Actor and comedian Joel McHale has made a career specializing in portraying likable jerks, perhaps best exemplified in his role as Jeff Winger in the cult comedy Community. And if you’ve ever seen McHale’s workout routine on Instagram, it seems safe to describe him as a physical fit specimen. So Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced McHale as the voice of arrogant action movie star Johnny Cage in the new Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge animated film, fans of the video game franchise knew from the get-go that it was perfect casting.
McHale is back as the self-centered actor in the sequel Mortal Kombat Legends: Battle of the Realms. The Beat was fortunate to chat with McHale about playing to his strength as Johnny Cage as well as returning as Sylvester Pemberton a.k.a. Starman for Stargirl Season 2.
Taimur Dar: You voicing Johnny Cage is such a brilliant and no-brainer casting choice. Did they offer you the role directly with no need for you to audition?
Joel McHale: Oh yeah, I did not audition. Thank God. I would’ve screwed it up! When my agent came with the offer and said, “Are you interested?” I said, “Yeah, I’m fucking interested! It’s Johnny Cage! Mortal Kombat! Why are we having this conversation?”
Dar: Knowing your comedic talent and improv skills, it’s safe to assume recording sessions must have been quite a hoot. I know you’ve said in previous interviews how the script was already dynamite but I’m curious how much improvising you did?
McHale: I got very lucky because I do a lot of improvising and Johnny Cage is kind of the comedic relief a lot of the time. I got to kind of go wild. That was really great. I had a lot of license to tell jokes. Yeah, the script was already dynamite. With jokes, I would go, “Can I try this?” And they were open to that. That was so fun. They let me improvise a ton. Obviously, it wasn’t an improvised movie in any way. They have a very good story. Some of my jokes made it in, some of their jokes were way better than my jokes. It was a great give and take.
Dar: Clearly, playing likable jerks is your specialty. Perhaps the best example is Jeff Winger in Community. It’s a fine line between being completely obnoxious but still lovable to the audience. What do you think the secret is to make a seemingly unlikable character endearing to viewers?
McHale: Oh, I don’t know if there’s a secret. I’m constantly desperate for work, so it works out great! No, let’s see. I don’t know! Most of the time it’s just writing. [For] Jeff Winger, Dan [Harmon] made it so he was very sarcastic and very dismissive but he cared deeply about his friends and his school so that underpinned everything. I think the same thing happened with Johnny Cage at times where he’s the comedic relief but he’s in love with Sonya. So that underpins the character and he cares about what’s happening. Fighting evil and being in love is what he really cares about and everything else is gravy as far as [being] sarcastic and mouthing off. I don’t know if there’s any secret other than it’s well written. I could easily play it as a complete jerk, but no one’s going to want to watch that.
Dar: While most people know you for your comedic work, you’re actually no stranger to action and stunt work like your role in Deliver Us from Evil, where you injured yourself. Did you bring any of that experience to voicing an action movie star like Johnny Cage?
McHale: I will say I wait to do all the screaming and stuff for the end of the day. I wait until the end and then I can scream and yell and really go for it physically. I’m sure the temperature of the room is about 110 degrees because I’m jumping all over the place. Sometimes I’m like, “Is this too much?” And they’re like, “Keep going!” I really go for it. When you have this beautiful violent movie you can’t pull punches. [You have to] rise to the level that the movie is at or it’s going to look really weird. I don’t mess around. I make sure I go for it right out of the gate. Thankfully we did a couple of days because I don’t know what my voice would be [like] if we did it in one day.
Dar: I adore Stargirl and I was delighted that the season one finale teased that you would be returning as Sylvester Pemberton a.k.a. Starman. Since your role in the first season was fairly brief, I felt we barely scratched the surface for your character. So what’s it like to come back for the second season and delve deeper into Starman?
McHale: Well, Geoff Johns is a legend and the nicest man on the planet. He so nicely took pity on me and asked me to be in the show. I was thrilled to do it because he’s Geoff Johns. He told me the story of the show and I was like, “You had me at, ‘Would you be in my show?’” I’ll show up for anything for him. He’s put together such a good show and cast. Any moment that he wants me there, I’m there in a New York minute. I’m happy to do it. Hold onto your hats for Season 2.
Dar: Oh yeah! I know Sylvester heading to Blue Valley to meet up with his former sidekick Pat Dugan played by Luke Wilson. What’s it like to rekindle that buddy relationship with him?
McHale: Look, Luke is one of my comedy heroes. From Idiocracy to The Royal Tenenbaums, going all the way to Bottle Rocket, I was so thrilled to work with him. I love telling him that he’s my comedic hero because it makes him really embarrassed and it thrills me to watch him squirm. And of course, Brec Bassinger who’s the lead and a badass. I think she’s 21 and got her shit together unlike any other 21-year old I’ve ever seen. I’m privileged to be in the show with her. When I was 21 it was, “Full-sized keg?”
Mortal Kombat Legends: Battle of the Realms is available now on Digital, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD