Kim Da-Eun is a force to be reckoned with on Cobra Kai, and her story is just beginning. In season 5, she was enlisted by Terry Silver to help train Tory, Robby, and others at Cobra Kai. Kim’s presence on the show is a major milestone: she’s the first female sensei in The Karate Kid Universe.
Alicia Hannah-Kim spoke EXCLUSIVELY with HollywoodLife about bringing Kim Da-Eun to life and how “meaningful” this character is to so many. Alicia revealed she wants to see a Kim vs. Johnny fight and hopes to dig into Kim’s history in a potential season 6. She also discussed the “incredibly complex” relationship between Kim and Tory, two women trying to chart their own paths in the karate world.Alicia Hannah-Kim stars as Kim in ‘Cobra Kai’ season 5. (Photographer: Timothy Fernandez)
What first intrigued you about the role of Kim?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: From the moment I read my audition scenes, I was hooked. She was so immediately invincible off the page, and it grabbed me from the first line where she steps off a private jet, and she’s already sort of disdainful of her surroundings. That’s really, really fun to play as an actor.
Kim is the first female sensei in The Karate Kid universe, which is very exciting. That’s a lot to take on. How did you feel about that?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: It’s funny, while I was shooting, it just never occurred to me. I was so absorbed in the day-to-day life of filming that I never stopped to contemplate it until I had wrapped and someone said it to me, and it hit me in the face. I was so overcome with emotion and just reflecting on how lucky I am to be in that position. And also, hopefully, how meaningful it will be for other women, Asian women, young girls, young Asian girls… I hope that they can see themselves in me.
Were you really familiar with karate before? Did you do any training for this role?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I wasn’t trained in karate, but I had trained in Muay Thai, which is Thai kickboxing. That’s very intense. I was definitely sort of mildly confident going into the training. I have a bit of a background in dance. I do a lot of yoga. I’m pretty athletic. So I thought that I would be able to handle myself, but the training was full on. The stunt team is no joke. An hour off the plane into Atlanta, I was straight driven straight to the stunt gym with my bags. I mean, I arrived with all of my carry-on. I was like, ‘Hello there!’ I was immediately thrown into a fight choreography with Peyton [List] and Oona [O’Brien]. So it was a trial by fire.
When it comes to Kim and Silver, we see at the very end of the season Silver is taken down. He’s arrested and exposed. What do you think is going through Kim’s head at that moment?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I think all through the season, she’s constantly strategizing her position, which is her overarching goal aligns with Terry’s sometimes. At the same time, she’s not as embedded in that decades-long feud with Johnny and Daniel. Kim’s goals are much more global and sort of personal and close to home with her family, this domination of her family’s martial art Tang Soo Do, which is the origin of Cobra Kai. This idea of her aligning with Silver feels temporary and strategic. So when Silver is taken down, I think for her, she immediately cuts loose and moves on.
There is an opening for someone to take over as the leader of Cobra Kai. Do you think she would thrive in that position?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I think it would fit like a glove. She was born for it.
How do you think Kim feels about Tory? I know that she thinks, especially towards the end, that Tory’s a little bit weak, but maybe it’s just Kim pushing Tory.
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I think Kim’s relationship with Tory is incredibly complex. I think it hits on all of those instinctual nuances between women and girls, between teachers and students, and that dynamic of bullying, of mentorship, of pushing someone beyond their limits and maybe finding some hidden potential. For me, personally, I was so apologetic to Peyton during takes because I felt terrible putting her through so much and torturing her through the season. They were really hard to film, and I think one of the great things about Cobra Kai is how we unravel the effects of bullying, how we unravel the negative effects of escalation and fights. With Tory and Kim, we really see a relationship pushed to the brink.
In the penultimate episode when Tory is punching the cement block, Kim does not give up. Kim is well aware of exactly the buttons she’s pushing, and she goes there.
Alicia Hannah-Kim: She goes there. She’s not afraid to go there, and I think it’s because she’s been put through the same training and has experienced all of that pain and doubt and fear. It really reminded me of really iconic relationships where there’s a great iconic light and dark, good and evil element to it when you watch your hero turn to the dark side. I think what’s interesting about Kim Da-Eun is what happened to her in her training, in her childhood, that twisted her into this version of herself. It felt really like a rite of passage that she was passing down to Tory to see whether she could pass the test.
I know that the writers are very cryptic about what they reveal. Have they spoken to you about Kim’s backstory? Because I feel like there’s a wealth of material there.
Alicia Hannah-Kim: Yes, they were very forthcoming with me throughout the season, which I was very grateful for. Obviously, when you show up on an established show and you’re this new character in the universe, you’re sort of stuck between how much am I creating for myself and how much information can I be given. But Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg sought me out on set all the time to give me these little tidbits, to give me a backstory, to give me that history. It’s super meaningful. It’s the first time I’ve played a Korean character in my career, so it was incredibly specific for me as well to think about my father or my grandfather or our family’s history through the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Those things are just incredibly deep for us.
There could be some crossover there, especially with Kreese having served. So basically, what you’re saying is if there’s a season 6, we can maybe touch on some of that history?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I think that would be wise. There’s a lot to mine there. That chain of knowledge from my grandfather Kim Sun-Yung to Captain Turner during the Korean War, Captain Turner to John Kreese and Terry Silver during the Vietnam War. Now we find ourselves here in America and all these descendants and students are disseminating this style of martial art. It’s epic.
I feel like both Kim and Tory are products in response to being brought up in a very male-dominated world, especially in karate. You have to be stronger, you have to be smarter, you have to bounce back quicker. I just love that dynamic between the two of them because I don’t think Kim’s necessarily a bad person. I just think she’s incredibly tough and has been brought up to feel that there’s no room for flaw or error.
Alicia Hannah-Kim: It’s rooted in so many things. We obviously already live in a patriarchal society. How do women change themselves and present to the world to fit in and find strength and project strength? In the world of The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai, this “no mercy” creed of Cobra Kai is unforgiving in a way that’s metaphorical for how women have to present in the workplace and in society. With Tory, what’s so moving to me about Tory is that the karate and the Cobra Kai and her being in that world, it’s just about her finding herself, her self-worth, her place. She’s a character that’s adrift and not as rooted in family relationships like Sam or Robby. It’s really moving to me that this young woman is standing alone, being strong, and trying to find her footing. For my character, she is a product of a patriarchal society of familial tradition that leaves no room for probably more traditional, deeper, feminine qualities. I would be very curious to see how we could explore that later on.
You could tell the look on Kim’s face when Tory didn’t show up for the fight. It was pure shock. It takes an amount of strength to not show up there, to defy leadership in a sense, and take a stand. I think maybe she was low-key impressed?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I think so. I think perhaps Kim Da-Eun never had that choice because she’s so deeply rooted. I don’t think she’s ever questioned her life and life purpose because it’s so embedded in her personality. Tory maybe because she’s not burdened with this family history like Kim has that strength and that individualistic sense to say, “Okay, maybe this doesn’t work for me. I’m not going to show up.” It’s shocking for Kim Da-Eun. It’s infuriating. She doesn’t have time for this. She doesn’t have time for insubordination.
Silver is going to prison for what seems like a long time. When we talk about “no mercy,” you can’t not talk about Kreese, who has found his way out of prison at the end of the season. How do you think Kim would work with Kreese if that happened? Do you think they would work better together? Or would they butt heads more than Kim and Silver?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I think they could find common ground because I think that Terry Silver’s ambitions were a foundation. It was perhaps sort of more capitalistic in terms of opening the dojo, but I think John Kreese is really connected to the source. I think Kim Da-Eun is connected to that, too. I think a potential alliance between them would be absolute mayhem and terrifying. I’d be intrigued. I think there’s a lot of backstory there. I’m not really sure how much I could say about that.
He’s going to have his eye on Cobra Kai. The season left things wide open for season 6. With the Sekai Takai coming up, I’m assuming Kim would want to have a heavy hand in that. It’s one thing to have the All Valley. This is next level. We’re really going global here.
Alicia Hannah-Kim: This is definitely next level. I think my character brings a really international element to the show. I have this sort of hybrid British-Korean accent. My dojang back home is I’m sure much more terrifying than anything in the valley. I think the Sekai Takai really sets up for a showdown that could be wild.
Is there one character you would like to see Kim really face off with if you had the chance?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: I would really love to fight Johnny.
I also thought, especially after watching the Chozen versus Silver scene that a Chozen vs. Kim fight would be so good.
Alicia Hannah-Kim: It would be really epic. There’s so much history there. Obviously, with a Japanese character and a Korean character. The Japanese story is connected to Miyagi and Miyagi-do, and then we have Kim Da-Eun connected to the Tang Soo Do and the origin of Cobra Kai. It really is the light and the dark. Japan and Korea have a long history. What shocks me about our universe is how endless it is. It stretches decades, of geopolitical history, and international politics. It’s very well represented, so I have no doubt that the big three — John, Hayden, and Josh — could come up with something fabulous for future stories.
When Kenny takes off the jersey and throws it at Silver that was monumental in terms of that betrayal. Kenny’s someone who looked at Silver as a mentor. I thought it was really heartbreaking in a way to see that. I’m curious, what’s going through Kim’s head?
Alicia Hannah-Kim: It’s the way that they set up the characters. Each character is really treated with so much care by the writers that you are invested in. For instance, Kenny arrived last season, and he was just being bullied and having an awful time. And then we see him go through this journey of finding strength, but then there’s strength being the very bullying force that he was trying to avoid. [There’s] that awful cycle, and then him coming back down from it. As a viewer, as someone that’s followed his journey, you root for him, and you want him to find strength, but you also want him not to turn to the dark side. For him to take off that jersey after really hitting some really high emotional notes this season, you’re so relieved because you love Kenny. You’ve seen him from when he was just that little kid with his earphones and very innocent. It’s really moving and touching. I think Kim when she sees that is like, “Okay, well, this little alliance is over. What do I need to do to advance my goal now?” Because for her, the idea that her family, her family’s honor, has been tarnished in any way is unacceptable to her. That is her life’s purpose.