[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Season 4 of Cobra Kai. Read at your own risk!]
Is Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence ready at last to wax on, wax off?
That's the most provocative opening question of the fourth season of Netflix's wildly popular update of The Karate Kid franchise: will Johnny (William Zabka), the one-time high school martial arts adversary and now an oh-so-slowly evolving ally of grown-up Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), actually learn a life lesson or two from Mr. Miyagi's fabled philosophical techniques, or will Johnny's Eagle Fang teaching simply revert to the brutal win-at-all-costs tactics of his former dojo, Cobra Kai?
William Zabka continues to delight in the new season by constantly exploring surprising new facets of middle-aged Johnny, a character he originated in the original Karate Kid film back in 1984, while still adhering to some lingering hardwired lunkheaded-ness. But now that Johnny and Daniel have merged their dojos in an uneasy truce hoping to combat the viciousness of Johnny's former sensei John Kreese's training, Johnny may finally be equipped with the tools to move his life — including his crumbling bonds with his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and protégé Miguel (Xolo Mariduena), and his fizzling romance with Miguel's mom Carmen (Vanessa Rubio).
But as the opening episode reveals, Kreese has a new but all-too-familiar ally as well, as Karate Kid III villain Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who reformed life looks poised for an ominous return to form – though Johnny has no clue how dangerous Silver can be. Zabka joined TV Guide to reflect on the new turns of events offered up in Season 4 of Cobra Kai.
When you began discussing the direction of the new season with the showrunners, where you were going to start Season 4, what were the things that got you most excited?
William Zabka: I love that Johnny and Daniel are setting off on a journey together. The end of Season 3 is this super-climactic high where they're finally coming together, but what I love is that we don't continue that. They're coming from different points of view and that they're bumping heads. The humanity that's between the two of them, and them both trying to sort their stuff out together in front of each other and through each other – all that keeps it grounded, keeps the show grounded, keeps it honest, doesn't become anything expected.
So I'm always excited by the writers and what they deliver because it's always right on the nose. It's always a different path than I imagine, and so I love the surprise of that. But it still services what we want to happen. It just takes a longer direction, so I love that. I love that Johnny's still Johnny and he's trying on his Eagle Fang and he is sorting of stuff out with these kids at Miyagi-Do. I love the fact that Johnny gets to train and learn some Miyagi-Do and humble himself to absorb this and realize that if it wasn't for Miyagi…Miyagi intervened in his own life and protected him in Karate Kid II. And so he's opening himself up to new things and he's growing. And what I look for and what I want to make sure is that he's constantly evolving and moving forward, in spite of himself, and this show delivers on all fronts on that end.
One of the things I think that makes Johnny very easy to root for, and also poignant, is his relationships with both Robby and Miguel. And we got to see a sense that they're both in very tenuous places: he's feeling like Miguel's being won over to Daniel's side a little bit more, and Robby, obviously, is potentially falling under Kreese's sway. So tell me about what's been interesting to you about continuing to kind of keep mixing up the dynamic with Johnny and these two boys that mean so much to him.
Zabka: That's just the core of Johnny, and he masks it with some beef jerky and some beers and some bad habits. But the core of Johnny is, he wants to be what he never had, which is a good man and a good father figure. And he feels very guilty about how he wasn't there for Robby, and now he's trying to pick things up. And now Robby is in his own trajectory and is learning all the same mistakes that Johnny had to learn, and that's a hard thing for a dad to see happen and to have a kid turn your back on you and go his own direction, and then feel so powerless.
And then you have Miguel, who he loves like a son, who developed a father/son relationship and filled a very big hole in Johnny. And that's potentially at stake with how Miguel is now bonding with Daniel. And there's a little bit of insecurity and fear in Johnny. But the core of it is — and was a great scene when Johnny goes to school and makes Miguel play hooky and he comes clean with him and tells him: "You know, I didn't have a dad. I didn't have a good mentor, and I don't want that to happen to you. And I don't want to make the same mistakes."
So he is overcompensating when he spills the beans to Miguel that he is dating his mom. He overcompensates and tries to be a dad, but he has no model for it. So that is all juicy, tasty stuff to play. And then he's got some things to learn to be a better father and a better man.
And at the core, he would love both men in his life and to be the best version of a dad he can be, and best mentor. I think that's part of what keeps the show grounded. And as we expand the plot and the storylines and the new characters and the new Cobra Kai coming in, to me, that's the heart of Johnny: he's just sorting his stuff out and trying to fill the void that he has in his own life with these two young men.
His evolution has been slow but steady over the course of the series. Would you say this is going to be kind of a pivotal season for Johnny, making some bigger strides and having maybe a few more big victories?
Zabka: Yeah. I think where we end up with the All-Valley, his eyes are open. He's seen the error of his ways. He's pushed too hard and he's over-corrected, and he's acknowledged that. And there's a moment of humility in Johnny that he's never displayed before. And yeah, at the end of the season, he's definitely shed some more skin. He's grown a few miles, and he's evolved. So that's great because that's what we're rooting for. I'm rooting for that in him. I'm rooting for that in him in every scene as he's working through his stuff. So clearly, yeah, to continue gradual, slow evolution of this character, which is just incredible to read and I just so enjoy playing it.
Tell me what was fun for you to bring in the character of Terry Silver, and the actor Thomas Ian Griffith. Because you've been part of the Karate Kid family forever, but you haven't had any screen time together before.
Zabka: Yeah, I never even met Thomas before and I was a fan and I loved him in the movie and I loved the character, Terry Silver. When Thomas showed up at the stage on set and walked by my trailer, we had our first encounter was just like, "Man, they kept us apart too long. It's like 35 or something years, and we get to do this together." So as an actor, I'm a fan. He's so talented. He's an incredible singer. He's an incredible writer. He's a great actor. I was just so excited to get to work with him.
I didn't know what was coming at that point, because the scripts kind of came in…but as far as the character goes, as far as Johnny goes, Johnny doesn't know who Terry Silver is. He's not even a blip on his radar, so there's no threat to Johnny of Terry Silver. He's just a guy with a ponytail in the backyard.
But Daniel knows this guy is full of danger, and Daniel's right. As much as he gets under Johnny's skin and annoys him about it, Daniel knows this guy. So I love that Johnny, going back to the son, realizes this guy's throwing money at his kid and giving him a car and taking care of him and spoiling him and that just lights Johnny's fuse. He goes to the dojo to try to even the playing field and gets lured into a trap, blindsided with a kick and beat to a pulp, and now is aware that this guy is dangerous.
And that's the soul of Johnny. I mean, if Johnny could redeem his relationship with his son, Terry Silver's a catalyst for that, for better or worse, and so that's great. It's great writing. It's exciting to play. And I love Thomas and we're having a great time on the show together, and what a great addition he is!
We see in the opening episode that Johnny's kind of still spinning his wheels with Carmen. Tell me a little bit about what's fun to play in Johnny's romantic pursuits – to see how he screws it up and how he has little successes here and there.
Zabka: The scene [coming up] when Johnny's teaching Eagle Fang to the kids and brings them to the rooftop and tells them they got to jump across the roof, it's really a big metaphor for himself of the gap he has to bridge, to ante up and not play it safe and put all his cards on the table and show his heart and be vulnerable.
So when Sam takes that leap and then we kind of cut to Johnny going and taking the leap, walking into the door and professing his love awkwardly a la Jerry Maguire almost, come in and interrupting this moment, it's a big moment for the character. And I love the back and forth and the accidental slip-up Miguel does at the dinner table and spills the beans about Johnny hooking up and meeting up with Ali again and the trouble that gets Johnny in.
He's not sure. He's ready for love, but he's not ready to go Full Monty on it. And he finds that in himself. So that's great. And I love the evolution of Carmen: Vanessa [Rubio] is my favorite. I love working with her. And what she's done with this character, Carmen, and how she accepts Johnny with his blemishes and all, it's just she's in love with this guy. They're an unlikely couple, but they need each other. They fill each other's voids. And as we get to know them, they're so much alike in so many ways. So I love all of that. I love that journey of Johnny putting to bed his past with Ali. It happened in Season 3 and facing the girl that got away, that part of his heart that was broken and aching all these years. He has closure and that enables him to move forward into his new life. So there's a really great closure in Season Three that opened the door for all that to come with Carmen and Johnny. And it's a great ride, and we had lot of fun with it.
As a producer on the show and as a writer yourself on various projects, tell me about your voice in the room when it comes to developing Johnny. How do you get to advocate for him? Do you get to say, "That doesn't strike me as something he'd do," or, "Yeah, that's perfect. He would totally do that."
Zabka: I learned early on in Season 1 that this character was out of my hands, some of the things that he said and did and where they drove him and it's their imagination coming in who Johnny is today. So I let them ... I mean, I don't "let" them, it's just the way that it goes, that they'll beat out the path and they'll plot the plots and then they'll serve me the scripts. And then what I do is I go and I look for the undercurrents. I look for the hidden things, and I find my secrets as an actor and what to bring to it. And at the end, it becomes a collaboration of what they write and what I bring to it as an artist. And then we have Johnny on screen.
And so as far as beating it out and plotting his course, I know where he ends up. I know where we're headed for the most part – vaguely, but I know the trajectory. But where I really come in is when I let the guys do their thing. They're great writers. We have an incredible team of writers. We have great notes from Sony, great notes from Netflix. So when it comes to me, everybody's signed off on it. And that's when I give it a good, hard look. And a lot of times, I'll resist something and then lean into it and it's a process for me.
There are scenes [where] I'll make micro moves in certain ways, and I'll stand up for this or that here and there where there are boundaries for who this character is. And it's this controlling idea of who Johnny is for me, and if it steps out of that, then I'll come and I'll discuss it with them and we'll make two changes. But it's really in the writers' hands – really, truly – and I'm the actor playing it and portraying it and living it because that's what I end up doing. I'm still in his skin. I experience it in a very objective way. And so they see it subjectively and it's a collaboration, but I'm not beating it out. I'm not the one saying, "This is how Johnny's going to work out." It's hidden. They like to keep it hidden for me.
Sometimes they like to drop a scene on me the day before. They'll come into my trailer that day and say, "Hey, we came up with" ... This just happened this season where Jon Hurwitz knocked on my door and said, " We just came up with this last night and it's three pages of, 'Oh my God.'" And I have no time to react. It's like, "Okay, all right. Let's do it."
So it's a lot of fun. We're having a great time. We laugh a lot and sometimes we'll shoot stuff that I think is questionable. Like for instance, a moment in Season 2 where we're in a bar fight and I rip an earring out of a guy's ear. And for me, it was a little bit much. It was a little graphic and there was a real close insert of the guy's ear getting scored and ripped out. And then we'll shoot something like that and then later in the editing room, they'll tone it down. It's in good hands. There's a big team of people that are making Johnny Lawrence breathe. It's the right music and the right cuts and the right edits. So I just put my heart into it and we're in good hands: every character, and the story, and the fans.
Cobra Kai is now streaming on Netflix.