Spoilers ahead for the fourth season of Cobra Kai.
When you imagine Terry Silver, the sadistic ponytailed karate teacher of The Karate Kid Part III, you probably picture a tall guy lounging in some sauna or bathtub, smoking a cigar and cackling maniacally as he plots the public humiliation of a teenager. In actor Thomas Ian Griffith’s hands, Terry was a gloriously over-the-top villain, but when Griffith returned to the role of Terry Silver for Cobra Kai, his character had been reenvisioned with something he never had before: real depth. The Netflix series’s fourth season has transformed Terry Silver from an amusingly cartoony psychopath to a more complicated, but equally engaging adversary.
It’s a necessary recalibration of a character born of ’80s excess, something Griffith recognizes despite his enduring fondness for Part III (which was his first film role). “To bring that back now, I don’t think that would’ve worked,” he says. “It was ridiculous back then, and it sort of still is, but that’s the premise of the show.” On a call with Vulture, Griffith broke down how Cobra Kai turned a one-dimensional villain into a three-dimensional antagonist, his own lifelong journey with martial arts, and what it means that, canonically, Terry Silver was on coke when he terrorized Daniel back in the ’80s.
What was the preparation for returning to the role of Terry Silver?Basically, it was just hearing the vision from the creators of the show, the direction they were taking the character, and asking all the questions that I had. What has this guy been up to for the last 30 years? How do we make him a much more three-dimensional character? How do we bring him into 2021? The questions I had are the same questions I think a lot of the fans would have. And they had really mapped out a great arc for the character that I really responded to, and that was the selling point.
Karate Kid III was my first film, so it was always such a part of me. But I had no interest in repeating anything I’d done in the past, so it was really refreshing to hear I could take this archetypal villain from the ’80s and show some different colors.
Have you kept up a daily martial-arts routine over the years?
Absolutely. As a martial artist, I’ve just kept evolving. I started Tae Kwon Do and then incorporated other martial arts. I’ve been on this learning curve my whole life since I started this as a kid. And for me, it’s not something I choose to do; it’s something I have to do. It’s my therapy. It makes me a more balanced person. I had been training up until literally the day I got the call. That was one of the questions the guys had: “Hey, are you still a good kicker?” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, we have that covered.”
The irony, of course, is going on set the first day, and the first action sequence I have, they have the six-foot-four stunt guy, exactly my size with a white wig, and I’m watching the stunt people do the first pass. I’m the big shot, I’m looking at it going, “Oh my goodness, I can do this, my kicks are as fast if not faster.” So then when I jump up to show them what I have, they all love it, of course, and I’m stuck doing that for the rest of the season! Believe me, I was sitting in an Epsom salt bath that night, going, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” But once it’s in you, you want to do it. I have those skills, so it’s like, why am I going to let anyone else do that for me? I’m certainly going to show that I had that ability.
What’s that like on set? Did you bring any of your own suggestions?
Oh, absolutely, because first of all, I approach fight scenes just like I would a regular scene — to make sure it’s character-based, that it has the right emotional beats. And then these guys, Don Lee and Ken Barefield, the stunt coordinator and the fight choreographer, they’re fantastic. I set it up from the beginning, I said, “I’m very specific with what I do. This is a world I know very well.” So they would show me their ideas after talking to the creators and writers, and then it was such a collaboration. I’d say, “Well, this is what I’d like to do here, let’s alter this,” and that made it so much fun, because they have respect for what I do, but I know how talented they are, so I want to hear their ideas.
The goal always was to keep Terry’s style true to who that character is. It’s a bigger-than-life character, this guy. It should be that explosiveness. He’s always this coiled snake, in a way. Especially in how I move — even though I’m a big guy, I have a certain way of moving that’s very hard to mimic. And of course as fighters — most of them are incredible martial artists, by the way — they love that.
I have to bring up a line from the first episode when Terry says, “Back in the ’80s, I was so hopped up on cocaine and revenge, I spent months terrorizing a teenager over a high-school karate tournament. It sounds insane just talking about it.” I love that canonically, now, Terry Silver was on cocaine in the movie. At the time, were you trying to give that impression, or was it just a really heightened performance that naturally resembles drug-induced mania?
First of all, it was the ’80s, Benjamin. [Laughs.] He’s very successful. That was just part of his world. Karate Kid [Part III] is by no means a great film, but I’m so proud of my work because even back then, the idea was just to be brave enough not to hold back. John Avildsen took a chance on an unknown actor and just kept giving me free rein to say, “Bring all those things you do, that glee.” I think he really tapped into that. Did I know if it was working at the time? I had no idea. When I look back, some of it works, some of it I think doesn’t. [Laughs.] But then, it was the director’s vision to say, “Here it is. This may be terrible, it may be great, but we’re going to go for it.” I have fond memories of it.
To bring that back now, I don’t think that would’ve worked. But when I read the first script [of season four], I thought, “This is it.” The monologue where I’m talking about doing the blow, and the absurdity of this. I was reminded that everybody’s in on the joke. It’s totally ridiculous, this billionaire coming back. It was ridiculous back then, and it sort of still is, but that’s the premise of the show. “I’m going to stop everything and come back and my world is going to be consumed with a high-school karate tournament in the Valley.” And then within that world — and I think this is what the show does so well — you have all those characters commit to the seriousness and the importance of what’s happening. That’s why I think it works.
Clearly, Terry is kind of haunted by his time in the POW camp in Vietnam. Do you think of his story in terms of addiction and PTSD?Addiction, yes. PTSD, yes. These are conversations I had with John Avildsen way back in 1989 doing the film. I have such respect for the men and women who did serve; I’m not going to sit there and say what I think that experience was like, because nobody wants to hear a candy-ass actor’s version of what he thinks that was like. What I can relate to, and I think what most people can relate to, is that we’re all running from something, some kind of darkness, whatever that means. And sometimes that gives you a drive and focus; it’s visceral. It’s sort of like a path of survival. And that path of survival can lead to beauty and to art and to love, or it can lead to unhappiness and destruction.
I think as we get older, when you believe in something and you’ve been living your life by a certain route and then all of a sudden you realize, Was this the right path? or Was it worth it? It’s really hard for people to accept that and make a change. I don’t think Terry’s willing to make a change. This is what he’s lived his life by. This is what he believes. He’s going to see it through. By the end, he’s the king of that world, and will be the one who’s pulling the strings now.
Do you think there’s a path where he could potentially see his past clearly and still enjoy karate without reverting to that old guy?
That’s a really good question. In episode four or five, when he goes back to see Daniel for the first time, he asks Daniel for forgiveness. There’s such a sincerity about that. It’s like, “I was a complete asshole. I fucked up. My behavior was unacceptable. Can you forgive me?” What if Daniel said yes? I believe that that would’ve changed the course that the new Terry Silver went on. You see those moments of honesty and of vulnerability, and I think that has to come from a human need of just wanting to be loved, wanting a friend, wanting forgiveness. And I think that’s such a huge part of the relationship with Kreese, going, “I owe you. I’m gonna pay you back. I’m indebted to you. My allegiance is there.” Until he realizes that’s being abused.
One of the most interesting moments to me is in episode six, when Terry points out that back in the ’80s, he brought out something dark that was already inside Daniel. I kind of think of Terry as this force of id who unlocks other people’s potential for violence.
He gets people to admit that there’s a little part of them that is Cobra Kai, as he says. But look, as human beings, there’s a little Cobra Kai in all of us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.