The Partnership: William Zabka and Ralph Macchio On “Enhancing The Legacy” Of Johnny Lawrence And Daniel LaRusso With ‘Cobra Kai’
When Cobra Kai was first announced as a new series based on the iconic The Karate Kid films, fans were immediately skeptical if the iteration would match up to the legendary status of the original. But creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg made the smart move by not only bringing back the decades-long feud between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), but also by turning the narrative away from Johnny’s downtrodden point of view seen in the films. The new take and a next generation of talented newcomers has made Cobra Kai one of Netflix’s most popular series on the streamer. In conversation with Stevie Wong, Macchio and Zabka explain the joys of The Karate Kid legacy and being able to revisit their characters through a fresh lens.
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DEADLINE: How was Cobra Kai initially pitched to you?
WILLIAM ZABKA: The creators, Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, emailed me out of the blue and said they had a project that they wanted to discuss. I had worked with Josh on Hot Tub Time Machine so I assumed it was some comedy that was brand new, but they sat me down in a Mexican restaurant and pitched Cobra Kai to me. And so that’s how I heard about it and I was stirred. Though I had a lot of questions, especially what was the tone of the show, because The Karate Kid is a beloved film for the family. It’s got a good heart and this version sounded a little like it’s would go into an R-rated comedy side. But the guys were super fans and had a reverence for The Karate Kid, and what they pitched was a merger of current and still had the emotion and all the sentiment of The Karate Kid mixed in.
RALPH MACCHIO: I was like, “I’ve heard my share of why we should go back to the well with Daniel LaRusso,” at some point over three decades, but nothing was ever really interesting. They were always short sighted, one-off ideas that would have a bigger chance of possibly tainting the legacy than enhancing the legacy. So, we met in New York City and I was stirred by their initial description of, “OK, we’re pitching this story not necessarily through the eyes of Daniel LaRusso at the onset.” Then I called Billy the next morning to talk about it and we mirrored each other’s concerns that we wanted to make sure our characters’ integrity was upheld. But the timing was just right. Creed had just come out and was quite successful from a perspective of entering the Rocky universe through the eyes of Apollo Creed’s kid. Looking at it now, everything just came together beyond our expectations.
DEADLINE: When Cobra Kai started, the biggest surprise was seeing Johnny Lawrence as the series underdog. Now that we’re heading into Season 4, it finally looks like Johnny and Daniel are on equal footing.
MACCHIO: When we started Season 1, Johnny was always the angle into the show and then these characters would flesh out. But what you discover is that Daniel and Johnny are actually very similar. Depending on which sensei they went with, is where their lives went. So just because it was happily ever after for LaRusso at the onset and down the rabbit hole of hell for poor Johnny Lawrence, when you start flipping these angles, you start seeing the flaws and the good heartedness in both. And I think at this point of the series, that’s really come to the surface in a great way.
ZABKA: Johnny Lawrence was the villain of the movie. He got a crane kick to his face, and for 35 years I’ve been carrying the torch of the quintessential ’80s asshole. So for me, I stepped in very gingerly wanting to make sure that they were going to humanize Johnny, that they weren’t going to double down on his dickness, that he was going to have a heart and a redemption arc, but with layers, and humanity.
What I love about this show is that if The Karate Kid never existed, this show could still exist. Even though we have The Karate Kid as our backstory, but in many ways, this is a brand new story of two men trying to make peace with their past, and grow, and fall forward and fail with their differences. They also need each other and without each other, they wouldn’t be where they are. People are really connecting with the humanity of these characters. And they’re finding themselves in not just Johnny and Daniel, but in all the kids. I think that’s why the show is working so well. And that’s really a credit to our writers.
MACCHIO: Yeah, he’s absolutely right. Because whether it’s bullying, whether it’s fathers and sons, the mentorship, or overcoming those obstacles as one of the teenagers in the show, or one of the adult characters, they’re all on that journey. And they are failing and succeeding. For the most part, almost every character has good intentions going forward. We have our villains. But the blurred lines of LaRusso and Lawrence as quintessential protagonist hero and bad guy, all that’s peeled away.
Everyone was cheering for that kid in 1984 and even though the adult character still has that heart and genuine good intention, you start seeing flaws and mistakes in his not so attractive qualities that he battles with. And therein lies a very rich adult role for me the actor, Ralph, to have the opportunity to play
DEADLINE: The show really takes its time breaking down every character and where they’re coming from.
ZABKA: Well, there’s a saying that every bully was once a victim. Everybody has a backstory and everybody has their point of view depending how a story is told. In the ’80s, we had these classic design stories like Rocky, where you had the bad guy, the good guy and the climactic ending. Today we have more of shades of grey and a longer format where we get the chance to dial into all the nuances of these characters, which I think is fantastic. Ralph and I talk about it all the time, you can take this show and look through the prism of any of the characters eyes and it works through their point of view. So the writers made a real point to make these three dimensional, deep, honest characters and we have a great cast that’s realizing that.
DEADLINE: What was it like for you guys to get back into fighting shape?
MACCHIO: I actually feel more ready for it finishing Season 4 than I did in Season 1 where I didn’t have to do much. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know at what level. It seems they add more and more fighting as we’re getting older and older [laughs].
It’s tougher, you move a little different, everything hurts a little bit more. It takes a lot more stretching and prep. We’re banging forearms together and the next morning we’re in the makeup trailers saying, “Hey, I got Macchio-ed, I got Zabka-ed,” pointing out our bruises. The young kids are spectacular, as we once were. But we work really hard at it. And within whatever limitations we may have, it’s a great deal of pride to pull it off the best we can.
ZABKA: I think also to the credit of the training that we had. Especially for me in The Karate Kid, I had Pat Johnson who really gave me the nuts and bolts of martial arts and my style. It’s all about recall and muscle memory and it’s really built into us. What we don’t have on the show, which we would love to have, is time. We had three months to do the final fights for The Karate Kid, even the skeleton outfit fence fight, we had plenty of rehearsals for that. On a show with this many fights and as much content and many characters and storylines, sometimes we’ll get one, two days, if that. I’m always surprised when I spar with Ralph how strong his blocks are. He has legitimate blocks. It feels like a baseball bat to my arms. I’m like, “Dude, chill out on that.” And he’s like, “Hey, I’m just trying to save my life.”
MACCHIO: I’m always in defensive mode [laughs]. We do have a rapport with each other not only in the written word, but in the physical stuff. We always look in each other’s eyes. It makes a difference because when you’re doing that I could see what he’s thinking, it’s really quite special in that way.
DEADLINE: How has it been surrounded by all this younger energy in your cast?
MACCHIO: It’s been rewarding for me. It’s something I wasn’t expecting doing the show. To share a little bit of the wisdom I may have over the years as an actor, a father, a husband, as a man who’s not 20 anymore, getting to hand that down and telling those stories. And then this great young cast that absorbs everything and gives back to me, that’s been really kind of wonderful going forward.
ZABKA: When we started four years ago, these kids were all novices. Now they are growing into young adults. They were me and Ralph when we started The Karate Kid. They didn’t know how to lift their leg at first, but these kids are turning into legitimate martial artists, let alone actors. So we’re watching this happen and it reminds me of what happened to me. I was a recipient of great training at the origins of The Karate Kid. And Ralph, his kick exploded all the dojos across the country and in the world.
As far as being mentor, I think I’m more like the fun camp counsellor. We always try to keep a positive set, good attitudes, good work ethic, friendly, fun, safe, all those things. I don’t get too much in their business. I try to lead by example, because they’re very capable actors. I’m always marvelled at their talent and what they bring to the day. Ralph and I like to take a pause and let them do all the fighting.
MACCHIO: Pull up a chair, take our shoes off, eat some babka. They are spectacular. These kids really care and come to work every day with a great sense of pride. It’s really rewarding in that way.
DEADLINE: Johnny is definitely stuck in the ’80s. How has that been for you to play?
ZABKA: It’s been very fun. He’s very much a caveman and an artifact of the ’80s. I have the benefit because I’ve lived through all the changes. I was there before cell phones and computers. But to see this guy fishing up the river, going the wrong way, it’s always funny to watch and it’s super fun to play. One of my favorite scenes is when Aisha (Nichole Brown) walks into the dojo in Season 1 and says, “I’m here to join karate.” I reply, “I’m sorry, we don’t accept girls in the dojo.” And she says, “Why?” I say, “Same reason why there’s no women in the army, it doesn’t make sense, they have tiny hollow bones.” Those lines are just so juicy to play and when you play it straight, it’s just hysterical. I love playing that trajectory of a guy that’s learning as he’s going. And I remember what it was like before Facebook and the internet and all that. And there was a simplicity about that. So, here he’s getting educated into the modern world and there some trappings with that as well as the benefits.
MACCHIO: But the thing that I love so much is that it comes up clueless and innocent because he is in that time zone in his mind. And it logically makes sense from Billy’s perspective. When LaRusso is in witness of this, he has to then navigate through the ridiculousness. So therein lies that element of comedy, where once again, don’t shine a light on the Johnny Lawrence of it all, but play the flip reaction of the world reacting to him. It really is well executed.
DEADLINE: Speaking of the ’80s, what has been your favorite tune from the soundtrack?
MACCHIO: There are lots of good ones, there’s the REO Speedwagon singalong in Episode 9 of Season 1. “Back In Black” by AC/DC peppered here and there, Queen in almost every season.
ZABKA: Foreigner. All of these are songs that we grew up with. I mean, this is a soundtrack of my life. It’s very authentic. And I used to listen to those acts, this is not movie-making. That’s just like, a video of my life from before.
MACCHIO: You mean eight tracks.
ZABKA: And those songs work today, they’re anthems. And I love that the new generation of kids are discovering these songs as a great new song. I don’t know, you weren’t even a thought back when that song was written.
MACCHIO: You see these teenagers wearing the Zeppelin, AC/DC and Metallica shirts. It’s awesome. They talk about the four-quadrant show, right? You have parents and kids and grandparents watching and this show has those elements of nostalgia, yet firmly planted in the relevance of today.
DEADLINE: What has it been like to bring these guys back?
MACCHIO: It’s been great. I mean, everyone is on their A-game. When any characters from the original films come back, they enhance the story. It’s great for us. It’s just warm and fuzzy because we love these people and they helped create this story that is such a big part of our lives. It also gives the show such rich credibility beyond just the Johnny/ Daniel rivalry. It’s just branched off into so many different areas and characters and storylines.
Last season when I went to Okinawa, reconnecting with Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) and Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), from how Daniel LaRusso deals with Johnny Lawrence back in the states. The essences of yesterday give information for today.
ZABKA: When [director] John Avildsen cast us for the film, he put a chemistry together with the personalities and the people we are, that is still working. The friendships I made on Karate Kid, the Cobra Kais, they’ve been my best friends since the movie wrapped and we’ve done real road trips to Big Bear and they’ve spent the night at my house. So when they got to come back, it was like a reunion. Same with Elisabeth Shue, having worked with her, it was very, very easy to get that chemistry back instantly.
DEADLINE: What can you say about Season 4?
MACCHIO: What I’m most looking forward to in the Daniel/Johnny team up is the challenge. Navigating their varied personalities and stubborn mindsets as they work toward the same endgame. Their history is nuanced and multi-layered. They are wired so differently even though their intentions are aligned. Billy and I love diving into the friendship as well as the rivalry. This is what [executive producer] Hayden Schlossberg has always called the Ross and Rachel element of our show. It makes for great comedy as well as heightened drama within Season 4.
ZABKA: I was thrilled Johnny and Daniel found common ground and aligned themselves at the end of Season 3. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It’s a great note and launching point for all that’s ahead in the story.
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