Why William Zabka Says It Can Be ‘Painful’ To Play Johnny Lawrence

William Zabka

Getty William Zabka talks on a panel during the 2019 San Diego Comic Con.

The first season of the acclaimed series “Cobra Kai” takes place 34 years after the events in “The Karate Kid.” On the show, former Cobra Kai student and bully Johnny Lawrence (William “Billy” Zabka) is constantly down on his luck. Due to a series of selfish decisions, he has difficulty keeping a job and does not have a relationship with his teenage son, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan). Throughout the show’s three seasons, Johnny does attempt to better his situation. However, he sometimes gets in his own way and unintentionally sabotages himself from improving his life.

William Zabka Discussed Playing Johnny in a Recent Interview

During a May 2021 interview with Gold Derby, William “Billy” Zabka discussed portraying the character on “Cobra Kai.” He explained that Johnny “is a work in progress” which makes him relatable to the audience. The actor also addressed the fact that the show has an earnest quality to it. For this reason, Zabka has chosen to play Johnny, who often has offensive and absurd lines, as sincerely as possible.

“My job is to get inside the soul of this guy and personify him and trust the lines and trust the editing and trust the sound, the music,” said the actor.

The 55-year-old then revealed that he is “always surprised when [he] watch[es] it back because how it feels to play the character and how it feels to watch are completely different.” Zabka then revealed that portraying Johnny is at times “painful,” as he is “making choices and saying things that [the actor] wouldn’t say.”

“But he’s not me so, I have to find, I have to you know — Billy shrinks to about two percent when I play this character. And that’s an interesting thing and I have to kind of decompress when I finish. So I just play the truth and then trust the rest because we have a fantastic writing team [and] set of producers,” explained the father-of-two.

The Actor Spoke About Why He Enjoys Playing Johnny in a January Interview

While playing Johnny is sometimes upsetting for Zabka, he does seem to enjoy reprising the role. In a January 2021 interview with The Wrap, the actor stated that he appreciated that the character is multifaceted and has both good and bad qualities.  

“I love playing all of those levels,” said the actor. 

He went on to say that while Johnny is depicted as a villain in “The Karate Kid,” he still had some positive traits. 

“It’s really, for me, taking a kernel of who Johnny Lawrence was at his core in ‘Karate Kid,’ that you only saw at the end when I hand [Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio the trophy, or when Kreese says, ‘Sweep the leg’ and Johnny reluctantly goes out to sweep the leg — it’s that little microfiber that lets me expand it into a full-blown character now,” explained Zabka. 

The actor then noted Johnny has matured since his teenage years but he is “still tough.” He told the publication: 

[H]e’s rough around the edges and he’s got a lot to figure out. All that’s colorful and makes for a really complex, fun character to play. 

The fourth season of “Cobra Kai” is expected to be released later this year. 

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