Billy Zabka on ‘Cobra Kai’ Emmy Success and the Show’s Legacy – Exclusive Interview

In a media landscape overflowing with unremarkable remakes and reboots, it is shocking to think that Cobra Kai, starring Billy Zabka returning 34 years after The Karate Kid, has been such a great success. After small scale critical success in their first season on the now defunct YouTube Red, Cobra Kai has eventually become a cultural juggernaut on Netflix. The show is a testament to not only waiting for the right time for reboots, but ensuring that when you do make these projects – they have their own original voice and message. The starring roles of Billy Zabka and Ralph Maggio, alongside a young cast, anchor a fantastic show worthy of the plaudits it receives.

Now, following multiple previous nominations for their outstanding stunt-work, Cobra Kai has finally received a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys. Thus, it was a huge honor to speak to the show’s lead star Billy Zabka about the long road Cobra Kai has taken to reach it’s current level of success, and his feelings on the legacy the show is leaving behind.

How does it feel to have been nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys? Congratulations!

Billy Zabka: Thank you so much, man. It’s been… it’s been surreal and exciting. I’m very thankful to be recognized by our peers. And just for all the hard work everybody’s put in, it’s the perfect nomination for the joint effort of our team across the board. So it’s a very satisfying feeling. I woke up that morning to a slew of text messages, and one was from Ralph [Maggio]! He sent me the video of the announcements online and then we sent a round of cheers texts to each other and it’s been a nice celebration. It feels great.

Have you had a chance of watch any of your competitors for Outstanding Comedy such as Ted Lasso or The Kaminski Method?

Billy Zabka: The Kaminski Method I have, I’m a big fan of Michael Douglas and love that show. I have unfortunately not had a chance to check out all the others, but I know they’re fantastic and it’s an honor to be among them.

Cobra Kai is also nominated for an Emmy for the outstanding stunt work on season 3. What was it like working with the stunt team for Cobra Kai?

Billy Zabka: The guys have been top notch. We’ve had just the most amazing stunt men, choreographers, everyone, they’re just top notch. It’s been unbelievable. They deserve it. I believe they’ve been nominated the last two seasons too. So this is a third for them. They’re great friends, good people, and they deserve it. They’ve taken all of us, especially our younger cast, from novices and literally knowing absolutely nothing about martial arts and turned them into legitimate martial artists. These young actors are quite impressive, especially in the upcoming season! So they deserve all the accolades coming their way.

How much do you remember in terms of how different the stunt work is on Cobra Kai to the original stunt work in The Karate Kid, has that changed massively in the intervening years?

Billy Zabka: Well, the style of martial arts has changed significantly. Back then it was very traditional, you had your style, it was Korean, it was Japanese. This is now a lot more mixed martial arts, a little bit of tricking. The martial arts has evolved and so has the choreography. When we did Karate Kid, we had also a lot of time to prepare, a lot of time to get trained, to rehearse each single fight, we had rehearsed them for weeks on end, for the final fight in The Karate Kid it was months on end, five days a week. So we had plenty of time to really buckle that down. On our show, we have so many fights and we shoot so fast, we don’t have the luxury of that time. So that’s changed but with the support of the team around us it’s been elevated, I definitely think the martial arts are elevated in the series. It’s exciting to see all these new things, I’ve learned so many new moves and tricks they imagine Johnny picked up along the way, and so my martial arts bag is expanding quite a bit. It’s newer styles and then much faster rehearsal times.

So taking a huge step back now to the first day on set of Cobra Kai, what was the feeling like to pick the character back up and dust it off after 34 years, both in terms of the actual role and for you personally?

Billy Zabka: Great question! It was like watching an old friend come back to life. But he has been in a deep freeze for 30 something years. It was a great feeling. My first scene that I shot in Cobra Kai entirely was just me and Ed Asner (who plays Johnny’s step-father). It was a very raw emotional father son scene. And that was the first scene up for me on the show. It was great because I got to dive deep into the humanity of the character. And, you know, in The Karate Kid, I played this very external fighter with an attitude, and now we’re getting into the soul of who the character was. So it’s very rewarding to play that, and very fun.

One of my favorite moments was when Daniel shows up to the dojo at the very end of episode one and says “I heard you beat up a bunch of kids”. When that moment happened for Ralph and I, as well as for Daniel and Johnny, we hadn’t seen each other for some years. For that to happen, and for us to look across the mat, we just felt the energy there. And that’s really been the nucleus and the catalyst for everything that’s come from the series, it’s kind of exploded from that moment, and just felt like, if we felt like this is happening, this is working. So it’s been an amazing experience to revisit this character and to give them a new dimension and that sense of humor, continue to get to the core of who he is and how he was trained. He’s just trying to work his way out of that as a man now and find love, find a family, and kind of shed the old Cobra Kai skin that was downloaded to him as the young kid and young adult. And he’s finding his way in all of that and it is just incredible to play, whether it was Johnny Lawrence or another character, but the fact that it’s Johnny Lawrence, it’s very satisfying.

You mentioned about having discussions with the stunt teams on the moves that Johnny may have picked up in the 34 year gap that we don’t massively have filled in. But how much discussion had there been at the start of the series and up to now with the writers about where Johnny Lawrence has been in those years?

Billy Zabka: I mean, in The Karate Kid, I imagined Johnny didn’t have a father or a stable home. But as far as painting in his strange son and his ex girlfriends, all of that was in the imagination of the writers. And they would run it by me, and it just all landed so well. It’s just really building this last 30 years, what’s happened to this person. And the result of that is in the beginning of season one, just rolling out of bed with the Coors Banquet and being Johnny. So those are the nuts and bolts of the character, discussions with the writers. And then as far as painting in his backstory, and what’s happened between there really anything could’ve happened, but he’s still falling forward.

The [writers] really painted all this in with their imaginations as far as where Johnny’s been for the last 35 years. But the nuts and bolts of Johnny’s life is demonstrated in the first scene of Karate Kid where he says he has one year to make it work. That’s what I’m gonna do, make it work, all of it, and he didn’t make it work in 1984. He’s still trying to make it work in 2019, 20, wherever the show is living. And so then it’s a collaboration of how they paint his background and then how I how I deliver that and process that and interpret that. And then we have Johnny Lawrence today.

You also kind of brought up meeting Ralph again for the first time in character. That core dynamic of the show is super compelling, but even despite that relationship to fall back on, have you been surprised by the huge and growing success of Cobra Kai?

Billy Zabka: I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Definitely we all stepped into this, especially Ralph and I, tentatively. This really had to work. And we had the right guys the right team, the right support. When the first series came out, it came out on YouTube Red. And [Ralph and I] had just an instant response to it. I’m really glad that we have the journey of the YouTube to the Netflix experience, because it didn’t just come out and become you know, overnight hit. We’ve been at this for a few years. And to watch that grow every every step of the way with every critic who said “Hey, this has no right to be as good as it is”, it’s been incredibly encouraging along the way with the fans reaching back. Then now with the Netflix effect we have this worldwide audience, who has been so captivated by the show, it’s been awesome to watch and to be a part of. Again I’m really grateful that it happened in kind of a slow burn, and it didn’t happen overnight on the drop of the first season. It’s been very natural. And we’re all very oriented and honest with our feet on the ground, we realise where we are. That’s a good place to be.

Absolutely. Could you expand a bit on the journey from YouTube to Netflix and now to this Outstanding Comedy nomination for the show?

Billy Zabka: Yeah, especially since there was a moment in time when YouTube decided they weren’t going to produce scripted series anymore, where we really didn’t have a home and there was a moment where we didn’t have a place and they were generous enough to let us shop it around. And we originally pitched it at Netflix on our first go around and they were very interested. So for it to go onto Netflix and for them to pick it up and then do the smart thing, which was to release Karate Kid series one, two, and three, I believe on Netflix first and then go ahead and re-release seasons one and two, which I thought was just just brilliant. never would have thought that because we had so many people waiting for season three, but they had the foresight to know that we need to catch the world up on on this and the fans will wait.

And so by catching everybody up on seasons one and two and then dropping season three for everybody at the same time was just brilliant marketing strategy and got everybody in step. So we’re not out of step with people trying to catch up with our original fans, you know, enjoying season three, while worldwide fans were just catching up on one or two, they wanted the conversation I think to be you know, in unison. So that was great. It was it was amazing to watch. We’re very excited to see season one and two on Netflix, you know, so happy just to live in the family section or the action section or the comedy section. But the fact that it came out and it became a number one hit right out of the gate for a period of time worldwide was was just so great. And, then season three, same thing. And now here we are ready with season four in the can. So it’s great. It’s a fantastic home. It’s a great group of people, and we’re very grateful for sharing this time.

A real big part of the show has been a focus on not only the past but on the next generation, the young actors playing your students. What are your thoughts on how vital that has been to the success of Cobra Kai?

Billy Zabka: Well, that’s a key component that was what was pitched to the to me and Ralph at the very beginning on the onset of this was that the show would go past us almost. The Karate Kid is about the next generation. You have the mentor with the ideas and beliefs and then the students and a new generation with new mentors. It’s a young cast and their storylines are essential to the show and they’re just fantastic. Great actors, great people, super talented. And their storylines are a central part of the fabric because Daniel and Johnny are really kind of, in a sense, both falling forward and making mistakes and adjusting.

Daniel’s trying to find his balance of you know, where he came from, his roots and making his life makes sense with his karate. And Johnny is doing the same and then we have all these young people who were on the other end of that and how it affects them. And to see how it affects them today in today’s society is, is a huge part of the show, it’s big, it’s so relatable and it’s why we have so many young fans that are identifying with the Hawks, and the Miguels and the Sams and the Toris and all those stories are absolutely essential in the core and the nucleus maybe from Johnny and Daniel, but it’s really, it’s so much bigger and broader than that in the themes.

So incredibly, incredibly important is an understatement there. It’s, it’s all of us, you know, it’s great, when we did the first season, it was a download to them, you know, hey, what you’re a part of this is a karate kid legacy and all that. And I refrained from doing that. Because my point of view on it was that this is a brand new show, and a brand new project and we’re all doing this together and and we’re gonna make it together. So, you know, as much as it is a continuation of The Karate Kid. This is also organically its own piece of art. And if the Karate Kid movies were the backstory of this, we could have painted different backstory for the two characters, Johnny and Daniel, it could live on its own, it’s very relevant for today. And then you have the fun of the 80s and the music, and it’s nostalgia. And all of that comes together in a nice fun way I think.

I wanted to ask about the cycle that your characters have been on in that both yourself and Ralph were in the original Karate Kid playing students and have now moved on to being Senseis. It’s an interesting parallel that, as actors, you almost have gone through a similar transition. In the original film, you were quite young and now you’re veterans of the film and TV industry. I was wondering how you’ve both adapted to that new role as the more veteran members of the cast, and imparting your wisdom to the young actors on set?

Billy Zabka: Yeah, great question. It’s very much art imitating life Ralph and I both had big, you know, big lives. And we’ve done our careers and had our journeys, we both have families, we both been through a lot for us to be prepared and really built for this moment. So it’s been a very natural evolution, the timing is just perfect. It really was just about the timing of this coming out with the streaming platforms and all but it’s been, I don’t really look at myself in that way. I don’t consciously think of myself in that light, like that I bring that to the table. I mean, I’ve done this on every angle of the camera, behind the lens, writing, directing, producing, I’ve done a number of projects. And so to come with that life experience you’ve had, you know, being married, having kids, having lost all those all those things in life that as an artist, you… you get to know how to portray to a character. So I think we both have a big deep bag of life experience and work experience behind which just naturally makes us veterans in that sense. And, you know, I hope that the hope the young cast feeds off that in some way, I sure did when I was a young actor, and was working with older actors who’ve been around for a minute and I would just absorb as much as I could through osmosis or by questioning, because that’s how we grow as artists. So and also the truth is that there is the reciprocal because you know, the kids are so great. We learn from them, we watch from them. So it’s a two way street on that. But you know, it’s really a great relationship with the cast on and off the camera.

You said something there about art imitating life and I thought that was quite interesting in terms of, there being a funny coincidence a few years before Cobra Kai where you were on How I Met Your Mother playing sort of a heightened version yourself. That all centered around a character from the show (Barney Stinson) believing you to be the protagonist of The Karate Kid. And then a few years later in Cobra Kai, we find out that’s how Johnny almost exactly sees the events of the first film. I was wondering if you see that coincidence now, given the distance from the show having been released?

Billy Zabka: That is a great question. I think there’s a seed that started when I did The Karate Kid where in order to play the character of Johnny Lawrence, it wasn’t until the end of the script when I read Kreese, telling him to sweep the leg and showing good sportsmanship at the end. And that’s the part that I dialled in and said, “Oh, he’s really a good guy at his core”. So, I never looked at Johnny as the Darth Vader or the villain in any sense, I always look at it through my point of view. And that was, here’s a young guy and this new kid comes to town and steals his girlfriend and almost instigates every fight, douses him with a water hose.

All those things were devices I use when we filmed the movie for me to get through it as an actor, and then to have that ending where he gets crane kicked and hands on the trophy. So I think that there was some truth in that. And as time went on, I think people tapped into that, and then watched the replay of The Karate Kid and questiodn whether or not the crane kick was legal, you know, and then How I Met Your Mother called in and asked for me to do a spot on it. And I knew that they had built Barney the character played by Neil Patrick Harris, to see Johnny as the hero. But that was almost a character flaw in Barney that was, you know, the particular kind of guy. And so it was funny that he would look at it that way. He would, you know, he would also look at Darth Vader as the hero of Star Wars. So for them to invite me on to that show, and to have fun with the legacy of that and to get to play a heightened reality version of myself, and how I would deal with that was just awesome. It was just so much fun, what a great cast. And it worked.

And they brought me back to the season nine and gave me a really great arc. I did a number of episodes on that and really got to explore some comedy and some great stuff. So I think that there’s some, there’s some linkage there, I think that the you know, the response to me being on that show, may have given some some comfort to to this idea of moving forward with overtime. I think Cobra Kai can live on it without it. But I believe that that was a stepping stone. And, and I’m super grateful for that, that experience, they really called me and pulled me off the bench and threw me on a hit network. So and, and I got to kind of turn this guy inside out a little bit through through my point of view. So I think I bring a little bit of that to it. And the guys, even the creators of the show, would watch The Karate Kid long DVD versions with interviews of the cast. And I many times would say on there that I never saw Johnny as the bad guy but as the good guy of his own story, who learns a lesson at the end. And they’ve said many times when they said at the pitch meeting that that was a kernel of Cobra Kai. To explore how Johnny’s point of view is and how he experienced that time. And that’s the doorway that opened up into the whole series. So I think it started with the seed of how I played him and how I interpreted Johnny from the beginning.

What can we expect to see from you in season four of the show, I don’t know how much you’re allowed to say, but what details can you give us?

Billy Zabka: Well, I think that the end of season three really kicks off the stakes of what’s coming, we’ve got a Cobra Kai that’s tenacious and Kreese reaching out on the phone to somebody. And I think we know who that may be right now due to the trailers and the teasers that have been out there. Then now you have Johnny and Daniel who are bowing to each other and showing each other respect and being on the same page. So here are two characters that are very different, but they have a common goal. And there’s a lot of potholes, and there’s some things for them to work through. But I can tell you that it’s an exciting thing that it gets very wide and deep with all the characters and the themes. And I’m rooting for both Johnny and Daniel. It’s exciting. We have a great tournament in this season. A lot of action a lot more of what the first three seasons have been, but different, it’s very exciting.

Check out our review of season 3 of Cobra Kai!

Follow Film and TV Editor Michael Slavin on Twitter: @MichaelSlavin98

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