A side effect of playing a villain whose villainy is both clear and unmistakable is that it can be surprising when they make you laugh. That’s currently happening with the once part-time Cobra Kai villain Jacob Bertrand, who when asked a question—the sort that attracts your media-trained answer—he doesn’t disappoint: “I want fans to know,” says Bertrand before pausing, as if reaching for some off-script line. “That I’m taller than Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, which means I’m taller than Billy Zabka. Billy stands on a box.”
This is Bertrand in a nutshell; brimming with sunny, fast-talking energy. It’s a world of difference from a hard-faced hothead with a black belt. But it’s also a world of difference from your prototypical bully. Since 2016, Bertrand has embraced the surprisingly nuanced antagonist-turned-protagonist Eli “Hawk” Moskowitz in the Karate Kid series, Cobra Kai; he’s an undeniable fan favorite.
“People actually come up to me and congratulate me as if I won a real Karate tournament,” Bertrand says through laughter. “It’s weird.”
A part of what makes Bertrand come off as so starkly different starts with his beginnings. While Bertrand, 21, first began acting at nine years old, his first major role came by way of Nickelodeon’s Marvin Marvin—yes, starring the mid-2000s YouTube personality Fred—as Henry Forman. From there, he rode the Disney-to-everything-else express to the Disney XD series Kirby Buckets, and transitioned to the hit film The Swap with co-star Peyton List. He’s also lent his voice to a number of animated projects throughout the years on the side. In other words, you’d be forgiven for considering him a Disney kid with all the assumptions that come with that—the spice and everything nice.
“Some actors just have a bad rap if they come from Disney,” says Bertrand. “It’s sort of just, sunshine, daisies, and always smiling,” which is fair for the rising star to say, even as he’s proven over the years that he’s been perfect for the role he’s been given. His character isn’t your jock stereotype from the mid’-80s looking to bust heads. He understands what it is to be bullied—as a character with a noticeable cleft lip—with nuance and Bertrand-like reflection.
Just shortly following the immense popularity of Season 4 of Cobra Kai, I took the time to speak with Bertrand about his love of being the villain, how his own experiences with Bullying shaped his role, and how the importance of empowering the cleft community became a calling for him.
In retrospect, I think about how you guys went from a niche YouTube Karate Kid rebirth to being one of the highest-rated premieres on Netflix in numbers and critical reception. I gotta wonder how that transition felt.
Me and Xolo Maridueña used to joke around about this. Wouldn’t it be so crazy if we and Netflix actually happened? Fake laugh. And then I remember the writers telling us that this move was going to change our lives. This is the big leagues. And they were pretty much right. The show blew up. That’s the thing, we trust these writers so much because they say the craziest things about our character arcs and they always end up being the right calls in the end. Big kudos to them. They’re definitely the captains of our ship.
But it was also very weird that this show blew up further during the pandemic. What I first noticed was that our social media numbers grew a lot among the crew. But we weren’t going outside, so it’s not like you felt it. It was this weird sensation of knowing that people were watching this show, but also feeling as if no one really was. It felt like we were making this thing for our friends.
But do you still have pinch-yourself moments?
Yeah, I think the craziest thing is that I go over to my brother’s house often and watch TV with him. When he goes on Netflix, his little icon is a picture of Hawk. [Laughs.] That to me is a big pinch-yourself moment.
People obviously love Hawk. He’s often been this character shaped by the way he’s been treated. He’s been ostracized, bullied, he’s been the bully, but he also has goodness. What was your approach in terms of developing him? You’d have to have a certain empathy to make him likable.
I never really saw him as a bully to be honest. That’s something that Billy Zabka always talks about with Johnny. He never saw Johnny as a bully and that’s something I really understood. It makes the character feel more real and livable. I sort of borrowed a page from Billy’s book and became this classic example of someone given a ton of power at once with them not really knowing what to do with it.
“It’s fun having different layers to a character in general and having to figure out the exact reasons why someone would break their best friend’s arm for example. How does someone get to that point?”
On your own, did that realization come naturally? Because some people see this guy beating up a friend and it’s automatic. He’s a bully. What was the thought process there?
I just feel like he’s been misunderstood for a long time. He had this one friend who would have his back, but couldn’t really stand up for him because they were afraid of being beaten up themselves. And as his identity of becoming a Cobra Kai member and becoming Hawk became so essential, anyone slandering those two things felt like he was being slandered himself since it was an extension of himself. That’s shown in the mall fight when Demetri Alexopoulos ends up posting negative reviews on Yelp about Cobra Kai.
“The whole practice of kindness is pretty good. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were cool guys for a reason.”
I read that you were bummed out about this character going good. You’re obviously into the bad boy role. Help me understand where that love comes from.
I just love playing the villain, man. [Laughs.] I will say, there’s a layer of complexity there. It’s fun having different layers to a character in general and having to figure out the exact reasons why someone would break their best friend’s arm for example. How does someone get to that point? In that sense, Hawk is just a fun character to play. Plus, it’s a dude walking around with a nine-inch-tall Mohawk while punching people in the face, and this is what I get to call my job. I’m having a total blast.
Has your view of the prototypical bully changed as a result of playing Hawk?
Well, I was bullied as a kid for a good portion of my life. My mom would always say that the kids bullying me are horrible and are super awful, but that they’re probably dealing with something at home or they have some sort of problem without the tools to tackle them. Basically, they’re lashing out in any way they can out of confusion. So my mom would make me pray for them. [Laughs.] I’d have to get at the edge of my bed, hands and knees, and when I pray at night, she’d tell me that I had to pray for the kids bullying me. Oh, I hated it. [Laughs.] I’m telling God to lift these guys up, but I also don’t want them to come to school tomorrow. I’d hope they burned.
I’ve always had a very mixed view of bullies because of those experiences. Obviously, there are people who are just plain dicks. But when I have kids and they’re bullied, I’d definitely give the same advice because otherwise, retaliation only drives more hurt and creates a wedge of polarization between people when you fight fire with fire and hate with hate. The whole practice of kindness is pretty good. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were cool guys for a reason.
It’s great that you’re open to talking about that. So much of Cobra Kai covers this dynamic between the bullies and the bullied. Would you be open about talking a bit more about that part of your life? How did you handle it beyond just praying?
Well, I’ve said that Gandhi and Martin Luther King were amazing people. But I definitely did not follow in their steps all the way around. And it wasn’t in a cool way either. I got beat up. What happened to me came as a result of being very, very short and very loud. I would wear short shoes, skinny jeans, and Doc Martens. I very much stood out, and it didn’t help that I was loud. I became the target of a lot of negative attention and I was picked on a lot. I’d tell teachers, practitioners, and yada, yada, yada. I went to a very nice affluent school, so the assumption was that my bullies would never do what they did. He comes from a good family apparently. It got to a point where I started retaliating. After that, it slowed down and the bullying began to stop.
I would never tell someone who’s getting bullied to just fight back. Try every other avenue first. But for me personally, nothing else worked. I had to do what I did instead of being passive. I had to get aggressive which is the opposite of how I usually am. My dad would tell me to break arms because he’s just old school and would get into fights all the time. [Laughs.] But that didn’t fly in 2008 so it was a very weird time but very informative. I learned a lot about myself during a time when I had difficulties controlling my emotions.
Thanks for sharing that. It definitely seems like it didn’t define you. You’re obviously the furthest thing from any kind of bully. But semi-related, I also want to say that I love that you’ve given yourself to the organization Smile Train. Tell me a little bit more about that move.
Oh man, Smile Train. I just love those guys. They’re an organization in 70 plus countries and they bring comprehensive complete care to everyone that they can. They help with before prep and they’re there for the mental strain and speech therapy afterward. They also help with meal plans. They truly empower doctors to have the tools to continue to perform surgeries. Not just with flying doctors out for a certain amount of time. They really want to make an impact in these communities while destigmatizing the cleft affected.
I actually didn’t know a lot about the cleft community before I took on this role as Hawk. But I knew that I couldn’t freeball this character. I really needed to do some research and find out what it’s like to live with a cleft lip. It was fun getting to speak to some of the other ambassadors and hearing their stories. It’s a group of really great people.
Just to elaborate. You’re obviously playing Hawk who has a cleft lip. How did you approach it versus the version of you who knows what you know now?
I really knew nothing growing up. I knew no one with the condition. Just from my limited knowledge, I thought you were born with a cleft lip or palate and it was one and the same, but they’re different. I also thought it was a one-and-done surgery, but it’s actually a process that spans a multitude of years. It involves getting multiple surgeries and speech therapy because each time it’s changing the shape of your mouth. And yes, you have to relearn how to talk because it shifts the tonation of your speech. It’s way more intensive than I ever thought it could be. Just having that backstory going into a character, it had to have taken so many years for Hawk to get to where he is. There must have been so much mental strain for him and his parents.
I’ve actually gotten the chance to speak with parents who have cleft affected children and just seeing it from their perspective is heartbreaking when their kids are getting bullied at school for something beyond their control. They’re doing everything in trying to make their kids happy.
This is a bit off-topic, but I peeped your podcast, Lone Lobos with Xolo Maridueña. Now I’ve interviewed celebs who claim to be friends but really sound like co-workers. But you guys sound like genuine friends. You’re practically finishing each other’s sentences. Tell me about that relationship.
[Laughs.] Oh man, when they said they were looking for someone to play Hawk and that he’d be coming from Disney, which was me, Xolo didn’t like it. He thought Disney kids sucked. Some actors just have a bad rap if they come from Disney. It’s sort of just, sunshine, daisies, and always smiling. But when we met, we instantly became really cool with each other.
We hung out a bit during the offseason during the first two seasons and then the second season comes around, and the new Spider-Man game comes out on the PS4. I’m at his house and we beat that game in four days. We stayed up all night playing together, handing the controller back and forth whenever one of us died. Another thing I’ll admit is that we were both really into Pokémon GO at the time. So we’d finish work at 9 p.m. and take an Uber to Piedmont Park in Atlanta super late and try to catch Pokémon. It was so much fun. We just hung out all the time and since season three, we’ve been living together whenever we film. He’s like an older brother but also a younger brother to me.
“I want fans to know that I’m taller than Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, which means I’m taller than Billy Zabka.”
It’s great you guys gelling so well on and off-screen. You mentioned that you’re roommates during filming along with Joe Seo, so give me skinny. Which one of you is a better roommate?
[Laughs.] OK. So I’ll say that Joe Seo is the best person ever to live with. If he sees dirty clothes on the ground that aren’t his, he’ll just pick them up and wash them. He’s also an amazing cook. He’s gotta be the most selfless person in the world and he’s just super cool. I’ll also say that when we first roomed, I was probably a bit messier than Xolo. Nothing crazy, but I was a teenager. Then as I got older with Joe giving me shit, he’d come into my room saying, what’s up bro? I’d have clothes everywhere and blame it on being tired. To my credit, I’m definitely cleaner now than Xolo even if he isn’t that messy. Let me put it this way. I’m clean and Xolo might have a pair of pants on the ground, so we’re all pretty much good now.
What’s been the best part, professionally or personally about the past four years being involved with this show?
It’s in the relationships I’ve made. I have a lot of best friends from this show and we’ve become really tight. All the cast and crew, and Khalil Everage is also someone I’ve grown tight with. I freaking love that kid. I just know that I’ll be keeping in contact with everyone long after this show is done, and that’s right down to the writers as well. There’s no bad blood, except for maybe me and Ralph Macchio. Ralph and I can’t film together. You can tell him I said that. [Laughs.]
Anything else you want to tell fans of Cobra Kai?
I want fans to know that I’m taller than Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, which means I’m taller than Billy Zabka. Billy stands on a box and I have to stand up with my knees bent really low around him. You can also tell him that. [Laughs.]