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 William Zabka talked about his reaction when Cobra Kai was first pitched to him, what ultimately sold him on the idea, the positive fan response to the series, bringing back the ‘80s music montage, exploring how both Daniel and Johnny are the protagonist in their own story and antagonist to each other, getting to do scenes with Martin Kove as John Kreese, his favorite scenes with Ralph Macchio, what he appreciates about working with his co-star, reuniting with the Cobra Kais from the original The Karate Kid movie, how Season 2 marks a turning point in the story, and how he feels like there’s still a ways to go, before they wrap things up.
Collider: I really appreciate you talking to me about this show. I am one of those people that the movie meant a lot to, growing up, so when the show came along, I was like, “Oh, my god, why are they doing this?” But then, you watch it and the show is so great. It’s that rare unicorn that’s brought something back that so many people loved and are nostalgic about, but did so in a way that still feels new and current, which seems so rare.
WILLIAM ZABKA: Yes, that’s very sweet. It’s a unicorn with a cobra snake around it.
When did you personally 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?
ZABKA: Well, everybody had the same reaction, including me, when they first pitched the show. There were a lot of walls up to the idea of it because it’s such a sacred movie and they’re such sacred characters, so to do it, you had to have the right approach. The creators of the show (Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald and Hayden Schlossberg) approached it with such a fresh angle, and they had such a vision of the universe and expanding it, and not becoming just nostalgia and not just playing on yesterday, but pushing it forward, and introducing a whole new set of circumstances and characters and depth to the 30 years since the first film. So, I took it a step at a time. I worked with Josh on Hot Tub Time Machine, and I was friends with Jon and Hayden, and I trusted them and loved their work. I went along for the ride from there, and we went and made it.
When the trailer started to come out and the public had the same reaction that I had, at that first pitch meeting, it was, “Don’t mess with our baby. Don’t mess with our unicorn.” It was interesting because when the trailer came out, nobody knew what this was gonna be. It was a slow peel back to what the ultimate show would be, and each trailer led you in a different direction, when it came to thinking about what it was going to become. We all took it the same way. Everybody from the writers to Ralph [Macchio] and myself knew how important this was to do right, so we all did the checks and balances, at the beginning, and it paid off because we vetted out anything that might be a bump in the road, and the audiences received it. It was really on the first day that it launched that we saw it click.
I imagined that it would be well-received because we had a fan base and there had been a lot of interest and curiosity about it, but to see the level in which people were getting engaged in it clearly caught us by surprise and was really thrilling. That was a great feeling, and it’s a shared feeling because we play the characters and we’re the ones who personify these characters and are telling a story, but it’s really interactive. It’s a live, vibrant experience. It’s thrilling to share because that’s really what it feels like when we’re having communication and conversation with the longtime fans and the new fans. We tapped into storylines and themes that are universal, and it extends far past the Karate Kid to now stand on its own, which is what they pitched me at the beginning. Josh, Jon and Hayden said that this show could work without there ever being a Karate Kid. This is a story about these two guys, and here’s their backstory. In our case, that backstory just happens to be a classic film that’s beloved around the world, for 35 years.