Series stars kick up a conversation about new season
Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
Just like the three tenets scrolled across the dojo wall suggest, “Cobra Kai” struck first, struck hard, and showed no mercy when it debuted on Netflix in 2020.
The further adventures of Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi (in spirit) vs. Johnny Lawrence and John Kreese (in the flesh) shot to the top of the streamer – which was a remarkable feat, considering the series had a less-than-favorable start when it debuted on the less-than-successful YouTube Red in 2018. But with more people at home last summer – voluntary or otherwise – and sweatpants the new universal dress code, comfort was key. Television was a basic necessity, and nostalgia a treasured friend.
To that end – and like a knight in shining armor from a long time ago – “Cobra Kai” was the hero we were dreaming of. It provided all the feels for fans of John G. Avildsen’s 1984 film and its Okinawan-set 1986 sequel, while also presenting a fresh take on the characters.
Picture it: The skinny kid from Reseda who shocked the karate world with his All Valley upset of the reigning and defending champ is now a husband and father of two, crane-kicking his way to the top of the suburban car dealership game. His beaten opponent, who also wed and had a child, is down and out, his only companion the Coors Banquet in the fridge and the boxed-up Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues of yesteryear.
But now imagine this: In season one, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) – sans the deceased Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) – has become a little unlikable. No longer an underdog, Daniel-san has lost his luster. Instead, “The Karate Kid” we’re rooting for is Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) – Johnny Lawrence – the guy who tormented Daniel, broke Ali’s (Elisabeth Shue) radio, and led a karate biker gang.
From left, “Cobra Kai” writer/director Josh Heald, writer/director Jon Hurwitz, and William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence. (Cr. Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix © 2020)
In a recent Netflix special, Macchio said, “At the onset … the angle opening the show was how to get into ‘The Karate Kid’ universe from a different perspective, and so through the eyes of Johnny Lawrence, and William’s character, whatever happened to this guy that we had little backstory of? So, we knew there was going to be a redemption story going in. How gray the areas were, and how LaRusso and Lawrence, at certain times, would become the antagonist to the other, is part of the fun of it all. And that's the cool thing and the thing that's the most different from ‘The Karate Kid’ films, which was so clearly black and white, good over evil – you know, Daniel, good; Johnny, bad. This show, ‘Cobra Kai,’ all those lines have blurred; and I think it creates a deeper dive and a more multidimensional way to look at these characters. Your allegiance changes some – who you're rooting for – and that's kind of fun.”
Johnny opts to reopen a Cobra Kai karate studio and – get this – trains bullied kids. Though miles from PC, Johnny starts to see there is a place for mercy – in karate, and in life.
Sensei Lawrence takes a particular shine to Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) who, despite the objections of his mother, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), takes up karate, learns how to defend himself – and wins the heart of Daniel’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser).
At the same time, Johnny’s estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), takes a job at LaRusso Luxury Motors. Though initially there to make trouble, he soon finds himself under Daniel’s wing. Training alongside Sam in the Miyagi-Do technique, Robby finds self-discipline and abandons his delinquent tendencies.
When Robby’s mom leaves town, Daniel and Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) welcome him into their home.
Daniel decides it’s time to rid the world of Cobra Kai, and begins a campaign to close down Johnny’s chop-shop. The two old rivals become new enemies (sometimes frenemies), each trying to convince California youth theirs is the true karate.
Of course, in the season finale, Miguel and Robby find themselves in the finals of the All Valley Championship – competing in the same arena where their instructors sparred three decades earlier. This time around, however, it’s Cobra Kai that gets the win.
Zabka said, “All they had to do was give Johnny a little redemptive (arc), a little goodness. He was so bad – for three decades, he was the biggest jerk; he was the villain; but it flips.”
Just as Johnny is starting to find his groove, his own master, John Kreese (Martin Kove) shows up. The root of all evil in “The Karate Kid” universe vows he’s changed, but secretly spends season two trying to take back Cobra Kai. He turns Johnny’s students against each other – and sets them at war with Sam, Robby and the Miyagi-Do students.
In the season finale, an all-out brawl breaks out at the high school. Kreese’s top fighter – Tory (Peyton List) – makes a beeline for Sam, even going so far as to whip-out a Wolverine-like claw. Robby and Miguel duke it out, too, but with dire consequences. As Miguel has Robby on the ground, he opts to show the mercy Johnny recently found.
Robby gets up and kicks Miguel over a railing, sending him down several flights and onto the stairs, leaving him clinging to life.
Johnny is down and out at the start of “Cobra Kai” season three. (Courtesy of Netflix © 2020)
Netflix released all 10 episodes of the third season on New Year’s Day. The story picks up with Miguel paralyzed from the waist down. Sam is shell-shocked and scarred from her fight with Tory. Johnny has gone on a bender, and Daniel – at Amanda’s request – has ceased teaching karate. Kreese, believing he has won, continues to teach his students to take no prisoners. Robby is on the lam, and believes he has no allies.
Desperate to find guidance – and save his dealership, which has taken a public relations hit since the school fight – Daniel travels back to Mr. Miyagi’s home in Okinawa. There, he finds some familiar faces who help him regain his mojo, er, dojo, that is.
As part of a recent Netflix press junket, Maridueña, Mouser, Henggeler and Rubio shared thoughts on season three in a Zoom chat with BTS. An edited Q&A follows.
Sam (Mary Mouser) turns to Daniel to rediscover her strength. (Photos courtesy of Netflix © 2020/top image credit: Tina Rowden)
Q: I think actors don’t always get enough credit for some of the things they're asked to do. Specifically, I want to ask you, when you shoot such an emotionally gripping, edge-of-your-seat season finale, you shoot it, but then you're done. You go home and you live your life, and however many months go by. And then you're asked to come right back. You're right back into that scene, right back into that character. What is the challenge in doing that, and what is the process?
Mary Mouser: You know, I think that definitely is a really difficult aspect – especially with a show like this, where the actual connectability – the issues – are so far from our own realities. Such as, you know, karate dojos battling it out and having that be the biggest issue in the town. It's complicated, but at the same time it's very simple because, walking back onto the set is usually what just brings it all back all of a sudden. I can have several months away from it, and then I walk back into the backyard of Mr. Miyagi’s house and it's like, “Oh, I'm here again.” And my brain goes straight back to where I was. It's a little surreal; I feel like I'm living a little bit in the past for half my year.
Xolo Maridueña: Yeah, I guess for me, fortunately, I went from having a super, super-intense season finale to having to just sleep for a few episodes.
But I will say, that aside, I love stuff like that. I feel like playing a character who's always on top and always winning is fun or whatever, but having a character like Miguel, like Robby, like a lot of our characters on the show who have your victories and your failures, that's my favorite first episode. Although it might be hard to kind of get back into it when, in theory, no time has passed when you're watching it, it's definitely well worth it.
Vanessa Rubio: I feel like these characters kind of – they live with you in a certain way; and you know that you're going to go back into filming, so you allow that to happen. And when you go back to set and you get back in the clothes – for me, the clothes really speak to me a lot. Coming back to set, sometimes I look at Carmen's wardrobe and I'm like, “Oh, Carmen.” I just love the character so much, and all of the relationships are just anchored into place now that it's kind of in a good flow.
And Carmen’s introduction into season three, it's like, “Oh my god”; it’s like the joy and love of your life is laying in a hospital bed. It's not fun. But, we do get to see her come out of it, along with Miguel getting out of the wheelchair. And that is a really good comeback for both of the characters. We’re like, “OK, now we're back on our feet and we can see a little bit more clearly; and how are we going to live life now, now that we’ve learned these lessons?”
Miguel ends up in a hospital following the school brawl, much to the chagrin of his mother, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio), and grandmother, Rosa (Rose Bianco). (Photos courtesy of Netflix © 2020)
Q: I want to share some IMDb user ratings with you: “Wizard of Oz,” 8; “Casablanca,” 8.5; original “Star Wars,” 8.6; “Get Out,” 7.7; “Schitt’s Creek,” 8.5; “Cobra Kai,” 8.7 – with the final two episodes 9 and 9.6. It's one thing for “Karate Kid” fans to be excited about the series, but when general user reaction is that high, what does that say about the quality of work you are putting forth?
Vanessa Rubio: We’re doing something right.
Xolo Maridueña: Yeah, I'd love to sit here and take all the credit, but really, I think, you know, it dwindles down to our creators, Josh (Heald), Jon (Hurwitz) and Hayden (Schlossberg). They definitely have the most heart when it comes to creating this series – and it shows; they are the biggest “Karate Kid” fans that I know. And really, I think, aside from that, the fact that they were able to get Ralph Macchio and William Zabka to reprise their roles for this 30-something years later down the line, I think just speaks for itself.
I'm excited. Obviously, hearing those numbers and stuff like that is always a joy; but really the biggest joy is getting to film with everyone and getting to actually make the stuff.
Vanessa Rubio: Definitely. I mean, there must be something that is happening right, correctly. I think that's hopefully not going to go away, because I think we’ve all come at it with our best intentions, and giving it all of our love and our focus and work. So I think that shows.
Mary Mouser: It definitely feels validating (laughs). I think we've all been working our butts off, you know, to make this show as special as possible for however many viewers we may or may not have – and with no intention of doing it to achieve any such rating or fame or anything like that. But it's very exciting. For me, it feels very good – in my soul – to know that it's doing it. Like, the thing that I worked so hard to convey, or that we've all put our pieces into, actually worked. (That) people are really enjoying it to that level is crazy.
Courtney Henggeler: I think the heart of our show, it shows in those ratings. I think, once again, the creators made the show because they had a sincere passion for “The Karate Kid” universe, and I think it shows. And I think if it was in anybody else's hands who didn't have the connection that these men have with “The Karate Kid” universe, I don't know if it would be a quarter of the success; because they come from such a place of passion – and it's infectious. It starts at the top, and they love it, and we love it, and Ralph and Billy are just inspiring to work with. I think that it just shows we got heart.
Ugh. Kreese (Martin Kove) is back on "Cobra Kai." (Courtesy of Netflix © 2020)
Q: Ralph has said in different interviews that your creators have really treated this sort of like “Star Wars,” respecting the mythology, the characters, the fans. I know all of you came into this series with different levels of experience with the original trilogy. You know, the fans are getting all the feels here. I'm wondering if you've gone back and you've watched the films and you sort of understand, now, why it's so important to treat this almost-40-year-old story with such respect and such special care?
Vanessa Rubio: It's such a special story – and I felt it way back when, when I was growing up watching it. You feel that stuff. It's not like you have to dig around for it.
Yeah, we just treat it with respect, because we have really great creators and producers who are the hugest fans and who have really grown this thing. It comes from a beautiful base of a story. And John G. Avildsen was a wonderful director who was able to give that story with so much heart. … And, of course, Mr. Miyagi. I mean, Mr. Miyagi, it’s like we have to do justice by what Pat Morita and Mr. Miyagi gave us. There was nothing fake about that, there was something that was real about it. So, it lives on.
Xolo Maridueña: I agree with what she's saying. I think we are a little bit lucky that this isn't a remake and it’s a continuation. Like, nobody can really tell us what these guys’ lives would be like 40 years down the line. We really are, for the most part – and not we – our writers, our creators – are creating this universe that they have to come up with. And I think they did a really great job of setting up that universe in season one, and fleshing out those characters in season two. But I think season three really is like what they've been wanting to do all along. I think once they've gained the trust of the audience and now, obviously, people enjoy the show, now they can tell the stories that they really want to tell – à la like the Kreese backstory and stuff like that. So, you really start to see that these characters aren't just two-dimensional – like “bad guy.” Daniel is “underdog good guy.” They really have a great way of fleshing characters out and making you see both sides to the same story. And I think, as long as we're able to continue making the show, that hopefully fans will continue enjoying it.
Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) and Daniel have to save their business, their family and their karate in season three of “Cobra Kai.” (Cr. Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix © 2020)
Q: Since you switched over to Netflix, everything about this show has exploded. I'm wondering what the fan reaction has been like – how it's been different – and if you have any notable fan stories that you can share since switching over to Netflix?
Courtney Henggeler: I think our viewership has just exploded, obviously, and that is phenomenal in its own right. As far as fans, I think that the reach that it has is probably the most interesting thing to me. The messages I'm getting that aren't in English, that I'm always Google translating in my DMs, and everything I don't know. I always like it. I'm like, “I'm sure they're saying something nice! I think I recognize one of these words. That's the stuff that kind of gets me. I'm like, “I don't even know what country that is; I don't even know what language that is, but goddamn it you love our show.”
Mary Mouser: It's so exciting. I mean, obviously, I'm still staying at home and staying safe and all. But, you know, a lot of social media interaction – and seeing people's reactions, you know, it is so widespread – and it's worldwide, which is so crazy cool.
I feel like we used to be kind of like a secret club. And now we've just opened up the doors and everybody's a member of the secret club – which is a club I'd much prefer to be in anyway. So, I don't know. It feels incredibly exciting.
The only fan interaction that I've had in person, so far, was the one time that I was desperate enough to stop in a Starbucks inside of a Vons. And the guy next to me – I was like wearing a mask, wearing a hat – like really just being as protective as I could. I had my glasses on. I feel like I looked nothing like myself. And somehow the guy, this guy standing next to me with his girlfriend – this is what usually happens with fans. If they're gonna say something, they don't say something to me directly, they say words in my vicinity that might cause me to turn around.
So, he started with going like, “So, season three, blah blah blah blah.” And I was like, “Oh, season three, oh, that's probably not even about (‘Cobra Kai’). I'm just excited about season three.” And then he was like, “Babe, have you watched? Have you ever done karate?” And I was like, “Ah, karate, wait a minute!” And then he was like, “Babe, have you watched ‘Cobra Kai’?” And he said it so clearly, and I like turned around and I caught myself. I was like, “Maybe I'm intruding and this is weird.” So I pretended I didn't hear that. And then he was like, “Oh, excuse me, are you an actress?” And that's always the first question I get. I’m like, “Yes. That is my job.” (Laughs)
•Editor’s Spoiler Warning: If you’ve seen season three, then you know Robby has aligned himself with Kreese, and wants no part of Johnny or Daniel.
Robby (Tanner Buchanan), once a promising Miyagi-Do student, has lost his way. He is now estranged from both Johnny and Daniel. (Photos courtesy of Netflix ©/bottom image Cr. Curtis Bonds Baker)
Q: We know that one of the big themes of season three is redemption. As we go into season four, is there a hope for redemption for Robby?
Mary Mouser: I think, what’s interesting, everybody’s saying “redemption” for season three. When I look at season three, I definitely see redemption, but – and I've said this before – to say that you can explain someone's behavior without excusing it, more so than redeeming, I see more like explanation. I see, in season three, just like explaining how people have become what they are, and explaining why they are what they are. Then you get to decide whether that redeems them or not. Because that's the fun of “Cobra Kai,” is everybody's the good guy and the bad guy, and you get to choose what you believe in.
I think that's super fun. I think Robby's character, you know, just like the rest of us, we're all humans, and I think we all deserve some love and forgiveness; but at the same time, there's a lot of hurt everywhere. So, I guess it's kind of up to every individual viewer to decide who gets to be redeemed or not.
Q: And Courtney, you opened up your home to this kid! I mean, come on.
Courtney Henggeler: I know, but I think that we knew that Robby wasn't going to be a simple cakewalk. He came in very complicated, and we were willing to accept that, and we love him, and we think that Miyagi-Do is a good place. So, whatever people want to do, if they ever want to come back, the doors will always be open. But I know nothing else.
Q: Martin Kove and Billy Zabka, they've done a great job of being working actors, they've had good careers; but there are some “Karate Kid” fans that certainly know them, most specifically, for their roles in “The Karate Kid.” They know them as sort of sleazy ’80s bad guys, if you will. What can you tell us about what these men are like in real life?
Xolo Maridueña: Oh man (laughs). OK, so I'll start with Marty because, although he is like the greatest guy ever, I feel like he just lives (in Kreese). Kreese is Marty – like, there is no doubt about it. I don't know if he was that way before he was Kreese, but ever since I’ve known him, he's radiated this. And it's not like – it's intimidating without meaning to be intimidating. The guy just walks around with this face of, like, “I'm about to mess some stuff up.”
But Billy, on the other hand, is the sweetest man ever. He really is. And they're honestly, they're both such pleasures to work with.
It really goes to show like, man, people – I don't want to say hated, but for lack of a better word, people hated Johnny when they watch that first movie. And they really were so angry and believed that he was the true villain. And I think it's so cool to see that, just in the first episode of “Cobra Kai” – in 20-something minutes (of) 30-whatever minutes that it is – you can get people who have spent 34, I think 34 years at that point, being like, “Johnny is the villain.” And just in 30 minutes, having them be like, “Actually, I really like Johnny now.”
I think it goes to show just how much, not only how good of an actor Billy is, but how believable the universe is.
Q: I'm assuming you're excited to get back out and be shooting again. Most of the actors I talk to are just champing at the bit to get back to work.
Mary Mouser: It's been a long year. I will be excited to be on a set, whenever that happens. Definitely. Just to, you know, smell craft services again – through a mask.
Courtney Henggeler: Yes, that will be nice. The day that we get to go back to work will be a very exciting day. I look forward to that day.
All three seasons of “Cobra Kai” are now streaming on Netflix.