willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

INTERVIEW BY GALAXY INTRO BY ETHAN BREHM

After speaking with Billy Zabka, it’s hard to get too excited when Ralph Macchio crane-kicks him in the head at the end of 1984’s The Karate Kid. Billy’s character Johnny Lawrence is the antagonist in the generation- defining film, but the actor who plays him is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth dudes on the planet.

No matter where you stand on the “Johnny isn’t really the villain” argument, fans of the original series have been undoubtedly enjoying his redemptive arc in the hit TV series Cobra Kai, now readying for its fourth season. The show, which serves as a sequel over 30 years later, has a shift in focus to Johnny’s point of view, giving the character the sympathy that many fans have long felt he deserved.

The actor sits down to chat with Galaxy about this particular perception of his character, which has really gained steam in recent years, and reflects on his prolific career, including a 2004 Oscar nomination for his own short film Most. He tells us how he fell in love with the industry, dating all the way back to his time going to set with his father, who was an assistant director for TV and film. He also shines light on the late Pat Morita’s impact on Cobra Kai and his friendship with the actor, lamenting how he never got to enjoy meeting fans at conventions since his passing in 2005 was still a few years prior to the Comic Con boom.

Billy has never let the fame of Karate Kid affect his mindset in this business, mostly because he’s a true creative who finds sincere joy in just being able to create his art, whether behind the camera or in front. “If no one ever saw Karate Kid it would have still been one of the best times of my life,” offers the actor, who admits that even though Johnny has always been a shadow that’s followed in his peripheral, he’s always been able to find a separation between his personal life and his work, of which the goal should very well be to have a lasting impact on culture: “That’s what it’s all about.”

SPOILER: What have you been up to lately?

WILLIAM ZABKA: Well, we wrapped season 4, coming out sometime this December. Trailers will be dropping soon. [I’ve been] staying in my training, staying in shape, keeping my karate up, and riding this wave, man. And we just got a really great exciting Emmy nomination for the show for Best Comedy, so we’re doin’ some promotions for that and just doing some press and radio, talking to you guys. I went to a couple of Comic Cons in the last couple weekends which was great, having been locked down for so long, to get out and meet some of the people. So many great kids and families and all generations of people who really are fans of Karate Kid and Cobra Kai. It’s mind-blowing to see the excitement

willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

on these kids’ faces—all the little kids in karate outfits, all the little new black belts, all the young adults that are finding strength in the Cobra Kai dojo. I’m constantly signing the backs of shirts and initiating people into Cobra Kai. It’s been a really great experience with the show, and all of Karate Kid, from the time I started back in the original film and now with Cobra Kai being fresh and relevant, and with people binge watching it especially over this last year which was pretty much locked down, and to be able to serve something up just around the world on Netflix now—people just embracing the show, embracing the characters and finding some inspiration and solace in entertainment and comedy—all that’s awesome, man. And hopefully we’re around for a little bit longer and keep this party going with the fans, because it really is a two-way street.

We did this panel at the last show, I think it was at Planet Comicon in Kansas City, and Marty Kove, who plays Sensei Kreese, and I left our table and they brought us back to the panel room in the convention center. [We had] no idea how many people would be out there. I figured it wouldn’t be too many just because the Comic Cons are still slowly ramping up, but we had thousands of people in the audience a couple thousand at least. And it’s a relationship. It’s really awesome. And we all feel that way—Ralph [Macchio] feels that way, all the cast. So we’re having the time of our life, man. And in my down time I try to spend time with my family and do my dad duties and my husband duties, and then prepare for what’s coming next and the balls are flying at me. There’s the short answer [laughs]. So the nutshell version is, “Nothing much.”

SPOILER: Let’s go to The Karate Kid real quick. You play a teenager who’s the most popular kid in school, and then all of a sudden this wimpy kid comes from another town and starts macking on your girl. And you respond. What did people expect you to do? You stood your ground and defended your honor, and yet everyone portrayed you as the bad guy. I don’t think you did anything wrong.

WILLIAM ZABKA: Listen, that’s a nice way to look at the story. One thing I loved about playing Johnny and the reason why I was able to play Johnny was the very ending where he hands him the trophy and says, “You’re alright, LaRusso,” and the moment before that when Kreese says, “Sweep the leg,” and Johnny has this check, [when he realizes] he doesn’t trust his mentor anymore. So Johnny, if he was on his own he probably wouldn’t have taken it this far. He did kick him down the hill off a motorcycle—that wasn’t really called for. He’s a champion black belt unleashing weapons on somebody who’s defenseless. So that makes him the villain. He is the villain in that sense. But the real villain is the thinking and the world view of the karate he was taught, which is really reflective of when Miyagi says, “There’s no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher.’’ So here’s Johnny who’s, in a sense, a victim of Kreese because he had a really bad teacher. If he had a Miyagi, he would have been a different kind of person.

What I love about the end of Karate Kid and the beginning of Karate Kid Part II, was when Kreese tells Johnny he’s a loser and proceeds to choke him out and Johnny drops to the floor, it’s Miyagi who comes in to save the day. So the goodness and the right way of doing martial arts is you learn it, not to be aggressive, but as a defensive art.

willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

So there’s a lot of lessons and layers in there. Viewing Johnny as a human being, that’s how I processed it. So from my point of view, it was exactly as you described—it was a kid stealing his girlfriend, and at the end he wakes up and realizes his teaching was wrong.

This is how you know Johnny’s the villain: Back when that movie played in the movie theater, when that crane kick happened for the very first time, you’d never seen 300 people jump to their feet at the same time. Nobody was out there practicing getting their head kicked back [like Johnny]—they were all doing crane kicks in the parking lot. They were happy to see Johnny go down [laughs]. But what a great movie, right? What great storytelling, which is all great fertilizer for what we’re doing now with Cobra Kai.

SPOILER: Were people bugging you back then when the movie came out?

WILLIAM ZABKA: It was a slow burn for me. In those days, you had movies like Top Gun that were overnight blockbusters. Karate Kid was released in small theaters, limited theaters, but word of mouth made that movie spread. And it ended up in the theaters for like six months. It was a few people looking at me at first, and then slowly it became more, and then all of a sudden my life started changing in terms of becoming exposed.

SPOILER: Is that what got you into martial arts?

WILLIAM ZABKA: I was trained by Pat Johnson. I was a wrestler, so I was limber and in shape—but to take somebody from scratch and make them convincing as a black belt in a movie, I was on a fast track. So I’m a second green belt, but my training is mostly for film. And it was that movie and other karate movies as well.

But after Karate Kid, it became such a part of who I was that

I continued training with Pat Johnson privately and then into Roger Lacombe’s karate studio in Thousand Oaks, part of Chuck Norris’ system. In recent days, I’ve been training with Simon Reed, who’s another master.

I was very much a marked man in karate. When I was testing for my green belt, I had a couple black belts I had to spar with—they were all going after my head trying to knockout Johnny Lawrence. I’m like, “Come on, dude! I’m just an actor!” [laughs]

SPOILER: Almost four decades later, you are this nostalgic dude. Everyone loves you. You’re in your 50s still doing this.

WILLIAM ZABKA: It’s fun to put on the Johnny Lawrence skin and give him some depth and humanity. I’ve had so many men come up to me and go, “Man, you’re me right now; you’re fighting through it.” That was my one contingency on doing Cobra Kai when I met with the three creators: Josh [Heald], Jon [Hurwitz], and Hayden [Schlossberg]—the three amigos who took me out to lunch and pitched it to me. My main concern was that [Johnny] was gonna take a proverbial crane kick to the face by the end of the series. He’s gotta have a redemptive arc, layers, depth, humanity. And they really assured me of that, and they’re writing amazing material. This is a different Johnny Lawrence in a sense. The first time we met him he was 18-years-old with that life experience. Now, 35 years later, with all the life that’s happened from then to now, there’s a whole new bag of experiences to draw from—in real life and as an actor being in the film business for so long. It’s awesome and I really appreciate the embrace I’m getting from the fans. When I turn into Johnny Lawrence, Billy Zabka just kinda vanishes for a few months. And it takes maybe a month or two for me to come back and feel like myself again [laughs].

I really am living this character and putting my heart out there. It’s a vulnerable thing to do, but to know that it’s resonating with fans and inspiring or entertaining somebody, or making them feel like they can better themselves—that we’re a work in progress—that’s what Johnny Lawrence represents, and I think that’s why people are responding to it.

SPOILER: Your dad was one of the directors on The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era. Did you ever meet Johnny and did any of that inspire you to want to get into show business?

WILLIAM ZABKA: My dad was the associate director and my mom was Johnny Carson’s brother’s assistant, so my parents met on that show. But I don’t think he was still working on that when I was a kid. But my dad was an Emmy Award winning staff director for a soap opera called The Doctors and did lots of different television stuff in New York. So when I was a kid, I lived in Long Island, and my dad would get me on the train with him when I was five-years-old and take me to NBC in the city. I got to walk around the sets, I got to see the control rooms. I was fascinated even back then by it, to walk onto the soundstage, and walk into what you think is a hospital room, and open up the door and it’s just a bunch of sticks holding it up and you see all the props everywhere and all the cameras. It was just something I grew up with.

And I never met Johnny Carson, but I met many other people because we moved to California when I was 10 and my father ended up working on tons of shows, such as The Love Boat and this and that. Then he worked with Clint Eastwood for a long time. He worked on Midnight Run and Chuck Norris’ Forced Vengeance. So I was around all that and I think, just by osmosis, it was something that was very natural for me to want to do.

So after high school I went to film school. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I always dreamed of being an actor, but if I really wanted to be an actor I think I would have gone to Juilliard or some acting school. Meanwhile, I was auditioning and got The Karate Kid. So I pulled out of film school and then the roles started coming in. And then I realized I was learning more on set actually doing it than I could ever learn in school. And now I’m producing and acting on [Cobra Kai]. I’m just as happy doing [either]. If I’m behind the camera I don’t have to worry about getting in the makeup trailer. I love to create. I love to be the conductor and not just the guitar sometimes.

willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

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.

willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

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.

willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

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.

willliam zabka interview spoiler magazin with Galaxy

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