Interview with Gianni DeCenzo of ‘Cobra Kai’

Photo Credit: Shandon Photography

Cobra Kai is currently one of the most talked about shows on Netflix, boasting a unique viewer base of over seventy million and counting. Driven by a great story, intricate characters, and fiercely dedicated fans with nostalgia for the original film series – Cobra Kai has managed to not only live up to the original films but to carve out its own richly written story while simultaneous introducing viewers to new characters and bringing back many of the original actors. Thankfully, Cobra Kai does not shy away from allowing returning characters to become more fleshed out and to grow as individuals, leading Cobra Kai to present a complex and involving narrative with many surprises for fans of the original films.

Amongst those new characters is Demetri, portrayed by up and coming actor Gianni DeCenzo, who begins his journey as a slightly nerdy social outcast before rising through the ranks to become one of the most accomplished fighters  in the series – being trained under both Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso.

I had the chance to speak with Gianni about his character’s arc, how it feels working on such an iconic story-line, and where he hopes the show will go in the future.

(Warning: Spoilers for Seasons 1, 2, and 3)

Richard Allen: First off, I just wanted to congratulate you on Cobra Kai’s success. My wife and I are huge fans. Just recently Netflix said that 43 million households had already watched Season 3 and 71 million had watched the show altogether. Did you ever expect the show to be so successful?

Gianni DeCenzo: Yeah, I had no idea honestly where it would go. When I first auditioned – like a few years ago – I was just like ‘oh this is a cool thing, like a continuation of Karate Kid,’ but man, it’s gotten a lot of positive feedback. Honestly, it deserves it. Jon, Josh, and Hayden, the creators of the show, are just amazing at what they do. So yeah, it’s been awesome.

Photo Credit: Netflix

RA: Nearly everybody my age grew up with The Karate Kid, you know – we all wanted to be Daniel Larusso fighting Johnny Lawrence. Were you a fan of the movie before you were cast?

GD: I had seen the original Karate Kid 1, 2 and I think 3 beforehand, but it wasn’t from my generation necessarily so I didn’t quite connect with it as, you know, my dad did. He was around 20 or so at the time – I don’t mean to date him. I had seen it, but it didn’t connect with me quite as much as it did with him.

RA: Right. It’s more of a product of the 80’s

GD: Yeah, I mean it’s cool. I love the 80’s though, I love the music. I love the 70’s too.

RA: How has it been working alongside so many iconic actors and becoming a part of Karate Kid history?

GD: It’s been very surreal honestly. When I first started doing it – I met William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) when I was ridiculing him in the first season and he then flips me. So it’s interesting to be like ‘hey! I watched you on TV and now I have to make fun of you and you have to like, just kick my ass, so hi!’ I think it was crazy having Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) actually teaching me karate because it’s like – I watched you learn it and now you’re teaching me the exact same thing. It’s very cool.

RA: I’m sure it’s surreal.

GD: Yeah, very surreal.

RA: The show originally began as a YouTube Red original and then got picked up by Netflix. Has there been a significant rise in viewership since it got added to Netflix?

GD: I think so. See the issue was you have to pay for a subscription and that kinda turned people off to it a lot because it was like one of the few, I think, shows on there at the time. But now that we’re on Netflix, yeah, we’ve just had a lot of support. It’s been amazing. We’ve had to do a lot more coverage for them too. We did, recently, a Zoom call where we just did a bunch of promotional stuff and it was awesome. I love working with everyone.

RA: That’s great. Season 4 – that’s the first one you’re actually shooting for Netflix, right?

GD:  Yes, yeah. So Season 3 we filmed when we were still with YouTube and then in-between that time we kinda made the shift over to Netflix, so Season 4 is our first time being on an official Netflix set, so I’m really looking forward to that.

RA: Your character Demetri began the show as kind of a timid, social outcast in Season 1 before gaining some confidence in Season 2 and then eventually seeming to find himself in Season 3. Has it been fun to play Demetri throughout his growth as a character?

GD: Oh 100%, it’s an actor’s dream honestly. The coolest thing about being on a long running show like this is that you really do kinda get to roll with the character. Like, I don’t know where he’s gonna go in the future – I just know it’s gonna be interesting and I’m kinda just along for the ride. One of the coolest things is the character eventually, kinda, becomes its own person in a way. You go and develop it and then over time it’s just kind of its own thing. Like, you don’t even have to think, ‘well, how would Demetri react in a situation like this?’ I would just be like, ‘oh, I know what he’s gonna do,’ and I’d just go in there and I’d do it.

RA: Right.

Photo Credit: Netflix

GD: It’s really cool. Especially with his arc, he has had a crazy experience over the course of the show so far. Like you said, he went from a timid, nerdy guy to now he’s making out with one of the hottest girls in the school and he’s kicking ass at Daniel LaRusso’s house. He’s had a very interesting journey. He even had his arm broken by his former best friend.

RA: It’s been one of the most interesting journeys of any of the characters. He’s probably changed the most since the beginning.

GD: Thank you. Oh yeah, 100%. And it’s been a slow change, more like a gradual change.

RA: What was the most rewarding moment for you during Demetri’s progression? Maybe kicking Hawk into the trophy case or teaming up for the showdown in season 3?

GD: I think, honestly, the most rewarding would be kicking Hawk into the trophy case. That’s like the first fight that he’s ever won! Before that he’s just like, ‘oh shit, oh shit, here we go again.’ He gets flipped by Johnny, nose broken by Kreese, and so finally just getting to be the one that does the ass kicking, it was awesome.

RA: I think the audience was all for it too.

GD: I think it was the most rewarding. It’s very fulfilling. It’s a great payback.

RA: How is karate handled on the set? Have you had to take karate classes or do you have someone on set that instructs you on how to perform each scene?

GD: Yeah, so we actually have the stunt team – Hiro and Jahnel, an amazing stunt team – they actually teach us… I want to say two weeks before we actually get into filming any stuff. We’ll just go in for one to two hours to do some basic training at first, and then as we get further into the show we kind of focus more on the specifics, especially when we have big fight scenes like the Season 3 finale. We had to rehearse for that one for like a solid, I don’t know, 2 or 3 days before actually going in there and doing it. Then when we go in there we obviously have a couple of dry runs where we just kind of rehearse it in the actual area.

GD: Oh, and we actually had for Season 2 – the mall fight – we actually went to the mall a week early just rehearsing it in that space which was awesome because we actually got to be there that time to rehearse it.

RA: Right, I’m sure that helps a lot when it comes to filming.

GD: Oh yeah, 100%.

RA: The finales for Season 2 and 3 are pretty out of control – very hectic – was it fun to shoot these large scale choreographed battles?

GD: It’s a lot of fun. The thing about the Season 2 and 3 finales is that it’s one continuous shot. Getting to see all the work that everyone put in now being this one continuous thing is really cool. I got to actually see how they filmed the second one – the second season finale. It’s pretty cool. It’s one continuous shot and they have the stunt people weaving in and out, like swapping out characters, all in one fluid motion. You wouldn’t even see the cut unless someone points it out. It’s really cool. Especially for Season 3 – I actually got to be in that fight.

RA: Right, right.

GD: It was cool because everything happened kind of at once. As soon as the camera turns away from me in Season 3 I’m having to move that chair that I lean on all around, because if I don’t the camera guy – he’s gonna topple on top of that and that’s expensive equipment. We can’t afford to lose that.

RA: That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was watching that scene in Season 3 – that one continuous shot – how is the cameraman making it through these narrow spaces with all this chaos?

GD: Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. It was a challenge. As soon as the camera turns away from something we’re all trying to just move stuff out of the way as fast as we can. It was cool.

Photo Credit: Netflix

RA: Had you taken any karate, or martial arts, before being cast?

GD: Yeah, I took Karv Maga. It’s like an Israeli sort of street fighter technique. I think they use it in the military actually. So that honestly helped a lot with training, because we kind of do stuff similar to that. It’s a little bit different obviously than karate, but just kind of having the basics of kicking and punching is a huge help. Prior to that I think the closest thing to karate I took was taekwondo, but I only made it to like a yellow belt. Can’t really use that – that wasn’t really useful.

RA: I think I speak for most the audience when I say that we all hated watching Demetri and Hawk fallout throughout Season 2, and that arm breaking scene in Season 3. Do you like that the story tore you and Hawk apart only to reunite you again at the end of season 3?

GD: Yeah. It was a cool journey that Hawk and Demetri have. Like they’re, you know, best friends in Season 1 and by Season 3 he’s breaking his arm, only to join him again as binary brothers to kick ass in the final fight. It’s a very cool journey. You know Jacob, he’s a great actor. It was a lot of fun to be able to kind of go on that rollercoaster with him.

RA: Yeah, and I think everybody was excited to see you two finally make up at the end.

GD: I know, it was so cool! It really paid off.  That was the first time since Season 2 that they had really – I don’t know – agreed on something.

RA: Right.

GD: It was a falling out by the end of Season 1, Season 2 it really went downhill, by Season 3 it got a little bit worse and then by the end of it we’re friends again.

RA:  Why do you think that Demetri retained his personality despite his growing confidence and skills whereas Hawk and other students became bullies?

GD: I think when it comes to Demetri he’s had a very slow evolution. I think he’s very much himself. He’s comfortable with who he is. He knows he’s like a nerd and he’s not the popular guy and he’s like, ‘you know what? I’m OK with that. I know how I want to live my life,’ and it’s just really cool to see that he doesn’t let this karate stuff go to his head. Obviously he figures, ‘hey, maybe I can use this to pick up a few girls,’ but he doesn’t ever become a bully because of it. That’s just not who he is. He’s the, you know, nerd who likes to read comics.

RA: Right, and that’s why people like him.

GD: Yeah. I think everyone can relate to that. Everyone has got a nerdy side.

Photo Credit: Netflix

RA: What are you hopes for Demetri or just the show in general in season 4?

GD: Honestly, for season 4 I think I want to see him compete in the All Valley. I can’t guarantee anything will happen, but I’d like to see how he’d fare in that. Especially when he’s going up against Robby. That could be very interesting because he’s now on Cobra Kai’s side. I’d like to see how their fight would go down.

RA: That’d be interesting to watch. Is there anything you can tell us about Season 4, or do you even know anything yet? Release date info?

GD: I can’t tell you anything without losing my job.

RA: That’s fine. I completely understand.

GD: I wish I could. Honestly, I know just as much as you.

RA: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

GD: Unfortunately I haven’t been able to work on too much, especially with COVID right now. Things have really slowed down. I’m trying to get more into voice over work though, so I’ve been kind of doing that. Thankfully you don’t have to really travel anywhere. You don’t even have to change out of your PJs to do that.

RA: Are there any projects that you’d like to work on in the future, if you had the chance?

GD: Honestly? I kind of want to do my own stuff eventually. I really want to direct and to write my own kind of movies and TV shows. I have a couple of cartoon ideas that I want to do, like a Rick and Morty style.

RA: That’s great.

GD: But yeah, I just want to work on my own stuff eventually. I’ve got a lot of ideas just floating around in my head. I’ve got to put them somewhere.

RA: Well I hope you get the chance to.

GD: Thank you so much.

RA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and congratulations again on the immense success of Cobra Kai. I’m excited to see what happens in the next season.

GD: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, it was great talking to you.

You can catch Seasons 1, 2, and 3 of Cobra Kai now on Netflix. The show has already been green lit for a Season 4. Fandomize will be sure to provide more details on the next season as they are released!