I recently had the pleasure of meeting Steve Cardenas, whom any Power Rangers fan worth his salt will recognize as Rocky DeSantos, after this interview had been set up but days before it actually went down. It was at a midnight screening of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie, the first time I’d seen it on the big screen since I used my little brother as an excuse back in the summer of ’95, and both the film itself and meeting Cardenas were just a little surreal.
Living in the greater Los Angeles area, you constantly risk the mixed blessing of meeting celebrities, especially ones you’re fond of, and there’s always the chance that person you’ve long admired scan turn out to be a dick. Steve Cardenas was most certainly not. He was anything but. Beyond just being nice, which he was, there’s a very sincere vibe that just radiates from the guy, a realness that a lot of people with hordes of adoring fans don’t always hold onto very well. It was apparent within seconds that interviewing him wouldn’t be at all nerve-wracking or intimidating and would just be loads of fun. And you know what?
It totally was.
DEN OF GEEK: It’s been about fifteen years since you left Power Rangers. Since then you’ve been working as an instructor in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Could you tell us a little bit about your school, the programs there?
STEVE CARDENAS: Sure. The school is called Force Balance Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and we teach just that. It’s a style of jiu-jitsu that the Brazilians evolved back in the early 1900’s, then they brought it here to America in the 80’s, and it really took off in the 90’s. It’s a style that involves a lot grappling, sort of like wrestling almost. And that’s pretty much what we offer there. We’ve got some conditioning classes, some yoga classes, things like that too, but our main focus is Brazilian jiu-jitsu. We teach kids and we teach adults.
DG: You’ve said before that you’d been training for about a decade before you were introduced to that style and that it was particularly difficult for you to learn. What is it about it that appealed to you so strongly and continues to do so today? The movement, the physicality, or is it something else completely? The mentality behind it, perhaps?
SC: Well, what appealed to me about it was, you know, I was just so impressed with this guy who introduced me to Brazilian jiu-jitsu and how quickly he shut down all of my Tae Kwon Do and Karate moves that I knew how to do. It was a real eye-opener for me, so that’s what intrigued me about it. It’s a hard sport to learn and stay with, because if you learn tae kwon do you can get a black belt in, like, three years if you train really hard. But Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a lot of people don’t have the staying power, because it takes about eight or nine years to get a black belt. Even if you’re training every day and all the time, and competing all the time and so forth, it still takes a very long time. It took me over eight years to get a black belt. So, that can be disheartening, especially for someone like myself who’s already been a black belt, who already trained, already came up the ranks, and to have to start over and throw a white belt on again… in the beginning, it was very humbling. Just going through the ranks and starting all over again, it was very hard, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.
DG: Did your training in BJJ overlap with your time on Power Rangers? If so, were you able to integrate your new moves into your fights or were they more strictly choreographed?
SC: Most of the stuff we did on the show was really choreographed. I was introduced to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu right at the tail end of when I was on Power Rangers, so I was starting to become familiar with it, but we couldn’t really incorporate any of that stuff because it doesn’t really come off very well on camera, you know? It just looks like people rolling around on the ground. The nuances are so subtle they wouldn’t be picked up on camera, whereas the high, flashy jumping kicks—that’s very elaborate, very over the top. Sometime a tiny, subtle move is all you need in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it’s just not very filmable.
DG: Do you find that your Ranger cred helps or hinders when it comes to your students? Do you ever have students coming to study under you for the wrong reasons, and how do you handle a situation like that?
SC: I really don’t… I have some people that initially signed up because of who I was but the novelty wears off very quickly, and they stay because they like the training and the camaraderie of all the students. At first they might be taken by the fact that I’m their childhood hero, but they soon stay for the training and not the fact that I was a Power Ranger.
DG: You were hired onto Rangers out of Texas, as were your castmates Karan Ashley and Johnny Yong Bosch. Texas is, of course, a huge state, but how tightly knit is the martial arts community there? Enough that you guys might have happened upon one another at some point? Had any of you met before or were you complete strangers?
SC: Complete strangers. I’d never met them before. I didn’t even meet them at that first audition. There were so many people, over four-thousand, at that audition. I didn’t meet them until we came out to California to do the second audition for the producers.
DG: One of the more vocal criticisms of the Stone Canyon trio (Rocky, Aisha, and Adam), at least early on, was that their characters weren’t very well defined as compared to the originals. It wasn’t until considerably later that their personalities really started to evolve. You’ve mentioned that you were fond of the development you got in Power Rangers Zeo. Anything in particular you can remember offhand?
SC: At first, in the beginning, they kept our characters simple, because we were A) not actors, and B) they didn’t really know what they wanted our characters to be. They needed to create a story for us first and grow the story around us, so there wasn’t a lot of definition there.
I liked Jim Carrey’s style at the time, tried to emulate a bit; not as physical, but they let me put a little bit in there. It made it fun, more interesting on set.
DG: How much involvement did you have in the development of your character? Were you and your castmates able to collaborate at all or was it really locked down for the writers only?
SC: No, we didn’t get to really do a lot with that, have a hand in our character development that much. We just tried to take what the script gave us. I did have an acting coach that came to the set and helped me go through things. He helped me to develop the character based on what lines they were giving me.
DG: There’s a bit of a contradiction in how Rocky is presented at different points in the show. We’re told in certain episodes that he’s rather smart – teaching a chemistry class, tutoring other kids – but sometimes he came off as kind of dumb. Not unintelligent, just a little out of it, a little less self-aware than the others. Was this intentional, and which version of Rocky do you officially endorse?
SC: I don’t know. I guess at first, the Red Ranger was a little more cookie cutter, he was a little bit more of a straight arrow. When they developed the character and gave me a little more depth, allowed me to be the guy who wasn’t always cognizant of what was going on. Overall the Power Rangers should be seen as strong and smart, but at the same time they let us be human too, so kids could relate to our problems, think “Oh, that’s like me too.” So, I endorse both of them, but I more enjoyed the later seasons when they let my character be a little more goofy.
DG: There are conflicting reports surrounding your departure from the series. For a long time, it was stated that you had injured yourself, and Rocky’s injury was written in to mirror that. Recently, however, you’ve said that you left, at least in part, due to disagreements behind the scenes. Right here, right now, without naming any names, what’s the full story?
SC: There was no injury. That was the way they came up with to write me out. It came down to it was a non-union show, and though it was wildly popular, they didn’t have to adhere to union rules about residuals and salaries. After I’d been there for a couple years and I felt I’d proven myself, I thought I’d get Favored Nations, but some people were getting paid more than others. At that point, I knew that they had the means to pay us all what we were worth, but they didn’t.
I wasn’t thinking along the lines I should have, that I should have stayed on another season for the fans, but I’d put a lot of time and energy into the show, and they weren’t willing compensate me. They really didn’t see my value at all or appreciate what I brought to the show. It really just came down to being treated fairly.
DG: You’re still close to certain cast members. You’ve mentioned you’re neighbors with David Yost and keep in touch with Karan Ashley and others. Again, without naming names, were there any castmates you really didn’t get along with? If so, how? Just conflicting personalities or were there any specific issues or incidents, and was it a factor in your decision to leave the series?
SC: No, no. There was nobody I didn’t get along with. There were people I hung out with more than others, but we worked together so closely all the time, we worked twelve hours at a time, at the end of the day we usually just really wanted to go home. It wasn’t until we started doing all these reunions and conventions that we really became close again. When I was on the show, I actually ended up hanging out more with the crew. They were just hardworking, good people and a lot of fun to be around.
DG: There was a major cast shake-up in Power Rangers Turbo. It’s claimed this was done because one of the cast members wanted out anyway, and the producers figured with you having already left, that they might as well just wipe the slate clean. But if you had stayed around, they might not have felt that way. One ranger leaving here and there had become a staple of Power Rangers by then. So, the question is, if you had stayed on and become the Blue Turbo Ranger and the big cast turnover hadn’t happened, how long do you think you would have remained with the show? Were you already feeling the urge to move on or did you feel like Rocky still had some mileage left to him?
SC: Sure, the character had mileage left, but I already knew we would all be leaving after that year. I didn’t know it was for only half a season, but I knew all our contracts were up with Turbo. And I thought if it’s going to be one last season, let’s all make the best show we can. We’ll bring our best, and let us all get paid the same. That didn’t happen.
DG: If it were up to you, how would you have liked to have seen Rocky develop as a character? What aspects of the character did you gravitate toward, and is it because they are like you or unlike you?
SC: I think Rocky is a lot like how I was anyway. Taking care of all his brothers and sisters and all that. I come from a very big family, a broken home. I teach kids martial arts. Those aspects of Rocky I really liked. They were the things they modeled after me personally. They would make me be this clumsy guy sometimes. I’m not clumsy. It’s not really part of who I am, but it was fun to do.
DG: You were off the grid for a little while. Literally. The producers failed to contact you for the 10th Anniversary “Forever Red” episode because you were in the process of moving. Had they gotten in touch with you, would you have participated or was there still some unease between you and the production team at that time?
SC: They did contact me and asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said yeah. I don’t know if they changed their minds or if they didn’t have my new number. I don’t really know, but I just chalked it up to me moving. I don’t know if it’s because they already had Austin [St. John] and they didn’t want two red rangers from MMPR, but I don’t know. To me, it’s still a mystery. I totally would have been down for it.
DG: I will confess that at some point during the MySpace era, I happened upon your profile, and you seemed like… I think the most diplomatic way to put it would be a “party person.” You seemed like you were having a pretty wild time. Were you? Because if so, you seemed to have calmed down quite a bit in the intervening years. Or was it all just internet smoke and mirrors?
SC: No, I did party a little bit. No drugs or anything like that, but I had my share of late night drinking with buddies and stuff like that. I’d kind of gotten away from Jiu-Jitsu a little bit, and that’s when I kind of turned to partying with my friends, but when I decided I wanted to get back into training again, I was training all the time, and I realized it was eight months and I hadn’t even had a beer. Now? I don’t even go out. Now, if I drink two beers, I wake up in the morning with a headache. When you’re training, working hard, eating right, your body doesn’t react well to the toxins you put it in it. I couldn’t go out like I used to. A lot of it just came from wanting to train and be healthy. I changed everything, the way I ate; I’m a vegan now. I’d say 98% of my diet is vegan. Every now and again, I might get slipped something with some cheese in it, but I don’t really eat any meat or dairy.
DG: You seem to have really found your niche with martial arts instruction. Would you consider returning to the Power Rangers franchise for a guest spot or even a recurring/starring role?
SC: I definitely would, but again, it comes down to being treated fairly. If they’re going to bring people back, treat them all same. If they were to ask me again… I don’t know. I think I would do it for the fans. I’d probably just go ahead and do it. We’ll see.
DG: Would you consider acting in anything aimed at teens or adults, or do you feel like that chapter of your life is behind you?
SC: I was never really an actor, and to be a truly serious actor, you have to dedicate a lot of time to that craft, and I think it would be disrespectful to audition for a part if I don’t devote the time that so many talented people devote their time to. If someone came along and offered me something, then yeah, I would do it, but to become a serious actor is really hard work, so you’ve either got to dedicate your time to training and building up your dojo or you go to acting classes and hit the pavement every day, going around to auditions. When you divide your time like that, you don’t get either right.
DG: You’ve recently been establishing much more of a presence through social media like Facebook and Twitter, actively building a visible following. Is this to raise visibility for your school or any other kind of professional pursuit or is it just for the hell of it?
SC: It’s definitely I’m building up a fanbase so [the cast] can go out and meet people, so we can go to more conventions. There’s a lot of people that want to see Rangers but don’t know they’ll be at these shows. So if I have a fanbase that’s following me on Twitter or Facebook, they’ll know I’m going to be at those shows. I pretty much just do it for the fans.
DG: Is there anything you’d like to plug? Future appearances, programs at your school?
SC: I’m going to London to do the London Comic Con. I’m going to be doing Alamo City Comic Con near the end of October. Rhode Island Comic Con. If everything goes well, I’ll be going to Brazil, Sao Paulo then Rio, in late November. Power Rangers is very popular in Brazil. They LOVE Power Rangers, so they’ve been begging me to come out there. Also, if anybody’s in the LA area, stop by the school and check it out.
Now, of course, dear readers, it wouldn’t be a Den of Geek interview without me getting a little geeky. Thankfully, Steve was a good enough sport to indulge me.
DG: As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a LOT of Power Rangers fan fiction out there. Like… a lot, and within it, a visibly strong slash contingent. Rocky/Adam is a pretty popular pairing. Neither ever really had any love interests on the show, and they were seen together an awful lot. Speaking strictly in terms of the fictional characters… you think anything ever happened there?
SC: You mean, like… romantically? No, there was nothing like that. I always thought Rocky was into girls. There was the blind girl, there was the tutor. I don’t think [Rocky and Adam] had any interest in each other aside from just being good friends and going to school together.
DG: Fair enough, but tell me this: all the characters from your run on the show (hell, let’s even throw Jason, Trini, and Zack in there) go out on a serious bender. Who does Rocky wake up next to?
SC: Haha, let me think about that one. I don’t know. Kimberly? Or maybe… maybe Tanya. Yeah, I could see that.
You know what? Now that I think about it, I can kind of see it too. It would sure as hell beat snagging his friend’s girl. For shame, Rocky DeSantos!