William Zabka Interview: ‘Cobra Kai’ Season 3, Johnny’s Journey, and Season 2’s Events

Seasons one and two of the critically acclaimed action-drama Cobra Kai starring Ralph Macchio and William Zabka were part of YouTube’s original programming lineup. The much-anticipated third season will debut exclusively on Netflix beginning on January 1, 2021, a week earlier than previously planned. Season two premiered on April 24, 2019 which means by the time season three’s 10 new episodes arrive, nearly two years will have passed since the season two cliffhanger which found Johnny Lawrence losing his dojo to Kress and Miguel gravely injured at the hands of Johnny’s son, Robby.

Back before the Covid-19 pandemic canceled large gatherings, William Zabka joined his Cobra Kai co-stars to discuss the show’s third season at the San Diego Comic-Con. During our short roundtable interview, Zabka reflected on The Karate Kid‘s legacy, Johnny Lawrence’s character arc, and where the story will pick up when season three arrives on January 1, 2021.

Will season three delve into the missing years in Johnny Lawrence’s life that we still haven’t seen?

William Zabka: “Yeah, I think we’re going to see some. We filled in a little bit of the blanks and let you see a little bit. I think we’re going to go and explore the origins of Miyagi-Do; I think Daniel has a trip to Okinawa in him somewhere. We’re going to find out where Cobra Kai came from – the origins of that. And we will learn more about Johnny, sure, as his layers are revealed.”

Johnny came into season one and didn’t have a lot going for him. As soon as he builds his dojo up, it’s like he’s knocked back down – again – in season two.

William Zabka: (Laughing) “He’s even worse off than where he started. It’s been an incredible ride and it’s been painful, I’ve got to be honest. Playing the character, I’m rooting for this guy to make it. I want this guy to come out on top. I want him to have a break. I want him to have a girl, have a car that’s decent. So, yeah.

But it’s great. He shed his skin. All of season two was pretty much Johnny shedding his skin. When he opened Cobra Kai up, I always said, ‘Why is he going to open Cobra Kai up after what happened in his past?’ Well, he’s going to try and apply it differently. So, when I went into season one and I opened the dojo up, I knew Kress was coming back but I didn’t know what effect he was going to have on Johnny. But I knew Johnny and Kress loved each other. I knew Martin (Kove) and I as actors love each other. I thought it’s going to be a really cool yin and yang, give and take. But what ended up happening is it’s like Pandora’s box and the snake came back out and the snake bit him again. And Johnny got sick and he’s now off the beach, in the bottle, and he’s shed his skin. He’s brand new.

So, yeah, he’s set back before previously season one and he’s got a long way to go. But his eyes are open right now and that’s a dangerous place. He’s going to be a different guy; he’s a new guy even from then to now in season one and even now going into season three. He’s educated – he’s a little bit more advanced. But he kind of can’t help but degenerate himself.”

Is there someone in season three Johnny can turn to for help or is he on his own?

William Zabka: “There’s not many people around him, really. But, yeah, if you think of season two – there are a few people that are in his life. You can comb through that season…episode six.”

Cobra Kai Season 3
WILLIAM ZABKA as JOHNNY LAWRENCE and XOLO MARIDUENA as MIGUEL DIAZ in ‘COBRA KAI’ season 3 (Photo Courtesy of Netflix © 2020)

Were you expecting the huge fan response to season two?

William Zabka: “No. I was blown away by what happened in season one. We just put our hearts into it. You don’t think about all (that). It’s like doing a play or whatever; everyone’s out there but you can’t see it. The lights are on and you’re doing your thing and then you hear them clapping, like, ‘People are liking this.’ It’s incredible.

I didn’t expect it. We had a good idea coming into season two there would be an expectation that if anything it would be harder because season one was such a surprise, I think, to people. Then season two was like, ‘Okay, can you do it again or was that an accident?’”

Why after 35 years do we still care about The Karate Kid the way we do?

William Zabka: “Well, this movie’s been passed down for generations. It’s part of our culture, in a way. But I think that the thing is that it transcends martial arts and it’s a story of father-son, it’s a story of a mentor, it’s a story of finding your Yoda, of overcoming your obstacles. And the characters are beloved and the movie’s beloved. And so why we care…I don’t know except they reflect reality in a way, they reflect humanity.

And that’s what this show’s doing, I think, with all the characters. Nobody’s all good, nobody’s all bad. There’s a lot of grey areas. Everybody’s got their struggles but everybody’s putting their best foot forward. People relate to that on a human level. I think what The Karate Kid touched on is something where everybody was Daniel LaRusso for a minute. Everybody lived vicariously through him and Miyagi was their personal trainer.

Everybody longs for that moment of epiphany and climax in their life where they did it. I think The Karate Kid gave everybody that emotion. I don’t know many other movies that have done that where at the ending you just light up inside the first time you see it. In movie theaters people were standing up and screaming, and kids were doing karate kicks and stuff. That’s the magic of cinema.

It’s a Rocky thing. It’s an emotional, ethereal thing and that’s what art’s intended to do and does when it works. It’s incredible. It’s like a song. It’s like why do we still love listening to REO Speedwagon or Van Halen? And then if you can build on that and make it relevant to today, then you’ve got all that good feeling from yesterday and it’s also working today. We’re all benefiting from it.”

What has it been like stepping back into this character three decades after The Karate Kid?

William Zabka: “Well, he’s the same guy but he’s also a different guy. You know, if you were going and picking up The Karate Kid where it left off and I had to go back, hypothetically, the next week or something – there’s 35 years of life, so he’s a new guy. But to step back into the skin of Johnny Lawrence and put the headband on in the dojo, saying the mantras – walking around saying, ‘No mercy’ and ‘Strike first, strike hard’ – it’s intense. It’s awesome.”

How did they pitch this evolution of the story? Were you excited or did they have to entice you?

William Zabka: “I was completely blindsided by their pitch. They asked me to lunch and I thought, sure. They said, ‘We have a great story we want to pitch to you.’ I was tentative about it but excited. Something came alive inside me. (Laughing) They kind of pitched to me that if it wasn’t a continuation of Karate Kid it would be like Bad Sensei – like Bad Santa but a Bad Sensei kind of thing.

I said the one thing that I don’t want to do is I don’t want to do a thing where he’s going to double-down on being the biggest jerk of all time. If you’re setting him up to take the ultimate fall and prove once and for all that he’s just a rotten egg – I’ve dealt with it and I don’t want to do it. If you’re going to redeem him and give him some arc… They promised me that and that’s where they came from. They had a love for the character in the film and really delivered on that.”