Like the Karate Kid movies that preceded it, Cobra Kai relies on a delicate tension. And crane kicks, of course. The delightfully retro-stylized Netflix show features a new generation of martial arts upstarts, led by Miguel, now an adult during Season 3. We need to like him. His rival Robby, however, is the sour to Miguel’s sweet. Not perfect, not hateable.
Tanner Buchanan, who plays Robby Keene on Netflix's Cobra Kai, talks Season 3 details and working alongside Ralph Macchio and William Zabka.
Except this season Robby might be kind of, well, a little hateable. He unintentionally sent Miguel off a school balcony at the end of Season 2, leaving the fellow dojo regular in the hospital struggling for life. Which, in the grand scheme of Cobra Kai, is to be expected.
Though the actor who plays Robby, Tanner Buchanan, still sounds nervous about what’s to come. Maybe it’s because he’s from rural Ohio. Maybe it’s because he does whatever his trainer tells him to do. Or maybe it’s because he truly cares about Robby. Whatever it is, we talked to Buchanan about his concerns and why he’s been pegged as “that guy” for ‘90s revivals.
© Steve Dietl
Tanner Buchanan as Robby Keene on Cobra Kai.
Your character Robby has gone missing. What was that like?
I read that and I was worried. I had multiple conversations with not only the writers [and] creators but with stunt coordinators. 'Hey, I want to make sure Robby isn't seen as a bad guy. This is an accident right?' I bothered them so many times.
Robby’s life looks very uncertain. How does he come back?
To me, it's like ultimately Robby has been dealt a bad hand and he's trying to figure out his way to get out of it. He’s trying his hardest to be a good person and not go down the path his dad did and now he's kinda run off and doesn't know if he really killed this kid or not. It’s all about redemption for him. He’s created all these amazing relationships that he never thought he would get and he doesn't want to screw that up.
I hope Robby and Miguel can be friendly again.
Well hey, who knows? I mean it's taken 36 or whatever years for Johnny and Daniel so it might take just as long. We’ll have to wait and see
This show goes in wild directions. What’s it like getting those scripts?
It’s definitely fun. We'll be halfway through shooting and get scripts—we can't wait until lunchtime. Then we’re pulling our phones out trying to read through the new script. “What fights do we get to do?”
You’re an Ohio boy. How’d you end up doing this?
Yes, I’m from a small, small, small town in Ohio. It’s basically just farming community—acres and acres of fields and farmers. It's quite a bit different [from Los Angeles]. You play sports.
I grew up with a lot of women in my life. I looked up to them a lot and they danced. I saw them and I was like, 'hey, that's what I want to do, I want to dance.' I started when I was five and I went to a competition in New York at about nine. There [were] agents and managers there. At that time I had a bowl cut and big glasses and buck teeth. I was the Jerry Maguire kid. In a nice way, the agents and managers said I had a very “character look.”
“We can do something with this.”
They were like, 'Have you ever tried acting?' My mom wasn’t happy at her job, she was gonna try to find a new one. My dad was like, 'He really wants to try it, why don't you take him out for six months?' We never ended up leaving.
You had the obligatory “Kid No. 2” role on Modern Family.
[Laughs] You get one line and they don't give you a name. But you get that one line and you do it all day and act like it’s the best line ever.
How old is Robby? He seems a bit older than the other kids.
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I had this conversation with someone… I can’t actually remember how old Robby is. However, I know there's a specific shot with his license. I should go back and look at that to see how old he is.
Tanner Buchanan as Robby Keene on Cobra Kai, alongside Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, who play Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, respectively.
Growing up in the ‘90s, Karate Kid was essential. The show is so clever about calling back to those movies. What’s your relationship with them?
I had seen the original movie when I was probably five years old. My mom was actually a black belt in karate in the ‘80s. When I went out for Cobra Kai, I didn't want to watch the movies. I wanted to bring my own spin. After I got the role, I talked to the creators and they were like, 'Have you seen it? There are a lot of references. Why don't you watch the three movies before you get here to actually start shooting?' I was like, 'Yeah, that's probably a good idea.'
Was it intimidating to occupy that world?
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Well, that's the great thing. [The older actors] also adapted. First off [Ralph Macchio and William Zabka] are two of the nicest guys ever. Ralph is extremely nice. He’s too nice sometimes. I’m like, “Can you just say one bad thing?” They’re super respectful and stuff in terms of treating us like peers. We’re there to do the same job and be actors as well and they understand that and we understand our characters just as well they understand their characters. They let us do our own thing.
They do give us some advice. I had a surreal moment Season 1. I was supposed to wax on, wax off. I was like 'wait, how do I do this,' and Ralph is like, 'let me show you.' I stepped aside. The Karate Kid is actually showing me how to wax on and wax off. People would pay to have you show them how to wax on and wax off.
It’s wonderful to know Daniel is as pure-hearted as we all imagined. It looks like your rival Miguel has bulked up.
[Laughs] I feel like he looks the oldest out of all of us now.
Has your fitness routine evolved?
Mine definitely has. I’ve always tried to stay somewhat in shape and work out to stay healthy. I’ve never been super big about being this super buff kind of guy. First off, I'm only 5’8”. I’m not Chris Hemsworth who's like 6’4”, weighs over 200 pounds of pure muscle. That’s not me and it's gonna be impossible for me to get to that height or weight. For Season 3 specifically, I actually ended up losing a lot of weight just for character reasons. Now I’ve actually started bulking up a lot, but still trying to stay very lean because the character asks for it. I want to be ready for my character when I get there to shoot Season 4.
What are your go-to workouts?
Um, honestly anything my trainer tells me to do.
Yup. It took me a while to pick a trainer, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about where I want my character to be. He’s basically molded my workout to be what I want my character to have.
Tanner Buchanan as Robby Keene on Cobra Kai.
I assume a lot of the fighting we see is stunt work, but you’re definitely doing some of it.
[The stunt coordinators] work really hard with us to get us to a place where we actually do 90 to 95 percent of all the fighting. So we’re in there all the time and they’re working really hard with us to make it as real as possible. It just makes it that much better. I think the hardest part of anything is the stretching because we have to be very loose. It’s definitely needed and we’re all trying to work as hard as we possibly can so we can actually do these fights and they can get better shots.
I can’t not ask you about being in the upcoming He’s All That [a reboot of She’s All That]. Are you the male version of the dork who gets a makeover?
Yes, I’m basically playing Rachael Leigh Cook’s role from the original.
So you’re both ugly losers who we find out are actually really attractive.
Did they put the glasses back on you?
We stayed away from the glasses. We didn’t feel like the glasses were needed in the sense that you can’t just put glasses on and take them off and say, 'oh they were so ugly, and now they're so attractive.' [Laughs] We all agreed let's try to stay away from that and then we’ll do some other huge makeover deal to make a bigger change rather than just putting glasses on and off.
You were also in Girl Meets World and Fuller House. Are you aware of having an ‘80s and ‘90s revival brand?
I am aware of that. I don't know what it is. I must be the king of remakes. I must have a ‘90s look or something.
Your look is speaking to Generation X and millennials.
I'll take it. I'm not mad at it.
This interview was condensed for content and clarity.