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Wingman Wednesday

Martin Kove

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Photo By: Bryan David Hall

As bingers of pop culture, we’ve all been burned by the continuation of our favorite film franchises and series. The buzzy term “reimagnation” has become a bit of a dirty word, leaving many viewers skeptical of the projects that have come out of Hollywood in recent years. It’s the reason “The Karate Kid” faithful were leery of “Cobra Kai” when it was originally announced as a YouTube Red series, and it’s why so many who have already soaked up the show have been praising it as a love letter to them, the original fans. It hasn’t just met expectations, it has exceeded them.

Taking place 30 years after the events of the first movie, which made its debut in 1984, the 10-episode Season 1 reunites Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as their heated rivalry is rekindled upon Johnny reopening the Cobra Kai dojo. And when the original sensei, John Kreese, shows up, as a viewer you realize that this is a show that you never knew you wanted but now you absolutely need to have. (Editor’s Note: Please greenlight Season 2, YouTube!)

We recently sat down with THE Cobra Kai, Martin Kove, to discuss the character’s backstory, why he’s the Darth Vader of the karate world, and the prophetic dream he had just before he slipped back into the sensei’s skin.

TrunkSpace: Is it a bit of a surreal experience sitting down and talking about John Kreese 34 years after you first brought him to life?
Kove: Yeah. It’s a character that we’ve relived often, but not onscreen. It’s quite interesting. The people don’t forget it because the movie means so much to so many people. Back in ’84, they loved to hate John Kreese, so they love to respect him, or they love to love him, you know? The journey of that character is quite interesting because I wondered why the people loved such a beast, and he really wasn’t, per se, a beast. He was just someone who vowed never to lose again, which was a backstory that I personally created – that he was a champion forever. In high school, in college, in the armed forces, and when he went to the Vietnam War he wasn’t allowed to win like so many of our other boys, so many of our other soldiers. So, when he came back he swore when he opened up the dojo that his students would never lose, under any circumstances.

TrunkSpace: Without a backstory like that, he could have been a very one dimensional “bad guy.”
Kove: Yeah. It kind of went in that direction because you always create a backstory when you’re creating a character. A great luxury for doing a character that is basically non-fiction is that it’s a real life person and you can go research, which is my favorite – to go research someone, talk to the relatives and read papers, and there’s different scriptures of what that character’s done. The other end of the spectrum is you create it yourself, on the fictional character front like John Kreese. But John Kreese was a real life character in Robert Kamen’s world. He had a marine sergeant who was a disciplinarian like that. He based it on that. I said, “Was he worse than John Kreese?” Robert said, “He was far worse than John Kreese.” (Laughter) So, I could imagine that, you know?

TrunkSpace: Regardless of how bad Kreese gets in the films, the audience really loves to hate him. In many ways, he was a part of the childhood of so many impressionable viewers who absorbed that first movie in 1984. Like you said, it meant, and continues to mean, so much to people.
Kove: It really does. He’s the Darth Vader of the karate world, you know? It was really tricky. I remember when I got this series called “Hard Time on Planet Earth,” and at that time I remember my agent telling me, “Oh, I can get you out of the series. I can get you out of the series.” And I said, “If it’s going to conflict with ‘Karate Kid III’ then I don’t want to do it.” And he never could get me out of the series, and it was kind of a bittersweet experience. It was a series on CBS after I did “Cagney and Lacey.” It was heartbreaking because most of the people involved – John Avildsen and Jerry Weintraub who, bless their souls, have gone now – but I don’t think they ever believed me that I didn’t know that I could be in that show. So, the assistant director Cliff Coleman suggested, “We could make this work.” Because it was my vehicle and I was to do a sting operation against Ralph (Macchio) and also train Sean Kanan, the other bad boy. Ultimately John didn’t want to risk it, so I came in on the periphery of the movie and sent on vacation by the character Terry Silva. That character was written into the script because I couldn’t do it. I was supposed to, basically, do everything he did. As good a job as Terry did – Thomas Ian Griffin was his name – as good a job as he did as the associate of John Kreese, he still wasn’t John Kreese. You can’t disenfranchise the villain in these kinds of movies, because everybody’s looking for the same guy, because he’s meant so much in the initial outing of 1984. Whether they were bullied, whether they had a romance that didn’t work, or whether they just were fish out of water – that movie meant one of those elements to a lot of people, and certainly John Kreese was right there in the middle of the mix.

TrunkSpace: You made a great comparison to Darth Vader. There have been plenty of movies in the “Star Wars” franchise now, and plenty of villains, but none of them have lived up to Vader.
Kove: No, they haven’t. And I like the movie very much – the last one – but I missed that ominous quality that James Earl Jones put to the voice, and that was put in the costume. You have to remember, to everybody, Sean Connery was the best James Bond. For the same reason, when we’re young we’re so impressionable, and these characters mean so much when they’re written well. Because to me, the bottom line is, with “The Karate Kid,” I don’t care what anybody says, and I used to have this argument with Robert Kamen all the time – the real star is Robert Kamen. He put pen to paper and did “wax on, wax off,” “sweep the leg” and “no mercy.” He did it, and without that, despite the charisma that he always says was the star of the movie, between Ralph and Pat (Morita), the real star for me has always been the written word.

TrunkSpace: You can be a cool character in a not-so-great movie, but that probably doesn’t carry the same weight personally when you’re working with a great script from start to finish?
Kove: Yes, exactly. Exactly. You can do five lines in a hit and… I had two scenes in “Wyatt Earp” and I remember chatting with Jackie Collins one day and she said, “You’re the funniest thing in the movie. He throws a cue ball in your throat and takes your rig and wears it for the rest of the movie. He feels his power after he knocks you out against the bar.” And I had a great time on that movie. I cried when I left the set. I mean, working with Kevin Costner was heaven. But, the bottom line is, two scenes in a good movie is far better than starring in a film that nobody goes to see.

TrunkSpace: Right, because it probably means more to you as a performer when something means so much to so many people.
Kove: Yeah, God knows how many times I’ve made a mistake in my career of being arrogant enough to think that my performance would make the movie better, and the script wasn’t up to par, but I would agree to go do a movie because I loved the character, and my arrogance would say, “Well, you’re doing a good performance, it’ll help the movie.” Bullshit. Doesn’t happen. Doesn’t happen. If it’s not on the page, forget it, and if you’re that arrogant then probably you should go back to class.

TrunkSpace: And then there are those instances where you might have the greatest script with the greatest cast being spearheaded by the greatest director and yet, for whatever reason, the universe just deems it not the time and it never finds an audience.
Kove: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I think that kind of happened with a couple of wonderful movies that I still loved. That happened with “Goin’ South” with Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Arthur Penn. You really figured, “Whoa, you got it, man.” You got the “Bonnie and Clyde” director, you got two big stars, and there’s something missed in that, you know? It’s just strange. It’s all strange. It’s just, when the elements come together, like this series… I didn’t know every episode would be written so well. I knew that Josh (Heald) and Hayden (Schlossberg) and Jon (Hurwitz) were wonderful. We sat around in September saying, “You’re going to come in in episode 10,” and I had to hold and bite my tongue for eight months with people asking me, and I’m telling them I’m dead, I’m telling them I’m the KGB, I’m telling them that I work for the CIA, that I’m in prison. I made up all these stories, you know? Because it was hard. And nobody believed me to be perfectly honest, nobody ever believed it. They said, “How could ‘Cobra Kai’ be a series without John Kreese?” I would say, “I don’t know.” (Laughter)

But these people pulled out the best elements, the very best elements of the movie, and put them in the series, and they wrote the dialog so well. Billy is brilliant, and Ralph is terrific. Billy and I have done a bunch of other movies together, but this by far is his best performance, and he touches all kinds of emotions here. Ralph does the same.

TrunkSpace: Even beyond being so well written, in many ways, it feels like a love letter to the fans.
Kove: Exactly. Very well put. It is a love letter to the fans. For these people this is their “Star Wars.” This is, if it was me and I was writing, would be my “Wild Bunch.”

Photo By: Bryan David Hall

TrunkSpace: As you mentioned, you come in at Episode 10, and while you didn’t get to really dive into the series during the first season, your appearance at the end was really cool and serves as both an exclamation point on the first season and a question mark for any second season to come.
Kove: That’s how they always expressed it to me. And I wanted to come in earlier and they said, “No, no, no. We’re going to have you come in at…” I had a bit of a dream about what that scene would be like. I dreamt a couple of weeks before, and I don’t remember telling it to Josh Heald, but it was similar. I was leaning against the window, and because I know what the dojo looks like now, it’s not far from my home – it’s divided into two stores, the dojo that was the Cobra Kai on Lankershim Boulevard in Los Angeles. I’ve driven past it. I had this vision of me leaning against the store front glass window, and then they both walk out and I’ve got a cigar and I’m saying, “Well, you’re doing well my heroes, but which one of you is the real hero?” And that’s what I had a vision of saying. In the scene they constructed I come into the dojo and it’s just Billy, but in essence it’s the same dialog. And I am smoking a cigar when I walk in. So, it’s kind of like God’s watching over me, you know?

TrunkSpace: You’re being fed lines beforehand from high above!
Kove: It’s fascinating!

Season 1 of “Cobra Kai” is available now on YouTube Red.

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Wingman Wednesday

Jimmy Wong

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After arriving in Hollywood from Washington to pursue his dreams, aspiring actor Jimmy Wong found it difficult to gain any traction in his career through the audition process alone. While he had reservations about trying to establish his own identity and brand on YouTube, he took a leap of faith in 2010 and began posting videos on his own terms. Before long he was amassing a major following and connecting with viewers by tapping into many of his childhood interests, including music and video games.

Now a sought after online personality who has starred in cult films like “John Dies at the End” and the web series “Video Game High School,” Wong is currently hosting the popular gaming show “Polaris Primetime” on Disney XD.

We recently sat down with Wong to discuss how he conquered the digital world, why Asian Americans are not better represented in film and television, and what makes “Polaris Primetime” different from other gaming shows.

TrunkSpace: In one way you took a traditional path in working within the entertainment business, but at the same time, you also created your own path and forced the industry to pay attention to what you were doing. Is that an accurate way of describing how you kicked off your career?
Wong: Yeah, it all started up when I came to Los Angeles as an actor. I arrived in the city after YouTube and online content creation had begun. I wasn’t particularly interested in making a YouTube channel or doing skits or bits because at that time, in 2010, it did not seem like there was any serious acting on YouTube. I spent a full year in the grind of rehearsals and auditions and trying to get any job that I could and maybe join the union. After a year of barely any success I said, “You know what, I am going to start pursuing YouTube, but I’m going to do it on my own terms. I’m going to do it with music because it’s something that I’ve studied and grown up doing as a good Asian child would.” (Laughter) 
I played classical piano for eight years.

That was a big kick off because immediately I saw this response and a growing fanbase that I never would’ve had in my full year of working as an actor in LA. In fact, I think in a month I was already further along and had more progress on YouTube than I did in an entire year. There was a lot of promise there.

TrunkSpace: What’s amazing with that too is that you’re doing it on a global scale whereas if you’re in LA trying to push yourself as an actor, you’re literally just focused within that one somewhat small bubble of the entertainment industry.
Wong: Yeah, that’s a great point. So many of the projects that I was going out for at the time were small student films and small brand deals with local companies. It’s a very insular thing when you’re starting out because you’re just unable to really get that kind of reach. With something like the internet and YouTube, we just know that there are tons of international people who consume this content on a daily basis and are obsessed with it in a great way. It was just a great transition for me to go from one to the other and realize just how different they were.

TrunkSpace: And you’re not only creating content that people enjoy, but you’re forcing studio execs and those who make decisions within the industry to notice you in a way that they may not in an audition alone.
Wong: Yeah, it’s interesting because coming up from the actor’s side there isn’t as much promise for doing YouTube still because a lot of it is personality-based and brand-based. A lot of the major YouTubers you see today are closer to life gurus or fashion DIY gurus that help you learn about certain parts of your life and it is less so actors. While there have been people who have transitioned from YouTube to the acting side, it’s not what your common every day YouTuber/online content creator is. At the same time, you’re right, it does create a lot of value for brands and larger companies to look at someone and say, “Hey, this person has a great influence over so many people. They’re listening to what this person says and they want to be a little more like this person, do the things that they do because it makes them happy, and maybe we’ll make them happy too.” For the business side, it definitely says, “Look, these people have a lot of influence!”

They’re able to connect with their fanbase in an organic and real way. That’s something that a lot of companies I think struggle with because they’re just so big and they’ve got so many parts to the company that it’s hard for them to connect with that everyday consumer in the way that they really genuinely want to. These influencers and content creators are a great bridge for that. If it’s a good collaboration, if it’s something that both parties are interested in, then it’s a win/win for everyone because I think that’s the beauty of the best collaborations from the physical non-digital world… finding a brand where both the brand itself is a fan of the creator and the creator is a fan of the brand. Together they can make something that’s great marketing.

TrunkSpace: Is it a double-edged sword when you establish yourself in that world by engaging with people, but then by gaining more followers and more popularity, it becomes more difficult to engage with everybody based on volume and schedule alone?
Wong: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of creators that have lost a little bit of touch with their original fanbase because maybe they’ve grown too big for it. Before they’d be able to go to something like a big con and walk around fairly unnoticed but now they can’t go anywhere at that same big con without a security detail. At the same time though, I think everyone is always happy to see growth. The best fans and the ones that are genuine fans should be happy to see that person get larger and have more success and do more fun things. The double-edged sword is that I think the business side of it can get a little murky because it’s really easy to “sell out” in any situation or to lose the connection to what made you you in the first place. There’s a lot of back and forth with a lot of creators deciding what is going to be the best for their brand, what is the best deal that they can do that really accentuates what they want to promote in life and that doesn’t pull them away from the path that they’ve built.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned that you started on YouTube doing music but your brand has become tied to video games and geek culture. Is that something that just sort of happened naturally or was that always part of who you were?
Wong: Gaming and geek culture is something that I just inherently grew up with my entire life. That’s a huge part of my childhood. Even today, the one thing that I make time for in life are movies and gaming. And sleep and food. The four most important things in my life. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: To be able to apply those interests to a career must have young Jimmy high fiving current Jimmy!
Wong: (Laughter) Right? It’s interesting too because I never conceived of hosting/video games as actually being a career. I always thought that if you were going to do stuff in video games you’d have to be a pro player or a coach or a manager of a team and not on the other side of it, which is the performance and delivery of information and public events part of it. It’s been really thrilling for me to do so far. I’m super grateful that I’ve been able to take all the things I loved as a kid and transform it into a career because you’re right, I’m definitely high fiving someone because it seemed incredibly unlikely. At the same time, in today’s day and age, it also seems like just a normal possibility for what we have in the world.

TrunkSpace: Doesn’t your success in building a massive fanbase prove the current Hollywood focus wrong? And in that we mean, Asian Americans are vastly underrepresented in film and television, but here you are building a legion of followers on your own without the backing of a studio or network. Why aren’t they looking at all demographics as opposed to their “desired” demographics?
Wong: It’s a really deep question. I think it’s because like anything in the world, it’s very hard to change a large and slow moving system without open rebellion. If you look at the Women’s Suffrage Movement, if you look the Civil Rights movement in the United States, these were giant nationwide demonstrations and protests with marching in the street. That’s what really spurs on societal change. Asian Americans haven’t really had that push.

There’s a ton of reasons why and we could go into a huge, in-depth discussion about why Asian Americans haven’t made this giant sort of push towards entertainment, towards performance, towards the more artistic side of society. A lot of it comes from societal norms. A lot of it comes from parental norms. A lot of it comes from even a tinge of racism in there. Ultimately, it’s one of those things where, in a position like I am in right now talking to you and raising awareness about stuff, slowly you’re one person pushing a car right now and it’s going to take you awhile. The more people that join in, the faster you’re going to be able to push that car and the more you’re going to be able to push it. It is a very heavy weight to move because you’re in the ocean and you’re swimming against the current. You’re swimming against what people know has worked and what people know will make money. In an industry where you’re spending $100 million on a blockbuster, you want to be as risk adverse as possible. It’s sort of one of those catch-22’s where it’s like, “Hey, I really want to be a bartender to make money but I’ve never tended bar before and the requirement to be a bartender is to have tended bar before.” It’s one of those things where you just have to prove it through demonstration and slowly move that wheel as hard as you can and raise awareness where you can.

TrunkSpace: But by not having Asian American performers and actors more prevalent in the mainstream, doesn’t it make it more difficult for young Asian American kids to say, “Hey, I can relate to that guy and I want to do that when I get older?”
Wong: Yeah, and I would say that YouTube is the big game changer in all of this. Every time you ask someone to name five famous male Asian actors, I will bet you a hundred bucks no one’s going to be able to, especially if you’re like, “Name me five romantic leads that are Asian.” No one’s going to be able to give you two. For the longest time the people that I looked up to were Jackie Chan and Jet Li and action stars. They were never romantic leads. I don’t ever recall any of them kissing the girl in any of their movies. At the same time, YouTube has created an entire generation of Asian creators that people can look up to.

TrunkSpace: And now people can look up to you as host of the series “Polaris Primetime.” There have been a bunch of video game-themed shows over the years, but what does this one have that makes it stand out?
Wong: I grew up watching G4. DXP, which is the gaming block that goes from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Disney XD, is the only thing in existence on TV that is doing what it does. That’s super important. Of course, it’s a giant company and there’s a lot of logistics to get this sort of stuff going and it’s a huge risk, but I’m really glad that they are taking the risk with a show like “Polaris Primetime.” It’s a 41-minute gaming show that has digital shorts and it has a lot of special guests and celebrities, but at the same time it’s trying to appeal to that exact same crowd that watches it online and it still rings out as genuine. I think that’s the big appeal of the show is that it’s not forced. The people on the show are actual gamers. They’re actually passionate about what they do in life and the games that they play. As a host, I really want to bring that out in every single guest. I want them to feel as comfortable as they are in their living room when it’s just them and a couple of friends. That’s sort of the essence of the show… we are gaming together.

TrunkSpace: And because you come from that world and know it so well, you’re not someone on the outside looking in. You could just as easily be a guest.
Wong: Yeah, exactly. I’m still the host but I’m just there to guide the ship. Everyone else is happily on the ship doing their own thing, manning whatever station they need to. I’m just there to make sure that we don’t steer into a rock.

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