It was a Karate Kid comeback this past weekend at New York Comic Con! Stars Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) and William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) along with the producers of Cobra Kai were on hand to talk about the successful continuation of the pop culture movie classic, The Karate Kid. YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) plays host to the 10 episode series that follows up with our favorite retro rivalry between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence 34 years after their meeting at The All Valley Karate Championships. While Cobra Kai brings our beloved characters into adulthood, it also provides glimpses into their past that cause fans to wonder… Who IS the hero?
Fan Fest News was fortunate to be included in a roundtable interview with Cobra Kai producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg as well as stars William Zabka and Ralph Macchio. Their love ofor The Karate Kid franchise is undeniable as all spoke passionately about the hit project. Check it out…
Roundtable 1 with executive producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Media: What do we have to look forward to for the next season of Cobra Kai?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: More karate, more drama, two dojos. Last season we had just Cobra Kai opening up and this year as you see at the end of season 1, Daniel is, ya know, not about to let Cobra Kai sort of overrun The Valley. There will just be a lot more rivalry and fighting. I mean Daniel’s been awakened. That whole first season was taking him from a place of, he’s fine with his life and everything’s happy, to a little bit of annoyance toward, almost swatting away Johnny like a fly, and then reaching a place where he has to really engage and now we’re at a place where we have two senseis ready to be senseis.
Media: Of course, we got the surprise of getting to see Kreese come back there at the end. Is there an attempt to get other people coming back? Maybe even Yuji Okumoto?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: Everbody’s on the table at any time. We’ve talked casually with many actors from the entire series of Karate Kid movies, they know we’re here. Some of them have reached out to us or we’ve reached out to them just to acknowledge that this is a long game and when we bring characters in we want to enjoy that surprise, we wanna have a meaningful connection with the characters and not just burn too fast. Anyone’s on the table but, I’ll leave it there.
Media: So we might see Jaden Smith come in?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: (laughs) Hillary Swank has met Mr. Miyagi. Anyone who has met Mr. Miyagi is in the universe. Jaden is in a different cinematic universe. If Jaden were to show up in our world, it would be as a different character.
Media: So, are you going to work with Hillary Swank?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: Who knows. We love Hillary Swank, we are fans of hers, [she is] such a gifted actress. It would have to be the right time and the right place for the story.
Media: We seem to be in a time period were revisiting stuff years down the road is working. Can you talk about why the nostalgia now seems to be working as far as a comeback?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: I think you have to answer the why now? I think for our show it was… bullying is as relevant today as it was in the 80’s and there are new things to explore with that [and] there were no other shows that were tackling that subject so there’s a reason for the show to exist beyond the ‘where are they now’, which is fun. We take advantage of all the nostalgia, it’s a huge part of our show but there is a purpose and a reason for the show beyond just bringing back feelings. We jump formats also. We took this cinematic movie that had one point of view and it was Daniel going on this journey and by taking it to television you naturally now have dueling protagonists and then you can see both sides and get into both heads and really confuse everybody in terms of who they’re supposed to be rooting for. We’re not supposed to be rooting for anybody, just kind of empathizing with all the sides. So that was what kind of helped us make this different than a sitcom reboot where there already is a format, you’re going back to the format and all that’s changed is people got a little older and the storyline has changed a little bit. This was creating a whole new animal.
Linda (Fan Fest News): Going back to the beginning, at what point did it (Cobra Kai) go from just an idea to… We can really make this work?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: It was really just sort of seeing how long-form television had evolved because initially, we talked about this as a feature idea, and with our experience in the film business there’s only a handful of actors that get a movie made at the studio level. We knew that just saying to a studio, hey let’s bring Ralph and Billy back, let’s go do this, it’s just not a no-brainer at the studio level. Whereas when it became geared toward the kind of storytelling that we all love… we watch a lot more of these long-form TV series, dramas that you get emotionally invested in and either binge them or can’t wait to watch [them] next week and that was always our interest in television to start. When the world headed in that place we said, ok this exists, we have this idea, we knew Billy through when Josh made Hot Tub Time Machine and it [doing Cobra Kai] became if we can convince Ralph Macchio [to join]. We had been talking to Billy Zabka for years, we’ve been obsessed. I feel like we were put on this Earth to some way do something with him.
Linda (Fan Fest News): That’s great! I was going to ask you, what was their [William and Ralph] reaction when you first approached them?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: We didn’t want to tell Billy over the phone. Before we approached Billy and Ralph, we wanted to make sure… Can we get the rights to this? We set that all up. We found out ok, we can get the rights. They were interested in our pitch and I was like now we get the actors and now we get to tell Billy! We met at this Mexican restaurant and he thinks that it’s some project that we’re bringing him and we’re like no, this is the Karate Kid. You’re not playing Billy Zabka, you’re playing Johnny Lawrence and… his mind was blown. He was in but he was also overwhelmed, he needed a moment to catch his breath whereas Ralph was in the mindset of saying no to Karate Kid things over the years and rightly so because a lot of the things that came across his plate were parody or had gotten a little silly in terms of how “You’re the best around” and people were smiling at it and laughing in a way that wasn’t earnest… he had this really sweet connection with both Pat (Morita) and John (Avildsen) who are not here anymore and it was very easy for him to say, the legacy is the legacy and let’s let it go but we said, we’re coming to New York, we’re gonna come sit down with you and hear us out. Thankfully he said to get on a plane, let’s see what this is about.
Media: So being on YouTube Red…
Josh, Jon, Hayden: YouTube Premium now.
Media: … YouTube Premium, there’s no way to really tell, coming up to it, is this gonna work. Is it gonna be a hit? Are people gonna love it? Are people gonna really get into it? When did you guys know that it actually worked?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: We knew that people liked it I’d say in post-production. We’re in production, we’re making it and then you’re now working with people who are seeing the first edited cuts and the sound [and they are saying] we work on a lot of TV, this is a really good show. We’re really excited to be working on this. You’re feeling that and I remember the first day we were in New York actually doing press and within an hour or two, the great thing about YouTube is that you can see how many views you’re getting, it was going through the roof, it was overwhelming. Ok, this is catching fire, people must be telling people to go watch this. It was something else.
Media: How do you personally feel about the head kick (from Karate Kid)?
Josh, Jon, Hayden: I mean I just think that it was legal. There was a ref there. We trusted that The All-Valley referees knew what they were doing so I think that was our attitude. We brought a head kick right away into the season at The All-Valley, that kinda shows you that… there’s confusion because there’s talk about the rules there but the way I interpret it was if you punch somebody in the face… that’s bad, but if you kick it… [somebody in the face, that’s ok]. (laughing) Because that’s not as damaging!? It involves more talent. (laughing) This is karate, so that was kind of the rules and actually that’s the fun of what we’re able to do with the tournament, it’s just [that] it’s vague… When do people get black belts? How do you sign in? We love the tournament board. We love to see how the people talk about how they’re going to put on the tournament.
Roundtable 2 with Cobra Kai star William Zabka (Billy)
Media: What were you doing before the producers of Cobra Kai knocked on your door?
Billy: Many things. I’m a director too, I was doing commercials and videos. I’m an editor, I’ve done films, a couple documentaries. Nominated for an Oscar as a producer and a writer and I’m a family man, I’ve got two beautiful kids… so, raising them.
Media: What made you decide to take the role (Johnny Lawrence) back on?
Billy: The best way I could explain it is if you had forgotten about a girl from years ago and you got an email saying, “Meet me”. You’re thinking, what does she want? She’s like, I love you, I wanna get back together. It was like an old girlfriend coming back and it took a long time to open my heart completely to it, although it was exciting on paper, it sounded great. These three writers, Josh, Jon and Hayden, who I worked with Josh on Hot Tub Time Machine and Jon and Hayden I knew. When they emailed me to have lunch they said they wanted to talk to me about a project, I got excited… maybe Harold and Kumar part 6. (laughing) They blew my mind. We went to a Mexican restaurant and before they would even let us order, they spitfire this (Cobra Kai). It’s like the Johnny Lawrence in me opened his crusty eyes and it was a slow burn for me to fully embrace it. Even as it was happening and we went out on the pitch meeting… it was one thing to think about it, until it’s sold and we’re on the set and they’re saying action, I didn’t allow myself to get fully invested because if it didn’t work out it would have been heartbreaking. The character is so close to me, such a personal thing for me. 35 years. I’ve lived this for most of my life now so the idea of it not happening, it would be like the girl coming back and saying let’s do it again and then not have a bride at the end… I would be devasted.
Media: Do you feel like you’re getting redemption now after being the bully for 35 years?
Billy: It’s not about the redemption. I love looking at him as a human and seeing what makes him tick, what’s under the hood. A lot of it’s what I brought to the character when we filmed the movie. A guy saw a ‘behind the scenes’ about that, where I explain how I never saw Johnny as the bad guy, I saw him as a misunderstood hero of his own story. A guy (Daniel LaRusso) that took his girlfriend and poured water on his head and so from his point of view, which enabled me to play Johnny, because he’s so far from who I am…. but it’s justified moments. So it’s not redemption, it’s just to get to see who he is a little bit is a lot of fun and rewarding.
Media: Your face when you first saw Daniel (at the car dealership) and he tried to help you, it was almost heartbreaking but you still have to portray Johnny a little more like that alpha male. Where is the balance for you in portraying that character?
Billy: It’s been painful to play this character. That moment when I’m in the dealership, I had a whole lot of other things my instincts [told me] about what I wanted to say to Daniel. What was the main question?
Media: Just finding the character balance because you still have to portray the alpha version of Johnny.
Billy: They’re writing him that way. He’s barking at the kids in the dojo… when he puts his headband on, it’s his permission to… when that headband goes on, anything can come out of his mouth and he can turn it on. He’s doing his best, he’s earnest. He was not taught right and he’s passing it on but there’s definitely the balance between soft and pathetic and alpha strong. It’s definitely not a conscious thing, at least on my part.
Media: Actor-wise, what was it like being on set with Ralph again?
Billy: Well we did an episode of How I Met Your Mother together, so we had a little warm-up on that where Barney Stinson thought Johnny Lawrence was the real hero of the Karate Kid and he has a bachelor party and he brings me around. So, we had been on the set. In this environment it was cool. The characters came alive, summonsing old friends to face off in the dojo. We’ve been working and seeing each other a lot, so it wasn’t too weird. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen him for 35 years and they threw us back in this environment. We had time over the years to become friends. We went on the pitch meetings with this so we kind of helped see this every step of the way.
Linda (Fan Fest News): I wanted to ask about the physical preparation for this role. I interviewed Jacob Bertrand [Hawk] and he had wonderful things to say about you.
Billy: Oh that’s so sweet.
Linda (Fan Fest News): He (Jacob) said you were ‘the real deal’ and loved training with you. You guys move around really well.
Billy: I had to get in shape. I lost a bunch of weight from the time we announced it at YouTube, I was almost 200 pounds of bad food. (laughs) So I went on a hard diet and [they] put me with a great trainer, Hiro Koda, who is our stunt choreographer. So he got me back into my fighting shape and thankfully I have not had injuries over the years, I don’t have a bad knee or hip or something but, it’s right there. It’s a little bit harder, you gotta work at it a little bit harder, stretch longer.
Linda: Do you really like Speedwagon? (smirks)
Billy: Heck yeah! (laughs) I love it man! All of ’em, all of ’em.
Media: In the original film, at the end, Johnny hands the trophy to Daniel. How do you feel Johnny has changed?
Billy: At the end of the movie, that was one my things, he kind of made peace at the end. A whole lot of life has happened to Johnny since then. It wasn’t just losing that kick and losing that point that he lost… he lost his way of life, his sensei, everything he trained and he kind of got derailed and unplugged from karate. There’s a lot of life that happened in between the two times that he sees Daniel. But, when he sees Daniel, it reminds him of that moment where everything shifted.
Media: We talk a lot about the karate but [then] we get to see Johnny’s father. Was that a part of your original thinking of [portraying] Johnny?
Billy: Well, how did he end up at Cobra Kai? He didn’t have a good family, good parents. They were distant. I did imagine him not having a father. They painted it out a little bit more, he just doesn’t know his dad. So maybe there is a Johnny dad out there somewhere. He’s gonna come back after all these years, you never know.
Media: Ohhh. Who might that be? (laughing)
Roundtable 3 with Cobra Kai star Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso)
Media: Yaaay! What’s your name and how are involved in this? (laughing)
Ralph: Can you imagine? (laughing)
Media: Has it been a long day?
Ralph: We’re shooting the show now so we started on the 26th of September and we go right to Santa Claus comes to town and then it will be out in the springtime, we don’t have a date yet but that’s the most I can give you at this point. We were shooting until about midnight Friday and I’ve got a 6 am tomorrow down in Atlanta.
Media: Well thank you for being here.
Media: So what made you say I wanna go back to The Karate Kid?
Ralph: That’s a good question. I said no for 30 years, there were no great ideas. Timing had something to do with it and the passion of Jon, Josh and Hayden. They’re the three greatest nicest, focused, passionate guys I’ve ever met and that are in the industry. They care. They care about this franchise, they care about these characters, they loved this movie growing up and they’ve done Harold and Kumar and Hot Tub Time Machine. OK, how does that work? How it does work is they knew how to write for the ‘now’ generation, sort of edgier comedy stuff and yet they wholeheartedly embrace the magic and the heart and soul of what The Karate Kid film was and is and has been for decades. When you think about that and you think of the show it has some not politically correct stuff, it’s not a rated R sex comedy but it has elements… you have to be able to say those things and do those things. It has the feels and all that stuff the sort of magic of what Miyagi was to Daniel and him losing his focus and finding his balance again and all those elements. It was a gut instinct that if I’m gonna do it, now’s the time. A year ago it wasn’t right, a year later it wasn’t right. These streaming platforms give you an opportunity to tell a five-hour movie cut up into ten half-hour parts so these characters can breathe and they can be a little gray and they can have flaws and slip and skin their knees and screw up and have to refind their focus. Whereas 10 years ago this would have to be a major motion picture sequel. You had your basic cable and you had your HBOs but you didn’t have your Netflix and YouTube. So, I think it’s timing and just the three wise men (producers Jon, Josh and Hayden) that came down. (laughing)
Media: I think what’s great about the show is that we do see Daniel, a lot more flawed then we may have thought about. How is he different to you now compared to then?
Ralph: I think the similarity is he was kind of a knee-jerk kinda kid. People would always say before the show, “What’s the difference between you and Daniel LaRusso?” The difference is me, I get beat up once. .. I would not go back. (laughing) I would not, as the guys rolling a joint pull out the hose and spray water, I’d think about doing it but I wouldn’t have done it. I guess he has that ‘couldn’t leave well enough alone’ element. He wouldn’t back down, he was not a wimp. But he had a great deal of heart and soul and goodness to him and I’d like to believe that’s the essence of who I am with a little bit of a heightened feistiness. I won’t back down when I see something wrong. If it’s 5 on 1, I’m probably not walking back into that. In essence, when I approach playing Daniel LaRusso as a man, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it. I just said you know I probably I should just approach it as I played Daniel LaRusso as a teenager. I always wanted to be a natural version of myself and then a heightened sort of feisty, edgy jerk kind of East coast bravado, which I understood, because this is home. The difference is there is wisdom and life that has happened from 1983 when I shot that movie to 2017 when I shot Season 1 (Cobra Kai) so I just let that live in my eyes and in my wisdom of just how I approach something as a parent. My kids are 26 and 22, which is just stupid! (laughing) But true. Life goes by fast. So, I approach parental scenes in the show, the guys have young kids too, [thinking] I’ve had this conversation with my daughter. It doesn’t always play out as it did for me because you’re still telling a story and you have to cater to what the story is but I bring that wisdom to the table. Life has happened, that’s a big difference. I approach it hopefully from the same naturalistic acting style that I did back then.
Linda (Fan Fest News): I really appreciate the conflict and hardships from The Karate Kid being replayed by the kids in Cobra Kai. It just never goes away. I spoke about the issues of bullying with Mary, Xolo and Jacob. What advice, if any, did you offer them in portraying their roles?
Ralph: The weirdest thing is when I do a scene with one of them, mainly with Tanner, I’m like wait, that’s my part! You’re way better than me now. It freaked me out. There was one scene when he comes in the dojo, I think it was episode 6 or something where he says, is that kata? I was teaching [and] explaining what it was, [but] I was always on the listening side of that and this Season 2, more than ever, as Daniel tries to bring forth the teachings of Mr. Miyagi only to learn it’s not so simple. I didn’t offer, they would come to me asking advice but the truth is they should play it instinctively just like I did at that time, this is my perspective on how I would do this and adding a little of the special sauce of LaRusso. They know better than I do what 2018 kids are dealing with. There wasn’t ‘play it this way’ or ‘play it that way’… I would love to take credit for how good they are.
Media: Did you ever have any thoughts looking back that maybe that kick was illegal? [That] my character was being a little bit of the antagonist?
Ralph: It’s interesting. Internet and media, the fanbase, the whole “sweep the leg”, “get him a body bag”, “illegal kick”, “justice for Johnny”… all this stuff that everyone talks about, I don’t think it was going on 15 years ago. I think it just started whether it was the How I Met Your Mother of it all, the Barney Stinson of it all that helped kick it into higher gear. “I’m nothing like Ralph Macchio, I hate Ralph Macchio.” (laughing) That was Barney’s line. I think that lent itself to it. I say the same thing, the fact that people are talking about this movie 35 years later, it’s awesome! Whether or not it was an illegal kick? Does the elbow to the knee that’s already injured [count as illegal]? Which is funny that in Cobra Kai all the kicks are to the head. And another brilliance is they used my entry in episode 2 with Dean Martin’s, Ain’t That A Kick In The Head. They carefully orchestrated all this stuff. I think the fact that Daniel LaRusso is the antagonist in 5 on 1 fights, I don’t know if it holds water but if it keeps people coming to the show, it’s all fun. I was just a guy that got the part, that hit the mark and said my line. Not every movie is perfect and the fact that it becomes pop culture, it’s a gazillion to 1, we’ll take it.
Media: Which scenes still stick with you?
Ralph: There’s many of them. Personally, I love the Miyagi graveyard scene. Those moments have special resonance. Also the callbacks, you know Johnny and Danny singing REO Speedwagon in the car. These two guys sitting in the bar realizing wow they are both very similar if they could only see through their crap. Or when Miguel says, “Hey sensei is there any way you want me to clean this window?” and Johnny’s like, “I don’t give a shit.” They did everything right, meaning our showrunners, but it’s a big collaborative effort and so hopefully we will get to do this for years to come.
Many thanks to the incredible Cobra Kai crew for taking time out of their busy schedules to sit down and chat about what it takes to continue a classic. Be sure to check out Season 1 of Cobra Kai available right now on YouTube Premium! Keep an eye out next year as the saga continues in Season 2.
You ARE the best around! 🙂