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Cobra Kai's Young Kreese explores the daunting task of making an all-time '80s baddie relatable

By Adam Pockross
Barrett Carnahan in Cobra Kai

John Kreese, as played by the inimitable Martin Kove, has always been perceived as one of the most excellently evil bad guys around, ever since 1984's The Karate Kid, when he first instructed Johnny (William Zabka) to sweep Daniel LaRusso's (Ralph Macchio) leg at the All Valley Karate Tournament. And with every new second we spend with Kreese on Netflix's Cobra Kai series, he's proving himself to be one of the most complex bad guys, too.

In Cobra Kai's first two seasons, Kove goes well beyond mustache-twirling to give complexity and depth to Kreese, who had generally been portrayed as a fairly black-and-white bully in the films. The show's creators, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, have shown a knack for adding gray layers to these characters we only thought we knew, and Kreese is no exception.

But in the latest season of Cobra Kai, a lot of that complexity-crafting credit must also be given to Barrett Carnahan's performance as Young Kreese, who appears in lengthy flashbacks through three separate Season 3 episodes. With Kreese's riveting formative years and Vietnam Conflict background now ripe for viewing on Netflix, Carnahan hopped on the phone with SYFY WIRE to discuss finding the gray heart of Kreese.

"After you see what happens to [Kreese] in this season, you come to understand that what this guy has seen and what he has experienced could potentially brand you for life," Carnahan says. "If you're in a situation where you know that danger could be lurking around the corner, or your life or somebody's life that you care about could be in danger, you're not going to take that opportunity to hesitate, you're going to strike first, with no mercy."

Carnahan is, of course, referencing one of Kreese's most frightening mottos: "Strike first, strike hard, no mercy." Which kind of sounds like the ramblings of someone possessed by Lucifer, but as Season 3 shows us, it doesn't come from nothing.

Ralph Macchio and Martin Kove in Cobra Kai

"Kreese says it himself in Episode 2," Carnahan admits. "'Sometimes life can be cruel, so you need to learn to be cruel yourself,' And that really sums it all up for Kreese."

As we see from the flashbacks to Kreese's formative years, the world's most sadistic sensei wasn't always so cruel.

"There's a lot of room at the beginning of his life that people will kind of disregard, just because of the actions he has performed," Carnahan says, while noting this gave him some leeway in making the character his own. "There's so much of an open door from where I was supposed to go with the character because it's 15 years before we meet Kreese in the very first Karate Kid in 1984."

But to really nail the young version of the man he'd become, the actor would have to go to the source, which Carnahan got a chance to do on his first day of shooting when Kove showed up on set.

Barrett Carnahan in Cobra Kai

"I didn't want to observe Kreese too much, and I didn't want to make a carbon copy of him, but something that we both discussed is how well Kreese listens, and how well Kreese observes, and how well Kreese is able to calculate situations around him," Carnahan says.

But there are more reasons why Young Kreese is familiar yet different.

"I was able to kind of mimic his dialect a little bit. I studied the way that he walked, the way that he held himself, the way that he looked at people, the way that he was able to maintain eye contact with people and not look away, the way that he would just slightly tilt his head down and look up at people, the way that he crossed his arms... if I did it, I made sure I was crossing my right hand over my left elbow," Carnahan says. "So along with personality traits, there were a lot of physical traits to kind of sprinkle into the audience to notice... or not notice... that would convince people, 'Oh, that's Kreese.' But it's a Kreese that we've never met."

Kove himself had ulterior motives for appearing on set for Carnahan's first day: Kove's son, Jesse, was shooting his big scene that day as well.

Jesse Kove in Cobra Kai

In the diner scene of Episode 2, "Nature vs. Nurture," we see a jock with his girlfriend and friend picking on a young busboy. That letterman is played by Jesse Kove, though when most people first saw it, they likely assumed he was playing a younger version of his dad's infamous character.

"That really opened up a lot, because nobody was really expecting Young Kreese to be the one that was being bullied," Carnahan recalls. "When Jesse Kove walked in the diner and started talking about never showing your opponent mercy, everybody jumped the gun and assumed that was Young Kreese."

In doing so, the show's creator's flipped the script on the very essence of Kreese.

"To have that switch on the audience, and to have Kreese be the one who was bullied," Carnahan says, "I think that was really a brilliant move because, from the very get-go, you question what you thought about Kreese in the past."

It's not just brilliant from a character perspective, but it's also consistent thematically, particularly in the way the show circumnavigates the onion-layered depths of bullying itself.

Barrett Carnahan in Cobra Kai

"In the very first Karate Kid, you had a kid that was being bullied and was able to hold onto positivity and end up using bullying against the bully. That's not always the case; sometimes there are good people that are bullied, that can turn bad," Carnahan says.

"By watching the show, you know that Kreese was actually a very, very standup guy, and someone who wanted to save the day, and wanted to be the hero, somebody that wanted to stand up to bullies and be a good person," he adds. "And it just shows you that bullying from a young age can, maybe not in that moment but somewhere down the line, push you to a place that you never expected to go. And it can turn even the most pure-hearted man into a villain."

While it might seem strange to say "pure-hearted" and "Kreese" in the same sentence, that's the power of Cobra Kai, which has already pretty much redeemed another all-time baddie, Johnny Lawrence. So who knows, maybe there's hope for Kreese yet.

"I don't think Kreese is a bad guy, I think he's just misunderstood," Carnahan says. "He's done some bad things, but I think there's still a chance for redemption. I hope."

Cobra Kai Season 3 is currently available to stream on Netflix.