SPOILER: So you like being in front of the camera and behind the camera equally?
WILLIAM ZABKA: : Equally. Iproduced a short film that I wrote and we shot in Europe that was nominated for an Oscar back in 2004, and that may have been the most fulfilled I’ve ever been as an artist. It gathered every part of me together. I was actually supposed to be in the movie, but I realized that I didn’t want to put myself on my own canvas. I just felt like I’d be violating some law.
My father used to say, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” If no one ever saw Karate Kid it would have still been one of the best times of my life; one of the highlights of my life.
SPOILER: Did you ever find yourself trying to separate yourself from Johnny Lawrence in the eyes of fans?
WILLIAM ZABKA: I’m sure a little bit. I really didn’t pay much attention to that. Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid is always gonna be and always has been in my peripheral. It’s been a shadow that’s gotten bigger because it went from the theaters to VHS to DVD and now online, so it’s always been played constantly. I didn’t really care too much to change anyone’s mind or opinion. That’s my art. I put that out there and if they’re talking about that, that’s great! They are two separate things. I have my private life and I know where that is, and then I have my art which is projected out and hopefully people are talking about that. If people are stirred by my work that had a chance to get out there for enough people to see that it made some sort of cultural impact, then that’s what it’s all about.
SPOILER: Beyond cultural impact…
WILLIAM ZABKA: [laughs] Well yeah, that’s right. It’s interesting how it’s come full circle and I’m getting to do some of the best work of my career where I started, and that’s a super sweet spot; that doesn’t happen. And it’s a very rare thing to take a known villain in a film and turn him into an antihero. It takes the right people, the right creative team, and a magical time, and they all have to come together. And it has. Ralph and I talk about this all the time, how lightning struck twice. And that goes back to John Avildsen, director of Karate Kid, and how he cast us all— he picked the chemistry, and now it’s just as potent as ever. The director is like an artist, they pick colors.
When Ralph and I stepped on the set for the first time [for Cobra Kai] and did our first scene when he walks in the dojo and says, “I heard you picked on some kids,” and I say, “What kids?” [laughs]—that was the first time that Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso were together again after all these years. And we didn’t know how that was gonna go. Ralph and I had been friends over the years, but now we’re playing these characters again. And as soon as they said “cut” on that scene, there was sort of this silent reverence and we felt, ”Wow, there’s something here again.”
SPOILER: Do people on set ever bring up Pat Morita?
WILLIAM ZABKA: Yeah, he’s with us. He’s constantly talked about. I think Daniel mentions Miyagi, I don’t know how many dozens of times, throughout the first season. Listen, if there’s no Pat Morita and Mr. Miyagi then there’s no Cobra Kai, let alone Karate Kid. He was the Yoda. His spirit is in the show: his philosophies, his thinking, his comedy even. I miss Pat. Pat was a dear friend, we talked all the time. On Karate Kid he kind of adopted me as his nephew. He called me BZ and I would call him Uncle Pat. He was so funny and endearing. He was so great, I wish he were here because they would have found a way to make Miyagi so relevant and so cool and hip today. It’s really a shame. And the Comic Con world kind of blew up after he passed, sadly, so he didn’t get the chance to enjoy that as we do. The kids would’ve loved him, the fans would’ve loved him, and he would’ve fed on it. But we do our best to honor him and pay tribute to him and to the character. It’s a big part of this show and in all of our consciousness. And the writers, this studio, network, everybody—we have a lot of reverence for Mr. Pat Morita.
SPOILER: Have you noticed a difference in this show between the first season, which was on YouTube, to now being on Netflix?
WILLIAM ZABKA: It’s interesting. The first three seasons were all produced by YouTube, even season three which was exclusively released on Netflix. But nothing’s changed except we’re on a bigger stage. It’s the same formula, it’s the same team, the same actors. So as far as the production and the quality goes, it’s the same. Netflix took a bold risk and released seasons 1 and 2 first, even though we were likely going to make people unhappy who were waiting for season 3. But that didn’t happen. It was like all the people who had watched it on YouTube were finally able to get their parents to watch it or their friends to watch it. So I think they enjoyed it being released on Netflix so that everyone got to catch up to speed. And then they dropped season 3 and that was our big explosion.
SPOILER: Season 3 brought everybody back!
WILLIAM ZABKA: Yeah, and season 4, which we just finished, goes even deeper and wider and on and on, and it’s great!
SPOILER: Any juicy tidbits from season 4 that you can share that won’t get you into trouble?
SYLVIA HOEKS: [laughs] No, there’s nothing I can share that won’t get me into trouble. But keep your eyes peeled for the trailers and teasers. The first one revealed that Terry Silver’s back. We know at the end of season 3 that Danny and Johnny are teaming up, so we have that to look forward to, and a gauntlet thrown down by Kreese.
So the stakes are high. It’s an exciting season. It’s big, it’s deep, it’s unexpected. These writers keep you on your toes. People are always trying to figure out what’s coming next, but there’s really no way to do that.
Even as the actor playing the character, I think I know what’s coming, but then I get the pages and I’m constantly thrown off balance and surprised in a good way. It’s great storytelling and it’s a lot of fun. It’s gonna be a brand new fresh Cobra Kai. It’s marching on.