Beginning with The Karate Kid in 1984 and continuing on today through five seasons of Cobra Kai, Martin Kove has a nearly four-decade span of experience playing the malevolent karate sensei John Kreese, and he's still finding new, unexpected notes to play.
The Netflix's series' fourth season ended with Kreese, after years of tormenting his former student Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), Johnny's high school nemesis Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and a second generation of kids seeking confidence and validation through martial arts, sentenced to hard time in prison — surprisingly for a crime he actually didn't commit: brutally beating Stingray (Paul Walter Hauser). As a result, Kreese might well have been absent in Season 5, and indeed, his initially limited presence suggested his constantly looming threat might finally be diminished.
But, even incarcerated, Kreese was thrust into one of his meatiest storylines yet: contending with his own newfound bullies on the cellblock, dredging up personal pain with his therapist and contemplating redemption, and then crushed by a stinging betrayal by Johnny and Daniel that re-awakens Kreese's worst impulses and inspires him to execute a clever — and savage — prison break. The end of the fifth season sees him free to once again rain havoc upon the lives of those he feels have wronged him, though his means of doing so may still seem in danger.
"I really would like the character to be redeemed down the line," Kove tells Metacritic, noting that the biggest obstacles are his disappointment in Johnny and his still-burning contempt for Daniel. "If somehow the redemption can encompass that — if someone can help orchestrate him going to the light side, like we have with Darth Vader going to the light side — that's the kind of writing I like to see."
Here, Kove talks to Metacritic about Kreese's Season 5 journey, including the misguided motivations that drive him, the reservoir of compassion he discovered for his character this season, and why he was initially "annoyed" by the story turn of Kreese going to jail.
Kreese goes to jail at the end of Season 4; were you thinking Season 5's gonna be a vacation?
They told me they were writing this stuff. And I'd never been out of the show for a few episodes — ever — and I was annoyed. And then they told me what they were going to write, and I like playing the vulnerable, texture-rich moments — the crying — I enjoy that as an actor, which is why I originally signed on: so I could play this character a little more emotionally textured than the character in The Karate Kid I, II, and III films.
They peppered it starting with Season 3 when my [real-life] son [Jesse Kove] was playing a bully and you thought it was me in that flashback scene in the diner, and it turned out I was the bus boy. And then from that season on, you learn so much about the character.
And then when they wrote me this stuff in the fifth season, it was really great. It was very difficult because I did too much that year: I did two seasons, six autograph shows, two movies; I ended up going to the hospital for pneumonia; and then I did Dancing with the Stars, and it was insane. And I bought a ranch in Nashville. It was all too much.
Now I can really just appreciate the vulnerability that they're writing. And that is a long-winded answer. But I didn't expect it to be that terrific or that versatile. And these guys, they're good. They're really good. They're very perceptive.
Tell me about getting into Kreese's head as being in prison broke open those vulnerabilities and really put him on what, to date, may be the closest we've seen him towards moving to real redemption.
I really would like the character to be redeemed down the line. Bad guys who redeem themselves often die at the end of movies, you know? You always see that. And I don't have a problem with that, I really don't. But for me, I enjoy the dropping of a tear.
With that script, I was breaking up with a relationship at the time — a five-year relationship — and it was really rough and I would utilize so many of those characteristics in my personal choices as an actor. And I always do a big backstory anyway, but these were personal choices that they just came up one after another.
Plus you're shooting in a prison. If you diffuse all the emotions, the costumes, the foods, the energy — and this was a real prison at one time — if you let all that sort of osmosis into your system, it's very depressing. And you often wonder why someone would break the law a second time once experiencing that for the first time, because it's not a pleasant place at all.
The first job I ever got was an episode of McCloud back in '74 or '75 [Editor's note: That episode aired in 1974], and I was thrown in jail and I remembered never feeling like this. But I think as you get more seasoned and you do the homework more and you personalize more and you're not a lazy actor like I was at the beginning, you really feel the depression and the anger and the violence that exists often in prisons. You've got to go into a place of darkness. And as an actor, we owe it to our fans to go there.
What's interesting is as we see these vulnerabilities crack open and we see him being bullied by other prisoners, he's still got that instinct to manipulate — as he tries to do with his counselor, as he does with Peyton List's character Tory. How much is he opening up and how much is he the same old Kreese playing games?
Everybody reads manipulation into this character from the get-go. The only thing I love more than Johnny Lawrence, was Cobra Kai [the dojo], and the only reason I came in and took over Cobra Kai at the end of Season 3 was because he violated it by allowing Miguel to show mercy and advocate that and be more like Miyagi-Do. He violated the integrity of Cobra Kai, so I had to move in. I don't believe — in my backstory that I created from the beginning of Season 2 — that I ever was going to take over the dojo. I just wanted to share in the glory of Cobra Kai because it came back into fruition. It came back into the successful dojo that we once were. And now, 30 years later, boom, it's there again and I want to share and be part of it.
So, that was the incentive that John Kreese had: not to manipulate, but to make sure that Johnny Lawrence, having won the All Valley, would teach the real values that Terry and I discovered with our sensei back in Korea. So, it's really interesting that I don't ever look at him as manipulating until it's the last resort. I think he's fully capable, like anybody.
Years ago, when I was in college, I would manipulate and I would fast talk and charm everybody. And I went through college learning very little, because I took courses that I wasn't interested in but I charmed my way through it. I remember going to physics class and I cut the physics midterm; I went to see a movie with Stewart Granger called Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last Seven Days. I lived in Queens, N.Y., and I sat through the old afternoon watching this movie — it was a sword and sandals movie, and oddly enough, Sergio Leone was the assistant director — and I watched this movie three times, knowing that I just cut my midterm for physics class in college. It didn't matter to me.
So I got the test from the kids, I memorized all the answers and all the questions, went in for the re-test, and I realized that the guy had changed [it all]. And of course, I didn't know the formula for this. I just knew that somehow his questions didn't match the questions that I memorized, so therefore the answers wouldn't work. So I changed his questions to suit my answers on the exam. The college teacher calls me up and says, "Martin, I want to let you know, in 20 years of teaching I've never met a student change my questions to suit his answers. I'm giving you a D in this course and I never want to see you again." And that was in Queensboro Community College. I'll never forget it.
The bottom line is I was thrown into a position where I had to manipulate. John Kreese, only out of desperation in jail is thrown into a position where he has to manipulate. Not that living in the jail is something he'd like to do. But manipulating that woman — the prison psychologist — he knows she's decent and she thinks he's decent. But what's more important? Getting the f--- out of that place. And so, you got the rest of it, pocketing her badge with a smile on his face, pickpocketing her pass. And then leaving and trying to figure out as he walks out, "Who am I going to get first, Terry, Daniel, or Johnny?"
In the finale, he goes full Hannibal Lector to get out that prison. And now we've got that Kreese that we're all so terrified of back in the world.
But the world needs him! We need those values — the values that I talked about in the diner in Episode 2: The kids are soft; they're marshmallows. We need that today. We really need that. And you don't need to break the law, but you need that discipline that Cobra Kai gives people. You need that.
And I have no idea what they're going to write about how and why, but we all know that Terry Silver needs to be first on the list. He's not Hannibal Lector: I'd rather have a sword fight with Terry Silver and cut his head off than do something terrible, backstab him in some way or do something political. I would much rather be in the dojo with two katanas and a wakizashi and go at it.
What excites you about the potential for the future to either see Kreese go down that road that you just talked about or maybe find an even more compelling path towards a real redemption?
The only way he could find that real redemption is through a woman. If Kreese somehow — without it being calculated like Johnny has [or] like Carmen; she's a next door neighbor and it's different —finds [someone]. I was watching The Last Dance last night and how [Michael] Jordan takes the death of his father and turns it into something positive to play the game on Father's Day and win. One of the coaches snubbed him once, and he just looked at him and he gave him this personal motivation to shoot the sh-- out of the ball. And he was unbelievable. Because he took it personal that this guy who always says hello to him, snubbed him — to be able to just get a little motivation from someone's looking at you incorrectly and boom, it takes you to the best of your talent, the highest place.
And I would love to find a woman in the context of John Kreese that could do that. Whether it's a woman or whether it's a feeling of trying to make the world a better place and maybe not resort to violence, I would love that to happen. But it needs really good writing and a good, authentic twist to his personality. Something has to happen to this guy that takes him out of that realm of one-on-one violence. Because that's how he saved his life back in Vietnam, and it's never left him. Just like the death of Jordan's father never left him. And the guy was at every game of Jordan's. So, The Last Dance is magnificent motivation, like Cobra Kai is magnificent motivation for those kids who get bullied or have a hard time in life.
You've been playing this character over the course of decades now. Was there something in this most recent season that allowed you to stop and rethink him for a second and reimagine how you approach John Kreese?
When Johnny and Daniel violate me and hand me that piece of paper and say, "F--- you and die" and then Johnny says, "This is a good place for you, you should just stay here and rot," it took me to this place of, I couldn't escape the compassion I had. Part of me, because I'm sensitive as an actor, I couldn't write him off right there. It came so close, emotionally for me, to be that dejected and rejected. Not only because it's Johnny, but [also] because he's listening to the mentor that I loathe. Johnny is the Karate Kid, not the illegal kick that Daniel did. And Daniel represents all those lines that I have to Tory, when she says, "Well, Silver kicked his ass. It didn't work out the way it's supposed to." And then I say, "Well, that's one thing I could live with." One guy goes down; I don't mind how Daniel goes down.
But honestly, that was the scene that took me into the dark side of needing to do and manipulate what I have to do to get out of there. Because he always knew he'd get out of the jail — but how and when? Right there it became a reality. The silence as they walk out, that was it. That was what Michael Jordan got when he saw "Happy Father's Day" on that day and he thought of his father, or that look on that other coach's face: it just snapped him into a different reality. That's where I'd go as an actor. And that's the kind of moments I love, and they're structured by good writing.
Get to know Martin Kove:
Over the course of a prolific 50-year career, the veteran actor has appeared in a wide variety of projects including The Karate Kid (Metascore: 60) and its two sequels, Rambo: First Blood Part II (47), Death Race 2000 (58), and Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (83).