‘Martial Arts Instills Good Rules for Life’

Cobra Kai star Jacob Bertrand on what he has learned shooting the hit Netflix show.

Words by Pete Samson

With a knockout combination of nostalgia, humor and heart – and some spectacular roundhouse kicks – ‘Cobra Kai’ has been one of the biggest TV hits of recent years.

The reboot of ‘The Karate Kid’ saga picks up the story more than three decades after the cult films, and follows the movie’s original foes Daniel DeRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as they teach a new generation as senseis of their own rival dojos.

The first two seasons were first screened on YouTube, but despite gaining a substantial cult following, a change in strategy at the digital platform meant they did not pick up the third season.

So Netflix stepped in, rescreening the first two seasons before debuting season three this month. And, somewhat surprisingly, it has become one of the biggest hits in the streaming giant’s history. The third season is on course for more than 41 million viewers in its first month, and between all three seasons more than 73 million households have watched the show.

Jacob Bertrand plays Hawk in the series, a bullied teen who fights back after learning martial arts. And here he tells Mr Feelgood about what he has learned from his karate training for the series, what martial arts can offer those searching for more confidence in their lives, and how he keeps his mind and body in shape for the challenges of filming such an action-packed show.

Jacob Bertrand as Hawk (L) in Cobra Kai // 📸 : Guy D’Alema / Netflix

Jacob Bertrand as Hawk (L) in Cobra Kai // 📸 : Guy D’Alema / Netflix

Cobra Kai has been such a huge hit, did you have any idea it would be this big when you first signed up? 

Well, I was stoked when I first got the audition, because it was the continuation of ‘The Karate Kid’. And then it went on YouTube, and it did well really there. So when it switched over to Netflix, I was expecting it to do well, but I don’t think anyone could have called how big it was going to be. We were all shocked and happy. The power of Netflix is crazy, how shows can get a second life there.

How much martial arts had you done before you started filming? And how much training do you have to do for the show?

I did karate for four years or so, from seven to 11 or 12 years old. And I was really into grappling, and took a lot of Jiu-Jitsu classes. But doing this show totally reinvigorated my passion for martial arts. I picked up Muay Thai and I’m still doing Jiu-Jitsu a lot. And I’ve got really into MMA and UFC and all that stuff. Because we have a lot of downtime when we’re training, and the stunt guys are all into that stuff, so we’ve been brought into that world.

For about a month, two months, before we filmed, we trained with Simon Rhee, who is a big name in the stunt world. He trained us in traditional karate to get us prepared. We really work on the fundamentals of our kicks, so that they look really clean. And then there was a lot of boxing to build up our cardio so that we can do take after take of these fight scenes, which can be really intense.


Jacob Bertrand // 📸 : Storm Santos

Jacob Bertrand // 📸 : Storm Santos

What about the mental side of martial arts — the principles and the discipline? Has that benefited you and do you think it’s a good skill for others to learn?

The discipline aspect of martial arts is crucial, I think it instills really good rules for life. It’s really about working on yourself and on your craft. And you can also walk around with confidence that you can defend yourself and take care of yourself, but knowing that using the skills you have learned is a last ditch option.

And I love working with [co-stars] Xolo [Maridueña], Tanner [Buchanan], and Gianni [DeCenzo] and just drilling kicks over and over. There’s something about a shared struggle that I think that really bonds people together — all of us hurting together!

Your character’s arc deals with themes of bullying, and I know the aggressive route he takes to overcome being bullied is not ideal in many ways. But do you think martial arts is something that could help young people gain confidence when they feel like their backs are against the wall?

Yeah, my character’s probably not the best example of this, because he’s an example of what happens when the confidence and power goes overboard. But Miguel, the main character, I think he’s a great example of someone who was bullied and gained the confidence to stand up for himself and stand up for others. And there are moments for Hawk that are like that, I just think that he had a lot more insecurity going into getting all this power, and really starts buying into the mantra of ‘no mercy.’

But even with Hawk, a lot of people still really identify with the character because he was someone that was bullied and was able to overcome that, even though he can at times become the bully himself. Each character is sort of like a gray area, there is no 100% good and bad. You can root for anyone.

Jacob Bertrand // 📸 : Storm Santos

Jacob Bertrand // 📸 : Storm Santos

What else do you do to stay in shape physically and mentally?

I rock climb a lot. I go bouldering in Joshua Tree and close to Palm Springs. And I grew up in Southern California, so I was lucky to be close enough to the ocean to surf quite consistently growing up. And I live right below Mount Baldy, which usually gets really good snow, so I grew up skiing with my dad.

But honestly, stretching is probably the biggest thing that I try to keep up with and focus on. Because being able to consistently get your leg up to kick someone in the face, you have to keep up that flexibility, and you can lose it so fast. When we are on set, we stretch for a good 20 to 25 minutes each day. And I’ll get a chair, and just do repetitions of front kicks, roundhouse kicks, just to keep my hip muscles good and strong. Even when we wrap and I get home, I’ll stretch again. Because when you’re kicking, you’re kind of lifting your leg up against the hip joint and are trying to move your leg in a way that it’s not really designed to. So getting that hip flexibility is really important. Stretching really helps and keeps you limber.

I also play a lot of guitar, which is a great mental unwinder for me. And I’ve got really into woodworking with my brother and my dad. That’s my dad’s hobby, carpentry and stuff, so my brother and I have really got into that. It’s great working with my hands to design and build something myself, and then having it up in my house and using it. You just have such a personal relationship with everything you build because you put so much time and effort into it..

Jacob Bertrand // 📸 : Storm Santos

Jacob Bertrand // 📸 : Storm Santos

Tell us about Gobi, the drug and alcohol charity you are an ambassador for, and what made that a passion for you?

Gobi is an application for kids who are at that experimental stage of trying drugs and alcohol. A problem with this experimental stage is there’s not a lot of communication between you and your parents. And having that open line of communication with your parents can really help in that confusing time, with all the peer pressure, and stop really bad habits from forming. So Gobi really focuses on connecting parents with their kids, so that they know what they’re getting into. It’s a free app, a 21-day program. I went through the program with my dad, and you hop on your phone for a few minutes a day, and there are prompts like going for a walk with your parent and just ask them questions. And I think what is really good about this app is the parent is the one that starts sharing first, so it makes it easier to be more open.

I learned stuff about my dad that I had no idea about, and it helped me feel way more comfortable to share with him. We think our parents don’t know anything, but really we’ve been through a lot of the same things.

It was something that was going on around me, and I had a lot of friends dip into that stuff. And it’s something that I’m really passionate about. I think it’s really unfortunate when people get into situations that they don’t kind of fully understand and can easily be prevented.

Grooming by Erin B Guth
Styling by Evan Simonitsch

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring artists and leaders.

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