The following interview contains light spoilers for Cobra Kai Season 3.
William Zabka is doing push-ups. That makes sense.
The 55-year-old Cobra Kai star is gearing up for the release of his third go-around as down-and-out Karate master Johnny Lawrence in the YouTube-turned-Netflix hit series—a 34-years-later action-dramedy sequel to The Karate Kid. But before that comes, he’s got talking to do. That includes some time with me on Zoom, and, apparently, just enough time beforehand to get a quick pump in.
It sure isn’t the intensive training he does before production begins on new Cobra Kai seasons, though. He tells me that about a month before filming, he usually does “hard Karate training” with Simon Rhee, a master martial artist who also has Hollywood experience, starring in the 1989 film Best of the Best. From there, Zabka works with the show’s stunt team (Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman) to choreograph and plan every fight, martial art, and stunt we see in the show.
But while the fighting might be the initial draw to Cobra Kai, it’s only really half the equation—because the show, which comes from Harold & Kumar creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, along with Hot Tub Time Machine scribe Josh Heald—is also incredibly funny, something Zabka puts a lot of time into working on as well. When the show first started, Zabka was a bit nervous about the show’s tonal balance. But it didn’t take long for him to be sold.
“At first, there was a little bit of how far out is this going to go into comedy land, but they assured me the tone was going to be right,” he says. “After watching the first season, I was like, ‘Okay, you guys fully nailed it. You got the balance right between the comedy and the heart and the action and the nostalgia.’ I love those guys.”
And as he says multiple times: “It’s working.” Early returns on Cobra Kai Season 3 look like more of the same: a huge hit on Netflix’s charts, and a lot of pleased fans. In our full conversation below, Zabka seems not only excited about the product that’s come so far, but seems to be just as excited about what’s to come in the future.
Does it feel nostalgic doing scenes with Martin Kove and Ralph Macchio again?
Every time we’re together, there’s nostalgia, whether it’s a fighting scene or it’s REO Speedwagon, bopping our heads in the car. One of my favorite scenes with Martin Kove, who plays Kreese, is in Season Two when he tells me he’s staying at some fancy hotel, and Johnny follows him home, and he’s staying at a shelter for vets—he’s been lying to Johnny the whole time. There’s this moment where Kreese is saying he’s a failure, and he kind of gets humbled for a minute there. Johnny reaches out and says, “It sound an awful lot like defeat, but I was taught defeat doesn’t exist in this dojo,” and gives him a second chance.
I love those moments to get to act with him, and that’s nostalgia in a new way, because it’s the characters today and how they react, interact as adults instead of an 18-year-old to a man [like in The Karate Kid].
That’s something I think the show has done really well. Between your character, Kreese, and Tory, the show manages to humanize characters who could have otherwise been two-dimensional villains. Obviously Johnny isn’t really a villain anymore, but you know what I mean, right?
Totally do. I love the relationship that Kreese has with these new kids, and Tory is a great example. That’s how a Kreese gets in charge of these kids’ lives—there’s a moment of weakness, a moment of need, and then in comes some support, and it could be deceiving in a way and get lured in, and now she’s lured in under his spell in a way. It’s a lot like what may have happened to Johnny when he was a kid. He was lost and had a need, and Kreese kind of filled it in.
The great thing about Kreese is he’s not just all bad. He believes what he says. His intentions are good, but he’s so misdirected. He’s not evil. He comes from a different cloth, a different time, a different experience with Vietnam in the ’60s and where he came from. He’s bringing that forward. It polluted the kids of the ’80s, and now the ’80s are doing the same to these kids. It’s a little bit of a look into the generations entangled and the good and the bad that can come from that, because a lot of good does come from that, too, in the show.
You seem to have really developed a strong relationship with the kids, particularly Xolo. Do you have any sort of mentor/mentee relationship like in the show?
I think it kind of goes all ways, because the energy these kids bring to the set—and I call them kids, but they’re growing up before my eyes—I think that they look to me and Ralph as the original characters, and we’re the older guys, so I don’t know how they look at us as mentors. I suppose it happens subliminally by osmosis more. It’s a two-way street with these actors. They’re really talented actors, and we’re actors, and we’re given some great material, so as much as we feed and mentor them, their energy feeds these scenes and feeds us back.
It’s like real kids in real life. If you have kids, they give you back. I love working with Xolo and with Jacob and all the Cobra Kais and all the kids. They energize me as an actor and the character. They make me rise to the occasion, and I hope the same is said back.
What do you think is the key to making Johnny such a likable character? People who watched The Karate Kid movie were sort of socialized to root for Ralph’s character, and now, almost automatically, we’re rooting for your character.
It’s told in a way, longform, where we can really do a deep dive in these characters and get to see it’s not just ending after two hours. It’s longform storytelling, so we can really kind of dive in and get to see what makes them tick. I think the things that Johnny has that makes him tick are things that you would want to root for. I do. I’m rooting for the character. I love his work ethic. I love his badassery. I love his style. I love that he’s uninformed, that he’s a little bit out of touch. He’s trying to still make it work.
I think that there’s something in all of us that are trying to make it work, and maybe that Johnny gives people a little something, a little inspiration. Maybe.
“Johnny’s a lot like… he’s a caveman in a sense, an artifact of the ’80s that you pull out. It’s a little brazen, but also his intentions are all good.”
You touched on one of my favorite recurring scenes: Johnny learning things on the internet. What do you make of these sequences? Do you relate with Johnny’s struggle in any way?
Listen, I was there when the first MAC LCs came out, and, “You’ve got mail,” and all that was born. So I have a good reference point to when this all started, as opposed to kids today who are born into that world. I was there at the origins of it. I went from having a dial-up phone to a cell phone, and now we have a computer and all that.
I also lived in the time in my youth when there was no internet and the world wasn’t so close, and it wasn’t this big consciousness that’s all in one place, and everybody had their own thing. There’s something fresh about that, for better or worse.
Johnny’s a lot like… he’s a caveman in a sense, an artifact of the ’80s that you pull out. It’s a little brazen, but also his intentions are all good. I love “Send it to the internet,” that he’s so disconnected from that.
There’s something, I think, refreshing about that, because we’re all so sucked into the moments in the phone, the news cycles and the feeds, and everybody’s thoughts coming at us at the same time from every angle, and you just can’t process it. There’s something refreshing about somebody that has nothing to do with that and is just about helping a kid, opening a dojo, fixing a pipe, just trying to make things work.
It’s old school. It’s cool. It’s like a little throwback, and I think somehow it’s refreshing to play and fun to play and challenging to play, but I think it’s translating well and somehow giving people a good laugh.
Also, you don’t judge him, because he doesn’t know better. He’s kind of got a blind ambition. It’s cool.
And of course all of that is leading up to Elisabeth Shue returning as Ali. What was it like working with her again?
Yeah, totally. We rolled it out for her. I mean, the storyline, she was such a big part of… I think she kind of instigated everything between Johnny and Daniel. She’s kind of the, almost, cause of it all. If there was no Ali, maybe this never would have happened.
But I love working with Lisa. I loved that when Johnny got crane kicked in the face, he lost his title, he lost his sensei, he lost his girl, and that was the one thing that was going good for him before all this came down, so the fact that we kind of played on that in the first two seasons up to Elisabeth coming in was awesome.
I love working with her. It was like seeing an old friend from high school, and in between scenes, we’re talking about our real families and our real life, and then they say, “Action,” and we’re doing these characters that were just like right there. She’s super fun. She’s a great actress, and the Golf N Stuff date, we just laughed the whole time. I don’t think we stopped laughing, and when she won the little stuffed animal, and she shoved it at me, you can’t really see it, but she kind of hits it into me really hard. Super competitive. Playing air hockey, she wanted to beat me all the time. She’s competitive and fun, and it was lovely to have her.
I think they did a great job writing her into the show so it makes sense and works and pushes the show forward and serves her well as an actress too.
The sense of humor is a big part of Cobra Kai. When you were coming to the show at first, did part of you have any doubts that the guys behind Harold and Kumar—and I know you worked with Josh [Heald] on Hot Tub Time Machine—would mesh well with The Karate Kid?
Yeah, caution. I wouldn’t say doubt, but that was my first question when they pitched me this show. Knowing where they were going with it and hearing how it was going to be comedic and this and that, I said, “What’s the tone? The Karate Kid is a family movie, and you guys are these kind of comedy writers and all that,” but they are such big fans of the Karate Kid universe and all the movies, from one, two, three, and four, that it’s very reverent for them, and they are super fans of the franchise. At their core, they’re all mensches. They’re just great, great guys—big hearts.
I love those guys. I had worked with Josh. I knew Jon and Hayden. I had always felt like there was something for the three of us at some point, and when they brought this to me, it was just like the right guys, the right time, and they got it right, and we all did our part on it, the whole cast. It’s working.
Do you have more fun flexing the comedy muscle or the karate muscle these days?
That’s a great question. Well, the karate is sort of second nature, and I love the fighting. I get into that mode, but I love the levels and the different stuff that they throw at me. Just watching Iron Eagle on the television, and throwing a bottle through it or laying on the floor, just some of the lines that I get to say and all that. I love the comedy of it, but it’s not just comedy. It’s drama, too. It’s dramedy in a way.
I love it all, but if I had to do one or the other… that’s a great question. I don’t know. I love the physicality. The physicality is really Johnny Lawrence. At the core, he’s a physical guy. Equally. I like them equally.
Johnny loves Banquet Beer. Do you share that love?
Ironically, Coors was the beer my dad drank when I grew up. I think my first sip of beer was a Coors Light in the backyard of the house actually scraping the fence. We used to paint our fence every year, funny enough.
I think it’s funny that they gave him a Coors Banquet. I love the bottle of it. I love the look of it. I love what it says. There’s a lot of things that it says. I think he could lay off the beer a little bit. I think that might be a good thing for his character. He might find some clarity in his life if he got away from the bottle. But, it’s a go-to crutch for him—that’s another blind spot in him, and he doesn’t realize it.
What I really love more than the Coors Banquet is I love how Carmen, Miguel’s mom, has stirred up some emotion in Johnny, and I love how he’s always trying to serve her fresh orange juice and how she’ll give him milk. He tries to clean himself up, put oranges in the basket. He knows better. He’s trying to work it out. I love the Coors Banquet bit. I think it’s a really fun part of the character.
“This universe of the Cobra Kai is expanding, and there’s many micro stories that are taking off. It has a ways to go yet before it lands, and as long as it stays true and challenging and authentic and it’s speaking to people, who knows, really?”
Johnny also wears some really cool jackets in Season 3, from denim to a wild red one that looks similar to an outfit from the original film. Do you and Johnny have similar senses of style?
That’s wardrobe. We try to do stuff that’s reflective of the colors Johnny would wear. Johnny tends to be in the reds and the maroons type of thing.
I don’t wear that stuff in real life. I wear the concert T’s. I wear the flannels. I wear lots of T-shirts, a lot of baseball shirts, stuff like that, but no. That’s not my style. That’s Johnny, and he’s a lot of fun to do today. I love it when he pulls out like a Members Only style type of jacket that he wears proudly, and it’s just ridiculous.
Obviously the first two seasons of Cobra Kai were big, and landing on Netflix made them even bigger. Now this is the first season debuting on Netflix. Assuming everything goes according to plan, how long do you see this ride going? Is there an end in sight?
There’s a few things to that. I mean, I think as long as it’s ringing true with the fans and it’s staying on point, I know it’s been arc’ed out from the very beginning for at least six seasons, so we’re at a halfway point here. As long as the stories stay fresh and it stays relevant and on point, I think it can go for… Who knows when it could stop? We don’t want to overstay our welcome with it. I think it’s for a good time right now, and it’s entertaining people, and season three, I agree, is going to be a fun surprise, and season four.
The story’s building. This universe of the Cobra Kai is expanding, and there’s many micro stories that are taking off. It has a ways to go yet before it lands, and as long as it stays true and challenging and authentic and it’s speaking to people, who knows, really?
Last thing: Season 4. What can you tell us?
I know we’re gearing up at some point here soon, but nothing I can share publicly. We’re moving forward. Season 4 is happening. We live in a different time right now, and there’s a lot of safety protocols that have to be taken into account. The most important thing is, in all these shows that are going right now, is everybody’s safety and doing things right.
Sooner than you think. Sooner than you think.
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