Cobra Kai’s Alicia Hannah-Kim on Season 5, Elbowing Peyton List, and Bringing Kim Da-Eun to Life

Kickstarting Teen Vogue's new series Main Character Energy, writer Max Gao talks to Alicia Hannah-Kim about her scene-stealing role on Cobra Kai.
Alicia HannahKim from Cobra Kai on Netflix with colorful blurry art treatment
Photos courtesy of Netflix/Getty Images. Art treatment by Liz Coulbourn

Name: Alicia Hannah-Kim
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Current role: Kim Da-Eun in Netflix’s Cobra Kai

Teen Vogue: If you could be the main character in any TV show or movie that’s not your own, who would you be and why?

Alicia Hannah-Kim: I would love to play a dragon queen on House of the Dragon! I’m really into that show, and shamefully, I’m always a Johnny-come-lately, and I started watching Game of Thrones in season five. Readers, don’t kill me! [Laughs.] I did catch up, but that world speaks to me from a theater background because the stakes are so high and so theatrical. But it also satisfies that sort of fantasy, sci-fi, almost nerdy feeling that I have.


Alicia Hannah-Kim knows what it feels like to not feel represented in mainstream media. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Hannah-Kim felt an inexplicable gravitational pull towards the likes of Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh and Sandra Oh — Asian actresses who, against all odds, were able to break through on the international stage. But it wasn’t until the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when she began obsessively binging K-dramas on Netflix, that Hannah-Kim was able to articulate the power of onscreen representation in a personal essay for Salon.

“When you’re a person of color, you hold on to those stories as touchstones and emblems of your identity,” Hannah-Kim tells Teen Vogue over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. “I was just not truly really thinking about how much I was lacking in not seeing my own face mirrored back to me through people of the same ethnicity.”

Now, Hannah-Kim has joined a rising crop of Asian actors who want to hold a mirror up to the next generation. After recurring on HBO’s ’70s comedy Minx earlier this year, Hannah-Kim has debuted as the South Korean sensei Kim Da-Eun in Netflix’s Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai. A descendant of Master Kim, who is known for teaching “the way of the fist,” Da-Eun arrives in the Valley to carry on her grandfather’s legacy and to help Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) propagate Cobra Kai’s influence.

“I think there must be a huge sense of pride for her that her family style of karate has trickled down into America through Terry Silver and John Kreese [Martin Kove], through Captain Turner,” Hannah-Kim says. “That history is so fascinating to me, that my grandfather would have taught Captain Turner, and Captain Turner would have taught these men.”

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Hannah-Kim’s experience of joining the iconic Karate Kid franchise was essentially a baptism by fire, where she had to learn about both the intricacies of executing fight choreography and the decades of mythology that had preceded her character. She recalls binging episodes of Cobra Kai during her flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta last fall, having just wrapped on Minx a day earlier. Within an hour of her arrival, Hannah-Kim, who had some prior training in dance and Muay Thai, was in a gym to train with the stunt team and co-stars Peyton List and Oona O’Brien for the first time.

Fighting on camera is “like learning a dance, because once you learn it with your partner, you are recreating those steps and it’s really about hitting those marks as accurately as possible, so as to not injure your partner. Unfortunately, my elbow did make contact with Peyton’s face in my first rehearsal, and I was horrified,” Hannah-Kim recalls with a wince. “But she was fine. They all have their war stories about being struck in the face and so forth.”

Like many of her peers, Hannah-Kim says she has always been wary of playing into stereotypes or archetypes of Asian women. But on her first day, Josh Heald — who co-created the show with Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — pulled Hannah-Kim aside and explained how Da-Eun was going to factor into the larger story going forward. They spoke about the importance of upholding familial values and traditions in Korean culture and what can be revealed about her character in both the way she speaks and fights (literally and figuratively) with her students.

“We had to find an amalgam of a global accent for her,” reveals Hannah-Kim, who immediately knew Da-Eun wouldn’t have the same gravitas if she had a type of American accent. “I think a lot of really privileged Korean kids will often go abroad to study … We sort of built this backstory that she had studied in Britain, so she had a sort of hybrid Korean-British accent, and that was really foreign to the Cobra Kai/Valley scene.”

“I was always learning a new fight and trying to establish Kim Da-Eun’s style, because she’s much more balletic than the other fighters,” Hannah-Kim adds. “She has this long ponytail, which she uses as a weapon. It’s very much a sort of spinning axis for her, and it creates this circumference of danger for everybody, because [she] hit Mary in the face with it. We really worked hard to make her as unique as possible.”

From the moment she steps off a private plane and meets Silver in the sixth episode of the new season, Da-Eun, who Hannah-Kim thinks “has all the hallmarks of a supervillain,” makes an immediate impression. “I think it’s incredibly apparent that Kim Da-Eun is very comfortable on a private plane,” the actress says about shooting her very first scene on a rainy day in Atlanta. “Though [the Kim family] must have a very murky reputation in history, there’s a lot of wealth there, there’s a lot of status, so that was very epic for me as an introduction. It’s quite an entrance.”

While Silver and Da-Eun share the “No Mercy” philosophy of Cobra Kai, they differ in terms of their motivations. Whereas Terry wants to take over the Valley and settle old scores with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Da-Eun is hellbent on restoring her family’s honor on a much larger scale, which puts the two business partners at odds with each other.

A naturally “dark and twisted” character who is made to feel like an outcast when she arrives in the West, Da-Eun “sees something similar and malleable in Tory that she can use to her advantage,” Hannah-Kim explains. “For Tory, Kim Da-Eun is this terrifying force that pushes her past her limits but for Kim Da-Eun, her methods are acceptable in relation to how she was trained.”

“I think there’s a degree of perfectionism that makes her that extreme,” she adds. “I think familial expectations, which is a very weighty topic in Asian families, shape you and morph you into someone who is sometimes incredibly high-achieving and has those standards. It was very easy for me to lean into that idea, because those topics hit close to home for me culturally.”

Thankfully, the drama on the set of Cobra Kai was contained to the story being told. “I felt really apologetic towards Peyton because we had these awful scenes, so we really tried to make it as light as possible in between [takes]. We had a lot of jokes about how Kim Da-Eun was toxic and needed to go to therapy and learn some anger management,” Hannah-Kim says with a laugh.

The actress also credits Zabka, Macchio and Griffith, who are all veterans of the franchise, for setting a professional tone that she would like to emulate on all of her projects. “Thomas is a gentleman and a writer as well, so he’s always looking at a scene in this forensic way: How can I improv something? He’s wonderfully inventive in that way,” she says. “I had a scene with Billy on my first day too. I didn’t know how funny he was just off the cuff, and in our scene, we had a bit of a stare off, and he was improvising. The whole time, I was just like, ‘Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh.’ And they cut and I just fell over, because he’s so hilarious. Ralph is just incredibly humble and warm, and he’s so kind to everybody on the set.”

For a franchise that has drawn upon the strength of martial arts, The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai have, in recent years, both faced criticism for their lack of Asian representation, with some critics arguing that some of the characters, despite bringing much-needed onscreen visibility, perpetuate long-standing stereotypes about Asians. When she filmed the fifth season last year, Hannah-Kim didn’t have any idea that she was portraying the show’s first female sensei. “It was only after I wrapped that somebody pointed it out to me and my jaw dropped,” says Hannah-Kim, who adds that it is both a “thrill” and an “honor” to break new ground in the Karate Kid universe.

Hannah-Kim agrees that Asian characters need to represent “the whole scope of the human experience,” the same way that white characters are allowed to run the gamut from hero to villain. “For me, the work that the creators did in giving her this wonderfully rich family history and origin story made it so empowering for me to embody,” she says. “We have all these different representations of the Asian experience [on Cobra Kai]. We have Oona, we have Yuji [Okumoto] on this season, we have Joe [Seo], who plays Kyler, who’s been there since season one.”

“I think the younger generations now have this wonderland of representation in media. We have all these things that I didn’t have when I was little,” Hannah-Kim adds. “I hope that young girls can see themselves and feel part of the experience. I’m hoping for one young girl to dress up as me for Halloween — just one!”