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Xolo Maridueña Talks Cobra Kai Season 3 - Exclusive Interview

The career of Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña has certainly gained momentum since his four-season stint as little Victor Graham on NBC's Parenthood. Not long after bidding farewell to the critically praised series, the young actor would go on to score small roles in episodes of Rush Hour and David Lynch's 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. But it was his lead role in 2018's first season of Cobra Kai that would catapult him into the spotlight. And now that spotlight is more radiant than ever and the show has recently become a mainstream hit. In August 2020, Cobra Kai found a new digital streaming dojo of its own — it moved from YouTube Premium to Netflix — leading to a massive surge in popularity. Maridueña won't be leaving that Cobra Kai limelight anytime soon, either: Production of season 4 is expected to gear up in the very near future. 

Set more than 30 years after the events of the 1984 hit movie, Cobra Kai is the follow-up to the original The Karate Kid trilogy. In it, Maridueña plays Miguel Diaz, who essentially follows in the crane-kick footsteps of OG karate kid Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). Miguel is one of the many bullied teens of Reseda, California who just so happens to live next door to Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the so-called villain from the original film who is now a down-and-out, trapped-in-the-1980s boozer-turned-sensei. Lawrence takes Miguel under his wing and makes him the first official student of his newly revived Cobra Kai dojo. Miguel eventually becomes Cobra Kai's prize pupil and even though his newfound karate skills bring him some new friends and dojo-mates along the way, he also makes some bitter new rivals and frenemies as well.

Fast forward to the events of the season 2 finale, and we find that tensions between opposing dojos Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do reach a boiling point. This erupts into an explosive schoolhouse karate brawl that concludes with Miguel suffering a near-fatal fall that leaves him comatose and in critical condition. But there's no way they'd kill off or leave the all-new karate kid paralyzed, would they? That cliffhanger ending left viewers on the edge of their seats, paving the way for the highly anticipated third season.

As season 3 approached, publicity images of Miguel began to surface and many of them showed the karate champ confined to a wheelchair. And the official clips and trailers that followed were devoid of any action scenes featuring Miguel. It was clear that season 3 would focus on his struggles to get back on his feet. Just days ahead of the third season premiere, Looper sat down for an exclusive virtual chat with Maridueña and picked his brain about Cobra Kai season 3 and Miguel's road to recovery.

During the interview, Maridueña shares his physical acting approach and explains why he thinks heightened senses can be their own superpower. Maridueña also reveals who the prime culprit is when it comes to those occasional on-set sucker punches and why he's Team Johnny and not Team Daniel. He also reflects on his time starring in Parenthood and tells us how he could've ended up doing STEM research if his acting career never took off.

'I'd love to walk around and say I pulled a Heath Ledger...'

After the injuries he sustained during the season two finale of Cobra Kai, we find Miguel confined to a wheelchair and learn that he may never walk again. In preparation for that, did you try to live in that wheelchair as much as possible to get in the mindset of what it's like to be handicapped?

Honestly, I'd love to walk around and say I pulled a Heath Ledger and that I broke my own legs. And I was like so down to. But I really think the battle with Miguel is less about the physical aspect of it and more about the mental aspect of having something taken away from you. And I think both karate and Johnny are two things that mean more than anything to Miguel, so having those two things taken away from him, I think, is almost worse than being paralyzed for the first bit of the season, in a lot of different ways. I think tackling those mental obstacles was harder than sitting in a wheelchair and pretending I couldn't walk. I think as the season progresses, that seems to be more apparent.

Do you know anyone in real life who is confined to a wheelchair and did you try to channel that during your performance?

In my own family, we have people who are in wheelchairs. I think it's interesting to meet someone who is in a wheelchair because of something like old age versus someone who was put into a wheelchair due to a situation that was out of their control. And I think hearing those two different stories is interesting because I think Miguel falls in the middle of that line — because he's someone who was put into this wheelchair because of his actions.

In some weird way, would you say this experience during season 3 made you appreciate your own legs and your ability to walk around? I think the lesson in Cobra Kai is, we take these little things for granted, whether it's your eyesight, your sense of hearing, or your ability to walk, any of them can be taken away if you're not careful.

I think it did but also, I don't want to pose it in a way that makes it seem like if you don't have any of those senses or abilities, that you're less. You know what I'm saying? I feel like one of the things that fascinates me the most is that people who are born without vision or born without hearing — all of their other senses get so much more amplified and I think in a lot of ways, it's almost like its own little superpower. But I guess in the specific situation of Miguel, being in this predicament is something that he could have never anticipated. Honestly, there's really nobody in the show who goes through the same specific situation, so being able to navigate that at age 17, or however old Miguel is, is one that's difficult no matter what.

Xolo Maridueña accidentally punched Jacob Bertrand in the face

In the season 3 finale, there's that epic LaRusso house fight. There's a lot of fight choreography with so many moving parts. There are multiple characters fighting in the background while you're doing your thing in the foreground. If one person is off their mark or everything gets out of sync, do you have to stop and reshoot a lot of those scenes?

Yeah, I think you're definitely correct. One wrong kick here or there throws the whole thing off. But I guess while that is true, I think the thing that gives people a little bit of security is that really, even though we have this one-shot and there's no cuts, there's usually like two people on camera at the same time. And I think sometimes it's harder to not be on camera and still have to pretend to make up choreography and punch people than the stuff that you're supposed to do on camera. I think it really is a testament to our stunt coordinators. I think that's very apparent in season 2, season 3, and hopefully in season 4. It's not just a show where kids beat up each other, the fights really are awesome fights.

How often does the cast accidentally sucker punch each other during these fight scenes? Have you gotten any injuries on set?

I think accidents do happen a lot on set. I think the ones that are really drastic happen a little bit less, but I will say a lot of them happened because of me. I won't shy away from it — I am a little bit of a klutz in that regard, but yes, I have accidentally punched Jacob Bertrand (Hawk) in the face once. And then I think a couple of other people have gotten some injuries here and there, but honestly, I think it happens a lot less than you would expect.

I know you did karate when you were really young. Has this show reignited an interest in martial arts for you?

Yeah, but I don't necessarily know if karate is the lane for me. I think having the opportunity to try out a bunch of different martial arts because of the show has really drawn me more into the direction of a grappling jujitsu kind of lane. But I think it's definitely something that I would love to pick up. Right before quarantine, I was doing a little bit of jiu-jitsu and going into some gyms and grappling, so it is something that piques my interest. I've started to watch the fights on TV and stuff like that, which I really probably wouldn't have done having not booked the show.

Both in real life and in the show, there are people who believe that martial arts promote violence, while the other side says it teaches discipline and restraint. Where do you stand on that matter?

I think it's a case-by-case situation. I think it really is up to the person intaking all of the fights and stuff like that. I think as we've seen, Johnny teaches Miguel the same way he teaches Hawk, but they're two very different people, you know what I'm saying? And I think it is interesting in that regard, just because I feel like in a lot of our own lives, we are intaking a lot of information and the way people react is very different.

Eagle Fang is a perfect name even though it doesn't make sense

If you had your own kid one day and they wanted to get into karate, would you want them to be in Miyagi-Do, Eagle Fang, or Kreese's version of Cobra Kai?

I think if you want your kid to be part of Kreese's Cobra Kai, you shouldn't be a parent. I think Eagle Fang really does, at least for me personally, come from the best place. I think Johnny had some good intentions when he brought back Cobra Kai, but I think there's a lot of those underlying mantras and underlying messages that you can't really escape from without creating his new dojo. I think Eagle Fang really does come from the best place and he has the best heart. I wish more people thought that way, but I think each dojo has its benefits.

Speaking of Eagle Fang, there's a really funny moment when Johnny reveals the new dojo name to his students and one of them says, "But eagles don't have fangs." If he asked Miguel to name the dojo, what do you think he would've named it?

Honestly, I feel like Eagle Fang really does resemble Johnny better than any name could. I think Johnny is a character who is so stuck in his ways that it doesn't matter if eagles don't have fangs and they have talons. It really matters that it's just badass. Even though their name doesn't make sense, it makes sense from the point of view of Johnny. And I think people are like, "Yeah, I'll ride with it. Sure, Eagle Fang." Especially because he's a little intimidating, but I think because of that, you can't change it.

Have you ever met anyone like him with real life? Someone who is so detached from technology? You have so many great scenes with the guy, like when you're teaching him all about Facebook.

I think it's almost impressive how far he has distanced himself from all technology. I feel like even people who are older than he is, in some regard, have a TV, or a phone, or something. He really has made a conscious effort to stay as far away from technology as possible and I think it's crazy, but no, I haven't met someone who's just as extreme as he is. And I think not only is he stuck in his ways, but he's definitely stuck in the '80s. And I think it's apparent in the way that he talks and the way that he acts and the stuff that he likes. He's definitely his own character.

Speaking of the 1980s, I know time travel doesn't exist in the world of Cobra Kai, but if it did, and Miguel had to go back in time to the 1984 All Valley Tournament, do you think he could beat Daniel or Johnny and win that trophy?

In a world where they're casting people who are 23 to play people who are under 18, I don't think so. I think Dutch [Chad McQueen] is such an unpredictable character that had he made it any further in that tournament, someone definitely would've gotten some broken bones. But maybe Miguel could have [won]. I think it could be interesting to think about.

'For the longest time I wanted to be a chemist'

The original Karate Kid movies were well before your time. How you familiar were you with that trilogy before landing your role in Cobra Kai?

I think I was familiar enough as anyone. I knew what the crane kick was and what sweep the leg was, but I wasn't really familiar with the story. It wasn't until after I booked the project that I went back and watched all the movies. Now having said that, the original is definitely the best. I wasn't into it at the beginning, but now I definitely am Team Johnny, even during the original Karate Kid.

Vanessa Rubio plays your mother, Carmen. Did you two hang out a lot off set just to get that authentic mother-son relationship going?

Honestly, it's a little bit hard with someone like Vanessa. We moved to Atlanta to film the show and she lived in New York, so she would come down to film our scenes and then fly back. And because of that, it was a little bit harder to get that chemistry with someone like Vanessa than with someone like Billy, who I see on a day-to-day basis. But with that being said, Vanessa is the sweetest woman ever. Everyone on that show is so easygoing. From the first second you meet them, it feels like a family and I think that's something I definitely take for granted because not every set is like that and Cobra Kai is definitely a gem in its own regard.

Out of all three seasons so far, what's been your favorite on-set moment?

Getting to film with William Zabka in that burger restaurant where he's talking about how Johnny abandoned Robby — I think it's really a moment that feels offbeat. And you really don't think that Johnny has it in him to be this vulnerable and the whole season he's yelling "Quiet!" and saying all this stuff where you're like, "You cannot say that in 2018." But he really allows himself to be vulnerable and come from a place of honesty. And I think for that reason, it really didn't feel like we were filming a scene. It felt like I was just talking to someone and they were sharing their story. I think that was definitely one of my favorite scenes to film.

On your Instagram, you recently gave a shout out to Parenthood. You said that show paid your way through college, but it also made you realize you wanted to be a lifelong actor. If the acting thing didn't pan out and Cobra Kai never happened, what might you be doing right now as an alternate profession?

Man, for the longest time I wanted to be a chemist. I think it wasn't until I took AP chemistry that I was like "I cannot do this, this is not what I want the rest of my life to be." Even throughout high school, I took all of my AP classes and did my fair share of those, but I think if acting wasn't around, I definitely would have done something in the STEM field. Maybe some sort of engineer or whatnot, but I have buddies who are going through college and going through the process of becoming engineers right now and it's admirable. But I think it's the same kind of drive. I really love acting and I feel like because of that, I'm willing to put in the extra hours and really take the time for it. And they're the same with their craft, so I think there's a Cobra Kai for everyone.

All three seasons of Cobra Kai are available to stream on Netflix.