The many lives of Austin's Mehcad Brooks, star of 'Mortal Kombat'
Curiosity's taken actor from 'Supergirl' to his biggest fight yet — and there's more to come
When Mehcad Brooks remembers growing up in Austin, his mind goes to the screen. It was like a blend between “Stranger Things” and the “It” movies, he says. Presumably without extradimensional horrors lurking in the shadows, but then again, keep Austin weird and all that.
You could ride your bike around anywhere you wanted until the streetlights came on, and then it was back home for dinner, Brooks says. The city’s population was not yet that of the Census overachiever it's become. There was a small-town feel, and Brooks describes his youth as a “really fun multicultural experience,” which he says might have been rare in the Texas of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“I think people considered each other Austinites first,” he says.
But just as Austin has grown up, so has Brooks. He’s staked a name for himself over a couple decades as a multihyphenate talent — actor, model, musician, writer — but still adds #justakidfromaustin to his Instagram posts. In his newest role, he’s starring as Jax Briggs in the Warner Bros. reboot of the “Mortal Kombat” films, based on the iconic and hyperviolent martial arts fantasy video game franchise of the same name. It’s out in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on April 23.
'Mortal Kombat' review:If you're a fan, get over here
Brooks gained 45 pounds for the role of the imposing former special ops assassin. He did his first full-blown fight choreography with an action movie legend. And he threw himself into the role mentally, too, tapping into what might draw a man into a bone-crushing, blood-spurting, mystical death match.
“This was the hardest job I’ve ever done,” Brooks says. “It was so physically demanding, and emotionally demanding.”
And if his mom hadn’t put her sports star son in arts camp one summer, he might never have followed his curiosity there.
Growing up in Austin
Brooks was born in 1980 in Austin, but he’s a native Texan by accident.
His mother, longtime American-Statesman readers might remember, is writer Alberta Phillips, who retired from the paper in 2018. His father, former pro football player Billy Brooks, was in Houston playing for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Oilers when a pregnant Phillips found herself not in Ohio but in Austin, visiting her in-laws. Then, a surprise.
“I was premature,” Brooks says. “That was not the plan.”
The family eventually moved to Austin permanently. Brooks went to Lee Elementary and Kealing Junior High. Growing up with a journalist for a mother (and a lawyer, Gary Bledsoe, for a stepfather), meant that no topic was too lofty to talk about at home growing up.
“Dinner at our house was like being on the Senate floor,” Brooks says. Social justice, politics, human rights: It was all on the table. “You had to cite your sources, too. … It was like watching the clash of the intellectual titans.”
Brooks remembers hanging out at the Statesman newsroom after school, playing with reporters at 10 years old. His proximity to the press also exposed him to some of the harsh injustices of the world.
“I was part of some investigative journalism as a kid,” he says. Phillips sent him and his brother with Akwasi Evans, the late publisher of Black progressive newspaper Nokoa the Observer, to try to enter a still-segregated area swimming hole in the early ‘90s. “I think they suspected something and they let us in, but they charged us triple,” Brooks says. “No one would talk to us. No one would help us.” Phillips remembers the boys coming home in tears.
Because of his upbringing, “I had an affinity for social justice and activism and humanitarianism at a very early age,” he says.
From the archives in 2012:Austin’s Mehcad Brooks dives into ‘Deep End’
At Anderson High School, Brooks was a self-described great student. He shined in sports, starting on the varsity basketball team as a freshman. He was going to top-tier camps as a 15-year-old.
The teen planned on going pro. His mother knew that a life in sports came with the threat of injury, and she wanted her son to broaden his horizons. She enrolled Brooks and his brother, Billy, in Austin civil rights pioneer Ada Anderson’s LEAP (Leadership Enrichment Arts Program). That summer, he was exposed to opera, musical theater and writing and performing in plays.
It “unearthed” something.
“I realized that one of the reasons I liked sports was because when the ball is in your hands, all eyes are on you,” he says. “I got that same sensation by being on stage. I absolutely loved it. I loved that you were able to affect people through communication, and able to affect people through intellect, and able to affect people through your intuition, rather than your physical prowess.”
Phillips remembers her sons marveling at how strong the ballet dancers were after they saw a ballet performance of “The Magic Flute.”
“They could see the dancers sweating, their muscles flexing as they lifted dancers in the air or leaped from place to place,” she says. “From then on, they viewed dance and dancers very differently. When I asked Mehcad what had changed, he told me that dancers had to be both athletes and performers, whereas athletes only had to be athletes.”
Those experiences led to acting in some professional theater as a teenager and eventually to film school at the University of Southern California. (He rooted for UT during the Rose Bowl, he insists.) Then the world got to know him — early gigs included underwear modeling for Calvin Klein and a stint on “Desperate Housewives.” More TV roles followed, including “True Blood,” "My Generation" and “Necessary Roughness.” Starting in 2015, he played James Olsen (you might know the character better as Superman’s best friend, Jimmy Olsen) on “Supergirl.”
(In case you were wondering: Phillips says it’s hard to watch Brooks get killed on screen or play villains, but she’s proud. And he still has to empty the garbage and walk the dog when he’s home.)
After five seasons of superheroes and headlines, he left the CW series in 2019 to focus on films, TV development and writing. On living up to the expectations of playing fan-favorite fictional characters: “I love it, man,” he says.
Based on the next big heroic role that Brooks landed, you believe him when he says he loves the pressure.
Making 'Mortal Kombat'
“I’m a huge fan of ‘Mortal Kombat’ myself,” Brooks says. “We’re all fans of ‘Mortal Kombat.' Nobody wanted to (expletive) this up.”
In the film directed by Simon McQuoid, the actor transforms into Jax, an ex-military brawler who first appeared in the game “Mortal Kombat II” in 1993. The plots of the various games and its screen adaptations vary, but in general, Jax joins Earth champions like Sonya Blade and Liu Kang in defending the planet from the evil forces of Outworld, including soul-sucking sorcerer Shang Tsung and masked killer Mileena. Those clashes are always in the form of martial arts duels to the death (or “fatalities,” in the parlance of the series).
And usually, Jax has some help from a pair of trademark bionic arms. Brooks declines to give away the exact special-effect secrets behind the arms in “Mortal Kombat,” but it involves motion capture and wearing about 30 extra pounds of movie-making magic. “I will say that everything that you see Jax do is me moving,” he says.
Brooks brought the same sense of curiosity to the role as any other. When the audience meets Jax in the film, he’s tracking down cage fighter Cole Young (played by Lewis Tan) for his help in the titular tournament. The actor kept a character journal and took Jax “to therapy.” How many people had he killed? Does it keep him up at night? “The last thing that you can do is approach that character with any sense of judgment,” he says.
“For some reason, he felt like that’s his calling,” Brooks says of Jax’s talent for snuffing out monsters. “I can’t judge why that’s his calling.”
And Brooks will be the first to tell you that recreating the world of “Mortal Kombat” for a modern movie audience is no small feat. (The mid-1990s films, though this writer would be the last to libel them, are not precisely revered as cinematic classics.) “About 90 percent of the locations that you see in the movie are practical,” he says. “They’re really there. When you see Outworld, and Shang Tsung is walking down with Mileena, that’s all real.” A pivotal fight scene was filmed in a 10,000-square-foot coal mine in Australia, he says.
In pre-production, Brooks weighed 230 pounds. He took a picture of what he needed to look like to his trainer. He worked out six days a week, sometimes twice a day. There was boxing and stunt training. He watched hours of footage of Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier in the ring. And yeah, he spent some time playing "Mortal Kombat” games. (One of his favorites growing up, his mother says.) For about 6 months, Brooks says he got about 4-5 hours of sleep a night.
Still, nothing could prepare him for Joe Taslim. The Indonesian martial artist and actor star plays Sub-Zero, the game’s instantly recognizable ice-powered ninja. The night before a big fight scene with Taslim, Brooks watched some of his colleague’s most famous films, like “The Night Comes for Us” and “The Raid.”
“Holy (expletive). I have to fight this guy?” he remembers thinking.
The fight scene would be Brooks’ first action sequence with such intricate fight choreography, somewhere between 50 to 80 steps. In rehearsal, they didn’t go full speed and worked with each other’s stunt doubles. The actual shoot was a different story.
When it comes to fight scenes, “there's two guys in the history of cinema that the camera department has asked to slow down so that they could see what he was doing,” Brooks says. “First guy is Bruce Lee. Second guy is Joe Taslim.”
Taslim explained to Brooks that the fight was like a dance, and they were partners. And Brooks was grateful for the opportunity to step up his game. Watching Taslim fight was like watching Michael Jackson dance in his prime, he says.
For a property like “Mortal Kombat,” there’s a fine line of giving the fans what they want and making it your own, Brooks says. One difference from the ‘90s films: Japanese thunder god Raiden was played then by white actor Christopher Lambert, and now by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. Brooks calls the 2021 version “the movie for this generation.”
“We want to make the movie that we want to see,” he says.
'We’re tired of living under the spell'
Life’s not all bionic arms and thunder gods. Brooks has spent the past year refocusing on his mental health and getting out in nature. He is very grateful that his family hasn’t lost anyone to the coronavirus pandemic. Most film productions ground to a halt around the world for a while in 2020. These past months allowed Brooks time and space to go inward, to “work on things I didn’t even know were holding me back.”
If you follow Brooks on social media, you know he often speaks about racial justice, including the killings of Black Americans at the hands of police officers. He uses the word humanitarian, not activist, which he thinks is a weighted term: “Black people are human. If you care about the well-being of Black people, you’re a humanitarian.”
The nation is in the moment it was always going to find itself, he says, “when the mistreated stepchildren and the abused descendants of the kidnapped and enslaved would stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
“You know, America’s not unique in its brutality or its racial hierarchy or its violent apartheid or its kidnapping and enslavement of people,” he says. “It's not. There's been plenty of other countries and other entities that have done that. But it’s unique in its inability to take responsibility for it. I think this new generation — my generation and younger — we’re just tired of it. We know what reality is. It’s like the world has been under a spell for 400 years, and we’re just sick of it. We’re tired of living under the spell and pretending that racial hierarchy is a natural law.”
Brooks has been saying the same things for 20 years; in the past, people just thought he was being difficult, he says. Social media has made a difference, for better or worse. “I call it an instrument for change,” he says. “Who’s playing the instrument? … If we’re letting people who believe in the old paradigm, who want to protect the old paradigm because it’s profitable for them, then we’re going to be doing the same dances.”
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With “Mortal Kombat” out in the world, Brooks is finding new ways to speak up.
“I’m very focused on writing right now and creating some space and room for my perspective and voice in Hollywood,” he says. He’s developing a TV series and a movie, though he can’t say much. He does dish on a few details: One involves time travel and the nature of reality, and one is “an old title that was a tool of white supremacy that I am repurposing as a tool for Black empowerment.”
No matter what’s next, the boy who grew up in the Statesman newsroom will continue to be a man who chases curiosity. “I’ve lived the life of a professional football player. I’ve lived the life of a lawyer. I’ve lived the life of a multidimensional assassin. I’ve lived the life of a superhero. I’ve lived the life of Superman’s best friend. I’ve lived the life of a possessed transient who got involved with vampires,” he says.
“I’ve been able to live all these lives out of the foundation of curiosity.”
Read Eric Webb's review of "Mortal Kombat" at austin360.com.