Xolo Maridueña Kicking Ass in 'Cobra Kai' Is a Win for Latinx Representation

Tatiana Tenreyro
·8 mins read
Photo credit: Netflix/Men's Health Illustration
Photo credit: Netflix/Men's Health Illustration

From Men's Health

COBRA KAI'S second season, which originally aired in April 2019, ended on a shocking cliffhanger. After a massive, literally show-stopping fight at school, Xolo Maridueña's character, Miguel, was left in a coma after being kicked down stairs, landing square on his back. Fans desperately wanted to know Miguel's fate, even coming up with some outlandish theories. But on October 2, the trailer for the third season—due in January 2021—confirmed that Miguel survived the fall.

"I'm so excited for everyone to be at peace for at least a little bit, because I swear the top question I get is 'Are you dead?'" the 19-year-old star says over the phone. "We'll see how healthy Miguel ends up, but at least for now I'm excited he's alive."

The big fight scene in the second season's finale became one of the show's most talked-about moments on social media. It's extremely impressive and elaborate, with the Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do kids facing off against each other. Turns out, it was just as intense to film it as it looks; normally a sequence like that would take an entire day, but Cobra Kai did it in just three hours and a couple takes. "It's very tiring, training each and every day for something that you're only going to have one day to film," he says. "But I feel like we did the best with what we got. We did six or seven takes and that was it—but I think that's all we needed."

Maridueña credits the impressiveness of the scene to stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman, who helped the actors perfect their moves and feel comfortable.

"There are so many moving parts, so many different people who have to move around at the same time to make sure nobody gets hurt," he says. "You have the camera man that has to make sure he's not getting hit in the face by everything, and with that comes chemistry. The chemistry we have on set I feel is unparalleled to any show I've ever worked on."

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

And yes—accidentally kicking the camera guy in the face is something that's "definitely happened before," according to Maridueña. Fortunately, this scene was filmed with a steadicam—so he narrowly avoided life imitating art.

Not many teen actors can say they've already been part of two major pop culture phenomena this early in their career; Maridueña had a smaller role in Showtime's reboot of Twin Peaks back in 2017. "It is definitely surreal," he says. "Twin Peaks and The Karate Kid are two projects that were so impactful when they came out, and two projects I feel really did justice to the original ... I'm really appreciative that David Lynch and the Cobra Kai creators are the biggest fans of their own projects, and because of that, they know it like the back of their hands."

Unlike his role on Twin Peaks, however, Cobra Kai required a whole new set of skills and prep work, mainly, strength training to keep up with the physical requirements necessary to play an ass-kicking teen. "Right now I'm just trying to bulk up and look bigger and get stronger, whereas when we're on set, the goal really is to get the choreography down and keep stretching so that you're not getting hurt."

When the show's filming, training involves an hour of stretching, an additional hour of circuit training, cardio training, and hours of choreography to prepare for fight scenes. The show also requires for Maridueña to train outside of set, even when there isn't a pandemic going on.

His routine at home includes an hour of stretching and then an hour of cycling workouts, including days specifically for legs, shoulders, and abs. At night, he cycles between a yoga routine or just simple stretching and relaxing. "That's what it's been like for the past couple of months, especially in quarantine," he says. "It's hard to meet up with a trainer or anyone else to try to work out, so getting the home workouts on lock is the goal right now."

Watching the show, you'd easily believe that Maridueña has always been a karate master, but surprisingly that's not the case. Much like Miguel before meeting Johnny, Maridueña barely had karate experience prior to Cobra Kai. He's actually one of the least experienced in the cast. "I did a few years of karate when I was super young, like first or second grade, and that was it. Everyone else on the show–Tanner [Buchanan], at least, the guy who plays Robby–did years and years of gymnastics and jiu-jitsu, and all of this stuff, so training with them is like training with professionals," he says. "I always feel like I'm all the way in the back of the group, but because of that it's so much better to motivate myself and look forward to something. Because when I do get a kick that's better, or if we're wrestling and I get to pin them, it feels that much better."

Lack of experience aside, this role was the perfect fit for Maridueña, who'd already had plenty of TV experience—before his current hit series, he played Victor for three seasons on the NBC family drama Parenthood, from Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims.

With Cobra Kai, the actor could bring his experience and much-needed Latinx representation to TV—becoming the first teenage protagonist of color within the Karate Kid franchise in the process. Maridueña says he's also grateful for Ecuadorian representation on TV. "A lot of the times, writers and creators will be like, 'Oh, you know, the main brown kid is Mexican, because that's easy,'" he says.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

COBRA KAI was already a big hit on YouTube Premium (previously known as YouTube Red), but its biggest year yet turned out to be a year when a new season wasn't even released. The critically-acclaimed show was successful in its first home, but Netflix's acquisition (after YouTube pivoted away from scripted original content) took it to new heights. The show topped the streaming giant's charts for weeks, and Maridueña became one of the most talked-about actors of the year.

Specifically, he's been excited about how wide-ranging the show's newfound fandom has been.

"The majority of our fans were fans of the original Karate Kid, but I feel like now, it seems like you don't even have to be a fan to know about Cobra Kai," he says. "Everyone's talking about it."

He's right—the show's been inescapable, dominating conversations on social media after it arrived on Netflix in August, with fans craving more. Even if you haven't watched The Karate Kid, or maybe just forgot key points of the plot, Cobra Kai includes flashbacks that explain what's going on, making it easy for anyone to binge watch. And while yes, the show's plot centers around original stars Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) still being nemeses three decades later, the show's emotional center is Maridueña's character, Miguel, who becomes Johnny's protege.

STARRING IN a hit TV show provides a huge platform, and Maridueña has been focused on using it for good. Back in August, he tweeted about his disappointment over only one Latinx person being nominated for the Emmys this year. (The nominee in question is Alexis Bledel, who is half-Argentinian and plays a non-Latinx character in The Handmaid's Tale).

"The statistics are out there, and I think it's even more crucial that we grab the bull by the horns and start writing our own stories," he says. "The fact of the matter is that if Latinos and people of color are not writing stories that are authentic, nobody is going to write them. It's always going to be the old white guys that are going to be writing the stories for us. [The story] will never have that authenticity unless it comes from the horse's mouth."

With so many new fans, Maridueña now has the important role of helping other Latinx kids feel represented on-screen. It's a position he doesn't take lightly. "I grew up having maybe one or two examples of people who looked like me on-screen, and none of them were my age," he says. "Hopefully that opportunity—getting to watch TV with their parents and saying 'Oh my god, this guy looks like me, and he's one of the main characters of this show,'—will give them the feeling I got when I was growing up."

Photo credit: Showtime
Photo credit: Showtime

With two big projects under his belt, there's one off-screen talent Maridueña's been toying with trying out: music. Recently he's taken to Instagram, half-jokingly saying he's "tryna drop some bars." But rap is actually a big part of his life, so naturally, he wants to explore that realm.

"Hip-hop and rap in general have heavily influenced my life, from my sense of fashion to the music that I listen to, to the way I carry myself. A lot of it is influenced by hip-hop," he says. "I love to rap...I kind of posted it as a joke. But also, if anyone gave me the shot, I totally would be down to lay down some bars."

For now, he's just thrilled to be part of such a meaningful project. As Cobra Kai gets the attention it deserves–and it’s already been renewed for a fourth season–Maridueña is eagerly stepping into the spotlight, facilitating crucial conversations about representation in the industry and giving young Latinx fans a complex character to identify with.

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