William Zabka Talks Trying To Do The 'Cobra Kai' Dojo Right After Bullying 'The Karate Kid' [Interview]

Avengers: Infinity War was the culmination of 10 years of Marvel movies. That's nothing.  How about 34 years of The Karate Kid? The YouTube Red original series Cobra Kai premieres today and reunites Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.

Set 30 years after the All Valley Karate Tournament, in which amateur LaRusso won with a crane kick, Johnny's not doing so well in this sequel series. He's out of work, about to be evicted, and his car was totaled. When he defends a local kid from some bullies, he gets the idea to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo that taught him everything he knows about karate. But he wants do it right this time.

Zabka spoke with /Film by phone before the premiere of Cobra Kai (available today). We discuss some mild spoilers about the first two episodes but there is still plenty left to see in the rest of the season.

Did this revisiting The Karate Kid really begin for you with How I Met Your Mother?

No, that was a great bump in the narrative of me and The Karate Kid, but it came a long time before that. The Sweep the Leg music video that I produced and directed about eight years ago was the beginning of me stepping back into the The Karate Kid circle. How I Met Your Mother was definitely a bump along the road, a good one. I think mainstream people saw that, but for me it was pretty much a long burn to this moment, many little steps along the way.

Had you ever thought of Barney's interpretation that Johnny was the tragic hero?

No, I mean, I always had my point of view of who Johnny was because I personified him, but I never looked at him as a villain. I knew he was the antagonist, but Johnny had his own heart and his own backstory. I never played him as a bad guy, and I certainly never thought of him as the tragic hero. I just played him as the kid misled by his sensei and saw the light at the end of the day. But I never looked at it the way it's been flipped today, which is kind of fun.

Was revisiting the finale of The Karate Kid from Johnny's perspective something new and different for you?

Well, when I read The Karate Kid, the script, there were two parts that I hung onto with that. The first was the opening line of Johnny and the last line. The opening was, "We have one year to make it work and that's what's I'm going to do. I'm an ex-degenerate." So he set out with good intentions, and then he met Daniel LaRusso and had problems along the way. At the end, he gets kicked and kind of sees the light and realizes his sensei's been leading him the wrong way and said, "You're all right, LaRusso. Good match." That moment for me as the actor was Johnny being set free from this spell of what he's been trained his whole life. That's how I always saw it, and I felt that kick. For many years after, I couldn't watch the film without feeling the chill of getting kicked. Maybe 10 years later I could watch objectively and say, "Yeah, he wasn't the nicest guy." I kind of personified the character and lived that moment.

You felt the kick, but I hope when you filmed the movie it was movie magic and you weren't actually kicked in the face.

[Laughs] Yeah, I felt the air of the kick when we filmed it. Emotionally I felt the kick, I guess.

So he does say "You're all right, LaRusso." Do you imagine Daniel and Johnny became friendly for a little while?

I think he was in a daze when he said that. I don't know if they became best buddies or anything after that, but definitely the animosity to Daniel was gone and taken out of it in a way. The poison was taken out in that kick, but I don't know how friendly [it was]. It could've been, but at the same time there was a girl in the middle of all that. Johnny didn't get his girl, so I don't know how friendly they would've been after that. Certainly no more motorcycles and kicks down the hill on bikes and all that.

As Johnny sets out to reopen Cobra Kai, does he ever reach out to his former sensei, John Kreese?

You'll have to tune in to find that out. It's on YouTube Red May 2nd. He's definitely playing with the hornet's nest a little bit as far as getting involved in Cobra Kai.

Are the fight scenes a lot more elaborate now than they were 34 years ago?

They're definitely more acrobatic. There's some new martial arts out there today. It's a little more flash, so that's definitely incorporated in the fight scenes. Hiro Koda who is our stunt choreographer is amazing, so he brought some new, fresh martial arts to it. I think it's a little more traditional in The Karate Kid, a little more straightforward karate. This is a little flashier, but there's also some traditional karate in it as well. So I think it's a little bit of an evolution of the martial arts in the show.

Did you have to go back into training?

I did, yes. A crash course. About a month out we started training with fitness and martial arts. It was a lot faster. In The Karate Kid we had a lot more time to train. It was a full solid month of four hours a day, five days a week. In this schedule we didn't have that luxury but yeah, got right back into training. Surprisingly my legs worked mostly.

When Johnny is reminiscing about moments from The Karate Kid, was it easy to remember those scenes that were Johnny's high school memories?

Yes, especially in the context of the way that the writers framed it, where he's coming from and the pressure they put on him, what he was dealing with in his life. He's not reflecting every day on those moments, but when things get bad, that was a turning point. It kind of set his trajectory of where he is today, so reflecting on those moments was fun, and the writers and directors were in the back of a truck pulling us. They'd surprise me and say, "Okay, now this happened and now this happened." So those reactions were all organic because I had no idea what they were going to throw at me next. There's a walkie-talkie in the seat and they brought me right back to those moments. It wasn't easy but it was fun. There's been a lot of distance. It's like remembering something that happened in high school.

Cobra Kai Teaser TrailerHow did it feel to put on the black gi and headband again?

Emotionally, it's a dangerous thing or a good thing. I didn't know how I felt about it. When he's stepping back in the suit, when he gets into the gi and his headband, a lot of things jump on him from his past. There's a lot of emotion to it really. It was a different gi. So it wasn't the same exact gi. I think that might've been strange if it was the same gi, but getting back into the dojo felt good, especially the way he's going into the dojo. He's trying to help this kid.

Do you think we might see the skeleton costume again?

You might. It's in the trailers, so we'll see where that goes.

How did it feel to do Kreese's "no mercy" speech?

That's a good question. Really revisiting with Johnny today was a little bit like opening Pandora's Box because that was the snake that bit him way back in his past. So he's kind of playing with fire a little bit. To say those words that were drilled into him that he's escaped from all these years, to now come out of his mouth was a little strange. In the character, he's delivering it from a different point of view and kind of a different heart. So he's doing his best with his mantra of what that is, so it's kind of Johnny's version of that. When I said that, it was the first time saying that again. It was very organic in how I feel saying that. He's definitely not John Kreese. He's definitely Johnny Lawrence with his own line and backstory.

Does he actually believe he can use Cobra Kai for good this time?

I think so. It's all he knew. The one thing that worked for Johnny in his life was Cobra Kai until the end. So yeah, he's got all good intentions with what he's teaching and he's carrying the torch forward, but he's doing it in a way to be helpful. So sure, absolutely.

Does this have to end with Johnny learning the same lesson, that Cobra Kai is a self-destructive philosophy?

We'll see. It could, it could not. That's a good question. It's yet to be determined.

Is it more lifelike and realistic that defeating the bully in a tournament is only a temporary victory? It doesn't mean everything's all right now. In most cases, it takes more than a kick to the face to turn a bully around.

Yeah, Johnny's learned Cobra Kai karate most of his life. That's in him but [over the] next 30 years, he's never gone back to it. He started to make a way without it. It's not like he was a bad guy that needs more than one kick to be made right. He really woke up at that time and made choices in his life going a different direction. Now he's going back and he's kind of polishing the past, remembering the good times, remembering what Cobra Kai was when it was a good thing for him. He's passing that on.

When you were playing bullies in several movies, did you consider that a good run or was it a little frustrating typecasting?

Oh, I loved it. It's been a great one, especially since the films stuck so long, and they've become embraced films. It was fun to play it. I never took these characters to think of them as I'm playing bullies. I always looked at their underbelly and I enjoyed playing what makes them tick, even if you don't know it. So as an actor, it was a lot of fun to play those characters.

What makes them tick is essentially "hurt people hurt people," right?

No, that's the action but that's not what's going on inside. There's something else going on inside them, where they're coming from. Chas in Back to School was all bark and no bite. Greg Tolan in Just One of the Guys, he was just trying to be tough. He was a little more two dimensional of the bad guys. And Johnny had a trainer that taught him wrong, but his intentions were always good. I think [it's a disservice if] you play a character, a bad guy that's just on the nose, and playing what's on the page and not trying to find something deeper, a deeper emotion to the person. Make it a human person. That's how I always viewed those characters. Johnny started that.

Have you had the experience of seeing different generations discover The Karate Kid?

Oh sure. It's 30 years, man. I meet grandparents to five-year-olds that have seen the film. It's amazing to see how the film's touched so many generations now.

How did Cobra Kai creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald understand The Karate Kid?

The great thing about those guys is they grew up as fans of this film, and this film affected them. Their point of view of the characters and their ideas of filling in the backstories and what happened in the last 30 years was very fresh and current. I think their understanding of The Karate Kid was more of the whole franchise. They know more about it than I do, so they're the perfect guys for this.

Did you keep up with the sequels?

Oh sure, I was on the set of III and went to the premieres. Obviously I wasn't as involved as the first one, so it was fun to watch it balloon.

The first movie was PG. Was it fun to get to play these characters in a more grown-up context?

Yeah, definitely. The characters have grown up. The times have changed. I think this is Johnny and Daniel in this world today. I think it's a really smart, fresh approach to continuing the storyline.

Can you go anywhere without people saying, "Sweep the leg?"

Yeah, it's not as often as you think. I imagine it'll happen again a lot more now but yes, it's my alarm clock. Sweep the leg wakes me up. It's the first thing I hear in the morning.