Exclusive: Martin Kove talks John Kreese’s return in Cobra Kai season 2

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 16: Actor Martin Kove attends the Momentum Pictures' screening of "Forsaken" at the Autry Museum of the American West on February 16, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 16: Actor Martin Kove attends the Momentum Pictures' screening of "Forsaken" at the Autry Museum of the American West on February 16, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images) /

In an exclusive interview with Hidden Remote, Martin Kove — who stars as John Kreese in Cobra Kai, the continuation of The Karate Kid franchise — talks reviving his iconic character.

In an exclusive interview with Martin Kove, we talk all things Cobra Kai, including John Kreese’s backstory and what it has been like for the actor to take on this role once again. Kreese is one of those infamous characters we all know of — the Cobra Kai sensei in The Karate Kid. He was a menace, the hard and unrelenting character who was responsible for teaching his “no mercy” brand of Karate to Daniel LaRusso’s bullies.

Cobra Kai season 1 garnered a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%, a feat rarely accomplished, so the hype is real going into season 2. Here’s what Martin Kove had to say to HR about what to expect in Cobra Kai season 2.

Cobra Kai season 2 debut’s on YouTube Premium today! 

Hidden Remote: You’ve really gone out of your way to praise the writers of Cobra Kai, Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg. I was curious — when they met with you to bring you into the show, what did they tell you about their vision specifically for your character, John Kreese?

Martin Kove: Initially they said they’d bring me in [for the] set up of season two by bringing me in on episode 10 season one. I wanted to come in earlier, and they said, “No, no, it’ll really be a strong impact and you’ll set up season two if we do it this way.” And they knew so much about my character, it was amazing. They had such a grip on John Kreese.

They were so very persuasive, but what really moved me was they were such big fans. Like talking to the Star Trek Trekkie’s, they were so astute about what they wanted to do. Billie and Ralph both jumped aboard because of the same reasons. They felt these writers knew so much about Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, and I felt the same way. They wanted to bring texture to the character; they wanted to bring elements instead of emotions that weren’t present in the first three movies. Basically, John Kreese was a stoic, tough, hard guy who came from Vietnam.

Mercy was not something that he professed. And he had his own personal reasons, of course, which I created in my backstory, which they impressed upon me that they had the same feelings — their backstory for my character was very similar to my own. That, to me, was incredible. Because no one had the same backstory that I created.

HR: That’s amazing. Could you share a bit of that backstory? Would you be willing to?

Kove: Well the backstory for me was John Kreese was a great champion in high school, a great champion throughout his life, even in the Army. And he never lost. But when he went to Vietnam, all of a sudden he was like so many of our soldiers — we weren’t allowed to win.

We couldn’t be triumphant there, you know? For obvious reasons. And when he came back, ‘no mercy’ came from the fact that Viet Cong boys would walk up to our troops, to the platoon, and look for food and all that. And then his constituents, his soldiers, would gather around and try to help out this boy and — boom, the boy would blow up because he had strapped dynamite around his body. So the concept of ‘no mercy’ comes from the fact that he couldn’t trust anyone. He lost a lot of soldiers in the war due to being merciful and being compassionate and caring for the fellow men, which a lot of our soldiers did and regretted. He realized that, took it to an extreme, and he created a concept in his head of ‘no mercy,’ contrary to Miyagi Do, where Miyagi professed that Karate was a defensive art. According to John Kreese, Karate was an offensive sport.

HR: Okay.

Kove: And that was the difference. So the ‘no mercy’ concept came from his experiences in Vietnam, his dark experiences. And basically, that’s how he created Cobra Kai. But being merciful doesn’t really work because it’ll come bite you in the ass in a moment. That’s where my backstory going into those movies was at. And they had a hook into that.

They had their own opinions of why he was the way he was, and they were going to develop him in, basically, it was season three because they saw all the way into season three. And this was a year and a half ago sitting in Zen Tana’s restaurant. They hadn’t shot season one yet, and they were already thinking of John Kreese, how he became a bully, going back in flashbacks, having him be bullied in flashbacks and showing his life in Vietnam.

HR: Wow.

Kove: They sought all of this out and, long story short, they persuaded me with their concepts and their thoughts about this character.

HR: What, in your opinion, makes these writers so special? All three of them?

Kove: Number one, Billie and I always called them ruthless. Because we would go there, and Billie and I would go to work together in Atlanta, and we’d wrap and they would still be there. They would be directing the show. Remember, they wrote these shows. So not only did they write these shows and they’d be rewriting and all that, but they’d be directing them in the day.

They’d be dealing with production problems, which we had because all the shows were over-written. They were just written so well, but they were over-written because we needed more time to shoot the shows, and we didn’t have this extra time. Many times we would fall behind and not make the full day. Yet the shows were written so well that you couldn’t object and say, “Hey why do we have to do this scene? Why do we have to do that?” They were written so well and you wanted to complete it. As a result, there’d be an enormous amount of pick-up shots down the line — like a month later you do a pick-up shot for episode four and you’re presently in episode eight. And what we realized is that these writers, not only were directing and they were putting together the problems of not making the day, but they also were re-writing at night and editing and handling a variety of responsibilities.

They were always doing something far beyond what we were doing. And if we were up until 7:00 shooting 12 hours, they were going home and re-writing until 2:00 in the morning to be on the set again at 6:00 in the morning to direct.

HR: Okay, so throughout the filming of the show, were they kind of picking up things they wanted to do differently or better and just kind of rolling with it in a way? Like, they had a plan but they were flexible with it? Is that what I’m hearing?

Kove: Well both those cases. I guess, in short, the best way to explain it is when they’re directing they’ll have you repeat things, repeat moments. And you’ll think you got it, and they’ll just say, “Do it again, do it again.” They won’t cut, they’ll just have you do it again.

If they think they have the whole thing in one take throughout, if you had 10 lines and you say each line a little differently each time, if they just get it once where it’ll fit in their structure of what’s necessary within the scene, that’s all they need. It’s like Quentin Tarantino — I just did a movie with Quentin (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) and he basically — when he has it, he has it. In directors’ scheme of things, if they like the way you did something in take two, something in take four, and something in take one, they put it together and know exactly what they want.

HR: Right.

Kove: But as long as they can piece it together from various takes and they know what they want, it works. And they’ve proven that to me many, many times. Because I’ve seen in episodes and I remember when I could remember this line or somehow this scene was illogical for me or whatever I remember — and yet there’s not a bit of that on the screen. Everything is as clean as a whistle.

HR: That’s incredible. So they’re kind of working off of each other and throwing out different methods of doing things while you’re there?

Kove: Yeah.

HR: Wow.

Kove: It was quite fascinating. And Billie said to me, “You just gotta learn to trust these guys. You’re gonna think it’s unusual at the beginning.” And I did. Then, eventually, you just trust them. They’re just smart. They’re just really smart guys, you know?

Martin Kove, William Zabka. Courtesy, YouTube Premium via MWPR.
Martin Kove, William Zabka. Courtesy, YouTube Premium via MWPR. /

HR: That’s awesome. I know they had you come in at the end of season one, and that was so cool because it felt kind of like Star Wars: Rogue One, where you had Darth Vader come in at the end. You kind of see him a little bit in the middle, but at the end, he comes in to close out the movie. I thought it was really sweet how they had you just come in out of nowhere at the end there. What did it feel like to film that scene?

Kove: Well you come in and it’s a very short time. They had me there a week, and I only really worked one set. But it was really fascinating because I hadn’t done that character in a long time. You go and do conventions and things and the character has always been in my life; there’s a lot of notoriety around him because The Karate Kid is such an iconic picture. But to physically go in there and emotionally be that character, I was nervous.

There’s no question about it. And I wanted to do a good job. I had done five television series and, who knows — over 100 pictures. But the thing is, you want to do a great job with this guy who has been the gift that keeps giving, you know?

John Kreese is probably the most memorable character in my career. I walked in there and I do this, and it was monumental for me because in the first rehearsal, the very first — not even with the camera rolling — I walk up and said those lines and I walk in the light and I pull the cigar from my mouth, and all of a sudden I hear from the distant end of the dojo where video village is — all the crew is around the video camera and the directors are there and all the writers — and all of a sudden I hear this giant sigh. It was like these characters and this crew, they were waiting for that character to say their lines.

HR: Oh, it was a cool scene.

Kove: “But the real story has only just begun.” And Billie can’t believe it because he thinks I’m dead; I haven’t been there in 30 years. And you have this massive sigh from the other end of the studio. It made me feel really good that these guys, they were waiting for Martin Kove to come back and for John Kreese to say their words, you know?

HR: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Kove: It was a little bit of a phenomenon for me. And the greatest thing was, as an outsider who is not a member — I was not there for nine episodes, I’m there for this one week — but everybody who works on this show is a big fan. I mean everybody. When I did that scene, I felt like a million bucks. It was great. There was only one scene, there was only one episode of 10, and I couldn’t even tell anybody; I was sworn to secrecy. I would tell people John Kreese was working for the KGB, John Kreese was in jail, John Kreese was dead. I would make up all those stories from that period of time until May 2. Eight months of basically lying to everybody about my character, because I knew he was coming back. They told me, “You can’t do any press.” I went on and on and on without doing any press, you know?

HR: Yeah.

Kove: And it was rough because I’d see Billie and Ralph do the press, and I could be asked all over the streets. Nobody believed that I wasn’t in the series. But still, I couldn’t tell anybody.

HR: Can you tell me anything about what has transpired in John Kreese’s life since we last saw him in Karate Kid? So from the movies until now, can you fill in any of that for us?

Kove: I can fill in some of it. You gotta remember, it’s a period of thirty years. What I allude to is that — and this all goes on in episode one [of season two] — what I allude to is that I’ve been a mercenary, worked for the government. Was out there.

Basically, here’s what I tell Billie: It’s kind of what the audience will see in episode one, so it’s not a spoiler in a sense. But I’ve been out there struggling in that world of the military and handling a variety of situations for the military, and I show up now because Billie has done good. Billie has put Cobra Kai back on the map, and I’m there to help. You really enjoy what John Kreese is about in season two.

COBRA KAI - SEASON 2 - EPISODE 202. Courtesy YouTube Premium via MWPR.
COBRA KAI – SEASON 2 – EPISODE 202. Courtesy YouTube Premium via MWPR. /

HR: Did he feel like there was unfinished business from before? Is that partially what motivated him to come back?

Kove: Well yeah, I guess so, unfinished business. In that scene in episode 10, he’s brought Cobra Kai back on top and John Kreese is very proud of him. And John Kreese wants to share in the success of Cobra Kai. He makes that clear in episode 10. And you have to remember that Johnny Lawrence, despite the fact that my character broke the trophy and did all those terrible things in Karate Kid 2, Johnny Lawrence was still really my best student. He was still sort of like my adopted son, you know?

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And it broke my heart 30 years ago when he lost, because I always believed he was the better fighter. And John Kreese can’t stand when any of his students lose. But if you go back and you look at him watching in those movies when the kids win or lose, there’s not a lot of change in his emotional outlook. He’s real stoic. He’s in dismay when his students lose.

It’s kind of a stoic personality. But in this case, he’s had 30 years to think about Johnny Lawrence… where Lawrence has gone. There are two things in his life that make a difference: the integrity of Cobra Kai, and his affection for Johnny Lawrence. It might have been masked at some time or another, but it’s never really disappeared. When you watch the show, you’ll see how it all plays out.

The continuation of my conversation with Martin Kove can be read at this link on Commyounicate Magazine, where we go into more details about his experience with Cobra Kai and also discuss his upcoming film, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. 

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Cobra Kai Season 2 is now available on YouTube Premium.