choreography for the producer. So we had different fighting ideas than what was in the movie. And I think if they would've not gone mainstream with the movie, it would've been a little bit better. We didn't go mainstream with the creation of the game; they should've not gone mainstream with the creation of the movie, in my opinion.

When you see anything having to do with Scorpion, Sub Zero, or Johnny Cage, do you think, "I helped create that" or whatever?
Yeah, yeah. I had a hand in that. And going out to see y'all in Phoenix, I'm going to bring some of the footage from the making of the game and a lot of time when we were doing it and I give them something completely different and they're like, "Oh my God, that's was so cool." So we got a lot of that during filming. And even if your watching it, you can tell, "You guys were creating the game just right on the spot."

How does it feel to have had such a big influence on a cultural touchstone like Mortal Kombat?
You know what? MK, whenever I talk about it, it was awesome. I got to work with my friends and we got to goof around with it and, as I said, we knew it was going to be really good and it kind of feel gratifying knowing that. It didn't turn out the way we wanted with the finances or even with getting credit with the work we did, but it was a really fun time. Like I said, we were goofing around making it, because we were already such a tight-knit group of friends.

Game On Expo 2017 runs from Friday, August 11, to Sunday, August 13, at the Phoenix Convention Center's South Building. Daily admission is $20 to $30, full event passes are $80 to $85, and tickets for children 2 and older are $10.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.