[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Cobra Kai, Season 3.]
Cobra Kai, available to stream at Netflix, is a nostalgic delight that’s also just a really great, fun, entertaining TV show. Taking place 30 years after the events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament, former enemies Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) now find themselves up against the same enemy, the manipulative John Kreese (Martin Kove), and with the same goal of defeating him, once and for all.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Gianni DeCenzo (who plays Demetri, a teenage victim of bullying until karate teaches him to have more confidence) talked about not having any idea how crazy Demetri’s character arc would be, what he most appreciates about who Demetri is, the experience of being a series regular for the first time, wanting to get more into stunts, shooting the arm-breaking scene, getting a love interest, the Demetri-Hawk dynamic, and his hopes for Season 4.
Collider: When this show first got announced and people became aware of it, it got judged very, very harshly, but it’s since won over audiences because of how good it is and because everybody talked about how good it is. When you heard about all of that, what was your reaction?
GIANNI DeCENZO: When I first heard about the criticism and that people were expecting it to be a cheap nostalgia grab, I was like, “Oh, damn, I didn’t realize that was a possibility there.” I’m just super excited with the response we’ve been able to get. Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg], the creators of the show, do such an amazing job at not making it just a nostalgia grab. Yes, it has nostalgic factors in it, but it doesn’t use that to draw people in.
When you first heard about the show, did you ever have your own doubts about it until you started getting scripts?
DeCENZO: Honestly, it never even crossed my mind that things could go south. I was just excited to be a part of the process. I was oblivious to that whole thing, and thank god because I probably would have been nervous stepping foot on set. I was just excited to be a part of it because it’s something that I got to share with my dad. It was something from his generation, growing up, and now I get to work on the same thing. It’s cool.
What was your audition process like for this? How much were you actually told about what the show would be and what your character would be, in the beginning? Did you have much to go by?
DeCENZO: No, not, not really. Going into the audition process, I had the original scene from the cafeteria when we first meet and I knew the general plot of it. I knew it was Karate Kid, 30 years later, and a redemption story, but I didn’t know like where my character, in particular, would be going. I honestly had no idea that he would have such a crazy arc, from the nerd in the cafeteria to now he’s kicking ass and making out with girls in hallways. It’s been a roller coaster for Demetri, for sure. I didn’t really know that much. It was a very atypical audition process. Usually, for something like this, you’d have to do a couple call backs and then some chemistry reads, but they were so down to the wire on filming that they needed to find someone for Demetri that week. So, I went in and did the cafeteria scene and I talked about hand jobs with another person in a room that I had never met before, and it was awkward, for sure. And then, that weekend, they were like, “Hey, we want you to fly out to Georgia.” It was the first thing I’d ever done that was outside of L.A., so it was a cool experience.
For somebody, like yourself, who is young and you’re going in to do a job like this, where you’re not really sure what it is, how do you trust your own instincts and make choices for a character that you don’t even fully know yet?
DeCENZO: Usually, when I get the part, I’ll read the script and build the character off of that. What I usually like to do is pull from my own life. I always like to add myself into any character that I have because that’s what I have to work with. I use my past. And the cool thing about being on such a long running show like this is that you get to evolve the character, over the years, whether it’s new ideas that you have personally, or things that we find out later in the show. You keep evolving the character and it becomes its own person eventually, which is awesome because then you just slip in and out of that personality. It makes my job easier, for sure.
Was there a moment that it all sunk in that not only were people loving the show and it was getting really popular, but that people were loving all of these characters too?
DeCENZO: Yeah, definitely. Honestly, the moment I realized that this is a pretty popular show was when people kept saying, “Oh, I thought this was gonna be garbage, but it’s so cool.” I was both flattered and a little anxious about the fact that they were just expecting it to bomb and it didn’t. That was definitely the moment I realized it.
What have you loved about Demetri since day one, and what have you grown to appreciate about him, as he’s become a more full character?
DeCENZO: Honestly, what I appreciate most about my character is that, no matter what happens, no matter how skilled he becomes in karate, no matter how many hot rich girls he makes out with in hallways, he will always just be Demetri. He’s not gonna let stuff change him. He’s the nerd. He’s the lovable, sarcastic, a little too mouthy nerd, and I appreciate and admire that he stays true to himself.
From your first day on set to the last day that you had of Season 3, does he feel like a different character, or does he feel like a much fuller character to you?
DeCENZO: Well, definitely a much fuller character. In the very beginning, Demetri was a bit raunchier, I guess. He was talking about hookers and hand jobs. He does a little less vulgar stuff now. He’s definitely become a more rounded out character and it’s just awesome to see the evolution.
As you’ve gone on this journey with him over three seasons now, what was your own journey like? How do you feel you’ve grown and changed and evolved as an actor, the more you’ve gotten to do and the more that you’ve worked with everybody on the show?
DeCENZO: This is actually my first time being a series regular on a show. I had done a couple of pilots, but they never really took off. It’s the luck of the draw. That’s just how the acting world works. It’s just cool to be a part of something like this because we have such a great cast and crew. Growing up doing this sort of stuff, it really is encouraging for the future. I plan to take stuff I learned from how to work on a set with other people, to be ready for anything. The schedules get crazy. We could be doing a scene from Episode 1 on one day, and then we’re working on the final fight scene in Episode 10. It gets crazy. But I just wanna use the things I learn to help me in future stuff. And then, eventually, I actually want to make my own TV shows, movies, cartoons, and stuff like that, so getting to see how a professional set works is really helpful. People pay to go to college to learn that kind of stuff, and they pay me to learn it, essentially.
Have you found yourself becoming more interested in any of the behind the scenes jobs on set?
DeCENZO: Stunts is definitely something that I’ve gotten way more interested in. I’ve always wanted to do action stuff, but I never really considered how much goes into it. It gets crazy. We have all sorts of harnesses and wires. Season 3’s fight scene, at the very end, was one continuous shot. Doing something like that, with all of that action and all of those different people, and we had glass breaking here and there, was just amazing to watch happen. So, I definitely wanna incorporate that in future stuff that I wanna to work on. It takes a team to do it, but it looks amazing.
You get to see how it’s put together on set, but then how cool is it to actually get to watch it and see what it looks like, all finished?
DeCENZO: I’m one of those people that hates watching himself. For some reason, I just can’t. But other than me, it’s really cool seeing how the whole story comes together. We often have a crazy schedule, especially towards the end of filming, because we’ve gotta get everything we need done. So, sometimes it doesn’t seem as cohesive and the timeline can seem a little skewed, but by the end of it, it just all comes together perfectly and you’re like, “Damn, we did that? Okay. All right. That’s cool.”
Had you ever done karate before doing this show, or was this your introduction to that?
DeCENZO: I had taken Tae Kwon Do when I was 10 years old. I think I made it to yellow belt, and then quit. Now, I currently take Krav Maga, which is a little more street fighter-esque. It’s all about gouging their eyes out, kicking them in the groin and running. It’s like Mr. Miyagi philosophy of, “Don’t be there,” but with a bit more eye gouging. I definitely use some of my Krav Maga in the show because we actually do training before each season. We have a solid two weeks that we train and it really helps that I have that background because we do a lot of stuff. My hips don’t necessarily bend the way they need to always, so I need all the practice I can get. I’m getting better. I can get my leg fairly high, but it took some work.
The arm-breaking scene is a big stand-out moment this season. It’s something that was very tense and emotional, especially when it comes to who was responsible for doing it. What was it like to shoot all of that? Was it as emotional to shoot as it was physical?
DeCENZO: It was a very intense thing to film because that’s the darkest place I’ve had to go for this show, in particular. It was just a tough film day because I was on the ground and was supposed to be writhing in pain because my former best friend broke my arm. I try to get in the moment and put myself in that position. Right before we start filming, I was trying to get in that place, and then I had to be on a dirty floor, screaming in pain. I almost threw my throat out. It was a lot of screaming that day. It’s hard to prepare for a scene like that, especially when you have to scream bloody murder. I don’t necessarily know how to do that without getting the cops called on me. Eventually, I just had to crawl in my closet and hope that my many jackets would dampen the noise. I think it worked out. I didn’t get the cops called on me, luckily.
Are you surprised that Demetri not only got a love interest, but that he got his dream girl? Was it fun to also to see that side of him?
DeCENZO: I wasn’t surprised. Demetri is a stud. Of course, he was gonna get the girl. When he lays his eye on something, he gets it. That’s just how he rolls. No, it was definitely a bit of a shock. When we first started Season 3, they sat us all down and laid out what we’d be doing for the season. They were like, “Okay, in this season, you’re making out with Yasmine.” I was just like, “Oh, okay. Cool. That’s great.” And we just went for it. It was a cool. I’m proud of my boy. The funny thing was that I actually went into Season 3 under age. I was 17, and I turned 18 on set. Literally, the day after I turned 18, they were like, “Okay, time to do the make-out scene.” They wasted no time, at all. And doing a make-out scene is super awkward because a set is the least romantic place you could possibly think of. You’ve got 30 different people watching you, the camera is in your face, you have on more make-up than her, and then you’ve got a boom guy. It’s weird. Luckily I had been working with [Annalisa Cochrane] for a few years already, but I asked my co-stars how do you to do an onstage make-out scenes. That was the first time I’d had to do something like that, and they’d done it on the show. They were like, “Hey, it’s awkward for everyone. Just go in there and do it. After the first take it, it’s really not a big deal.” And it’s not.
Would you like to see that relationship deepen and develop further? Are you rooting for Yasmine to come around and be all in with Demetri?
DeCENZO: Oh, definitely. I wanna see them become the ultimate power couple. I have this fantasy that with her popularity and his brain, they could rule the world. She could get people on their side, and then Demetri could use his intelligence to take over the world. I definitely wanna see their relationship evolve, in later seasons. Yasmine is a little bit in denial of their love, but Demetri is a stud, so she’ll come around.
I feel like the end of Season 3 had the moment I’ve been waiting for, for three seasons now, with Daniel and Johnny coming together. What was that like to shoot?
DeCENZO: First of all, let me just say that I have also been waiting since Season 1 for the binary brothers to get back together, so that was awesome. The cool thing was that we got to see Hawk’s thought process, throughout the entire season. It wasn’t a sudden change. He had been struggling with what he was doing. When he broke my arm, he was forced into it, through peer pressure. When we finally get to see the two dojos, Miyagi Do and Eagle Fang, team up, it was awesome. In another world, Johnny and Daniel could be great friends, so it’s cool to see them get together. Obviously, there’s gonna be a little butting of heads because their fighting styles are pretty different. They’re gonna have to work that out in Season 4, but I think we can make a pretty good cohesive dojo.
Does it feel like the relationship between Johnny and Daniel is a bit of a mirror for what Demetri and Hawk could be, later in their life?
DeCENZO: Definitely. They could be great friends, and Demetri and Eli are good friends. They had a little bit of a falling out, of course, but I definitely think it’s a mirror of their relationship. I think they can reconnect.
How does working with Martin Kove compared to working with the other actors on the show? Is it terrifying to do scenes with John Kreese?
DeCENZO: You’re right to feel that way about him being terrifying, but that’s just in scenes. In real life, he’s super sweet, cracking people up. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to work with him as much, but in the one scene where he demolishes my nose, he was just absolutely terrifying. Even when the camera wasn’t on him, he was standing there in character, just staring me down, as I talked about how I don’t want to do karate. And then, when I squeeze his tattoo and say, “It needs a little work, but it could be there,” he was staring me directly in the eyes and I just knew shit was gonna go sideways. Sure enough, he broke my nose.
What are you most excited about, when it comes to possibilities for Season 4? Do you have a personal wishlist for what you’d like to see with your character?
DeCENZO: I wanna see Demetri compete in the All Valley. I can’t guarantee anything, but I wanna see that. I wanna see him evolve in his karate skills. And then, I wanna see him grow that relationship with Yasmine. I think they could honestly be a pretty cool couple. I just wanna see my boy Demetri get more confident in himself.
Do you feel like it would be fun to get to see some more of his background and his family?
DeCENZO: Oh, definitely, yeah. We don’t know his life. I obviously have a background that I’ve created for him, but there hasn’t really been anything actually confirmed by the show. I wanna see what’s coming up. We don’t know who his parents are, we don’t know why he is the way he is, and we don’t even know his last name.
If we could have an episode where we just got to follow him around and learn about him and his family and where he comes from, what do you think we might see him doing?
DeCENZO: Honestly, how I’ve imagined his home life is that I figure he has a single mom. We know he has a mom because we’ve talked about her in the past, but we’ve never really heard anything about that. I figured that he has a single mom because he gets his own arm broken and he gets broken noses, but we never hear anything from his parents, so I figured that maybe she’s a little too busy. I would wanna see a relationship between them. And then, I also figured he would take the bus a lot because I can’t imagine that he has his license and he doesn’t seem to have a car. His mom is too busy working to try to provide for them, so he wouldn’t be able to get a ride from her. I wanna see what his life is like outside of school and the dojo.
Did you have a moment when acting became a thing that you wanted to do for more than just fun and you realized that you wanted to actually get serious and make a career out of it?
DeCENZO: Honestly, I wanted to do acting, ever since I was eight years old. I walked up to my parents and asked when I was gonna be on TV. They actually have a pretty extensive background in acting. They actually met in an acting class, and then my dad proposed in that same acting class. So, acting is very much in my family and I just wanted to try it. At first, my parents were like, “Okay, we’ll do this a little bit. Maybe he’ll be able to get his SAG card and make a few bucks, so that he can pay for college.” We never thought that it would get to the place where it is now, and I’m just thankful. I really do owe them everything because I don’t think I’d have a career without them. They’re my mentors and they’ve helped me through everything. My mom, when we were first starting out, took pictures of me in my best little button-up shirt, in our front yard, so that we could send them to agents and managers. I really owe them everything.
Cobra Kai Seasons 1 and 2 are now available to stream on Netflix.
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