In a show about the villain of the first Karate Kid movie that features the villain from the Karate Kid sequel, you just knew the villain of Karate Kid part three had to show up eventually. And this year? Cobra Kai delivered. The fifth season of the hit show is now on Netflix and it includes a surprising story arc for Mike Barnes, “Karate’s Bad Boy,” who was hired by the evil Terry Silver in the third film to defeat the Karate Kid himself, Daniel LaRusso. Of course, Barnes loses that match and we never hear from him in the movie again.
The same can’t be said, however, for the actor who played him. His name is Sean Kanan, and Kanan turned playing that slimy karate bully into a long career that began on soap operas like General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful, and has continued in roles both in front of and behind the camera. Gizmodo spoke to him last week about finally returning to the role that made him a star: Karate’s Bad Boy, Mike Barnes.
Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: So when I watched this season, it had not yet been revealed you were in it. And so when you showed up, it was like “Yes! They finally did it. They finally completed it.” I’ve been asking [Cobra Kai creators] Jon [Hurwitz], Hayden [Schlossberg], and Josh [Heald] “Where’s Mike Barnes? Where’s Mike Barnes?” for like four seasons now.
Sean Kanan: You and me both.
Gizmodo: [Laughs] Yes, exactly. Well, that’s my first question. When did you first hear about the show, and was your immediate thought, “Could I be on it”?
Kanan: Yeah. I mean, look. Obviously it was in all the trades. Everyone knew about it. I was very excited just that the show was going to happen because I thought it was a terrific idea. I think everybody wanted to wait and see what the execution was, and it was flawless. And of course, immediately that’s when I started getting the questions pretty much on a weekly basis. Dozens of people in the beginning and it eventually snowballed into hundreds of people a week asking. So, you know, it took a minute, but better late than never.
Gizmodo: So did you get contacted just for the season? Or had you talked to the creators a couple seasons before to say like, “Hey, we’re working on it?” Basically, was there ever a clue that you’d be in this season before you officially signed?
Kanan: I had some contact with [producer] Josh Heald told about it. And, the one thing that they said, and I really respected, is that they wanted to bring people in organically. It wasn’t cameo, stunt-casting stuff, which I really appreciated. And, true to the word, I think that we came up with a really nice arc and story for the return of the “Bad Boy of Karate.”
Gizmodo: So how did they pitch the role to you? Do they just send you a script? Did they tell you what the idea was? And how much input did you get to get to have it all, if at all?
Kanan: We had a Zoom meeting, [producers] Jon [Hurwitz] and Josh, and myself. Hayden [Schlossberg] couldn’t make it. And they were wonderful. They asked me what some of my ideas were and really the only thing I said was, “Look, far be it from me to dictate plot to you guys.” I said the only things that I would request respectfully are first, that the character is not the one-dimensional thug that he was in the film. And that was very much by design. That is what [director] John Avildsen wanted and so I gave him what he wanted. But now 34, 35 years down the line, as both an actor and a person, I wanted to make sure that we were able to bring a lot more dimension and colours to the character. And I also said, one of the most brilliant things about Cobra Kai is the humour. And as a guy that does stand up and comedy, it was important to me to put a comedic spin on the role when I could. And I think we also were able to do that.
Note: The rest of the interview has spoilers for Barnes’ role in the season.
Gizmodo: Oh, absolutely It’s so unexpected and great. And obviously I imagine furniture salesman was not something you ever imagined.
Kanan: So that’s the part I didn’t really get. They were pitching that idea to me and it wasn’t crystallizing. I said, “Look, whatever it is that you guys have in mind, I know it’s going to be brilliant. I’m in. Let’s do this.” I think we had a Zoom meeting in like July or August even. And I was in Atlanta filming in September.
Gizmodo: Oh, wow. So it was fast.
Kanan: It moved very quickly.
Gizmodo: In all the years since The Karate Kid Part III, and especially when Cobra Kai started and you started getting the questions about coming back, did you have any idea in your mind what Mike might be doing?
Kanan: That’s a great question. So I always wondered what happened to this guy because he was a 17-year-old kid, obviously still very malleable and life could take him in a lot of different directions. So I figured either he continued to go down the path of sociopathy that he had started on and probably wound up in prison. Or maybe, he wound up going into the military and kind of getting straightened out and getting a sense of honour and maybe even becoming an officer. The best one that I ever heard, though, was somebody said, wouldn’t it be funny if Daniel and Johnny had to go to court mandated anger management counseling and Barnes was the counselor? And I thought that was pretty good.
Gizmodo: Was there anything cut out of Karate Kid III or that you shot that spoke to any of that or informed his character at all?
Kanan: To the best of my knowledge, no, there were no other scenes that talked about Mike’s background. In a perfect world, I think it would have been really cool to have Mike really articulate that what he was doing to Daniel was not personal. That it was all based on business. And the reason he was doing it was because he needed money for his family. I think that would have given it a lot of depth and I think it would have been an easy fix. Yeah. But, again, it wasn’t the Mike Barnes story. It was the story about Daniel and Mr. Miyagi.
Gizmodo: I just recently rewatched Karate Kid III, which I tend to do if it’s on, and I forgot that Mike negotiated 50% of Cobra Kai from Terry Silver. I realised things would have been very different on this show had you won that tournament.
Kanan: That’s right. And Mike brings that up and says, hey, listen, I insisted they put in the contract. So there is apparently a contract somewhere.
Gizmodo: Yes, exactly. OK, I want talk about the finale. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing because obviously you’re away for a couple episodes and then we get what I’m calling “Karate Kid: Endgame,” where you get all main villains from the Karate Kid films together to fight one person. Did you ever think, in all those years, that you would end up on screen with all of those guys, and what was it like to film that?
Kanan: No, I didn’t think that I’d be on with all of them. I didn’t have any idea how they would create a bridge between Mike Barnes and Chozen which I think is fantastic. But it was great. You know, I know Yuji [Okumoto] and Billy [Zabka], I’ve known him for years. Yuji was just in my hometown of Newcastle, Pennsylvania, for a martial arts tournament a couple of years ago. And so these are guys that I know, and to finally be able to work with them after all these years was terrific. And I have to say, I really thought that the four of us had a really fun, interesting chemistry together.
Gizmodo: Oh, absolutely. So what was it like on set? Was it fun? It must’ve been difficult to shoot, since there’s a lot of a lot of choreography.
Kanan: Yeah, it was really one of the best filming experiences I’ve ever had. It was fun. We worked hard, but the guys were great, like I said. Ralph [Macchio] and Billy and Yuji, terrific working with them. There was a kind of a “pinch me” quality to it. Even Ralph and I at one point we looked at each other, and go “Can you believe this?” I mean, 34, 35 years later, here we are doing this again. And, I’ve said this before, but it was so nice to have the opportunity to get to re-meet Ralph as an adult now and connect with him on a very different level then as this brash 22-year-old kid playing his nemesis all those years ago.
Gizmodo: That’s so cool. Now, once you did sign on in, was it difficult keeping the secret? How did you manage that?
Kanan: It was very difficult. I was getting asked constantly by everybody, and all I kept saying is “Keep the faith and we shall see.”
Gizmodo: Finally, we don’t know what season six is going to hold, and Mike’s story seems pretty well wrapped up. But if they asked you to come back, would you like to come back? Do you think there’s still more for the character?
Kanan: In a heartbeat. I’d love it.
Cobra Kai season five is now on Netflix.
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