There’s a popular fan theory that Johnny Lawrence was the tragic hero of The Karate Kid, that Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio) was the bully who stole Johnny’s girlfriend and cheated to win the karate tournament with an illegal kick. Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother believes that too, and Cobra Kai seems to be the answer to those theories.
William Zabka returns as Johnny to star in Cobra Kai season two, showing there’s a lot more to Johnny Lawrence than the nemesis who tried to sweep the leg in the 1984 classic. Season two of Cobra Kai will find Johnny trying to teach his students better than he was taught, but that’s no easy task when John Kreese (played by Martin Kove) is back in the dojo.
What does it feel like to continue the story with a season two?
William Zabka: “It’s awesome. I mean, when they came and approached me for Cobra Kai season one my mind was really blown at the idea of rebirthing Johnny Lawrence today. So, the whole idea of even doing it was very cathartic. It took a long time for me to process it to kind of accept the fact that I was going to do this. But they wrote it right and it was a lot of fun and very challenging to get into the character of Johnny, especially the way they wrote him today being a degenerate, drinking his beer and kind of isolating him in his apartment. He’s not the Johnny I would have imagined being today…maybe he was a doctor or running some camp somewhere.
So, they took his legs out but they kind of made him an underdog in a way. I love that. I love that Johnny has a chance to intervene into this child’s life and forms a bond and then goes ahead and opens up Cobra Kai, which I said at the beginning and which is really happening now in season two, is by opening Cobra Kai again, Johnny’s opening up Pandora’s Box. This is the snake that bit him. This is his past.
His intentions are to do it right but change things. So, at the end of the first season you see that he led his cavalry into victory, but he has a lot of conflict because they used tactics on his own son that he suddenly doesn’t agree with. Enter sensei Kress in his world, the man that taught him everything about this and now he has his kind of father figure/sensei/mentor stepping back into his life which complicates things even more.
So, I love telling the story of Johnny. I love going deep within and seeing his backstory. He’s kind of stuck in his past in many ways and that’s a lot of fun. It’s a thrilling time to play him in this modern day.”
How are we going to see the relationship develop between Johnny and his son?
William Zabka: “The heart of Johnny, when I read the script and when I heard the story, is his son and the fact that he’s estranged from his son and he feels like he failed him. So, he’s still throwing the lifeline out to his son hopefully to earn a spot back in his life. But Robby, his son, has a lot of right to not trust that because Johnny wasn’t there. When somebody comes back into your life when you’re 16, 17-years-old and says, ‘I want to be your dad now,’ it’s not easy for him to accept that. So, there’s a lot of conflict and especially since Robby’s been taken under the wing of his arch enemy Daniel LaRusso it doesn’t make things very easy for Johnny. So, it’s cool.”
The movie was two hours and set him up as the villain. Have the places season one went and where season two is going allowed you to explore a lot more dramatic territory for Johnny?
William Zabka: “A lot more. I mean, like you said in a movie you have two hours to button it all up in the Karate Kid formula. There’s a victory at the end, you feel good, and the bad guy’s down. In a show like this that can go on and on in long form, we can really explore many levels and depths. I love what they’re writing to in my strengths in my action, in my comedy, and in the drama. So, it’s really a great buffet of writing they do for me which I’m very thankful for.”
What’s been the most challenging dramatic moment so far?
William Zabka: “There are a few scenes in season two that were particularly difficult to play because I feel Johnny in my blood and my instincts as Billy I would take things in a different direction. Johnny’s different so he would go a different way. I’m like, ‘Oh man, maybe not do that or say that,’ but because he’s boxed into the situation it compresses your emotions and your feelings and you live that. I experienced some real emotion in it doing the show that it’s taken a while to actually come home and detach from this character.”
Since the new show is kind of redeeming your character, has that changed fans’ reactions to you?
William Zabka: “Yeah, of course. You know the Karate Kid fans…I’ve got all my life, ‘I hated you! You’re the biggest a**hole!’ And then there were the guys, always the yahoos on my side and they’re like, ‘Cobra Kai, dude! You should have killed them anyway.’ I’m like, ‘No, you kind of missed the point of the movie.’
But yeah, I don’t know. I imagine from the outside it might be like your high school bully and running into him 30 years later and seeing that he’s having a tough time and actually not that bad a guy. And now you’ve grown up and you realize maybe he wasn’t all bad. I think getting to know Johnny is kind of like therapy in a way. Like, ‘Oh, he’s not so bad. I don’t have to be afraid of this guy. I don’t have to hate him.’
He’s not perfect, for sure. He’s working his inner demons out in front of everybody. But, yeah, the response to the character has been very favorable. I hear a lot of young adults, men mostly, who can relate to him. They’re trying to make it work in their apartments eating bologna and drinking beer and trying to figure out what went wrong. It’s great, and then to see Johnny trying to do something right, you know, there’s something about that, about living vicariously through a character that can actually inspire you in real life. I’ve heard a number of those stories of guys who say, ‘Hey, man, that’s me.’ I love hearing that.”
Did you see the other side of Johnny when you played him in Karate Kid?
William Zabka: “Yeah, I think very much so. In fact, any interview I did from then to now I never, ever saw him as the bad guy. He was the antagonist of the film; he was the villain in a sense. But the only way I was able to play him and for him to fit so well on me was the two parts of the script that I hung onto which was the first one when he says I’m an ex-degenerate and the second one when he hands Daniel the trophy after Kreese says, ‘Sweep the leg.’ When I read those two parts in the script, I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s not just all bad.’
At the end of the movie if Danny would have kicked him in the face and Johnny would have come at him with a baseball bat, then he’s unredeemable. But I saw, ‘Okay, he’s got a conscience.’ Because of that I was able to play all the other colors. So, I always saw him through his own story of he was justified almost in everything he did because he was trained a certain way to respond a certain way. And here’s, from his point of view, a stranger coming in from out of town who gets in his business, takes his girlfriend, and then takes this title. He wipes out his identity.
To me, that was the story. But it was a story, for me as an actor and you have to always have your story and then the big picture…for me the story was a story of a kid waking up a little bit. And that crane kick actually liberated Johnny Lawrence and set him free. But, you know, then all his foundation for those 18 years and all his training goes out the window and now what do you have? He can’t reach back to that. So, he’s been a lost kind of soul for this many years and now he’s finally getting to the point where he’s going to try and make some changes and grow up. I think there’s something about that that people relate to.”
If Johnny had had a Mr. Miyagi do you think he would have turned out differently?
William Zabka: “Oh, yeah. I always say that. Ralph and I joke about that all the time. If Johnny would have stumbled into the South Seas apartments and made a bonsai tree, he would have turned into Daniel LaRusso. And if Johnny wasn’t at Cobra Kai the day he peeked his little head in there… Remember when he comes to the dojo and wants to learn karate and Johnny’s there? Danny was this close away from getting into the clutches of Kreese. So, it could have gone either way. We could have a whole different story. But that’s like life, you know? You’re affected by who you run into and who takes over your life and who you give power to.”
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