In the 1980s, the world was obsessed with 'Karate Kid'. Kids everywhere started practising martial arts, and the phrase 'wax on, wax off' was on everyone's lips. L.A. based actor, Xolo Maridueña, brings a new generation back to the world of 'Karate Kid' - this time in a new format. In a new comedy-drama web television series, 'Cobra Kai', which premiered earlier this year on YouTube Premium, Xolo gives the legacy new life. It's easy to get drawn to his entertaining performance and on-screen presence, as he continues a legacy that spans 30 years beyond him. Enthralled and passionate about performing for Karate Kid fans, Xolo brings a new flavour to a new generation.
Photographer Amber McKee captures his sensitive and observant mind on the street of L.A., whilst Fernando Pichardo brings in the fashion. Verging on the edge of 18, during our conversation, Xolo holds a mix of lightheartedness and deeper pondering. A perceptive and insightful young man, he is a 'grass-is-greener' kind of person and chooses to look at the brighter side of life.
We talk awkward high school experiences and superpowers, before moving to the deeper subjects of trust and family. "I don’t think family necessarily needs to be someone you’re related to or someone you share blood with, but more something that has to do with trust. If I trust you enough, I can call you family, confide in you and I can treat you as if you were blood." We throw the term masculinity at him to see what surfaces, which he addresses as an 'old' word. He ponders over the connotation behind traditional masculine phrases and how these no longer make much sense - this is 2018 after all.
Let’s get right in there and down to the core of Xolo, who are you?
Okay. My name is Xolo Maridueña and, as a whole, I like to consider myself to be a very open-minded person when it comes to new experiences and new people. I think it has really helped me, not only throughout my career, but throughout my life. I am an actor and am just about to turn 18. Other than that I play the drums and like to read.
How long have you been playing the drums?
I have been playing for nearly six years now. I would enjoy the idea of pursuing it if it didn’t take so much time. If you want to be a part of a band or pursue it fully it takes a long time. Finding your sound and touring, you need to be able to really commit to it, so it’s just been something on the side right now. My friends and I just jam out, but maybe in the future, if time opens up, I’d like to do something more with it.
I can imagine it’s quite a good release from day to day life. What sorts of things do you like to read?
For the longest time I used to not like non-fiction, and then as I have gotten older I’ve really taken time to appreciate and enjoy stories about real people, experiences, and learning about different cultures.
You are just 17, and you have already achieved quite a lot as a young actor. When did it all start?
It started when I was 10 years old. We lived in Las Vegas at the time, and my mum had a friend who was in the industry and said; “Maybe your son should go out, it doesn’t hurt”, but my mum was a little hesitant for two reasons. The first was that we lived in Las Vegas, Nevada, and everything either happened in Los Angeles or New York City. Because of that, it would be a lot of time spent taking me to auditions and travelling, so that was already a red flag. You also hear of young actors who have gone down the wrong path, so my mum was a little hesitant to put me into the industry. We finally ended up moving to Los Angeles however, because my dad got a job and the same lady contacted my mum and she was like; “You know what, we’ll try it this one time and if it works, yay, and if it doesn’t, then we tried”. I ended up booking my first audition. It was for a commercial, and up until that point we had no idea what the industry was like.
The 'Karate Kid' movies were such classics. How does it feel to be continuing that legend in a way?
It’s really scary. It’s very very scary because it is a lot of pressure to please people who are fans of the original 30 years ago. It's that pressure though that drives me to be the best actor I can be for this role because I really do feel like people are going to enjoy it. I enjoy being a part of such a big franchise, you know. The 'Karate Kid' movies are movies that everyone knows and it’s good to be able to put a new twist on that. I like to be a part of projects that I would enjoy watching myself, and I think 'Cobra Kai' is the epitome of that.
What can you tell us about Miguel in 'Cobra Kai'?
Miguel is a high schooler in a new high school where he doesn’t know anyone. He is really thrown into a situation of being almost an outcast at the beginning of the series, and we see that through meeting Johnny Lawrence who ends up being his Sensei at Cobra Kai, he develops a sense of confidence and the feeling of being a part of something bigger than himself, like being a part of a group or part of a family. We see that throughout the series, he really does put his heart into what he loves, and what he loves is Cobra Kai. And you get to see how that affects his actions and beliefs.
Had you practised karate before 'Cobra Kai'?
Yeah, I had practised a year of Shotokan Karate when I was in the first grade. Going into 'Cobra Kai' I thought it would be easy because of that, but it was almost the opposite. It had been 10 years since I’d practised. Right now I play tennis and basketball, and both of those sports you don’t use your legs in the way karate does, so it was a huge learning curve. Luckily, I ended up picking it up pretty quickly. Being able to make it through the first week was the hardest part, after that it all fell into place. I did four and a half months of training, and it was usually two to three hours every day.
What sort of discipline was required for that?
I definitely consider myself a fairly disciplined person, I’m not too wild. Being able to pay attention and listen to instructions is key and being safe is a big thing. The hardest thing was stretching. In tennis and basketball it’s very light stretching that you do just before matches, practice, and after practice - and it's nowhere near the same calibre that you do during martial arts. In karate it’s about 80% stretching and 20% training and learning moves, so that was a big learning curve.
Are you still training now?
Yeah, I do still practice, just not as intensely as when we were filming. I like to make sure my body is active and I’m not too rusty when I go back. I'm trying to get stronger so that when we get around to the next season I can do more than before.
When it comes to acting, what is your favourite part about becoming somebody else?
That's exactly it! My favourite part about taking on different roles is the challenge of becoming someone else. I really enjoy characters that are three dimensional and rich in quality. One of my favourite things in the whole world is meeting new people, and this industry is very much riddled with new people at every corner. With that, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many directors, producers, screenwriters, actors, sound mixers, caterers, drivers, etc. This industry has been such a blessing in enabling me to get myself out there.
What do you do to prepare yourself for your roles?
Right of the bat, it’s trying to make it authentic to whoever you’re trying to portray. Being Latino myself, I have played Latino characters, I can hopefully help keep those characters authentic. I think that is the most important part of getting into the character, making sure that when people see if they’re able to believe it.
At the end of a day of filming, how do you then step away from the character?
That is a really good question. I think my friends are people that really do help me isolate myself from the acting world. They don’t like me because I’m an actor, they like me for me, so it’s very easy to talk to them about things other than acting. It really is great to have people that don’t just see you as an actor. It's also important to be able to step outside of that and separate the characters you play with the person you are.
Who has been your favourite role to play so far?
I would definitely say it is Miguel from 'Cobra Kai' that has been my favourite role to play so far. He is the most well-rounded character I have played in a while, and he provides a spontaneity when it comes to different emotions and experiences that you are able to see on screen. It’s also the first time I’ve really been able to explore action while acting, and that’s why it’s my favourite role.
Here in the UK high school life is very different than high school in the states. Do you think the high school life on 'Cobra Kai' is an accurate representation of how it really is?
Yeah, I think it is accurate in that I have gone through a lot of the experiences. Not specifically bullying in that exact same way, but a lot of characters in 'Cobra Kai' I feel like are people that I know. When I see them on the screen I can say; “oh my god, they remind me of blah blah blah”, so because of that it is kind of easy to feel connected to that high school experience no matter how old you are.
I was watching one scene in particular when Miguel was about to approach a girl in the canteen, does that really happen too?
Haha, I have been in situations like that before, but I wouldn’t say it is as magnificent or as heroic as Miguel makes it out to be. I think it’s much more nerve-racking than that.
In that same episode, your character talking about “genderising” and perpetuating sexualised views with the words that we use. What are your opinions on that?
I would say, being a 17-year-old myself, that I am very conscious and aware when it comes to people. Not just in gender, but making sure you’re respectful of people. Having a line like that written for comedic purposes, it does ring some truths to some of our ignorant peers that are super oblivious to their surroundings, even when they’re right in front of them. The joke is; “It’s 2018, how can you be saying stuff like that?”, but it is the truth because we hear it all the time. Especially with people of authority - how can they be saying stuff like that when they’re supposed to be looked up to? That is how I feel about that.
Like you said, it was said in a way to provoke humour and does make you laugh, but equally makes you think. How do you feel about the word ‘masculinity’ today?
I think it is ridiculous. I think masculinity is such an obscure construct. I feel like masculinity and femininity are both words that are super old. There is no reason that any male should feel the need to fit into this “alpha” position of authority over other people. It’s so ridiculous when terms like “stop being a pussy” or “grow a pair of balls” are used - like, what does that even mean? The connotation behind those phrases and those kinds of words and slurs are just so old, you wonder if they even know what they are saying and the effect it has - the subliminal and almost subconscious effect it has on some people. The fact that it’s being so normalised now in a world of super hardcore rap, where men are being super misogynistic every other second and the world of #MeToo’ as well. What used to be masculine and feminine are just two words that don’t accurately represent both parties.
As an actor, I imagine you’re very in tune with your emotions, do you see yourself as an emotional person?
I feel like I’m super emotional. The connotation to emotional automatically means crying all the time, but I’m more emotional in the sense that I really do find myself in tune with feelings. I tend to analyse any situation I am in, in particular an emotional situation. And I cry during movies all the time, so there’s that as well.
What was the last movie you cried at?
I just re-watched 'Up'. That’s my favourite movie of all time and it just gets me in the first five minutes.
What makes you happy?
I really enjoy music. I would say I listen to it half, if not more, of the day. I like hip-hop and jazz, those are my top two favourite genres. Both very different, but also very similar in a lot of ways. Music in general just makes me happy. I enjoy my friends and family, and getting to meet new people, as I mentioned earlier. I enjoy travelling - I would love to do it more often, but I really enjoy it, whether it be another country, another state, or it's just somewhere in my own city where I haven’t been before.
What does family mean to you?
I don’t think family necessarily needs to be someone you’re related to or someone you share blood with, but more something that has to do with trust. If I trust you enough, I can call you family, confide in you and I can treat you as if you were blood. I have my mum, dad, four sisters, and then myself. So there is a lot of screaming all the time in the house, but generally they are four awesome little girls. Three are younger than me and I have one older sister.
How is growing up in a house with that many girls in?
One of them has already gone to college, so that eliminates that one, she lives in New York, so we don’t really have to deal with her any more. The other ones are very interesting. Although I am the oldest sibling in the household, they really look up to my 10-year-old sister more because she is the oldest sister and they really do follow her with everything that she does. If she’s watching a certain show, automatically they love that show and if she decides she doesn’t any more, they don’t like it either, you know? They really do follow each other like little ducks, but generally they are really really smart and mature for their age and so their not too much to try and handle.
What makes you sad?
Politics, a lot of the time. Hearing about certain current events. Hearing if bad things are happening to friends or family, day to day, that makes me sad. But honestly, I don’t consider myself to be that much of a sad person. I’m definitely more of a grass is greener kind of person and try to look at the brighter side of things. Whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing, it can be both in certain occasions, but I try to remain positive in the worst of times.
What do you dream about?
Travelling is something I’ve always wanted to do throughout my life. It’s one of my goals to travel to Europe or go to Greece, Santorini. Life goals, I’d say the biggest one is just trying to repay my family for everything they have sacrificed for me. I know it sounds cliché and a little corny, but they really have sacrificed so much for me and not only sacrifices, they have put in so much time and effort to mould me into the young person that I am today, and so because of that, not only being able to repay them money wise, but just making sure that when they get older, and I get older, that we’re able to maintain that tight family dynamic that sometimes families can lose and grow apart as you get older. I don’t want that to happen, so that is a goal of mine. Going to college is also a more recent goal of mine.
What do you want to study?
Screenwriting is what I’m into right now. Getting into writing scripts, mainly for the reason that I know so many young kids in the industry and I want to write roles for all of them to act in. I do love acting, but the ultimate goal is to write roles for others.
What would an idyllic dream world look like to you?
Teleportation would definitely be involved, and also some sort of access to Mars and planets. Maybe something like Wall-E where we don’t live on earth any more, and we all drink hamburgers out of slurpy cups, our bones are super tiny, and we just sleep all day. Definitely teleportation and some super powers would be cool. I think I like the idea of reading people’s minds, but I think if I could, it would wouldn’t let me sleep at night and I’d just know too many things. So for now we’ll stick with teleportation.
What about a movie world you could live in?
I mean, Star Wars is the first that comes to my head. It’s a world where you can teleport and you can meet so many crazy aliens and creatures - flinging around a stick of light that burns people. It sounds so cool. I also think working with Donald Glover and Harrison Ford seems super cool too.
What is next for you?
In the immediate future I have 'Cobra Kai', which films its second season from September to January. While I’m doing that, I’m also applying for college. Longer term, I have a few animated projects that I am working on that will be out in the next year or two - it takes so long for animated pictures to come out - and there are a couple of other projects that haven’t been announced yet that I'm really excited about.