Sean Kanan on Playing Mike Barnes in Cobra Kai
Season 5 spoilers! Cobra Kai
When John G. Avildsen’s third installment in the Karate Kid film franchise opened in 1989, nobody could’ve expected we’d still be following the characters from that poorly received sequel over 30 years later. It still lives in an excellent fifth season. Cobra KaiNetflix released the movie on September 9th.
Although the show has featured Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), of Sociopathic Sensei Terry Silver Part III: The Karate Kid The main villain of season five is Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), who was once employed by Silver to humiliate Daniel LaRusso, (Ralph Macchio), in the 1985 All Valley Karate Tournament.
But the Mike Barnes who appears in two episodes of season 5 isn’t the same guy once known as “karate’s bad boy.” In episode three, Daniel tracks him down, suspicious that he’s working with Silver again—only to learn that Mike turned his life around after his disgrace in the ’80s. Now he’s happily married and owns a furniture store. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode, Silver has burned the store down—leading to Mike’s return in the season finale, seeking retaliation.
TIME spoke to Kanan about his friendship with Ralph Macchio and the differences in acting on soap operas and on Netflix shows. Also, what might a sixth season hold for Mike Barnes.
TIME: You’ve had experience with many different types of martial artsAs a teenager, you have been involved in the preparation of your future. How was it like to prepare for the event? Cobra Kai? What about the increase in training?
Kanan: It’s a joke about me that I have a variety of styles to get my genitals pounded. The training was intensified, as well as my stretching. Don Lee was my stunt coordinator. I spoke with him and other team members, and they were eager to see what I could accomplish in Atlanta. They can’t say, “Hey, listen, we want you to do a 360-degree flying-whatever kick,” if that’s just out of my wheelhouse. Once they had figured out my capabilities, they created the choreography.
Everything you need to know about Billy [Zabka] we pretty much made up on the fly, because it wasn’t very complicated. Chozen and Mike were the biggest fights that required the most choreography. On the set of, I sustained serious injuries. Karate Kid III because things weren’t planned out the way they should’ve been. That’s why it’s so important that the choreography is well-rehearsed, so nobody gets hurt.
Were you asked by the creators for feedback on your character’s writing?
It really isn’t the norm that the creators of a worldwide phenomenon like Cobra Kai sit down with an actor that they’re thinking about hiring and ask for their input. It was amazing. I said, “The only thing that I would respectfully request is that I don’t think it’s that interesting to play the character as this unidimensional bad guy that he was in the original film. I’m 35 years down the road both as a man and as an actor, and I feel like there’s a lot of different facets we could bring that would hopefully fill in what’s happened to him over this period of time.” I also said, “One of the most amazing things about Cobra Kai is the humor.” It’s a funny show. I do stand-up comedy, and I’ve got a strong comedy background, and I wanted to make sure that I was able to find those moments with Mike Barnes that were funny.
Sean Kanan plays Mike Barnes in Cobra Kai
Curtis Bonds Baker—Netflix
One of my favorite moments of the season is the misunderstanding with Mike’s phone call that Daniel overhears. As I was watching it, I figured that the truth about Mike wasn’t going to be exactly what Daniel expected, but I was trying to figure out, “What else could he be referring to when he says ‘that Italian piece of sh-t’?”
You have to consider that Mike used all the slurs about Miyagi as Japanese when he was talking about Mike. [in Karate Kid III], not knowing how this character’s evolved, it’s not surprising that that guy would say something like that. And then you find out that it’s a big miscommunication. There was source material that supported that that’s the way that that guy would talk.
Karate Kid III obviously, you didn’t have much of a chance to play comedy.
In my only comedy moment, Karate Kid III is this moment where Mike Barnes clearly punches Daniel in a way that is outside the rules, and just kind of takes his hand and slaps the side of his own face, like, “Did I just do that?” That always seems to get a laugh from people. It was something I did as a kid. That was what my best friend would do all of the time. We’d get in trouble, our mothers would yell at us or something, and we’d just sort of do that.
Was it a surprise to see the picture? Cobra KaiYou can see the difference in your scripts.
This was something that really excit me. You’re talking about a guy who very easily could’ve been a card-carrying sociopath based upon what we saw as a 17-year-old kid. Then he reorganized his life. Terry Silver then burns his furniture store and the switch is flipped. We see that Terry Silver remains a bad boy at karate.
It is amazing to see how the show manages to keep the series going. Mike is still a force of nature and brutality.
Had it just been a redemptive moment with Daniel, that would’ve been interesting, but the fact that then we got to see the other part, the kinetic, exciting, violent part of Mike Barnes, but now instead of being focused in a bad way, it’s focused in a good way … I was really very pleased with what I was given to do.
In the finale, there’s a moment when Mike is telling Daniel about what happened with the store, and he mentions his wife, but doesn’t really go into it.
This was how it was written. It was just ellipses. I just had to put in that emotionally, my wife’s left me. It probably would’ve been too much to think she was working in the store and burned down with the store. So I was like, “You know, let’s go with, she probably left me.”
Is there any way you can tell us if you are available to do more if you return for the sixth season of this show? Have you had conversations about the larger story with creators?
Let me just add, and anyone who has seen season 5 or the finale will know this, that it appears Mike is now a possible member of the band, along with Chozen, Johnny, and Daniel. Wouldn’t it be interesting if after all these years, Mike Barnes finds himself a sensei with Miyagi-Do? This possibility exists.
You did Karate Kid III, you’ve had a lot of big roles in soap operas like The Bold And the Beautiful and General Hospital. For the series that you made, you won a Daytime Emmy. Studio City. Cobra KaiWhile it’s quite different to the series, there are some things that are similar: the high emotions and the drama. What role did your soap opera experience play in this series?
For me, each medium, whether you’re doing film, or TV, or theater, there’s different parameters that you operate in. Plays require a lot of rehearsal. Once the curtain goes up, nobody yells, “Cut!” That’s great. When you do a feature film, it’s a part of this cinematic tapestry that lives on forever. That’s kind of nice. The problem with film is the lighting of the scenes. This takes time. If you do a soap opera, we have a grid of overhead lighting, so you just walk out on the stage and there’s not that long “hurry up and waiting around” sort of stuff.
Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with COVID and had to miss a few shows. I hadn’t missed work in 20 years, it was very strange. In one week, I needed to see 11 plays. That meant that I was able to read about 110 pages of dialogue per week. For me, learning dialogue comes very easily, because I’m used to learning 30, 35 pages a day. That’s part of daily life. It’s really nice not to have to worry about that and be able to concentrate on the other aspects of your performance. The other thing is that I’m working every single week. It’s the same as karate. You turn down the gas, and when you’re not practicing, the water in the pot doesn’t boil. For me, being able to get to CBS work each week keeps me sharp.
Are you aware of the differences in the tone and dialogue styles between the shows you watch?
Netflix has a different language than network TV. It’s more freeing, it’s more liberating, because you’re able to speak more like people talk. I don’t know about you, but I kind of got a mouth like a sailor, and it’s liberating to be able to do some of those words, because you certainly can’t use them on The Bold and the Beautiful.
How was it to get back together with the Karate Kid alums you knew before?
Yuji [Okumoto, who plays Chozen]Over the years, Billy and I have seen one another more often. So I’ve got a really nice relationship with them. Ralph, I’ve only seen a couple times, but it’s really been nice forming a brand new friendship with him all these years later as a 55-year-old married guy with kids. I’m a very different guy than I was when I was a brash 22-year-old kid hired to basically terrorize him. We were just standing around in between takes, and just looked at each other, and he was like, “Can you believe this? Is this nuts?” I love the fact that as successful he and Billy are, they are not blasé or jaded about it. They have a real appreciation for what a wonderful gift this is and the fact that it’s just a tad surreal.
Ich habe gesprochen The last season with Thomas Ian Griffith about coming back to the role of Terry Silver, and I always get the impression that there’s so much warmth and affection among this cast.
I think once you’ve been in one of the Karate Kid films, you’re a part of a club. And even though you might not see each other that frequently, you’ve got this common experience that bonds you. Just look at each others and smile.
I think it’s really funny that I’m 55 years old and people still call me the “bad boy of karate.” I joke that I’m probably going to be 85 years old with a walker and still be the bad boy of karate.
This interview has been reduced in size and clarified.
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