Ralph Macchio is still Daniel LaRusso in "Cobra Kai," but he's no longer a "Karate Kid"

We sit down with the "Karate Kid" star to discuss the enduring legacy of his films and the "Cobra Kai" 30-year jump

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published April 29, 2018 2:00PM (EDT)
William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in "Cobra Kai" (YouTube Red)
William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in "Cobra Kai" (YouTube Red)

More than three decades after the most iconic kick to the head in cinematic history, "The Karate Kid" rivals Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence are back. In the new YouTube Red series "Cobra Kai," they're dads of teens themselves, trying to raise a new generation and still battle the bullies.

Salon spoke recently with the OG Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio, about returning to his most famous role and what makes a great revival.

We were just talking about how for a lot of us who are fans of the original “Karate Kid,” knowing that this was coming down the road, you want to be excited about it, but you’re also nervous about it. You hope it’s going to be good, and no one knows that better than you, because you have been approached to return to this story and these characters again and again over 30 years, and you always said no.

I have. I’m so protective of that character and the legacy of that film, what it means to people, what it has over time become. It’s the fans’ movie. It’s a piece of our childhood, at least being in my generation. But then it reinvents with the younger generation. I see 8- and 10-year-old kids who love that film or who will dress up as the shower for Halloween or wear the headband and show me their crane kick, at 10 years old, you know.

To taint that legacy or go back to the well and fall short, it was always easier to let it stand on its own. The reason why -- because I get asked this question a lot, “Why after 30 years did you say yes to come on board?” -- it had a great deal to do with our creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald. Two of them created the "Harold and Kumar" franchise and the other created "Hot Tub Time Machine." They knew how to write for a young-now generation, because it’s really important if you’re going to redo something in 2018 that was done in 1984. How do you make it relevant for today’s audience?

They also are the biggest fanboys of “The Karate Kid” movie. It’s “Star Wars” to them. They have such a respect for it, for all the characters and wanting to pay homage and embrace that legacy in a positive way.

That, coupled with a fact that now you can, with a platform like YouTube Red, make a five-hour movie and cut it up into 10 parts, where 10 years ago you were either a major motion picture sequel or 24 episodes on NBC or something.

It’s the timing and then these guys just being the guys -- and they had such a great smart fresh angle into it all.

As you put it, it’s great because you can revisit it. You get more of the luxury of having time with these characters; you get that span, but it’s isn’t . . .

They get to breathe.

Right. But it isn’t like a full 24-episode arc.             

Right.

It feels like just a right amount of time to tell this particular story about these particular characters back where they are now.

I want to ask, when you come back to a story like this — because “The Karate Kid” is iconic, it is a classic — now it’s coming back. I think there are so many of the themes about bullying, about coming into your own identity, about just becoming an adult in the world, that resonate. Do you feel like this story is attractive to a new generation because it resonates right now, or is it because this is always a resonant story?

I think one of the reasons “The Karate Kid” film has stood the test of time, aside from "Get him a body bag," "Sweep the leg," catching flies with chopsticks, all of that stuff that’s become pop culture, is that it worked on a human level. It’s the classic fish-out-of-water story, adolescent coming of age, overcoming obstacles, having this human Yoda in Mr. Miyagi to answer all the questions. It's, you know, wish fulfillment. All those things are all part of great storytelling.

As far as the bullying element, which is really important, that’s changed over the years. Technology has changed that. Daniel LaRusso would come home in 1984 and have a black eye and Mom would see that and say, “What’s happening? Tell me what’s going on.”

In this case, on our show, peppered throughout the entertainment and the humor and the comedy and the heart, is that theme of, "How do you parent when you don’t know?" When it’s all silent. That’s what the kids are dealing with today. That’s what the adults are dealing with today. Bullying happens at all ages and levels. That is current, as well as the classic narrative story structure is current. I think that’s why it will resonate for the now generation as much as for the past generations, because this is still an issue that is part of life, part of growing up, part of how you navigate that.

I think the show does a good job being an entertainment that still touches upon that in a real way, and that’s credit to Jon, Josh and Hayden. That was one of the first things I mentioned when they pitched the concept to me. They talked about that theme and they talked about this theme of understanding the side of the bully, understanding Johnny Lawrence, the character that William Zabka plays. Why was he like that? The old Miyagi-ism — "No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher." That was the case for him. You go back and forth that he’s still kind of a bad guy. He still beat the hell out of me every day — or Daniel LaRusso, shall I say.

But you get to see such a different side of these characters now. I know a couple of years ago, just two years ago, in an interview you were asked, “Well, where do you think LaRusso would be now?” You gave an answer that is actually very different from the character that he is now in the show.

Yes.

When you were presented with these concepts for who these two men are now . . . I love how surprising it is. How did you feel about that?

Well, it was out of my comfort zone for sure. But again, here’s the thing. We are hoping to do this for many seasons. That’s the plan. Unless you have conflict and flaws in your characters, you don’t have a story. If it leaves off and you get into it and Daniel is exactly the way you want him to be, and Johnny is exactly what you want him to be, the show is over.

OK, you’re satisfied by seeing them slip and fall and maybe lose, in Daniel’s case, maybe not be as balanced in his life as you thought he would be under the guidance of Mr. Miyagi. As wonderful as it’s going — he’s got a successful car dealership; he is the auto king of the San Fernando Valley, which just rubs Johnny Lawrence the wrong way, who still is living in 1984 in his mind. He’s got a great wife, the LaRusso wife and family, but "Not everything is as seems" — another Miyagi-ism.

The void in his life is that martial arts hasn’t been part of his life for the past eight years, nor has Mr. Miyagi, as he has passed. We pay homage, and it’s really a big part of the show [and a] big part of LaRusso’s life that Miyagi’s presence is there. Losing his track and finding his balance is important, especially a guy who seems to have it all together. When he sees that the Cobra Kai is reopening and Johnny Lawrence is back in his life, it just opens up all those wounds and [it's] his kryptonite to Superman. He becomes the feisty kid with the temper that he was back in 1984.

It’s really fun watching these two characters, who have been apart for so long, suddenly reunite.

Right. Because, one, it’s all water under the bridge. I haven’t seen him in 30 years. LaRusso is like, “Hey, how are you? How've you been? Boy, I don’t remember that you came here. Kind of a tough time back in the day.” It’s all coming back. He hasn’t thought about it in 25 years. For Johnny Lawrence, every day of his life is reliving getting kicked in the face. It was probably the best thing that happened to him in the last 30 years. He’s seeking redemption, and LaRusso is being sucked down this rabbit hole of the past and now all he knows is what he experienced, and he doesn’t want to let that happen again.

These two men are both parents of teenagers and they’re now navigating that different role.

Exactly. I’m very excited about the young cast we have on the show: the three main characters, and a lot of other ancillary high school role characters which represent our next generation of, say, “The Karate Kid,” or that world. It’s very exciting.

That’s one of the early things I said even when I did say, “Okay, I’m going to jump in this pool.” I don’t know how cold the water is going to be, but there’s only one way to do it. Commit and trust in the creators -- and they’re also extremely collaborative which was super important. But the question was, who are the kids? Who are these actors that are going to bring the young people into the show and create the longevity in the next generation? It also serves how Johnny and Daniel cross paths, because it’s the kids' world that sort of brings them into having to cross paths and create the conflict.

I wanted to ask you about that because it is very specifically not called “The Karate Kid: Next Generation.” It’s “Cobra Kai” and it is such an ensemble.

Yes.

For people who are expecting this show to be focused exclusively on you, especially the first episode...

Well, the first episode is all Johnny Lawrence because we knew of Daniel, where Daniel was working from, and all of this stuff. We had no idea of Johnny Lawrence’s backstory, so that’s an interesting angle in. Not unlike, say, a film like “Creed,” where Rocky Balboa was not the central focus. It’s a smart way to revisit the universe from another vantage point.

It’s a really great parallel because “Creed” is such an amazing film as well.

Yes.

To have that kind of generosity with these characters, where they are not living in the past — they really have moved on to a different place. You do have this connection with this younger generation who are amazing and whose story arcs are very different.

Yes. They grow deeper and more interwoven as the 10 episodes go on. It’s very exciting. The truth is it is “The Karate Kid” universe, but it is its own entity. It’s not a sequel. It is and isn’t, you know, because it’s not like we’re picking up where Mr. Miyagi and Daniel left off, and Johnny Lawrence and Kreese and Cobra. It’s a 30-year jump.

I think anybody who loves the movie, which I think is probably anybody who has seen the movie, which is probably everybody, will really appreciate that there are so many callbacks and so many allusions to the previous films, and Mr. Miyagi does get his respect in this, but it’s also its own fresh thing.

Yes, exactly.

I want to ask you one last question, because we are in this place now. I don’t have the answer for this. We’re seeing revivals of “Roseanne” and “Will & Grace,” and “Murphy Brown” is coming, and they’re all doing really well. I’m wondering, what is it about this moment -- especially for our generation -- that we’re looking back for this nostalgia? What do you think makes a good revival or reboot?

That’s a good question. Listen, it is part of why I feel now is the time. I think the content has to be well executed. The creators, the folks who brought you the shows and these characters, who are beloved characters, are great writers and creators and storytellers. I think if you could find either the fresh angle in or the other way to take that world and broaden it or go in another direction and make it fresh, unique and relevant, you have a big, fat, warm comfort-food embrace from the audience.

I think for every one you’ve mentioned, I’m sure there are 10 that have failed. But I’d like to believe that “Cobra Kai” is going to fall into the “Will & Grace,” “Roseanne,” and the success stories.

Well, the early reviews have been great.

Yes. They’ve been fantastic.

It really has been, so far, embraced. I can’t wait to watch the next eight episodes when it drops on YouTube. “Cobra Kai,” YouTube Red, May 2nd, and also you’re coming on the second season of “The Deuce.”

“The Deuce.” That’ll be September. Yes.

Ralph Macchio, thank you so much for today.

Thank you. Great being here.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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