‘Cobra Kai’: Ralph Macchio Still Gets a Kick Out of Being the Karate Kid All These Years

The ‘80s teen idol spoke to IndieWire about the evolution of his career path and what could be next.
Ralph Macchio, "Cobra Kai"
Ralph Macchio, "Cobra Kai"
YouTube Premium

Ralph Macchio is almost always game to make a leap, both literally and figuratively, for his job. Known best for performing a flying crane kick in the big finale of “The Karate Kid” in 1984, Macchio’s onscreen career comes full circle in “Cobra Kai” Season 2 when he executes a jump front kick to dispose of one last thug during a beachside fight.

“I’m standing on soft sand, and it’s very tough to do, to get height from something other than hard floor or mats,” Macchio, 57, said. “I was happy to be able to pull it off because I do all that stuff myself over the course of the season, but it’s challenging to stay healthy and not hurt yourself. The muscles just don’t remember like they did at 20. It takes a lot more stretching, a lot more work.”

When Macchio first started out acting, he couldn’t have predicted what skill would become his calling card. Although he’s also known for the classic teen drama “The Outsiders” and “My Cousin Vinny,” he will forever be “The Karate Kid” in moviegoers’ minds, having starred in three films in the franchise and now, more than three decades later, the YouTube Premium sequel series “Cobra Kai.”

“I certainly didn’t think it would be karate. I had initially had more fun being in a film like ‘Crossroads,’ where I got to play slide guitar,” he said. “I still barely know [karate]. People ask, ‘How much training do you have?’ I have enough training to look like I know what I’m doing in the show. And I enjoy the philosophy behind it and how it keeps you in shape mentally and physically.”

Although his character Daniel LaRusso and his former bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) play owners of rival dojos who’ve never gotten past their teenage beef, it’s their students who do most of the punching and kicking on the show.

"Cobra Kai"
“Cobra Kai”YouTube Premium

“They’re keeping me on my toes, and I’m in better shape now than I was five years ago, that’s for sure,” he said. “There was only one stunt move I did, not that I have a lot. The kids have a lot more. I love watching the kids; I had my time.”

For now, he’s happy that “Cobra Kai” is made for co-viewership in mind.  Original fans of “The Karate Kid” are now watching “Cobra Kai” with their children. It’s the type of transition he’s had to make with his own kids, although the difference is that it’s their own father they’re watching on the screen.

“After they were 5 or 6 years old and trying to understand why everybody that saw me would stand on one leg like a bird or at Planet Hollywood, they’d say, ‘Why are there pictures of Daddy up on that wall?’ — we had to break down and show them the movies,” said Macchio.

“It’s fun to share that, and my kids read ‘The Outsiders’ in school, and they learned I was in that film. The joy now is that they love [‘Cobra Kai’] so much, they watch it with their friends. They do watch parties and some college friends come over to binge the whole thing. It’s really wonderful to watch them enjoy these characters that were such a big part of my young life. It’s nostalgic at the same time.”

“Cobra Kai” is about two men in their 50s who are in some ways still living in the past, and not just in a wistful, nostalgic way. The bad blood between Daniel and Johnny fuels much of the action and misunderstanding early on in Season 2, but by the end, both men appear to have evolved enough to share the same philosophies about martial arts and honor. They even inadvertently share a congenial meal together.

“There’s a chemistry there that I didn’t even know we necessarily had in the movie. For the most part, when we did scenes in the movie together, it was me beating him, or him beating the shit out of me,” said Macchio.

“When it comes down to actually acting, the fact that we’re so different, Billy and Ralph, just lends itself to Johnny and Daniel being so different. When we get to play those scenes where we’re getting along after a couple of drinks, it feels a little bit like Billy and Ralph and it’s kind of fun to see that chemistry in truth and honesty packed into playing a character.”

William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, "Cobra Kai"
William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, “Cobra Kai”Guy D'Alema/YouTube/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

It’s heartening to see two middle-aged men still learning and evolving onscreen instead of in stasis. Macchio himself is still looking for new challenges. As a co-executive producer on “Cobra Kai,” he’s been able to craft certain scenes in ways that feel more authentic to who Daniel is as a character.

“I’m collaborating constantly with the creators of the show, and every script that comes in we discuss it and they get the tiebreaker,” he said. “If I see something in production that I think we could be doing better …for the story going forward, I say something. It’s part of being a healthy producer and trying to deliver the best possible storytelling that we possibly can within the budget.”

For example, there’s a key scene in which Daniel gives advice to his teenage daughter Sam (Mary Mouser), who’s heartbroken after a breakup. The writers’ children are toddlers, and therefore, Macchio gave his input for what approach Daniel would take. “I’d say, ‘As a parent who has raised teenagers, this is how it would be handled in my opinion or this will lead to these repercussions,’” he said. “So then we adjust that stuff. It’s all collaborative in that way.”

Macchio even loaned the original yellow ’47 Ford convertible that he owns from the original “Karate Kid” movie to “Cobra Kai” to give the series that extra bit of continuity. The actor has produced smaller projects before, but “one of them have gotten to the level of this.” He might consider a heavier producing load depending on the project, but he’s still feeling it out the right balance.

Macchio has a small recurring role as a vice cop on HBO’s “The Deuce” and has discussed the workload with series star James Franco, who plays twins on the drama, produces the series, and has sat in the director’s chair as well.

“I told him, ‘You have too many balls in the air.’ James says, ‘I’m just shedding the light on what I know or where I want to drive the story,” said Macchio. “We talked about do I want to direct an episode of ‘Cobra Kai’ or is there stuff I want to produce? It’s all part of your storytelling and using my knowledge and my experience to make better content that I believe in.”

For now, he’s grateful for the way “Cobra Kai” has come together and that karate has come into his life again.

“You get to pretend in this world and get to assume another livelihood,” he said. “Martial arts is something that will be connected to me, I would imagine, forever.”

Ralph Macchio, "Cobra Kai"
Ralph Macchio, “Cobra Kai”Guy D'Alema/YouTube/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

”Cobra Kai” Seasons 1 and 2 are currently available on YouTube Premium.

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