"It felt like no time had passed," the actress tells EW of reprising her role as Ali — and reuniting with Ralph Macchio and William Zabka — in Cobra Kai season 3.

By Kristen Baldwin
January 02, 2021 at 07:00 AM EST
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Warning: This article contains spoilers about Cobra Kai season 3.

"Ali, is it really you?" On Jan. 1, Karate Kid fans around the world found themselves asking that same question when "Ali with an i" — a.k.a. Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue — finally returned to the Valley with a two-episode arc in Cobra Kai season 3 on Netflix. The top-secret appearance, which fans have been clamoring for since Ali Mills Schwarber sent Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) a Facebook friend request in the season 2 finale, delivered a heavy dose of nostalgia while also driving the season 3 narrative forward: Thanks to Ali, Johnny, and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) are no longer fighting! Over the course of two interviews, Shue spoke to EW about revisiting Ali as an adult, that near-kiss moment with Johnny, and why she's done making fun of The Karate Kid.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Cobra Kai fans have been waiting a long time for Ali’s return. How did this all come about?
ELISABETH SHUE: It all started when I was working on The Boys. I was working with this wonderful director, Dan Trachtenberg, who directed the pilot for The Boys. To be honest, I really hadn’t thought about being on Cobra Kai. When I showed up on the set [of The Boys] for the first day, Dan came right over and said, “You’re doing Cobra Kai, right?” I was like, “What? I don’t know… Do you think that’s a good idea?” He goes, “Is that a good idea? You have to be on Cobra Kai!” I said, “Why, why do you care so much?” He said, “You have no idea how important The Karate Kid is in my life.”

He told me what a great movie it is and how much he loved Cobra Kai, and that it would just be devastating — “devastating,” he kept saying — for the fans and for the memory of The Karate Kid if I wasn’t [on the show]. I was like, “Whoa – okay!” It was just very sweet, and it made me think, Oh, I haven’t really investigated this. Then I sat down with the three producers and writers who created it, Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald], and Hayden [Schlossberg], and they were so lovely and similar to Dan — super Karate Kid fans. They really wanted to wait and have Ali come back this season, primarily I guess because it’s a reunion season. I said, “I’ll do whatever you need.”

Were you aware of how often the character had been invoked in the first two seasons?
I watched the whole first season after [the producers and I] met, and I was incredibly impressed with the writing, the structure of it… I wondered how Ali would even fit into that story. It didn't feel like there was a place for her. But then when I saw how they actually structured the show and the sort of beautiful immaturity of the characters, who haven't really grown up as much as you would hope in 35 years, I can see why Ali would still be a part of their journey.

Were Cobra Kai fans approaching you before you agreed to be on the show?
Yeah, I definitely had a lot of people always asking me whether I was going to be on the show. I’m not really out in the public in that way too much, but yes — every interview I did for The Boys. I think it’s probably a similar fanbase, The Boys and Cobra Kai. I definitely got asked the question every single time.

What was it like to work with Ralph and William again?
It was so fun to realize that all of our chemistry was exactly the same. My chemistry with Ralph was the same, the same with Billy — it was odd! It was literally like a high school reunion; it felt like no time had passed. Like none at all. We kept reminiscing and laughing, constantly reliving the first Karate Kid every minute between takes. Nonstop reminiscing about our experience and laughing about what a great movie it turned out to be.

Over the years, you know, you get asked about it so much, and as a way to talk about it on talk shows and things, I started to have this sort of story line about making fun of it just a bit. Because at the time, Karate Kid, it sounded like, what kind of movie is that? I would even make fun of Ralph, like, "He didn't look like anyone who could win a karate tournament!" I just had this way of talking about it. We kind of laughed about that a lot and how we were always giving each other crap over the years. What was really nice was just a lot of resolution in terms of appreciation for what an important movie it was in all of our lives.

It was my first movie, and Ralph was this big movie star. He was in a double banger, which is like one big trailer cut in half, and then we were in honeywagons, which were these teeny boxes. We were all so jealous that he had a manager — like whoa, he's so important. [Laughs] We were all beginners. I remember [during] the break the radio scene, every time I hit [William], I was always hitting him too hard.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

How long had it been since you had seen either of them?
Well I ran into Billy at Comic-Con oddly enough for The Boys, just a few months before. Ralph, we ran into each other, he reminded me, once in 1986 at a Mets game, and I had not laid eyes on him since then. When we first saw each other I was just in shock. I said, “Oh God,” and then that’s exactly what he says to me when he sees me for the first time in the episode.

When Johnny and Ali reconnect, they have lunch and then go to the Valley's biggest hot spot, Golf N' Stuff. That scene looked like it was a lot of fun to film.
I remember feeling so competitive, especially playing air hockey. [Laughs] So I'm hoping that they dramatize the fact that I did beat him. And then Billy just reminded me that I have a stuffed animal that I sort of pushed into his face in a way that was a little aggressive, just to keep our physical relationship alive. It was so, so much fun to revisit [Ali] as an adult, and to reconnect to Ralph and Billy and their adult personas. I just couldn't get over how we hadn't changed at all, and yet we had changed — but I would say for the better.

Everyone looks pretty ageless.
That’s good lighting. That’s a lot of good lighting.

Of course, we have to discuss Johnny and Ali’s near-kiss moment. Was there ever any discussion about having them actually kiss, and what was it like to shoot that scene?
One thing that was just so incredible was to realize that Billy and I, in the original Karate Kid, we never ever spoke to each other except to punch each other, to throw a radio into the sand. We never got to have a [normal] scene. So I loved getting a chance to do that. In [Cobra Kai], we talked and communicated and acted together, and I loved that. So that was really surprising and wonderful to almost start a new relationship really.

But yeah, I would have been up for a kiss. Are you kidding me? I'm bummed! They could have had a kiss! I think it was in deference to wanting Johnny to feel that he could go back to his relationship [with Carmen], which meant so much to him, without feeling that he had anything to feel conflicted about. I'm sure that was the reason. Other than that, I would've gone right in there and gotten a great one. [Laughs]

Credit: NETFLIX

Ali plays a really important role in helping Johnny and Daniel move past their rivalry. Why do you think her character was able to do what so many others couldn’t?
Well, I give all the credit to Jon, Josh, and Hayden for coming up with a way of bringing her back into the world in an impactful way, which meant a lot. [Johnny and Daniel’s] wonderful, juvenile relationship that we as viewers love so much, I was at the center of that rivalry, and they were able to keep that going for two seasons, which is just incredible. The joy in coming back was because it was impactful, and they did still care so much for her. I’m so glad that that role was left for her to play. But that was really [the writers’] doing.

The emotional part of it for me really surprised me. The two scenes saying goodbye to the guys — the first one I filmed was with Ralph, and there was no part of me that felt, "Oh, this is an emotional scene, saying goodbye to Ralph." And yet it just overcame me, and I was almost embarrassed that it did. I was reflecting on it afterwards, and I was trying to figure out like, where did that come from? And I feel like in Ali, and maybe in me, it was this sense of saying goodbye to your childhood. I mean, that sounds pretty intense, but you know, your first crush, your first love — so to be able to experience the emotions that you felt for your first crush again… it really was a wonderful setup for these characters to be able to feel a loss of innocence and a reconnection and respect. To have those two go hand in hand, it was actually an amazing thing to feel as an actor and a human.

It does seem that the experience was therapeutic for Ali, too.
Exactly. The painful part of her life was that she wasn't able to find all of her identity in a way. She had grown up trying always to be the one who was fixing everything, always the one who was the good person, the person who you relied on. And yet, because she was playing those roles so much in her life, by the time she went into her real life, she wasn't able to really allow for the complicated nature of what it means to grow and to change into an adult. I think maybe there was this feeling of, “Wow, the result of my life is different than I expected. And now I'm back where I started with the people that I formed my identity with, and I don't know who I am anymore — but I'm ready to find out.”

I really enjoyed that moment walking back into the party after I said goodbye to [Johnny]. I felt like I was off going to figure out who Ali really was. I had purpose — even at this late age, I had a new purpose. Who knew that in two episodes of Cobra Kai, that I could do so much? [Laughs]

Billy and Ralph and I have been talking a little bit more, doing publicity and re-getting to know each other, and we're all struck with the fact that this one movie has shaped all three of our lives in such an intense way. What three actors get to come back and reconnect to a film that did impact them when they were children, and share that [as adults]? It's really cool. I'm so respectful of what they've created on Cobra Kai. That's the other thing that was really fun, too, to see up close how special it is, what they've accomplished. Nobody would have ever thought that it would have become something so special and unique unto itself.

You shot your appearance in 2019 — what’s it been like keeping this secret for so long?
Maybe because I'm never on the internet, I haven't really been that aware that there is this moment coming up that a lot of people seem to care about… I just finished a series, it’s called On the Verge and it’s for Netflix. The guy who plays my son is a sweet boy, 12 years old, named Sutton [Waldman]. They’d be rolling the cameras for us to start our scene, and he's like, “Tell me more about Cobra Kai! So wait, what do you think is going to happen to Miguel? Do you have any inside information?” He literally would grill me about Cobra Kai or The Karate Kid every second we were on the set together. It’s been hilarious just how everywhere I go, that is what everybody wants to talk about.

Did you tell Sutton you were going to be in season 3?
I did, I told him. I knew he wouldn't tell anybody. He was just driving me crazy, so I had to.

You do realize that for the rest of your life people are going to ask you, "When are you going to come back to Cobra Kai?"  
Well, we already have a plan. It's going to be season 9. Ali is going to come back to the Valley and start her own dojo, and it's going to be a three-way fight for the soul of the Valley. [Laughs]

Cobra Kai season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.

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