Now in its second season, the YouTube Originals series Cobra Kai (if you haven’t taken the time to watch it yet, I highly recommend giving it a shot), takes place 30 years after the events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament and gives viewers a new perspective on the lives of both Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). While LaRusso has a loving family and successful string of car dealerships throughout the San Fernando Valley, his high school adversary Lawrence’s life has taken a turn that’s set him on a path of seeking redemption by reopening the infamous Cobra Kai dojo and overcoming his own demons.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Ralph Macchio talked about what it was about Cobra Kai that got him to return to the world of The Karate Kid, the terrible pitches he’d heard in the years between, when he realized that the show was connecting with viewers, playing both protagonist and antagonist in the same project, his favorite Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence moments, what he appreciates about co-star William Zabka, sharing scenes with Martin Kove as John Kreese, playing the sensei to a new generation of karate kids, and his hope that they’ll be back for Season 3. He also talked about what he’s enjoyed about his experience on the HBO series The Deuce.
Collider: This show is that rare unicorn that’s brought something back that so many people love and are nostalgic about, but did so in a way that feels new and current. When did you realize that it was actually working that way, and when did you realize that it was also being received that way, by the people who were watching it?
RALPH MACCHIO: That’s a very good question. There are a few answers to that. First, the idea was pitched to me and, as you can imagine, over the 30-something years, I’ve had many incarnations of thoughts and ideas pitched that were not appealing. It’s also very precious to me, too, so going back to the well, you don’t know if there’s gonna be water at the bottom, so sometimes it’s smarter to leave the legacy alone. In this case, Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg], our three creators, are the biggest super fans you’ll ever meet. They knew every frame and every innuendo of all those films. It was their childhood. They were massive Karate Kid fans, and it felt like they wanted to make the show that fans wanted. With their writing experience, with the Harold & Kumar films and Hot Tub Time Machine, they certainly had a handle on how to write for a now and young generation. Also, they always respected and wanted to respect and pay homage to the legacy of the films, and certainly the Miyagi-isms and the strength of that character, going forward. It was of the utmost importance to me that it was woven into the story. All of those elements made me feel like this had a shot. Whether it would come together, you just never know.
Everyone asks the same question, “What’s the tone? It’s a half-hour and you’re saying this is a comedy, but it’s not. This is a drama, but it’s got humor.” I asked that question, and so did every network that we pitched. That was always the question. We just had to trust that they had the vision, and they did. We would always collaborate on all of those elements. As far as seeing it for the first time and saying, “Wow, it has all of the feels. I have the goosebumps, but I’m laughing out loud. And we’re poking fun at ourselves and the time, and yet it’s relevant with the issues, like bullying and other elements that are a part of the fabric of what the franchise and the universe is. It just all came together. They’ve become the how-to guys, on how to do it the right way. We all collaborate on it, but you need someone to drive the ship, and I’ve gotta hand it to those guys. It’s good that there are three of them because they keep each other in check. There are those times that I’ve been in disagreement, but I give them the tie breaker because I’m on the inside trying to oversee it, as opposed to having the bird’s eye view of the whole piece, and they really have a very strong vision.
And then, once it hit and everyone came onto it, the fans were just in love with what it did and how it did not undercut their childhood movie and their affinity for the film, and yet felt fresh and new. The press was the biggest surprise, how they unanimously were so positive. They were like, “Stop and take a look at this. Don’t avoid this. This is it!” It was really nice to see that. When the concept came out, maybe people were tired of hearing of every ‘80s quick cash grab, nostalgia-take, reboot idea. And then, it landed at YouTube, who was still defining what they were, in the original content area, as opposed to Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, who already had a grasp on that. I think low expectations did not hurt us. I think we still would have had the same response, but it certainly did not hurt that people were saying, “Yeah, sure, all right, this is gonna be painful, but I’m gonna watch it anyway,” and then we surprised everyone. So now, the stakes are high because we’ve done it, and we have to do it again, and hopefully, again and again and again.
In all of those years where you were turning down pitches, was there a worst or craziest or most unbelievable pitch?
MACCHIO: Yes. My worst was when someone – and I forget the name of the guy – pitched me and John Avildsen, who was the director of the original Karate Kid. It was like a half-joke, but he was also waiting to see if we liked it. Somewhere there was a studio person that said, “What if we join franchises and we find out that Rocky Balboa is somehow related to Daniel LaRusso?” And this was like before the MMA mixed martial arts stuff. It’s interesting, it’s almost like this guy was ahead of the curve, but with the most stupid idea in the world. At least in my memory, it never really got any definition. It was just conceptual. He was trying to sell us a poster.
I’ve heard tons of things like, “Hey, how about you’re a parent and your kid has a problem, and you become the Miyagi to your kid?,” with no backbone or substance. What was so smart about Cobra Kai was entering the world through the eyes of Johnny Lawrence, the “villain,” to see whatever happened to this guy and what his perspective of those events is. And then, you bring LaRusso into that and you show that they’re both characters with flaws and grey areas. That’s probably the biggest difference between Cobra Kai and the original Karate Kid. The film was very black and white, good over evil, whereas this show blurs some of those lines, but never loses sight of the core of what The Karate Kid film was. And certainly on the LaRusso side, you get to see his affinity and respect for what Mr. Miyagi was for him, and how he now has to fill that void.
We always hear that every character is the hero of his own story and that no one sees themselves as the villain, and we really get to see that with the show with each of these characters being the hero of their own story. What have you most enjoyed about getting to see both sides of these characters, and exploring what makes them both protagonists and antagonists to each other?
MACCHIO: Right there in your question is a good part of the answer. Having the opportunity to be the protagonist and antagonist within the same piece is rare. There’s always a little push-back and give-and-take with the writers when it comes to, “Okay, so you want me to do this now, so that he looks good?” We’re always defending our characters, but we know that the overall picture has to be in all of the colors of the story, painting the picture. At the on-set, it was not easy to do because, when they made LaRusso this car dealer who was on billboards and in commercials, I was like, “That sounds like something you came up with to make things worse for Johnny Lawrence, as opposed to what LaRusso would have done.” So, it was about us negotiating and finding the way that he would be an auto dealer, but not a cheeseball auto dealer. He’s someone who’s trying to do good, and he never loses the thread of LaRusso’s heart and soul, and the person that he is. He’s a likable guy that’s a bit of a knee-jerk person who gets himself in trouble when he’s feisty and acts now, before thinking about it, which is the opposite of me. I’m more of the analytic type. If I got beat up in high school once, I wouldn’t go back, but my movie also would not be as good. It’s just fun exploring all of those areas, and then finding where those flaws are, as adults and at your mid-life point, which these characters are. We’re all wired, a certain way. Even at my age now, there are things that I do that are my default, but that don’t always show my best side. You’re constantly working at being a better person, but when someone pushes your buttons, like Johnny Lawrence does with LaRusso, and vice versa, they just don’t see clear enough to know that they’re not that far apart, just one had a good sensei and one had a diabolical sensei. It makes for good entertainment and complexity in the characters, so that’s fun.
You guys also get to directly interact a lot more in Season 2 and you have some really fun moments together, including a dance scene and a fight scene. What was your favorite scene to shoot together, in this second season?
MACCHIO: That’s a good question. I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s an intense confrontation at the end of Episode 5, after they vandalize the dojo, and that scene was fun to shoot. There was a lot of emotion there. As many scenes as we do in the show, when we get together, it’s like when you’re playing the best at tennis, you’re going to play your best game. There’s an intensity in that scene, and there’s a lot of emotion in that scene, because of Mr. Miyagi, and the pain and responsibility of what was vandalized and what that meant to him. It’s knee-jerk LaRusso because he doesn’t fully know what happened, but it had a lot of weight to it. On the flip side of that, the scene in Episode 209 at the restaurant was like Episode 109 of last season, when we were at the bar. That was fun because we each come from the side of antagonism, but there’s also an essence of how these guys could get along, if they could just see as clearly as the audience can.