Sean Kanan on Returning to the Role of ‘Karate’s Bad Boy’ in Cobra Kai

11 minute read

Spoilers ahead for season 5 of Cobra Kai

When John G. Avildsen’s third installment in the Karate Kid film franchise opened in 1989, nobody could’ve expected we’d still be following the characters from that poorly received sequel over 30 years later. And yet it lives on in the excellent fifth season of Cobra Kai, which dropped on Netflix Sept. 9.

While the series has seen the sociopathic sensei Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) of The Karate Kid Part III become the main villain, season 5 welcomes the return of another villain: Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), the cruel bully Silver once hired to humiliate Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) in the 1985 All Valley Karate Tournament.

But the Mike Barnes who appears in two episodes of season 5 isn’t the same guy once known as “karate’s bad boy.” In episode three, Daniel tracks him down, suspicious that he’s working with Silver again—only to learn that Mike turned his life around after his disgrace in the ’80s. Now he’s happily married and owns a furniture store. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode, Silver has burned the store down—leading to Mike’s return in the season finale, seeking retaliation.

TIME caught up with Kanan to talk about his new friendship with Ralph Macchio, the differences between acting on soap operas and acting on a Netflix series, and what a potential sixth season could hold for Mike Barnes.

TIME: You’ve had experience with many different types of martial arts since you were a teenager. What was the prep process like for Cobra Kai? Did you ramp up the training again?

Kanan: I always joke that I can get my ass kicked in a lot of different styles. I ramped up my training, my stretching, and everything. I had spoken with Don Lee, who was the stunt coordinator, and a couple other guys on his team, and when I got down to Atlanta, they wanted to see what I could do. They can’t say, “Hey, listen, we want you to do a 360-degree flying-whatever kick,” if that’s just out of my wheelhouse. So once they figured out what I could do, then they built the choreography around that.

The stuff with Billy [Zabka] we pretty much made up on the fly, because it wasn’t very complicated. The big fight that involved the most choreography was the one between Chozen and Mike. I was critically injured on the set of Karate Kid III because things weren’t planned out the way they should’ve been. That’s why it’s so important that the choreography is well-rehearsed, so nobody gets hurt.

Did the creators ask for your input on the writing of the character?

It really isn’t the norm that the creators of a worldwide phenomenon like Cobra Kai sit down with an actor that they’re thinking about hiring and ask for their input. So I was really blown away. I said, “The only thing that I would respectfully request is that I don’t think it’s that interesting to play the character as this unidimensional bad guy that he was in the original film. I’m 35 years down the road both as a man and as an actor, and I feel like there’s a lot of different facets we could bring that would hopefully fill in what’s happened to him over this period of time.” I also said, “One of the most amazing things about Cobra Kai is the humor.” It’s a funny show. I do stand-up comedy, and I’ve got a strong comedy background, and I wanted to make sure that I was able to find those moments with Mike Barnes that were funny.

Sean Kanan as Mike Barnes in Cobra KaiCurtis Bonds Baker—Netflix

One of my favorite moments of the season is the misunderstanding with Mike’s phone call that Daniel overhears. As I was watching it, I figured that the truth about Mike wasn’t going to be exactly what Daniel expected, but I was trying to figure out, “What else could he be referring to when he says ‘that Italian piece of sh-t’?”

If you think about it, with Mike using all of those slurs about Mr. Miyagi being Japanese [in Karate Kid III], not knowing how this character’s evolved, it’s not surprising that that guy would say something like that. And then you find out that it’s a big miscommunication. There was source material that supported that that’s the way that that guy would talk.

In Karate Kid III, obviously, you didn’t have much of a chance to play comedy.

The only comedic moment I had in Karate Kid III is this moment where Mike Barnes clearly punches Daniel in a way that is outside the rules, and just kind of takes his hand and slaps the side of his own face, like, “Did I just do that?” That always seems to get a laugh from people. That oddly came from when I was a kid. My best friend used to do that all the time. We’d get in trouble, our mothers would yell at us or something, and we’d just sort of do that.

What was your reaction to seeing the Cobra Kai scripts and seeing this different tone that you get to play?

I was really excited about it. You’re talking about a guy who very easily could’ve been a card-carrying sociopath based upon what we saw as a 17-year-old kid. So he straightened his life out. But once Terry Silver burns down his furniture store, the switch gets flipped, and we see that the bad boy of karate still dwells within him.

One of the things that I always admire about this show is how they find a good way of bridging the continuity. You see that Mike still has that strength and brutality.

Had it just been a redemptive moment with Daniel, that would’ve been interesting, but the fact that then we got to see the other part, the kinetic, exciting, violent part of Mike Barnes, but now instead of being focused in a bad way, it’s focused in a good way … I was really very pleased with what I was given to do.

In the finale, there’s a moment when Mike is telling Daniel about what happened with the store, and he mentions his wife, but doesn’t really go into it.

It was scripted like that. It was ellipses. I just had to put in that emotionally, my wife’s left me. It probably would’ve been too much to think she was working in the store and burned down with the store. So I was like, “You know, let’s go with, she probably left me.”

Do you have any idea if we can expect more of you if the show comes back for a sixth season? Did you have conversations with the creators about your larger arc?

I will just say, and this is something that anybody who sees season 5 and the finale can infer, it certainly appears that the table is set that Mike could be a member of the band now, alongside Chozen and Johnny and Daniel. Wouldn’t it be interesting if after all these years, Mike Barnes finds himself a sensei with Miyagi-Do? The possibility is definitely there.

Since you did Karate Kid III, you’ve had a lot of big roles in soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital. You won a Daytime Emmy for the series you created, Studio City. Cobra Kai is very different from those series, but it also has some similarities with soap operas: the heightened emotions and the melodrama. How has your soap opera experience come into play, if at all?

For me, each medium, whether you’re doing film, or TV, or theater, there’s different parameters that you operate in. With a play, you get lots and lots of rehearsal time. Once the curtain goes up, nobody yells, “Cut!” That’s great. When you do a feature film, it’s a part of this cinematic tapestry that lives on forever. That’s kind of nice. But the challenge of film is that they have to light the scenes, which takes a long time. If you do a soap opera, we have a grid of overhead lighting, so you just walk out on the stage and there’s not that long “hurry up and waiting around” sort of stuff.

A couple weeks ago, I had COVID, and so I missed a couple shows. I hadn’t missed work in 20 years, it was very strange. So I had to do 11 shows in one week. It meant that I had probably about 110 pages of dialogue for the week. For me, learning dialogue comes very easily, because I’m used to learning 30, 35 pages a day. It comes with the territory of daytime. It’s really nice not to have to worry about that and be able to concentrate on the other aspects of your performance. The other thing is that I’m working every single week. It’s the same as karate. You turn down the gas, and when you’re not practicing, the water in the pot doesn’t boil. So for me, having the ability to go work every single week at CBS, it keeps me sharp.

Do you think about the difference in tone or dialogue style from the other shows that you do?

What you can say on Netflix is different than what you can say on network television. It’s more freeing, it’s more liberating, because you’re able to speak more like people talk. I don’t know about you, but I kind of got a mouth like a sailor, and it’s liberating to be able to do some of those words, because you certainly can’t use them on The Bold and the Beautiful.

What was it like to reunite with the Karate Kid alums you knew before?

Yuji [Okumoto, who plays Chozen] and Billy and I have seen each other much more over the years. So I’ve got a really nice relationship with them. Ralph, I’ve only seen a couple times, but it’s really been nice forming a brand new friendship with him all these years later as a 55-year-old married guy with kids. I’m a very different guy than I was when I was a brash 22-year-old kid hired to basically terrorize him. We were just standing around in between takes, and just looked at each other, and he was like, “Can you believe this? Is this nuts?” I love the fact that as successful he and Billy are, they are not blasé or jaded about it. They have a real appreciation for what a wonderful gift this is and the fact that it’s just a tad surreal.

I spoke last season with Thomas Ian Griffith about coming back to the role of Terry Silver, and I always get the impression that there’s so much warmth and affection among this cast.

I think once you’ve been in one of the Karate Kid films, you’re a part of a club. And even though you might not see each other that frequently, you’ve got this common experience that bonds you. You just look at each other and just sort of smile.

I think it’s really funny that I’m 55 years old and people still call me the “bad boy of karate.” I joke that I’m probably going to be 85 years old with a walker and still be the bad boy of karate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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