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Sean Kanan On Bringing His Karate Kid III Villain Back For Cobra Kai Season 5 - Exclusive Interview

This article contains spoilers for "Cobra Kai" Season 5.

With nearly every major actor from the original "Karate Kid" trilogy reprising their roles for the Netflix series "Cobra Kai," actor Sean Kanan hoped it was only a matter of time before creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg would be giving him a call to reprise his role of Mike Barnes from "The Karate Kid Part III."

The idea began to look very promising in "Cobra Kai" Season 4, when Thomas Ian Griffith re-emerged as his "Karate Kid Part III" villain Terry Silver. Given Silver's power play to oust John Kreese (Martin Kove) and make the Cobra Kai dojo all his own in Episode 10, the door swung wide open not only for Griffith to return but also for the possibility of other "Karate Kid III" cast members to join him in Season 5

Mike, of course, was a reflection of Silver's wicked ways in the third "Karate Kid" installment. In the film, the corrupt, multi-millionaire industrialist-slash-villainous sensei recruited Mike to first taunt Daniel (Ralph Macchio) outside the dojo and eventually show "no mercy" to the champ in his return to the All-Valley Karate Tournament after defeating Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Released in 1989, "The Karate Kid Part III" marked Kanan's first major film role.

The actor has been working nonstop between the release of film and "Cobra Kai," appearing in more than 65 film and television roles. Among Kanan's credits are roles in such series as "The Outsiders" and "Sunset Beach" as well as long-running starring turns on the daytime dramas "The Young and the Restless," "General Hospital," and "The Bold and the Beautiful." The latter of the three shows is unique in that it gave the actor a chance to highlight his expert karate skills.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Kanan discussed his work on "The Karate Kid Part III" and his unexpected character turn in "Cobra Kai," his respect for Macchio and Zabka and the new friendships they forged because of the series, and more.

Getting back into the swing (and punches and kicks) of things

One of the best things to come out of "Cobra Kai" is how it has brought in principal cast members from the original three "Karate Kid" movies. Now we have you, Thomas Ian Griffith, and Robyn Lively from "The Karate Kid Part III," and it seems to give the film more respect now and the attention that it deserves. In a way, Season 5 seems to give "The Karate Kid Part III" a whole new meaning now. Would you agree?

That's a really good point. I think it does that because our characters in their new incarnation in "Cobra Kai" are so much more multi-dimensional, [with] so many more facets and colors than they were in the original film. I've said this before: I'm now a guy that's 33 years older, both as an actor and also as a human. I've got a lot more that I'm able to draw upon and bring to the role, and it's been great getting a second whack at this thing.

I'm not sure how far ahead the creators plotted this out, but as the seasons began to unfold and all of a sudden they were bringing in characters from the first "Karate Kid" and "The Karate Kid Part II," and then Thomas Ian Griffith from "Part III" in Season 4, were you hoping in the back of your mind, "God, I hope they bring Mike Barnes back?"

Absolutely. I was always hoping that since day one of the show, and I patiently waited. Fortunately, I'm working on other shows and doing other things that occupied my time, but I couldn't help but think how amazing it would be to get him to bite the apple.

An unexpected character turn

Bringing you back is one thing — the manner in which the creators brought you back is another. It started with the way they structured this series from the very beginning by flipping around the roles of Ralph Macchio and William Zabka. Were you surprised with the direction they took with Mike Barnes?

We had earlier talks, and I said to the guys, "Listen, who am I to tell you guys anything about your show?" They wanted a Zoom meeting with me, so they did want to hear my opinion about some things, and I said, "Look, let me share two things with you. I really hope that the character is not the same unidimensional thug that he was in the original film." That was very much by design. That is what ["The Karate Kid Part III" director] John Avildsen wanted. I also said, "I would love to see the character be funny, and even, to a certain extent, maybe a little self-deprecating."

There's probably some sort of a synergy with [William Zabka's character] Johnny given that both of these guys have a little bit of that anachronistic quality where they still probably have one foot in the '80s. Everyone always thinks the decade where they came of age is ... "That's the best music," they say. We all do. 

They were gracious about giving the opportunity to find those moments that were funny. We have some nice ones with Chozen [Yuji Okumoto]. Johnny and I have some nice ones, and I actually had a blast. I really did. It was one of the best work experiences I've ever had.

Old character rivalries turn into new and real friendships

You had to have been taken aback with the lines of your dialogue in Episode 3. Mike is talking about one thing, but Daniel's thinking he's talking about something else.

[Mike was actually referring to a piece of furniture, not Daniel, saying], "I told you to get rid of that Italian piece of s***" in front of a beautiful wife. [laughs

Yes. It's so incredibly clever. You meet Chozen right after that. It's extremely clever storytelling. You had to have been thinking, "Man, this is the introduction of my character? This is awesome stuff!"

It was great. It was so much fun. The thing I really liked is that I had the chance to apologize to Daniel, and it was certainly a long time coming and deserved — and I liked the fact that it wasn't just a redemption arc. Yes, the guy apologized, and Mike probably would've continued on as a happy furniture salesman, married and living his life making furniture, but once Terry Silver burned his life down, he was able to revert to what he knew best, and it was the return to the bad boy.

In Episode 10, if you think about it, what a monumental moment. You have all three of Daniel's antagonists from the three movies together. You have Mike, Johnny, Chozen ...

Yeah, as allies.

[They're] plotting with Daniel, although he's reluctant to go ahead with it from his standpoint. But Mike, Johnny, and Chozen want to bring the pain to Terry Silver. Did you sit back during that moment of shooting that scene to reflect how cool and surreal that whole setup was?

Ralph [Macchio] and I were on set together, and he at one point said to me, "Can you believe this?" That's one of the things I love about Ralph. Nobody deserves this success more than he and Billy [Zabka] because they're terrific guys. They've both been around the block in Hollywood for a very long time, and he still is like, "Wow, isn't this amazing? Isn't this great?" Keeping that sense of humility and that sense of gratitude is a lot of what makes those two such great guys ... It couldn't have happened to nicer guys, and Ralph and I were both like, "Can you believe this? This is 30 some years later and here we are."

One of the greatest things about this experience for me outside of the production on a humanistic level was the opportunity to get to know Ralph again as a man. [I got to play Mike] as a 55-year-old guy, as opposed to this brash 22-year-old kid thrown into this situation that was "sink or swim" as his nemesis, where we were very much kept apart. They did not do a lot to foster a friendship between us, but wisely so. Now, we have the chance to spend some time together, and that was really nice. 

Karate then and now

There's one hell of a fight scene at the end for you guys in Episode 10. You had to have known karate because of your part in "The Karate Kid Part III," but how much more intense was it this time around? I would imagine that no matter what, it's going to be more intense because you're 30 years older.

In a lot of ways, I'm a better martial artist now than I was when I did "Karate Kid III." That being said, things seem to come a lot easier back then than they do now, especially the day after. It was a lot of fun. They have an absolutely terrific choreography team and stunt team — we were in great hands. The only thing that was really difficult was time, as it always is. You always want more rehearsal time. You always want more time to shoot something, but we did the absolute best we could with the parameters we had.

Going back to 1989, I've read about you needing life-saving surgery after suffering internal bleeding filming "The Karate Kid Part III." How much was that on your mind filming the big fight scene in "Cobra Kai"? You have your stunt coordinators and the choreographers who you're rehearsing with, but the injury still has to be in the back your mind.

It wasn't really on my mind. I did a huge martial arts scene on "The Bold and Beautiful," which was much more violent, and I did all my own stunts on that, so it wasn't on my mind other than the nostalgic aspect of realizing that when I got hurt, it was playing this character. There wasn't any trepidation or anxiety on my part doing it because I've done dozens of fight scenes over the years, but I was aware that it was while playing Mike Barnes that it happened. 

You've been very busy since "The Karate Kid Part III." 30 years later, how prominent has "The Karate Kid" film been with your fans? Has the attention level been rising since the beginning of "Cobra Kai" to fever pitch with Season 5, or has it always been there?

You made a good point. You talked about how somehow, the — if you can use the word "gravitas" — of "Karate Kid III" has increased based on "Cobra Kai," and it's true. Also, with [the series streaming on] Netflix and being distributed throughout the world, it's incredible. "The Karate Kid" has always had its own fan base — the universe — but now it's on steroids with "Cobra Kai." Plus, being on "The Bold and Beautiful," which is also syndicated in 40 countries, a lot of people know me from that, too, so the nexus of the two has created a lot of interest, which has been really nice. It's been a blessing.

Karate Kid III taught Kanan career lessons

Since "The Karate Kid Part III" was one of your earlier films, did it prepare you for your career in acting? Since karate is a disciplined sport, I'd imagine you carried on that discipline into your career as an actor, too.

Not always. I wish that I could say that I did, but ... I had a lot of trials by error before I figured it out. You asked me how "Karate Kid Part III" prepared me — there are a couple of things that come to mind. The first was when I was lying in bed with a 15-inch wound on my abdomen and staples. There were no flowers in the room, no card; there was a call from the director saying "You got 10 days to get back to work or you lose the part," so that was a bit of a rude awakening. I learned pretty quickly that this is a business, and your value is completely conditional upon the value that you can bring to the business.

But what I also learned was that it didn't jade me. It didn't sour me and cause me to be cynical, so that was a good lesson. Working on a big studio film as the super young green actor ... You go on a film set [and] there's a whole different language — there's "hang the baby" [which is camera operator lingo], blah, blah, blah. You don't know what anything means.

You're literally learning another language, and that work experience as a young actor, you couldn't have gotten that any other way but doing a big studio film, which very few people get the opportunity to do. When I first started the film, I knew nothing of camera and lighting and all sorts of stuff, and simply by virtue of the experience of several months of doing it to learn, that was invaluable. It introduced me to the world. It spun off into several other fairly high-profile jobs for me, so it's been nothing but positive.

Kanan has big hopes for another season of Cobra Kai

I'm sure the minute Season 5 dropped, people were already asking for Season 6. Are your fingers crossed for Mike Barnes to come back if there is another season?

Of course! I would absolutely love to be a part of Season 6. That would be fantastic. There's hopefully a lot of stories to be discovered with Mike Barnes, but we'll see. We'll see what the guys in their infinite wisdom have planned.

As I watch the seasons, I've wondered, "Well, how are they going to top it?" From the very beginning of Season 5 —

They do.

Exactly. It was so much fun. This show is as good as it's ever been, and I truly do mean that.

That's great.

I'm seeing an action figure of you in the background, and since I'm an action figure geek, I have to know: Is that custom-made?

Yeah. I get crazy stuff from fans, and this is amazing [holds up figure]. This guy's so talented. It's my custom action figure of Mike. Can you believe that? He sent this to me, and I haven't had a figure made of me or a Funko [POP!] or anything, so this is my guy.

"Cobra Kai" Season 5, as well as Seasons 1 through 4, are streaming exclusively on Netflix.

This interview was edited for clarity.