When viewers of The Karate Kid spinoff series Cobra Kai were first introduced to Eli Moskowitz, he was a shy teenager who was bullied for his cleft lip and had no confidence or self-belief. After taking up karate under the tutelage of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), Eli underwent a transformation, shaving his head into a mohawk, getting a huge back tattoo, and assuming the new name Hawk. But Hawk’s newfound confidence eventually turned to arrogance, and he ended up becoming a bully himself.
Cobra Kai is a show with constantly shifting allegiances and subverted expectations, where pretty much any character has the potential to go from downtrodden victim to underdog champion, and almost any villain can be redeemed. The O.G. Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio, has stated that the series explores the grey areas, saying: “Nobody in this show is truly good or truly evil… except maybe John Kreese.”
The fourth season of Cobra Kai takes place in the aftermath of Hawk’s decision to stand up for his former best friend Dimitri, returning to the side of the good guys and making himself a target for Kreese’s students. In a conversation with Men’s Health, actor Jacob Bertrand talks about Hawk’s road to redemption.
Spoilers follow for all four seasons of Cobra Kai.
Hawk goes on a real journey in Season 4. What did you think when you first heard what his arc would be?
At the beginning of every season, the big three, [co-creators] Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg], they sit down with each person individually and they tell them the emotional arc that each character’s gonna go on. And for mine, they sat me down, they’re like: OK, in the beginning, everybody kind of hates you, except for Dimitri. And you’re gonna be trying to mend those relationships and you end up coming up with the idea to build this Okinawan sparring bridge. And that kind of brings everyone together and that’s a good little jump start. And people start to like you again, and things start trending up, it seems like things are going good with Moon, you get a purple mohawk… and then you get your head shaved and everything comes crashing down.
And then Hawk ends up winning the All Valley, which is a great surprise.
At this point when we were talking, they actually didn’t even know who was gonna be winning. So they weren’t like, you get your head shaved but you win the All Valley. They were like, you get your head shaved and we’ll see what happens towards the end, because you’re really depressed and you don’t wanna do karate anymore. And that sounded interesting. And then they said, at the end of the season we want you to have a realization that you are something without the mohawk, and you have this sort of enlightenment, regardless of how the tournament ends up.
I remember, they told me this after we had filmed season four, that they had Tanner [Buchanan] winning the tournament for a long time. I don’t know what changed in their minds, but about halfway through they’re like, you know what, I think we’re gonna have Hawk win the tournament, and then I imagine it was flipped, that we then had Tory win the tournament too.
The fight between Hawk and Robby is one of the big action set-pieces of the finale. How long did it take to choreograph and shoot that scene?
That tournament was so hectic. We were there for two weeks to film episodes 9 and 10, which is an insane pace to be filming at. Tanner and I had a good day before our fight where we learned everything. We had learned bits and pieces of it two days before, and he knew a little more than I did. When we get breaks in filming, that’s when we learn the fights basically, and we did not have a ton of time for it. I remember when me and Tanner were fighting, Peyton and Mary were learning their fight for the next day, in between scenes, in between different lighting setups. That’s how cramped and rushed everything is.
Hawk has a very lean physique, that he shows off a lot in shirtless scenes. Did you work out a lot before shooting began?
I would say I’m a pretty active person in general, so I honestly don’t change up my routine too much. I’m also pretty lucky where I have the problem of it’s really hard for me to keep weight on my body. So my working out and staying fit schedule is probably a little bit opposite to most people’s, where I need to eat a ton. And I can’t really do a lot of cardio or I start dropping weight super fast. During the fourth season, Peyton dragged me to a Pilates class, so that probably helped.
You must need a decent level of fitness for all of that karate choreography.
Stretching is the biggest thing for me, and I rock climb a lot. I’m a big climber, that’s something that helps a lot and does keep me flexible. And we do a decent amount of boxing when we’re training on set. My character specifically does Muay Thai, that’s something that was established pretty early on. But I guess in terms of baseline fitness, I think all of us could run a mile in under seven minutes. Everyone in the cast who’s a fighter, that’s the kind of fitness you need to have, just because you’re doing takes back to back. And we’ve watched some people transform. Gianni [DeCenzo, who plays Dimitri] could not throw a roundhouse kick to save his life in the first or second season, and now that man can easily knock me out and send me to the moon with his roundhouse.
What can fans expect to see from Hawk in Season 5?
You definitely will see a new side of Hawk. He’s definitely gotten more confident since winning the All Valley, and there’s a lot of eyes on him. He’s in a different position than he has ever been before, where he’s aware there are other people looking up to him. But there’s also still a lot of tension, none of that went away. And there’s some pretty cool team-ups, there are some very cool people who end up working together than you don’t expect. I don’t know if that’s a big spoiler or not.
What has it been like to be involved in a show that is so hugely popular in its own right, but that is also part of such a bigger pop culture legacy?
I guess I didn’t really know what that meant until probably season two or three. We were sitting down with Billy [Zabka], hearing old stories about his time filming with all the Cobra Kai guys, and he said: you guys right now are making those memories, and building on top of this universe. And I had never really thought about it like that, how cool it is that we get to be a part of this huge Karate Kid universe. And it’s always expanding, and it’s so fun that I get to do this with such cool people. Xolo is like a brother to me. Peyton, Gianni, Tanner, Mary, Owen, Aedin, we’re all really tight.
It’s like we’re all on a sports team, and we’ve been winning championships consecutively. We’re in a great rhythm, and I could not be more grateful. I was planning on maybe pausing acting, going to college, starting directing, and then this audition came up, and the show ended up turning into something super crazy. And it’s been really, really fun.
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