EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cobra Kai Stunt Coordinators Share On-Set Stories

Cobra Kai Stunt People

Projection PR Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman pose with the 'Cobra Kai' cast and their stunt doubles.

Since its premiere in 2018, the acclaimed series Cobra Kai has been known for its action-packed sequences. Fans can thank the show’s stunt coordinators, Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman, who wed in 2015, for choreographing the incredible scenes. Curfman also serves as the stunt double for Peyton List, who plays Tory Nichols, and Koda is the show’s second unit director.

The couple has had long careers in the stunt industry. For instance, Curfman worked as Karen Gillan’s stunt double in the Jumanji series and Sandra Bullock’s in the 2018 Netflix film Bird Box. Koda has also been the stunt coordinator for high-profile television series, including Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, and Ozark

In 2019, the Cobra Kai stunt coordinators received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Stunt Coordination for a Comedy Series or Variety Program. The show is also currently nominated for a SAG award for Outstanding Stunt Ensemble in a Television Series.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking to Curfman and Koda on the phone. In the exclusive interview below, the stunt people discuss their amazing careers, the process of choreographing fight scenes, and their relationship with the Cobra Kai cast.


Projection PRMary Mouser and Peyton List pose with their stunt doubles.

Curfman: Hello!

Koda: Hi, it’s Hiro!

HEAVY: Hi! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

Curfman: Of course! It’s our pleasure.

HEAVY: So I just have a few quick questions for both of you. To start out, how did both of you get your start in the stunt community?

Koda: I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card when I was 12 years old a long, long, long time ago [laughs] doing a national Hi-C commercial. I had no stunts involved what’s so ever. And I’ve trained in martial arts my whole life. My father trained in these stunt groups, and I had the chance to go onto a movie set. It was a stunt group, Stunts Unlimited, and they were doing one of — the very first Lethal Weapon, and I got to go to the movie set and watch rehearsals of the stunt team and it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Since I was 12, that’s all I wanted to do. I pushed and drove my parents to let me get out of school early, got my GED moved to California to be a stunt man when I was 17, and I figured it out for there.

HEAVY: That’s awesome

Curfman: For me, it happened a little bit later. I grew up doing dance, gymnastics, and I was living in LA working as a professional dancer. I was dancing for the Lakers, and I had a dance agent. I was doing a lot of music videos and commercials and dancing for different artists and things like that. And my agent called me with an audition for a top-secret project that they needed tall, graceful, athletic women for performance capture, which was still relatively new at the time. I think it was around 2006 when all of this happened, but I went in, and I auditioned, and one thing led to another, and I went in and I screen-tested. And it ended up being the first Avatar movie.

HEAVY: Oh wow!

Curfman: So I got cast. It was about a dozen of us that were Jim Cameron’s core motion capture team, and I ended up working on the movie for three years. We worked very closely with the stunt team, and we were on wires, and we were doing stuff that was very physical. And it was that project that I even became aware that stunts was an actual job [laughs]. I was like, ‘oh this is what I want to do, this is my next thing.’ And I started martial arts training, and I started just networking within just the stunt community, and pretty soon, I was doing more stunt jobs and less dance jobs. And it all just transitioned very naturally. I had to work really hard at it. The stunt industry is not an easy career path, and it’s not easy to break into, so you really have to work hard at it 

HEAVY: It sounds like it! So what drew you to work on Cobra Kai?

Koda: Well, I got a call from the producer who I have done a number of shows for coordinating. He obviously just knows my background of what I’ve done for him in the past, and this was sort of a great project for me to be a part of. He brought me in to meet with the Big 3 for my interview, the creators of the show [Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg]. I didn’t 100% know exactly what it was until I got over there. And then finding what it was it was like — Karate Kid was like such a big part of my life growing up in martial arts. The Karate Kid was huge for my family and our family in the martial arts, so being able to be — get into Cobra Kai or bringing it back so many years later in being apart of something with the original cast is incredible. 

HEAVY: How is it working with the original Karate Kid cast members like William Zabka and Ralph Macchio?

Curfman: Well, it’s been surreal [laughs]. It’s been fun. Honestly, the cast is such a joy. We have so much fun with them, and everybody takes their training very seriously, so they all work really, really hard, and it’s also a collaborative process. You know, they have ideas for things that they would like to do, and we always incorporate that into choreography and training and that sort of thing. But it’s always really cool to take a step back and just appreciate the magnitude of this legacy of a franchise that we are getting to work with.

Stunt work for Cobra Kai Season 3

Projection PRA scene from Cobra Kai Season 3.

HEAVY: It’s super incredible. So the show has become known for its action-packed sequences. Do you feel more pressure to up the ante with each season?

Curfman: Absolutely!

Koda: Every season is like, how are we going to top that? Let’s figure out, something new. We do so many different fights and so many sequences, we just have to keep being creative and innovative to top ourselves.

Curfman: Jon, Josh, and Hayden, and the writers do such a great job of creating the story within which we get to work. So that makes it a lot of fun too.

HEAVY: So how was it to choreograph the no-cut action scene in the Season 2 finale?

Koda: It originally was written with less characters and not going so far into where we took it. The one adult figure because I knew we could get — I mean, the kids on that cast are just so into what they’re doing, just as much as Ralph and Billy, are in their training, and they do so well with it. We just have worked with them from the very beginning before we started the first season so we know exactly how each of them moves and how each of their characters has developed in the seasons. So being able to put that together, I was able to add more people into the sequence and make [that shot] as long as possible. It was a difficult one to put together only because we were shooting at a high school, I mean, at a college that was still open so we couldn’t be there during the week to rehearse or do anything. We could only be there on the weekends. So we separated with two different weekends to shoot it, and then we had only one day to rehearse prior to that, so we had to do a lot of our choreography at our training facility at the stages. And then be able to take everyone out and work through it, and once the choreography was put together, it was me running the camera and sort of feeling out of how it was going to move and how it was going to work smoothly and where we needed stunt doubles to be placed when they could and not know that it was a stunt double and still keep everything moving as a one-shot sequence without having any cuts.

HEAVY: The final product is amazing, by the way.

Curfman: To this day, it’s still my favorite fight out of all the seasons.

HEAVY: It’s so good!

Curfman: It is. It really is.

Koda: The behind-the-scenes shots of what we have are actually better. I think it took us six takes to get it, six times, and on the sixth take, everything went perfect. Because when you are doing a shot like that it’s not just what’s happening right in the foreground, it’s everything, even in the background, you have all kinds of different things happening. One person deep in the background messes up that it messes the whole shot up. So everything has to work throughout the whole sequence to make it work. But the behind-the-scenes of that was incredible. We have a video that’s pretty fun because of the excitement of the cast and the Big 3 and all of the stunt team together. It was like a big party in the hallway, and it was like, ‘okay, that’s enough partying we have to go shoot!’ [laughs]

HEAVY: That’s awesome. And so what was the most difficult stunt of Season 3?

Curfman: Oh gosh.

Koda: There wasn’t so much anything difficult to execute so much. It was the time that we had to do such big sequences. You know, doing another oner in the LaRusso house which we made that even longer than the high school oner was. And at the same time that was happening we had the big battle happening between Johnny, Kreese, and Daniel, which was a big fight at the dojo, so a lot of the stuff overlapping for us so just time-wise to get training —

Curfman: And Vietnam.

Koda: That was all happening at the same time, so that made — you know, we were stressed out [laughs] to get all that done.

Curfman: But it all came together, and it was one of the reasons — it’s a lot of stuff — it’s one of the reasons that why a show like Cobra Kai you have to have two coordinators otherwise, it’s just so much for one person to try to handle

HEAVY: And Jahnel, how is it to be Peyton List’s stunt double?

Curfman: Oh amazing! I love her, and we’ve become great friends. And you know, I really am proud of her and how much work she’s put in. Especially, coming in and having no martial arts training. But she had worked really hard. In Season 3, we saw a huge improvement in her martial arts. She just physically was really strong. She was training a lot and just working out on her own, and having that base of strength is really important when you get in there and start doing your fights. Well, I can tell from Season 2 to Season 3 she was able to do so much more of her own choreography, and I was able to really cater to her with some of the choreography and things at the point that we knew she could do really, really well. She has gorgeous kicks. Even when she was watching the backyard fight, the dream sequence between her and Mary [Mouser] and she was like, ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe I was able to get my leg up that high,’ and I was like, ‘yes because you’re a bad***.’ But she really is such an amazing human being and a dear dear friend.

HEAVY: And to go off on that, what percentage of stunts would you say that the cast members do themselves?

Curfman: A lot. You know we’re — especially finishing up Season 3 they’ve been training solely with Hiro and I for three seasons now, and we’ve really seen them progress through the years, and they are capable of doing more and more on their own. And that’s what is so great about those oners as it really showcases their unique strengths and talents, and it’s — it’s really cool to take those things and say, ‘okay Jacob Bertrand [who plays Hawk] does this really well, or Xolo [Maridueña who plays Miguel Diaz] does this really well, how could we tweak it so that it’s safe and makes them look really good.’

HEAVY: Which cast member would you say does the most amount of their own stunts?

Curfman: I would say it’s pretty equal between all of them.

Koda: All those kids are capable of doing everything, besides some of the really hard hits. And that’s why we have those stunt doubles — just liability stuff so that everybody’s safe because even though they can take a good fall to the ground, we don’t want to take a chance of them getting hurt.

Curfman: Plus too doing it — I mean with stunt people, you do it over and over and over again. And you know, to have one of our actors take a fall, even though they may be capable of it — or even to do the choreography over and over again, you know, you’re going to get through a couple of scenes, and they’re going to be spent, and they still have a whole day to shoot. So it really is also about preserving them so that they’re fresh and energetic for the acting, which is also incredibly important [laughs].

HEAVY: How would you compare stunt planning and execution for the younger cast to that of the seasoned actors like Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, and Martin Kove?

Curfman: The younger cast is definitely more up to try new things whereas the seasoned cast, you know, they sort of have what they know they’re good at, and they like to stick with those things.

Koda: But, also just storywise, we’ve kept Daniel LaRusso, Ralph Macchio’s character, Johnny Lawrence, Billy Zabka, we kept their styles exactly pretty much the way they were way back when we did The Karate Kid. Their flavor and their feeling stay the same. With the kids, when we introduced them on the show, we were able to — let’s go forward, how much has martial arts progressed and moved forward, and that’s where some changes with the kids — that still have their flavors in their stuff as well.

HEAVY: That’s really cool! So Jahnel, Mary Mouser [who plays Samantha LaRusso] has talked about ignoring advice you had given her while rehearsing the Season 2 finale fight scene, causing her to injure her hand. How are you able to prevent on-set injuries?

Curfman: You know, generally, it’s just making sure that everybody is well rehearsed and well prepared. And a lot of times when you see our actors fighting they are over the shoulder of a stunt double. So they will be not two actors fighting together because that tends to be two more injuries. We like to — and just energy-wise — our actors are just able to perform without having to worry about hitting another one of their actors and just perform with the stunt person and go at it 100% and make contact on some of those hits and those sort of things. So just making sure that they are well-rehearsed. And making sure that they are well rehearsed with the person that they are fighting with on the day. It’s really important for us to have you know if it’s a stunt person playing a character getting them — because everyone’s energy is different and everybody moves differently, so you want to make sure that person is comfortable — the actor is comfortable with whoever they are going to be interacting with on the day. And also making sure that when we rehearse at half speed, but also rehearse full speed so that they get the full feel of that energy that’s going to be driving them on the day of shooting.

HEAVY: Right that makes sense. And how do you incorporate previsualization into your work?

Koda: Well, it’s something I’ve done over the years with every show that I do coordinating wise. It just becomes like a blueprint for the crew, the director, everybody. It just gives us a whole wide scope look at what exactly we have designed and how we plan to execute it. And I know, I mean, I shoot it, and I cut it — and if there needs to be visual effects to it I’ll do that, and I’ll add music. It’s all put together so it’s like a full scene so they can kind of see the timing of it and the beats of it and how it’s kind — if the music needs to be amped up to get the energy going on the scene. And then sound effects, and that way we have a full previsualization of what we’re going to execute on the day. And we do it prior to any of the shoot days. We have the time while we are rehearsing. We’ll brainstorm it, the choreography, and the design of the action. And then we’ll start to shoot the preview, and once I put that together, I kind of turn it into the directors to have a look at it to make sure we are all on the same page.

HEAVY: Oh okay, that’s awesome. And what has been your favorite moment while working on Cobra Kai?

Koda: My favorite moment while working on Cobra Kai — for me, honestly I mean, like the cast — we’ve just become very close with them. Like the kids outside of work itself, we go out and we have dinner. We do some training outside of work when the kids aren’t supposed to come train or whatever, we’ll meet up and just train to have fun. I mean really the cast is pretty amazing. For me, it’s been such a big experience for me with all of them. I mean, Jacob Bertrand came out to our home in Colorado. We went hiking and skiing. We did stuff over the quarantine, and that was completely outside of work. That was relationships that we’ve built, and that has been something that has been pretty special to me.

Curfman: Yeah, I would definitely say it’s been the relationships that we’ve built with the cast, and with every season that Cobra Kai ends, it’s like I’m going to miss them all so much. It’s like when school ends, and you’re off for summer vacation and then, you know, you hope and pray that you’ll be back for another season. But everybody has been so wonderful, and the cast is amazing. And I think one of my favorite moments actually happened off set when Hiro and I were nominated for an Emmy for Season 2. I found out — I went to — I got a text message on my phone from Ralph Macchio that was like, ‘Congratulations to the dream team on the Emmy nomination!’ I was like wait what? [laughs]

HEAVY: That’s a good way to find out!

Curfman: It’s a great way to find out!

Young Kreese

Projection PRJahnel Curfman poses with Jesse Kove and Barrett Carnahan.

HEAVY: And just one last question. What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on?

Curfman: Wow, um, most rewarding, that’s a really tough question. I think for me, I would say the very first Avatar. It changed my life. It’s what led me to stunts in the film world and I — I don’t ever see myself working outside this industry. I have absolutely fallen in love with it. I love it, and I love you know, from set to set the different people within the industry and being creative in that sense, and I love doing stunt work it’s just my passion. And the Avatar specifically, you know, I have such a heart for Jim Cameron because he was such a visionary and let us into battle what none of us had any idea would be this amazing film that in its own way would change the world. And you know, the friends that I made on that film are still my dearest friends today. They were in our wedding, you know, some of them have been my roommates, and we’ve, you know, gone through marriages and children and even now 12, 13 years later we’re still very very good friends even though we’re all spread out all over the world! [laugh]

HEAVY: That’s amazing!

Koda: I guess the most rewarding for me because my drive in my career — I love designing action. I love coordinating. I performed for 20 plus — 25 plus years as a performer. And I enjoyed performing, and I do still perform every now and again but coordinating and designing the action is something that I really love. And I really love directing, and that’s what I’ve been pushing myself towards to become a director. So that’s something that is very much at the top of my list of my career to move towards directing, being a director. So rewarding project would be I guess back in 2000, I did the TV series for Warner Brothers called Birds of Prey, and that’s where the first time I got my DGA [Directors Guild of America] card on that show. And that was like cause I got to do some second unit on that show and then from then on the show you know I was directing second unit on different shows that I’ve done up through Cobra Kai, Stranger Things, I second unit director on as well, um I really enjoy that a lot. And trying to move into directing is where I’m at so I guess that would be my rewarding [laughs] because that got me my DGA card.

HEAVY: Right, that’s awesome! Well, thank you both so much. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I am a huge Cobra Kai fan, and the stunts are amazing.

Curfman: Aw! Thank you!

READ NEXT: Why Production for Karate Kid III Had to Be Stopped for Two Weeks

 


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