Brought in to replace the popular Red Ranger played by Austin St. John, (check him out on Facebook and Twitter) the martial artist-turned-actor went through a cattle call audition not unlike what you might see for American Idol. He joined thousands of other would-be Rangers--professional and amateur actors, martial artists and stunt men--and was whittled down to a final three who had to travel from Dallas to Los Angeles to be interviewed by producers.
Once he got the gig, Cardenas played Rocky the Red Ranger and the Blue Zeo Ranger, which took up about five years of his life before he left the series--and show business--rather abruptly, his character replaced by a 10-year-old in one of the stranger cast changes in the show's twenty-year history.
Now founding his own martial arts studio and hitting the convention circuit in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Cardenas joined ComicBook.com to talk about his experiences on the series, with the show's fans and the kind of surreal nature of looking back on a job you had in your twenties and realizing that, more than a decade later, people are still talking about it.
ComicBook.com: It's interesting: My experience with Power Rangers fans, especially the adult ones, is that they're very passionate. Is it a little weird dealing with that phenomenon when you haven't been in show business your whole life?
Steve Cardenas: It's true--you have to embrace all of it obviously, and embrace all the fans which I do and have. I'm very interactive with them; I try to answer their e-mails when I can and so on and so forth.
Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming because I want to reach everybody but I can't no mater what I do but I just do the best that I can with it and hope that they appreciate what little I can do.
ComicBook.com: It's got to be a little easier getting back into the convention circuit, right? I mean, then you can connect with lots of fans at once.
Cardenas: I'm starting to do a lot of conventions now again. I stopped for a couple of years because I was building my business--Force Balance Brazilinan Jujitsu Studio--but now I'm back in it again. For the tail end of this year I've got some shows coming up and some for next year. The next one I have coming up is the London Film and Comic Con Oct. 5-6. I was set to do the New York Comic Con too but that's not going to happen anymore because of a scheduling conflict.
ComicBook.com: Did you decide to get back into it because of the hype around the 20th anniversary?
Cardenas: I think it was just sort of coincidental; it was actually Jason Frank who texted me and said I should get back into the circuit; he got me the first couple of shows that I got this year.
I hadn't really planned on it and it didn't really occur to me that it was already 20 years but he said that I needed to go in costume and meet the fans and build a fan base that way so that's waht I did. It is surreal to see a lot of the guys--some of them I haven't seen in a long time, some I see all the time. Some of them I haven't seen in ten, fifteen years.
ComicBook.com: In the final episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, their characters revert back to being children. Why did they go that direction? Were you in contract re-negotiations or were you simply on a vacation?
Cardenas: Yeah, you know? I'm not really sure.
I think the biggest part of it was that they had this footage of one of the Alien Rangers and they wanted to use it but it wasn't enough footage to do an entire season. So what they did was they decided to give us a hiatus and have these kids take our place so that they could have the Alien Rangers to come in and do it.
I think it was a way for them to get that market for the toys, because otherwise that season would have passed them by and there would have been no way to connect the Alien Rangers with the toy sales and that would have been a lost opportunity for them.
They used a lot of Japanese footage from the old rangers and other earlier versions and they would take all of that Japanese footage and intercut us with it and make it into a half-hour TV show and the one with the Alien Rangers were when it was not us, it was a different group of Rangers who came to earth to help us when we had lost our powers. That came from the Japanese storyline.
ComicBook.com: In that same context, why after that break did Karan Ashley decide not to return, do you know?
Cardenas: I'm not sure, honestly. I know that she wasn't happy.
I think we were all a little unhappy with the amount of work that we put in, the amount of hours that we shot and the amount of work they did to help build that franchise. Because it was a non-union show, they didn't feel like they needed to pay us very much. I think that's what it kind of came down to for her and I think she was trying to do some other stuff for her career.
That ultimately was a little bit of what my problem was, too, and why I left as well. In hindsight, maybe I should have done just one more season--in our case we did know that we only had one more season and then we were going to be out. I came to them and said, "If we're doing just one more season can you pay us all what the show should be worth if it's only just one more year?" In hindsight I should have just stayed on for that last season but I don't have any regrets about the way I left.
ComicBook.com: In Power Rangers Turbo, your character makes his exit by breaking his back in preparation for a martial arts tournament. Do you feel that this was a good departure for Rocky or would you have written it differently?
Cardenas: Well, I don't know if it would have been the way that I would have sent me off but I understand they needed to find a way to get somebody to replace me quick so I think that's probably why they did that.
At that point in time, I was sort of over it so I didn't really care how they wrote me out. I think it's interesting. I might have done it a different way...but I don't know how.
ComicBook.com: What was it like having a child take the place of your character? Was that a little strange?
Cardenas: Again, at that point I really didn't care.
I guess when you think about it, I didn't really think that it was going to be a legacy. I thought that eventually it would die and nobody would care anymore and so I didn't care. I didn't know that it was going to continue to go on and that the fans were as crazed as they were still would be twenty years later.
That being said, I probably would have liked to have had a little more say in how I was being written out and who was going to be my successor but again, when you're twenty-two years old, you don't think about that kind of stuff.
ComicBook.com: Does it all seem a little surreal--the idea that you've got some reporter phoning you up in the middle of your work day to talk about this series that you did fifteen years ago? Or was it really just kind of your job and your life and the weirdness has passed?
Cardenas: While I was in it, it definitely felt like a job. We were up at 5:30 in the morning and we were filming til six, seven at night and it definitely felt like a job but when I look back on it, it was pretty crazy.
In the city I auditioned in--in Dallas--there were like 4,000 people there alone in that city, not to mention New York and Orlando and Los Angeles and wherever else they were [auditioning]. It was like American Idol, it was like a cattle call.
They gave us like thirty, forty seconds to "wow" them and show them our moves. Being able to go from those thousands of people down to 32 and then again to get into the top three like that in that audition round was very surreal.
It's weird because my whole life changed in a weekend. I did the audition, two days later they called me back and flew me out to California to meet the producers and they hired us on the spot. They said, "we don't even have time for you to fly home and get your stuff; your parents will have to send your clothes. We have to start filming right now."
It definitely was and still is very surreal. It's a fantastic moment that in hindsight no one can take that away from me and it's just nice to know that even still there's all these fans that really embrace it. And now I've embraced them back and it's nice to go out and see them and go to these shows and stuff. It's fun.
ComicBook.com: It's interesting because you have a good relationship with the fans now...but when you first took the role of Rocky, you replaced the original Red Ranger, Austin St. John. How was that received by the fan base back then? Were you right away accepted into the community or did you take any flak from the fans?
Cardenas: Yeah, that's a good question. I was definitely nervous about how I would be received becuase Jason was the leader of the team--there was Tommy and he was being prepped to be the leader but for all intents and purposes he was the leader and one of the most popular ones.
I always felt like I would be in his shadow a little bit, and I was, but I didn't know how I'd be received and some people definitely did not like it but I didn't truly know whether they liked it or not because they kind of kept us separate from the fans.
The fans were younger and there wasn't the same kind of Internet back then so it was a little easier to do. Back then it was just IRC and so there might have been some dedicated fans there but they were really only super-computer people who had access to that stuff and now everyone has access. I don't know how fans reacted to it but now fifteen, twenty years later, the fans are cool with me. They all still like Jason the best but I'll occasionally get people who say I was the best Red Ranger and that's great.
And for me at the time, it was kind of just doing my job and trying to do the best that I could.
ComicBook.com: When Austin St. John returned in Power Rangers Zeo, there was an episode where Rocky felt like he was taking a back seat to Jason and was getting to spend very little time with Tommy. Did this parallel at all to the real life friendships between you and the cast now that a veteran actor was back on the set or did you all get along?
Cardenas: When I heard he was coming back, I was also sat down and assured that they were not going to fade me out. I knew that I wasn't going to go anywhere, that they were just bringing him back for ratings and so on. I knew my spot was secure but there's always that wonder, you know?
I think that kind of carried over into the episode. For the most part they assured me that they liked me and I wasn't going to get replaced suddenly. That happened, you know? In the past.
So I just at that point did my job and that episode--I do remember that episode, it was so funny because on the set we were all very cool with each other and to try to portray that element was hard to try to pull that out because we were all having so much fun, you know?
ComicBook.com: That's an interesting turn of phrase, becuase my last question was, what was it like to film the episode "Rocky Just Wants to Have Fun?"
Cardenas: [Laughs] Well, that one was a weird one for me.
This is when I first started on the show and I hadn't really developed my character yet and didn't know what direction I wanted my character to be. At the same time, I wasn't really a good actor.
So it was weird to try and be that goofy and that over-the-top on camera; it was just odd for me and to watch that episode was very hard for me, too, because it was before YouTube and iPhones and everybody's got video of themselves now--but back then you really didn't, so listening to a tape recording of your voice sounded very odd.
Then to look at yourself on TV and see your features...it made me very self-conscious and it was very weird for me. For a long time I didn't watch that episode because it was so odd and weird for me. I look so weird to myself, I must look weird to them, right? I was a little insecure about it, to be honest, so that episode when I had to be even more elaborate and more over-the-top was a hard one for me, to be honest. To this day I still feel a little weird about it but it's cool. I'm glad that people have fun with it.
Top two photos courtesy Kash Pictures. Thanks to regular reader Brandon Benfield for some of the questions.