Ralph Macchio Interview: Waxing On, Karate Kid & Cobra Kai
Ralph Macchio has played Daniel LaRusso since 1984’s The Karate Kid, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. His new memoir, Waxing On: The Karate Kid And Me, takes readers behind the scenes of that seminal film, the Karate Kid sequels, and the hit Netflix series Cobra Kai.
Cobra Kai has created a new generation of fans who have been thrilled not just by the new series but by the original Karate Kid movies that started it all. In Waxing On, Macchio reveals how he won the part of Daniel in 1983, his feelings on the sequels, what he learned during the ‘lean years’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, and how he has come to appreciate his renaissance as Daniel LaRusso in Cobra Kai.
Screen Rant had the honor of interviewing Ralph Macchio about writing Waxing On, how important Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) is to Cobra Kai, his real-life friendship and differences with William Zabka, how he feels about The Karate Kid Part III now, and whether he would take a creative hand in a Mr. Miyagi prequel series.
Screen Rant: Let me start by asking what motivated you to write your memoir?
Ralph Macchio: It was a combination of things. I remember being asked a couple of years ago if I would ever write about the experiences of making [The Karate Kid] and the untold stories behind the scenes. And that got me thinking, but I didn’t quite know how to organize it. Then, with the birth of Cobra Kai, and seeing the multi-generational interest from kids, 12 to 14 year old kids, to people in their 40’s, 50’s. and 60’s, and families, I just said « Boy, I have an interesting story. »
To tell what it’s been like walking in these shoes and talking about the magic that happened in ’83 and in the summer of ’84. And the relationships and building the sort of magic that became The Karate Kid through pop culture and through decades of time. And now it’s relevant. So it’s nostalgia and contemporary relevance at the same time. You know, only one person walked in Daniel LaRusso’s shoes. And that was me. And so I really felt I had a unique story and relevant story to tell.
Your book was exactly what I wanted. As you said, it was the behind-the-scenes stories of The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai. It was really perfect.
Ralph Macchio: I need you to be a New York Times book critic.
Mr. Miyagi has been my dream mentor ever since I was a kid, so I was really happy to read that you and Pat Morita had a great relationship off-screen. How do you think he’d have reacted to Cobra Kai’s success?
Ralph Macchio: I think he would love it. You know, there’s some magic dust that is sprinkled in and sprinkled across The Karate Kid universe. From when I got cast in 1983 to today, it’s just been blessed from so many vantage points. I think he would have loved it. I think if he was here, Cobra Kai would be different. It would have to be. But it was important to me that Miyagi, his character, was laced throughout the storytelling in Cobra Kai. The writers of the show felt that way similarly.
His presence is felt. And it’s felt by the other actors. I write about this in the chapter, « Soulful Magic, » which is kind of the Pat Morita chapter, even though he’s peppered throughout the entire journey. Actors like Tamlyn Tomita and Yuji Okumoto would come back as Kumiko and Chozen, and when we play scenes, we would feel [like Pat] was there on the day. Just as his spirit has blessed this Cobra Kai journey. Listen, without Mr. Miyagi and Pat Morita’s performance, there is no Cobra Kai series because there would not be The Karate Kid movie as it came to be.
Obviously, as you said, if Pat were with us, he’d be part of the show. Have you ever discussed that « What if? » scenario with [Cobra Kai executive producers] Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg?
Ralph Macchio: I don’t think so. I mean, not really. Because it would just be speculative or whatever. What is is what is, which is, « Okay, how do we use Miyagi’s [spirit] here? » And they do it beautifully. They find in every season. There’s at least one or two examples where he speaks to the story and the journey in some way. Whether it comes through season five became through Amanda’s character or in season one when Daniel is at Miyagi’s grave and seeking the balance that he’s lost and the wisdom is gained. It’s just beautifully done. And that’s why I think the show works on all cylinders. And as well as for the young audiences because our great young cast is so spectacular. And then the action scenes are great. I write about all this stuff, and it’s kind of blessed as the gift that keeps on giving.
You also wrote that you and William Zabka are as different as Daniel and Johnny are. How are you two different in real life?
Ralph Macchio: It’s just that we have fun, and we poke fun at our own differences. Even though we are different, but [we’re] the same. We’re both family men, and he’s got a couple of kids a little younger than mine. That’s the priority. That’s where our main focus is in life.
But we order differently. We order different foods, I’ll have a certain wine, and he’ll have his iced tea or an occasional beer. And I’ll enjoy an iced tea and a beer as well. But we almost purposely enjoy enhancing or amplifying our differences. But at the core, our values are the same moving forward. And I think that is something that I didn’t expect and didn’t know about Billy in those years after The Karate Kid and before Pat Morita’s memorial service when we sort of reconnected.
After playing Daniel as a teenager, and now playing him as an adult, what do you think is the one aspect of him that often gets overlooked?
Ralph Macchio: Good question. The one thing that was a little bit of a push/pull as we were creating the Cobra Kai series with the writers is that LaRusso’s intentions have always been grounded and good. It’s just he gets in his own way. His temper gets in his own way because his passion is so high, and his belief in what is right is heavy-handed at times because he’s he has such strength in his beliefs.
But his goodness, and his vulnerability, and his wanting to respect and carry on the legacy of his mentor and of what helped him get through his adolescence in a good and positive way [gets overlooked]. He leads by example in that way and, maybe sometimes, in the Cobra Kai world of the heightened reality and the soap opera tone of the show, that would get lost here and there. But not really, because these writers have such a great handle on it.
Yeah, I agree. Obviously, Daniel has a temper. He’s a hothead. But I have never subscribed to the theory that Daniel was the bad guy. So I’m glad you addressed that in the book.
Ralph Macchio: Yeah, no, I certainly do because he wasn’t [the bad guy]. First of all, like I say in the book, no one in 1984 was not rooting for Daniel LaRusso. He was clearly the protagonist of that movie. It’s kind of a wonderful piece that we get to do season five of Cobra Kai [where] there’s a distinct moment at the end of episode six when everyone comes to his aid and has his back. He really feels like that protagonist, just 38 years later, that everyone is behind because they know it’s good over evil, and he is good.
I love Cobra Kai season 5. I especially love how all of Daniel’s movie rivals, Johnny, Chozen, and Mike Barnes, all teamed up and became friends with him.
Ralph Macchio: I love that. I love that scene in episode 10 when they’re all drunk in the limo, and I’m trying to speak to the voice of reason as everyone’s ready to take down the evil empire. It’s fun. The guys write a beautiful show. It’s really fun to be a part of.
On that note, Amanda already met Ali in season 3. But could Amanda get together with Ali, Kumiko, and Jessica? Could all of Daniel’s exes just get together at some point, and how would he feel about that?
Ralph Macchio: Why not? I mean, that would be… (laughs) It just goes to show you how Daniel LaRusso, in every chapter of The Karate Kid universe, had a fantastic, wonderful girl that he couldn’t hold on to. (laughs) They finally all come together, and they could all share stories about him. Sure, I think would be wonderful. These guys, Jon, Josh, and Hayden, if anyone could do it, they’re the ones.
You’ve often said The Karate Kid Part III is not your favorite film. How do you feel about it now after Cobra Kai season 5?
Ralph Macchio: That’s a good question. And one I’m getting a lot, and I like it. My opinion of the film has not changed. It’s mainly because I felt at the time it just wasn’t moving the character or story forward. And the heightened cartoon element of it. It didn’t seem as grounded as the original film. But I will say this much, it has given such light to the Cobra Kai series. And you bring these actors back, be it Robyn Lively or Sean Kanan or Thomas Ian Griffith, and the writers do such a beautiful job of giving them backstories and nuanced, layered elements to the characters.
Cobra Kai leans into a little bit of that superhero element and some of the tone that the Karate Kid III had, but it earns itself because the characters have more nuances than how black and white and superficial I felt they were in Part III.
I loved everything about how Daniel beat Terry Silver at the end of Cobra Kai season 5. That was his greatest victory in the show so far.
Ralph Macchio: Oh, that’s good.
Can you take me into what it was like for you and Thomas Ian Griffith to shoot that final showdown that ended with the Crane kick?
Ralph Macchio: It’s great to hear from you guys about that because we [the actors] are so inside of it that we don’t know. And the writers do a great job of knowing what you guys want. Moreso than I can see. That was a great deal of fun. I mean, my first fight with Silver was in episode 5, LaRusso gets beaten up pretty bad.
Yeah, but you were drunk.
Ralph Macchio: Drunk and angry. He was not grounded, [that was] the difference. As an actor, in those two scenes I wanted to show how the aggression and the strike first and how he gets under someone’s skin, you lose control, and you don’t have your balance. That leads to what happened in Episode 505. Whereas in Episode 510, [Daniel] having that confidence, and feeling that groundedness, and having his family and friends and everyone behind him, he all of a sudden was centered, and there was nothing that Silver could throw that would knock him off. And that’s the beauty of how those two [fights] went.
I mean, listen, fighting, Thomas Ian Griffith at 6’5″ or 6’6″, not the easiest day at the office. But I will say this much: He is a true martial artist. His control and his attention to detail makes it [so that] if that wasn’t the case, I would probably be carried out on a stretcher. But yeah, it was so nice to be in control of those moments and, and give the fans and the story the justice that it deserved. So I’m glad. I’m glad it worked.
Personally, I hope Cobra Kai never ends. And obviously, we want season 6. But you also mentioned in the book that there are spin-off ideas, including a Miyagi prequel. And you said you’d be really interested in that. If that happened, would you contribute to it creatively?
Ralph Macchio: I would love to. Whether it be in the front of it, or on the periphery, or just involved in some way, because, I was there from the beginning with these characters. So I would love to be included in all of that. And there are those discussions going on, although it is not a solidified idea or production at this point. But it seems to me it’s just… How do we not explore the backstory of and the origin of Mr. Miyagi? And what happened? What brought him to that place; working in that apartment in Reseda? What was his life before then? I think that would be fascinating.
And thanks for giving attention to the book because I think folks like yourself, and even the outside folks who are not necessarily as well versed in every frame of The Karate Kid, could still get something out of this unique journey that I’ve been blessed with. I appreciate the support.
Waxing On: The Karate Kid And Me by Ralph Macchio is available wherever books are sold.