Sean Kanan on Mike Barnes’ Return in Cobra Kai Season 5

Sean Kanan as Mike Barnes. Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix

The Karate Kid films have starred Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, and he has been dealing with rivals including Johnny Lawrence, John Kreese, Terry Silver, and Chozen. Decades later in the Cobra Kai series, his relationship with some of his rivals has changed. Johnny and Chozen have warmed up to him while Kreese and Silver remain villains. Another rival from Daniel’s past is back, and that’s Mike Barnes.

In Karate Kid 3, Sean Kanan portrayed Barnes, and he would do anything to make Ralph’s life a living hell in order to get what he wants. After many seasons of Cobra Kai, the character is finally back in the fifth season, and we had the chance to chat with the actor on his return as Karate’s Bad Boy.

Caution: Heavy spoilers for Cobra Kai Season 5.

Nerd Reactor: You’re back.

Sean Kanan: I’m back.

You’re working on a lot of projects, but I’m pretty sure Cobra Kai has that special part inside you.

Oh, absolutely. This is something I’ve wanted to do since the series started. I mean, I’ve gotten asked hundreds of times a week if I’m going to be a part of it. I’m a fan of the show. I watched it and it is awesome. So it’s really been wonderful being able to be a part of this.

This is the fifth season, so you’ve been waiting.

Fortunately, I’ve been working on other things. I mean, yes, I wanted to do it, but I’ve also been doing other stuff. When I got the call to do it, I was really pretty, pretty ecstatic.

With Mike this season, fans are going to be excited about how different he is, and just the take that the show is going for. As a writer yourself, what was your take on that?

It was really important to me that the character was a much more multi-dimensional character that had different colors. He is a guy now that has 30-plus years down the road. Obviously, he’s had a lot of life experience. And I wanted to see that reflected in who he was now. And I also wanted to try and bring some humor to the character, too, as one of those colors, and I think we were able to do that. I had a lot of fun playing him. It was a lot of fun getting the opportunity to work with not only Ralph, but Billy, and Yuji was terrific.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

When fans watch Karate Kid 3, and then also two and one – all these villains go up against Daniel LaRusso. And now you’re in the show. So it’s like, “Is Mike going to be against Daniel?” There’s that tension.

That had to do with the story that the creators wanted to tell. I mean, yeah, it wasn’t much by choice, but it was a great choice that they made. I really liked the fact that there’s a redemptive arc for Mike Barnes, but you also get to see the other side of the bad boy. I like that he’s fallen into this unlikely alliance with Chozen, Johnny and Daniel. And who knows, it could burgeon into a friendship, right? Yeah. It’ll be interesting. The thing I liked though is that Mike has definitely not lost his edge. I mean, he’s still an edgy character. I definitely wouldn’t say he’s a good guy, but he’s not a bad guy. I’d say he’s more like an antihero.

An antihero, yeah. But I feel like he’s a good guy.

Yeah, he’s definitely more of a good guy. Listen, he’s a good guy like Johnny’s a good guy. You know, when push comes to shove, Johnny’s a good guy. He’ll kick some ass when he needs to.

When you’re talking about the redemption arc, I like how each character was once a rival to Daniel. And they’ve done some terrible things in the films, but they’ve turned it around.

I mean, as bad as Barnes was, Chozen was pretty bad. Kind of tried to kill Daniel and basically tried to kidnap Kumiko, right? I think comparatively if Chozen can be redeemed, then Barnes, you know, is it too difficult? Although Barnes did kick a girl in the stomach.

There was that cliff scene.

For your take on Terry, do you see him having a redemption arc somewhere in the future, too? Because this season, he’s pretty bad. He’s trying to be manipulative.

If I had to guess, it’s purely conjecture and speculation. No, I think this is only going to harden Terry’s resolve. I think that a cornered animal is at its most dangerous when it’s cornered. So I certainly would not count Terry Silver out. I would be more afraid now than ever.

For your character, he’s troubled. There are some parts where Daniel ruined his life. Do you think he’ll ever turn into the Karate’s Bad Boy again?

I have complete and utter faith in the big three (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg). They have steered the ship, remarkably. And so if they’ve got something in mind for me, and if it takes me down that pathway, then so be it. I am equally capable of playing the bad boy or play the reformed good guy.

My choice would be that it’s a little bit of each because I think that’s the most interesting thing. I think that very few things in life are monolithic, that are black or white, good or bad. It’s the intersectionality of grey in personalities that are interesting. Bad people do good things. Good people do bad things sometimes. And I like to watch the sort of humanistic struggle that goes on. And I think Barnes definitely is a guy that’s struggling to be a better guy like Johnny is. They actually have a lot in common. But when push comes to shove, if he needs to draw upon his innate talent as Karate’s Bad Boy, it’s there.

Cobra Kai is a very physical show. What was it like coming back to it?

I kept up with my martial arts. So I was fortunate that it wasn’t too painful. A little bit of ice, you know,
a hot bath, but for the most part, it went pretty well. There was a significant amount of choreography. It was a lot of fun getting thrown through a table. That was a lot of fun in my furniture store. Time is always a huge factor in production, and so you always wish you had more time for rehearsal, more time for next-level choreography, I feel like we did what we could with what was there, what my ability was, everyone else’s ability, and I think it came out pretty well.

What do you want to see for Mike Barnes’ future in the Cobra Kai series?

Well, I mean, the guy does have a Rembrandt now. And we do know a guy that probably does some fencing in the Cobra Kai universe, the guy that owns the pawn shop. Mike could parlay that into a bunch of cash. Maybe it reawoke his desire to teach martial arts in a good way. Maybe he joins Daniel and Chozen and Johnny as one of the instructors? Maybe he opens up his own dojo maybe? I don’t know. But I definitely think that he is now firmly aligned against Terry Silver. And you know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And that would mean that Chozen, Daniel and Johnny are his friends.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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