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Cobra Kai William Zabka Interview: Johnny Is An 'Analog Man In A Digital World'

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The Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai premiered on YouTube Red this week and many have likely already binged the entire 10-episode first season. Those who have already, or are currently making their way through the first season were introduced to a Johnny Lawrence who is far removed from the young man he was in the 1984 film. It’s no spoiler to say that Johnny’s a little down and out, and is in need of a pick-me-up — the exact opposite of a crane kick to the face, if you will. And with that the new series begins. 

The series relies on the return of both William Zabka  as Lawrence and Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, now the Auto King of the San Fernando Valley. But, at the series start anyway, it almost seems as though Cobra Kai just simply wouldn’t have worked without Zabka and the potential for a (arguably very bumpy) redemption story that is perhaps 34 years in the making. Johnny is, in many ways, the show’s raison d’être, though the actor would be the first to tell you it’s really more about him and Daniel. 

More: Cobra Kai Interview: Ralph Macchio On Bringing Daniel Back & Johnny’s New Role

Zabka spoke with Screen Rant before the premiere of Cobra Kai and shared some details on how the project came about, where Johnny Lawrence is in his life, and why he’s excited to be part of YouTube Red. Check out his comments below:

[The interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Tell me a little bit about how the project came about and when you knew it was something you wanted to be involved with.

The project came to me through Josh [Heald] and John [Horrowitz] and Hayden [Shclossberg], who called me about a year and a half ago -- a little more now, December 2016. I worked with Josh on Hot Tub Time Machine. They emailed me and asked if I would like to have lunch and they had a project they wanted to talk to me about. Never in a million years did I think it would be this one. We went out to a Mexican restaurant, had some chips, and before we could even order the three of them fired this pitch off to me that just knocked my socks off. And at the end of it they were just going back and forth, like one brain with three mouths, they just finishded each other's sentences and painted the picture so clearly. At the end of it I was just completely in love with the angle they were going for and the pitch they were selling me. My first question to them was ‘What's the tone of it?’ They explained the tone and I think they delivered that tone. Having seen the episodes, it's exactly what they pitched. And then I said you're gonna have to get clearance for all of this. They said, 'Everybody's on board.' That's when I was really floored and asked what the next step was, and they said, 'Well we need to go get Ralph.' 

They got Ralph and he and I talked on the phone and agreed that this sounded like a smart, fresh approach to bringing these characters back. We felt like this was something really worth looking at and that it could really happen.

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What was your reaction to how the show flipped the script on the core relationship, and to seeing Johnny in the role of the underdog?  

We all know Daniel LaRusso well, from the three Karate Kids. Johnny we only got to scrape the surface of in the one first film. So I think the the smart way to go into this was story give a little backstory on who Johnny is and help connect the audience with where he's at because I think people kind of come in knowing who LaRusso is. As far as flipping the script and all, I mean it does that but it does that back and forth. Everybody's trying to figure out what team they're on. The way I see it, both of their teams work in one way or another. So it's not so much just about the rivalry, it's about these two characters in 2018 and it’s about all the ways culture and kids and the idea of mentorship and bullying are all different from how they were in 1984. Both characters are both at a place where they're searching for themselves. Johnny and Daniel in the Karate Kid hate each other. If Johnny had never met Daniel, Daniel never would have become the Karate Kid, and if it wasn't for Daniel, Johnny never would have seen the light. So even though they are total opposites and have gone their own way, these two characters sharpen each other. 

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The show tackles the idea of bullying early on. How well do you think it handles that?

It's not trying to make any kind of statement. In the old days you'd have a fight on a corner somewhere and it stayed there and you could go home. Today kids get picked on at school or get into a conflict and that turns into their life online. I think the intensity of what kids are dealing with today is completely different than in my day. I think what's interesting about Johnny as a character is he hasn't really progressed with the times. He's resisted change, just didn't buy into them. He's pretty much an analog man in a digital world and comes from an old-school approach that may or may not be the right one. He's got a true heart and he's really trying to help these kids despite the fact that the toolbox he has to help them with is maybe not all good.

Was it difficult to get back into the mindset of the character and also present him as an adult facing a new set of personal challenges?

One thing about the character that I love and I loved when I did the film, and this show is still doing, is in the opening of the movie, Johnny says referred to himself as an ex-degenerate. So he's trying to make it work, but then he meets Daniel and everything starts going downhill. In the end he gets kicked in the head and says, 'You're all right, LaRusso,' and he has this moment of clarity and redemption almost. So, that’s kind of the soul of Johnny: he's trying to make it work, and he's searching. This many years later he's still carrying that baggage and still trying to make it work. He applies what he knows to the best of his ability to a group of kids who need it. He's also doing it for his own reasons because he's down and out. One thing in his life that worked -- right or wrong -- was his martial arts. [Cobra Kai] is not making any statement, it's not trying to be too aware of itself but it's layered in there nicely. I think people are going to be constantly questioning and checking and see how they feel about it as it goes forward and what Cobra Kai's locked them into and how Johnny responds to that. 

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Johnny’s sort of in a state of arrested development. It feels like he peaked in high school and is trying to relive those glory days. How much discussion was there with regard to how far down the show was going to put Johnny at the beginning? 

Well, yeah, it's kind of a creative take on him today. I mean you can imagine him after the movie becoming anything. He could have gone in any direction. As far as connecting with him, these writers are great and they wrote him in a way that was constantly weighing his actions against the original, asking me ‘Is this something Johnny would do?’ There was resistance here and there, but along the way I opened up and realized that this is a person 30 years later. And nobody's the same as they were when they were a senior in high school. In a lot of ways he's a brand new character.

He’s also the polar opposite of me in real life. To play him I had to block myself out. I would be on the phone with my wife and I would say, 'Maybe two percent of me exists right now.’ They gave him a lot of layers and a lot of color and a lot of great stuff to work with. So I basically embodied the spirit of Johnny today and the writers just add those three decades in there and the colorful backstory, and I think it has good energy for a story in the long run. 

In the first episode Johnny gets into a fight with a bunch of teenagers, and inadvertently becomes a hero and role model to Miguel. How different is this from the relationship Daniel had with Mr. Miyagi?

It's surprising in a different way, I think. As you see in the pilot, Johnny's pretty reclusive and alone in the world. This relationship with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) is very much the first person who needs Johnny and sees the best of him. In a way, Johnny needs this kid. His motivation for moving forward with Cobra Kai is complex, but the relationship between him and Miguel is organic and real and really does mirror the kind of relationship Miyagi and Daniel had, but in an almost upside down way. The one real person in [Johnny’s] life is Miguel. 

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Was there any discussion about managing the level of nostalgia for the original Karate Kid and the ‘80s in Cobra Kai?

From the pitch, they said this would be a show that would stand on its own and not need the film. The show could just live on its own. What's crazy is the built-in audience and the fans who grew up with these characters give it more dimensions. And people who are familiar with the film are going to get a lot more out of the show. But as far as being too nostalgic and too retro and too on the nose, this is not a spoof-type satire. It's all being played straight and the things that are in there are going to feel very familiar, but they're designed not to lean on the film or nostalgia too heavily. But you will feel it. They always told be from the beginning that this was going to be a true continuation of the story and that's what this is. So, it doesn't need to be nostalgic. It's like when you grow up and you talk to your friends about things that happened a long time ago. There are these moments that feel familiar, but it doesn't lean on it too much. 

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What did you think about the series landing at YouTube?

In a way it's really the perfect storm with this show and [YouTube] and where they're headed. They want to become more mainstream and more accepted as a streaming platform that’s at the level of a Netflix or what have you. We needed a place that was fresh and excited about the project and wasn't going to line us up in a queue behind a hundred other shows. When we went on the pitch, it was the first pitch meeting. We went out to a lot of people and a lot of studios. YouTube was our first one. The excitement that was coming from YouTube was palpable and when we left that room we felt we like we have a home here and we have a place where we can breathe creatively. It just felt like the show could exist here. Since then it's been truly wonderful. They're a great bunch of people. 

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Next: Cobra Kai Series Premiere Review: The Karate Kid Sequel Series Is Kinda Great

Cobra Kai season 1 is currently streaming on YouTube Red. 

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