Talking With: Miki Yamashita from “Cobra Kai”
Interview with actress Miki Yamashita, who takes us to Okinawa along with the Karate Kid.
The show picks up years after the popular “Karate Kid” franchise, when rivals Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) are forced to become allies to save the dojo from the ‘no mercy’ sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove). This season, Daniel heads to Okinawa looking for answers and encounters the lovely Ren, played by Miki Yamashita.
This Asian American talent stands at only 4’10” but her talents are proving enormous. In addition to “Cobra Kai,” Miki recently helped another mega-franchise spin-off, voicing the lioness Nirmala on the animated Disney Junior series “The Lion Guard.” Prior to this, Miki appeared on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly,” NBC’s “Law & Order,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” and Amazon Prime’s “Successful People.” She created and hosted the cable-access talk show “Lutz Chat with Miki and Peter,” and put her classically trained soprano voice to work on the musical theater scene as Connie Wong on the national tour of “A Chorus Line.”
To learn more, we are Talking With Miki Yamashita about her role in “Cobra Kai,” voicing a lioness and what inspires her creatively.
Why did you want to be part of “Cobra Kai”?
MIKI: I was really excited about the prospect of being part of a pop cultural legacy like Cobra Kai. The show was fairly popular on its original platform, YouTube Premium, and now is a full-blown hit on Netflix. I knew it was a continuation of the Karate Kid franchise, which was very meaningful to me as a child, because it was very rare to see anything related to my Japanese heritage or culture depicted in mainstream movies. Pat Morita was such an iconic figure for Japanese American actors; he was so dignified and made us feel visible. I felt honored to even be invited to audition for a role that had anything to do with Pat Morita and The Karate Kid; the audition itself was a big win for me.
As an actor, what helped you the most in bringing the character Ren to life?
MIKI: Cobra Kai is written in such a clever, witty style, and that makes my work as an actor much easier. The scenes just jump off the page and I can instinctively feel how I connect to the character. Ren is a tour guide, so we are similar. In real life, my friends and sometimes even strangers come to me and ask me for advice or directions. I think I generally give off vibes that I'm alert and knowledgeable. I also look approachable and friendly. So I tend to get cast in roles comparable to Ren: someone helpful who provides important information, like a reporter, a nurse, a lawyer, or a real estate agent.
Where do you start when preparing for a role? And does that change depending on the genre or other factors?
MIKI: As soon as I am told I have an audition, I just pretend they handed me the role already, and start researching the style and the genre of the show, and how my character and her circumstances fit into the whole puzzle. This can be a challenge because often, you are just given the very few pages in which your character speaks, actors call them "sides." You are given a brief synopsis of what goes on before and after, so you have to use your overall knowledge of how film and television scripts work as well as your imagination to fill in the rest. It's especially hard to do when you are auditioning for a pilot, and there are no previous episodes for you to watch to get a feel for the show. With Cobra Kai, I remember watching the pilot to prepare for the audition.
Have you ever been to Okinawa?
MIKI: I have not been to Okinawa, but my parents are from Tokyo and Sendai, so even though I was raised mostly in Massachusetts, they often took me to Japan to visit our extended family. As a child I spent a lot of time in Kyoto and Sendai. I would love to visit Okinawa someday.
What was your favorite moment from working on the show?
MIKI: I remember the moment I was brought from my trailer to the set, and I saw Ralph Macchio in person for the first time. I was trying to be cool but on the inside I was thinking, wow, somehow I made it here and they're going to trust me to act with him. I've done other shows with actors who are on the celebrity level, and when you are offered the job you know you're going to be working with them, but it's always the moment you see them in person for the first time on the first day that you think, holy smokes, this is really happening.
Were you familiar with the original “Karate Kid” franchise before landing this role?
MIKI: I remember the first two movies being so important as a kid because it helped me take pride in my Japanese heritage; it's tough when you're the only Asian student in your school and you want to fit in, so you try and downplay what makes you different. The Karate Kid movies showed pop culture that Japanese stuff was cool. I also studied ballet and figure skating growing up, and I felt there were a lot of parallels between martial arts and dance. The discipline, the commitment, and the control over your body, which is your instrument.
How was it working with the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio?
MIKI: I couldn't have asked for a kinder, more generous person to work with. I think star actors know that they set the tone for the whole production, and that's a lot of responsibility. As a big star, you might have a bad day, but that bad day could end up being the only experience that someone has with you, and they'll remember that forever because you're The Karate Kid for crying out loud, you know? Smart, decent people like Ralph Macchio know this, and it was inspiring to see him be so gracious to everyone, and to be so welcoming to a guest actor like me.
Why do you think fans enjoy these characters so much?
MIKI: Fans love these characters because they see themselves represented somehow. We all wish we could kick ass and fight people like a black belt in real life, let's be honest. With Cobra Kai, there's also a long history between the main adult characters, and that adds so much significance to their interactions. My acting teacher, Howard Fine, says that we are a sum total of our experiences, and that every scene is a continuation of a selected reality that's already in progress. Cobra Kai is a great example of this.
You also lent your voice for another popular franchise spinoff, “The Lion Guard”; what can you tell us about that experience?
MIKI: I voice a lioness character called Nirmala in "The Lion Guard," a spinoff of "The Lion King" that centers on Kion, the son of Simba. It's available now on Disney Plus. The Lion King is such a special animated classic, and it was definitely surreal to see and hear my voice coming out of a Disney animated lion! It's thrilling to be part of such a grand landscape of talent: everyone from James Earl Jones to Beyoncé have been involved in some aspect of this franchise, so I'm honored to voice Nirmala and help introduce the Lion King characters to newer audiences.
What inspires you the most creatively?
MIKI: I am a classically trained soprano so whenever I see a great opera I am deeply inspired. Opera gives people permission to express themselves viscerally and without restraint. No one will ever tell you you're too much. There's a lot of freedom in that. I think I'm most creatively inspired by art forms that scare me a little, like opera or ballet.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
MIKI: Right now I'm voicing a few characters on a new animated series that I look forward to being able to talk about soon. The pandemic has been so hard on performing artists, and I was very fortunate to be able to continue pursuing voiceover while all other aspects of production were shut down. I have no idea what the future holds, but I have faith that the creative community will rebound, and I'll do whatever I can to help my fellow artists survive and thrive.