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'Cobra Kai' star Sean Kanan on the 'return of the Bad Boy' in Season 5
You try living up to the nickname "Bad Boy of Karate" for some 30 years.
With its fifth season now ripe for bingeing on Netflix, Cobra Kai is yet again delivering nostalgic fun to the karate-loving masses. Fans of the show have come to expect big-time guest stars returning from the ‘80s film franchise, so much so that there’s just not that many memorable long-gone characters left to revisit.
One character who somehow hadn’t gotten his prime-time due was the “Bad Boy of Karate” himself, Mike Barnes, the professional fighter played by Sean Kanan in 1989's The Karate Kid Part III, aka the guy hired by this season's big bad, Treacherous Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), as a ringer to beat Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) in the 1985 All Valley Karate Tournament. Well, thanks to Season 5, we no longer have to wonder what the Bad Boy is up to in the here and now of Cobra Kai.
**SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers below for the entirety of Cobra Kai Season 5!**
Barnes makes his seemingly less-than-triumphant return to the franchise in Season 5, Episode 3, “Playing With Fire,” when Daniel and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) — who are off on a Silver-sleuthing police procedural tangent — start spying on the former bad boy, who they think may be continuing his nefarious ways. But, he has actually turned himself into a fine, upstanding member of society; a good husband who’s just trying to make an honest living as a furniture store owner.
Barnes is seemingly so changed, that he even apologizes to Daniel for his abhorrent ‘80s behavior, before helping the would-be detectives out. Granted, when Silver finds out his old ringer is helping the opposite team, he burns down said furniture store, and subsequently, in the season finale, gives Barnes a reason to relive his bad boy days… as a good guy... as Cobra Kai does.
With his Bad Boy status still firmly secured, SYFY WIRE caught up with Kanan to discuss finally coming back to the franchise in such a fulfilling way, being bestowed one of the hardest nicknames to ever to live up to, and how Macchio’s karate skills have improved over the years.
What’s it been like living up to that nickname, “The Bad Boy of Karate?”
It amazes me that thirty-some years later that this is a role that I played that still has relevance and a place in the fans’ heart. So this has been a really exciting second bite of the apple so to speak.
“Living up to it?" I mean, I am me. You know, it’s a role I played as an actor. I’ve studied martial arts a lot of my life, but I make it very clear: Mike Barnes was a 10th-degree black belt; Sean Kanan is not. I try to stay humble. The character is one thing and I’m another.
Was it hard to slip back into that character after so many years?
No, it felt really natural. I mean, I have kept up with my martial arts. And also, it really was surprisingly easy to slip back into it, working with Ralph.
With Billy and Yuji, I was kind of chomping at the bit to work with them because I’d known them for so long but never worked with them, so by the time I got down to the set it was all just being fired up and ready to be there.
So you were in fighting shape coming into this?
I kept up with my martial arts and everything. Learning the choreography was the biggest thing.
Were you impressed with Daniel-san’s improvement over the years?
Ralph has improved steadily over the years. I watch him because I’m a fan of the show. I watch him sometimes and I go, "Wow, he really looks good; he looks like a sensei." I love watching him always reluctantly get into fights. It’s a lot of fun for me.
It’s amazing for someone so reluctant to fight, how many fights he gets in.
In your head, what had Mike Barnes been up to all these years?
Personally, I always felt he went one of two ways: Either he continued down the path as a sociopath and wound up in prison or something like that, or maybe he went into the military and got straightened out and got a sense of honor and became a good guy. The funniest thing I ever heard, though, is that someone said, "What if Daniel and Johnny were court-mandated to see an anger management counselor and it was Mike Barnes?" And I thought that was pretty good.
When you did read the scripts, what was your first impression?
I love the way that there’s the curveball that you initially think he’s into some organized crime thing, and the payoff is that he’s running a furniture store. What I really loved about it is that there is that redemptive moment when Mike apologizes to Daniel, but it goes beyond that, because once his life is taken away from him by Terry Silver, it’s like the switch gets flipped and it’s return of the Bad Boy.
Was it easy to make that switch as an actor?
Was that easier than playing the good boy?
In my normal life, I’m definitely more the good guy, but I guess on some level that other guy lives inside of me, hopefully, a much more evolved, tamed-down version. But I guess when I need to tap into that I can.
What surprised you about the production?
It was great being down there with Ralph, we were doing a scene and both of us kind of looked at each other and were like, "Can you believe this? I mean, this is crazy, here we are, thirty-some years later." And I think that’s such a great testament to Ralph’s humility, and who he is as a guy, that he’s able to be pleasantly surprised still by the success of this and what a blessing it is. And me too. As I’ve gotten older I take very few things for granted, and I was just so grateful that this happened. I was hoping it would happen, but once it did, I was just like, "This is just fantastic."
You came to the Karate Kid franchise late, and now you're coming to Cobra Kai late. How is that different some 30 years later?
I’m a guy now that’s done 1,000 episodes of television and 25 feature films. It’s not that I’m tooting my own horn, but 35 years down the line, I’m a veteran actor. When I was doing the film, I didn’t understand lighting, camera, spatial relationships… it’s all stuff now that’s second nature to me, that I take for granted when I work. So I think I was able to bring a lot of different dimensions and colors to the character this time that weren’t there in The Karate Kid III. The Karate Kid III role is a very uni-dimensional character, much by choice and design, and I feel like Mike Barnes in this carnation was definitely a more interesting and well-rounded character to watch.
Kind of like everybody in the series.
Absolutely. You see Daniel, and he’s a successful businessman, but he’s still seeking balance. He’s still got his own garden variety of personality flaws — Johnny wears his on his sleeve, and Daniel’s may be a little more camouflaged with some of his success, but they’re all just a bunch of guys trying to figure it out. Like we all are, it’s like life. You know, you learn some things along the way, you become a better person, you become more experienced, but you never just stop being a guy trying to figure it out, or a girl trying to figure it out.
As we get older, shouldn't it be easier to avoid karate fights?
Yeah, it should be. But hey, what do they say? "It’s better to be a samurai in a garden than a gardener in a war."
Cobra Kai Season 5 is now kicking butt on Netflix.
Looking for more butt-kicking action in the meantime? The Northman, Self/Less, Upgrade, The Mummy trilogy, Haywire, and more are streaming now on Peacock.