Ralph Macchio Talks How 'Cobra Kai' Deals With Modern Day Bullies, 'Karate Kid' Sequels & More [Interview]

Ralph Macchio is The Karate Kid. Having portrayed Daniel LaRusso in three movies, Macchio returns to his iconic role 30 years later in the YouTube Red original series Cobra Kai (available today). Now Johnny Lawrence, his bully from The Karate Kid played by William Zabka (who we also interviewed), wants to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo.

LaRusso is still profiting off his victory in the All Valley Karate Tournament. He advertises LaRusso Motors saying he kicks the competition and gives out bonzai trees with purchases. You can even see LaRusso Motors billboards around majors cities right now, all in an effort to promote Cobra Kai.

Macchio spoke with /Film by phone before the premiere of Cobra Kai. He caught us up on where Daniel LaRusso is 30 years later and reflected on some of the less talked about Karate Kid sequels. There are mild spoilers for the first two episodes, but still plenty to see in the first season.

I live in Burbank so every time I drive up Barham, I see your LaRusso Motors billboard with the Cobra Kai graffiti.

I'm in New York, I haven't seen it. They've had fun with their marketing.

Is that surreal?

It is. The whole thing is surreal. But yet, it feels kind of all right in every way at the same time.

The movies sort of wouldn't let you grow up. Was it an easy sell to do a story about Daniel as an adult?

That's an interesting question. Certainly when you have a character that becomes so famous for being the adolescent coming of age character, you want to keep him in that pocket as long as possible. The fact that I always looked decently young for my age, which I'm still attempting to do, it adds to that. Playing Daniel LaRusso as a middle aged man, a father, a husband, a successful auto king of the San Fernando Valley, is fun and refreshing. There's elements of the same LaRusso and his feistiness, his defiance and that he doesn't back down, which got him into a decent amount of trouble as a kid. That still carries through in the Cobra Kai series. I'm not the same person I was when I was 16. I think I've raised two kids, and my wife and I have been married for a very long time, not unlike Daniel LaRusso in current day. I'm using sort of the wisdom and life that I have had to infuse that into the portrayal of the character. But when Johnny Lawrence comes into this world, something just pushes his buttons and sends him back to the childhood rivalry which adds a lot to the humor of the piece. For Billy Zabka's role as well, they each push each other's buttons. It makes it very entertaining.

Will Johnny want a rematch?

WI always say, and we pitched this when we pitched this to the network, that's the Ross and Rachel of our show. Will this happen and when is it going to happen? Of course it's going to happen. Maybe yes, maybe no. If it does, let's put it this way, in my vision if this goes on for many seasons, which is our hope, if it does ever happen, we'll care so much for so many other things in the show that it won't be the end all be all, like once the couple gets together the show is over. We're building an entire Karate Kid universe or Cobra Kai universe with our young actors who work in the high school world and next generation as well as building the world around Daniel LaRusso and his life and Johnny Lawrence and his life. Hopefully we have many, many places to go of interest. That's just one part of it. That's the long answer to your short question.

Was visiting Mr. Miyagi's grave double emotional since we've also lost Pat Morita in real life?

Yeah, I would say the answer to that question is yes and yes. It was important to me that the series had the essence of Miyagi and the wisdom of Miyagi in Daniel's life still to this day. Even when Daniel loses his balance ,if you will, or makes some mistakes as a parent or as a husband or as a business partner or as just someone who is getting wrapped up into the Cobra Kai world that he wants to thwart. It's important to have those teachings as part of his life and to fill the void in Daniel's life now. How we scripted it, it's been eight years since he's been there.

So yes, those things are very tender and very human and real for me, not having Pat to witness what we're doing here. I think he would have absolutely loved it, of course. He's my partner in cinema and in pop culture he's a partner to fans around the world. There is a soulful magic in that partnership and in the writing of his role and Daniel LaRusso and what they have become. The show did a very good job – credit Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg], our creators – to not lose sight of that amidst all the fun Cobra Kai, sweep the leg, get him a body bag kind of pop culture elements. It is emotional but we're also moving forward so it doesn't dwell and sit in that. It's just a part of what makes Daniel LaRusso a fully rounded character and how he deals with that void in his life.

Daniel is promoting bonzai trees but would Mr. Miyagi approve the way he's doing it?

[Laughs] I think that if a character doesn't have certain flaws and conflicts then we don't really have an entertaining piece or a show. I think Daniel is not perfect and we'll show both sides to that. I think Johnny Lawrence is the Kyrptonite to Daniel LaRusso's Superman maybe. At least he is the one that pushes his buttons, sucks him down the rabbit hole of yesteryear in a defiant kind of feisty way, and maybe needs to find his balance again as an adult. I think that adds to the journey and the arc of the character and I think that those things are realized and will hopefully be realized for seasons to come. It's kind of wonderful to have this human Yoda, or this essence of Mr. Miyagi, that still threads through Daniel's life. Sometimes it's called on other people like his wife, Amanda, or one of his kids to put him back on track, or another student perhaps. I can't give away too much information. All that and above.

Had you kept in touch with director John Avildsen before he passed away last year?

Yes, I saw John at the Santa Barbara Film Festival where his documentary was screening which I am a part of, called King of the Underdogs. That was February, a little over a year ago. He didn't know per se, I didn't have knowledge that he knew that we were working on this, but he would have absolutely loved it. The spirit of John, Pat Morita and [the late] Jerry Weintraub, our big time producer, they're all there. There have been more than a few times when I was shooting season one of this show that I thought of them, and those moments and actually call upon things that I learned and wisdom I gained from them as filmmakers, producers and actors that I used in Daniel LaRusso in 2018. It all threaded, it's part of the fabric of the franchise that hopefully will continue on in a different way.

In the movies Daniel found even when he beat one bully, there was another bully. Does revisiting the Johnny rivalry show that bullies don't stay down forever?

Yeah, it is still dealing with that. That's relevant today. Bullying has changed through technology. We deal with that in the show. If Daniel LaRusso came home with a black eye, his mom, Lucille, could see something's going on, "Tell me what happened, take off the sunglasses." Now Samantha, Daniel's daughter on the show, if she's a victim of some sort of bullying, it's through the phones and the computers. You don't necessarily see those bruises. That's dealt with in the show through a few of the characters. Because people deal with it at every level and every age as you're saying, it's not easy to navigate, especially as an adolescent. As an adult we all deal with it, whether it's in the workplace or [somewhere else]. I'm proud of the fact that Cobra Kai also subversively deals with bullying, even though it's an entertaining format. In my life, I try to teach my kids, who are in their 20s now, how to not just be a bystander because you're as guilty as the bully if you don't say something. These subjects are very deep and tender. It can be as simple as "give me your lunch money" and getting stuffed in a locker to a school shooting now or Columbine scenario. So it's not an easy subject to tap dance over but it is one that is relevant and relatable to everyone.

It's also true and poignant that even if you beat the bully in a contest, it's not like the bully will just accept defeat. Most will come back for revenge.

Right, because it's that mindset. Arguably, in the case of Cobra Kai, you have Johnny Lawrence who lost in that tournament in 1984, whether it was an illegal kick or not, and all this other stuff that pop culture has built. It's so much fun to watch people debate over it. He's at the point that that's probably the best thing that happened to him in the past 30 years because his life went down the toilet. Daniel LaRusso, who's become successful, is now the thorn in his side everywhere he turns, including down Barham Blvd. From there, it stirs everything up and then you're back in the game in a childhood high school rivalry. People's behavior is not always changed based on a loss. I remember my dad or my uncle used to say, "If that guy's picking on you, punch him once in the face and he'll never come back again." I don't know how true that is. Look at LaRusso.

I don't think it's true at all.

Yeah, exactly, you can't change the color of that horse. It's interesting to discuss that.

Even if you never fight Johnny again, he can still get to you. It's not just physical bullying. Just opening the studio again is traumatic.

Right, of course, because as an adult, Daniel's become sort of a model beacon of his community as a good guy, a successful guy. They say karate in the valley is like football in Texas. You win, you become a celebrity. Now he's taking on the responsibility of the kids in his community, to be subjected to this kind of negative martial arts. That's his point of view so he's not going to let that happen. Johnny Lawrence wants to pull the good out of the Cobra Kai that helped him in his life and then weed out the negativity that maybe John Kreese created. There's a lot of those layers peppered throughout season one and hopefully beyond.

Cobra Kai Teaser Trailer

Johnny's already starting out with the "no mercy" speech.

Yeah, he definitely is. From Daniel LaRusso's point of view, it's quite a twisted logic, but you can seduce young kids so they think something's cool. Now Daniel has to make sure he can balance that and fight that fight.

Does Daniel ever talk about his trip to Japan?

Yup, in episode two. Not specifically that trip but one of his trips to Okinawa. You learn that he has been there a few times. When he meets one of his daughter's love interests, which is not an easy experience for Daniel for his 15-year-old to be interested in someone besides Dad. I've lived that scene. It was very easy to understand what it was having the boyfriend over for the first dinner. One of the things, he tells his story of he had a friend and he would visit Okinawa. There is very little that John, Josh and Hayden do not touch upon that the fans are not going to just get a big, warm fuzzy "aww" and get the old goosebumps from being brought back. Yet, they do a very good job writing relevant content for 2018 and a younger audience as well. They have one brain. It's amazing.

Do you know the 30 years of Daniel's life between Karate Kid III and now?

We have not gone through with a fine tooth comb because also, once this show starts taking shape, there are certain things yes, and certain backstories that I come up with in my mind in playing scenes. As far as having the bible of what has happened every day for the last 30 years, I think there should be room. As you write a show and things evolve, you can go down different paths and you don't want to paint yourself into a corner saying well, this, this and this happened. Even as the writers, they have the ability to have more flexibility. There's enough that defines where he's at and there's enough left open so we can fill in those colors as we go.

It's rare that a trilogy has the same director. Did each Karate Kid movie have the same feel?

No, there was a different feel. Every one of them was different. The first one is the one for me, the experience, the freshness, creating the Miyagi/Daniel [relationship], creating the Cobra Kai rivalry, creating the Ali with an I and the Daniel with an L and all that stuff. From the tournament to the crane kick on the beach, it was magic as it was happening. Karate Kid II was more okay, pressure's on. Different location. I was in between two other movies. My career, there was a lot going on. Karate Kid III was one of those films, I always call it the second sequel. I felt that the script never got to a place where it needed to be. I felt that the Daniel LaRusso character did not mature as I would've liked to see. So it was a little bit more of a struggle to make sense of some of the choices. I think shooting it also took longer. It didn't have the magic there that the other two did.

John and Robert Mark Kamen talk about frustrations with the third one too. Did you know their desire to send you and Miyagi back in time and do more of a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon type of movie?

There were so many ideas that were thrown around. I think at the end of the day, it was the studio saying, "Here's our release date. This is the time we have to shoot it." It became the business part of show business. That being said, everyone did well from the business side of it. That's the one I talk about the least and there were fine actors and some wonderful scenes in it, but it did not have the magic. And it felt like work where the first one never did and the second one, just because of the pressure, but it expanded out with the Okinawan culture and Miyagi's world and a whole other place that it felt like a different film, where the third one felt like we were going back to what we did the first time but not nearly as good.

Did you ever see The Next Karate Kid where they passed the torch?

I've never seen it curtain to curtain but I have seen clips of it. If it's on TV I give it a few minutes. It's odd for me to watch. I didn't even know they were making that film. At the time I was working on some other things. I had heard from Pat. There was a section of time where Pat and I were not in as much communication not for any reason except we were doing different things. Life just got in the way a little bit. We remained friends up until he passed. He's a massive part of my life and my partner in cinema. It was a different director. It was a different writer. Once again, that was another step in the business part of show business I'm sure.

I liked that one though and I thought that was the smart way to expand and play with the differences of Miyagi training a girl.

One of these days I will catch The Next Karate Kid. Truthfully, that concept I think is a fresh concept, especially after the three, where do you go. Now we're 30 years later with another generation and Cobra Kai is I think going to be met with hopefully a nice big embrace from all ages.