Xolo Maridueña was freaking out.
The 21-year-old Cobra Kai star had been invited to lunch with DC Films chief Walter Hamada and Warners executive Galen Vaisman. Maridueña figured the lunch had something to do with DC’s upcoming superhero project, Blue Beetle, which was set to become the first movie led by a Latino actor. Maridueña previously had a Zoom chat with Hamada, but hadn’t yet auditioned for the role and had exactly zero previous movie credits.
“Why do these guys want to meet?” Maridueña wondered. “What’s happening? I was so nervous. There’s so much riding on what they think about me.”
While waiting for a table, Hamada tried to calm Maridueña’s nerves. “Look Xolo,” Maridueña recalls Hamada saying. “This role of Blue Beetle is going to be really important to this universe. We want to just make sure that whoever we go with is a real person and we’re not just hiring a face. It’s about more than what’s in front of the camera.”
A statement like that would typically make a Hollywood actor even more nervous. A real person? But none of us are that! Yet Maridueña felt reassured, and it’s probably because if you spend time chatting with Xolo (pronounced show-low), you find he’s thoughtful and modest; always giving answers that come across so grounded that it’s tough to believe he’s been working in this business doing TV ads and shows since he was 10 years old.
But Maridueña’s heart was about to start racing again. As Hamada walked him to a table, the actor realized his lunch group was far bigger than advertised. There was Blue Beetle director Angel Manuel Soto and screenwriter Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, and the film’s producers and several others. The actor realized: This wasn’t just some getting-to-know-you chat — this was a superhero surprise party. Maridueña had already landed the role of Blue Beetle without having read a single line of dialogue.
“I felt my throat close up and my eyes started to water,” Maridueña says. “It was overwhelming.”
Below, Maridueña discusses his upcoming DC superhero debut, the fifth season of Cobra Kai (premiering Sept. 9), navigating fame and social media, and what’s replaced winning an Oscar as his biggest career goal.
Let’s start with some karate questions. What is your level of proficiency at this point?
I’ve been doing it for five years, almost six. While we’re filming, I feel pretty proficient. I should be practicing a ton during our hiatus but the reality is I like practicing other things. Proficiency-wise, I’m maybe a six-and-a-half, seven out of 10? And that’s like, the lowest of all the kids on the show. None of them had really done karate prior to this. But my gosh, considering that I started practicing back in season one, some of the kids who [joined the cast in] season two or three, they’re already so much better than me.
Have you ever been tempted to enter a real competition just to see how you’d do? Or is the potential for a video going viral from that enough to not make it not worth it?
You know, after seeing Mario Lopez and Tom Hardy doing Brazilian jiujitsu, I want to stay as far away from competitions as possible. I feel like I might get laid out, you know? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Who is best at karate among the younger Cobra Kai cast, and who is best among the adults?
The adults are impressive with how fluid they are with their movements. They stretch a bunch and it definitely translates on screen. I have the most exposure to [William Zabka, who plays Johnny] so it feels like he does really well. But for the kids, technique-wise and maybe technically, Tanner Buchanan (Robbie) has the most skill. He’s buff as hell and super flexible. You give him a month or two to learn something and he’ll have it perfect. But I think Jacob Bertrand (Hawk) picks things up way quicker. He’s naturally really good at putting the karate puzzle pieces together.
There are shows you watch and think, “That cast must be miserable.” Then you watch Cobra Kai and it seems like summer camp and that the cast must be having a blast. Is that accurate?
A bunch of 17-, 18-year-olds who get to punch each other for hours on end? Yeah, it’s the best. It’s really a dream come true. When talking to other people on set, you realize like — I don’t want to say it’s “rare,” but it’s so special that we have this bond between all the cast and crew. There’s no drama. It’s refreshing that after five years of working with people to have it still feel great because, as far as I’ve heard, that’s not always the case.
Social media is often tough on young actors in popular shows. What’s been your experience? Is there anything fans seem to get wrong about you or your character?
You definitely have to make an active effort not to look at stuff, because it’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole. You will look at hundreds of good comments and then see one bad comment that ruins your day. But I’ve been fortunate to grow up and navigate this world without being addicted to the responses. The feedback for Cobra Kai has been phenomenal. But my goal isn’t to be the biggest star or to have the most Instagram followers. The important thing when playing a character like Miguel Diaz is the representation, the visibility, that’s showing someone: “[Latinos] look [like everybody else], we sound alike and our families are similar. You can do this and this is tangible.” And nobody can take that away from me. You can say whatever you want on social media. But there’s so much security that comes with that little nugget of belief.
How would you tease Miguel’s journey in the new season as he searches to find his biological father?
The new season picks up right where we left off. Miguel had an epiphany at the most recent tournament that there’s more to life than just karate and that — although his mother and grandmother shower him in love — he wants a father figure. That hole was filled by Johnny in a great way. One of the things that I’ve loved about playing Miguel is he didn’t need an actual father to connect with someone. I know tons of people who aren’t around their biological fathers, but yet have great relationships with older males or older females. Johnny was a great influence and motivator for Miguel and I think he made him feel wanted and secure. But there was only so far that was going to fly. The journey Miguel is about to take is not going to be easy. He’s embarking on something he knows nothing about. Whether or not it works out, my hope is he finds some answers. It’s a bit surreal because I never thought the show was going to tackle this subject matter.
What would you like to see for Miguel ultimately in the final episode of the show? What is your hope for the character?
Since the very beginning of the show, my favorite thing about Miguel has been the relationship between him and Johnny onscreen and myself and Billy offscreen. It’s so apparent these guys — even though they come from totally different worlds and beliefs — that they need each other, and they depend on each other. I would just really love to see the relationship with Johnny and Miguel end on a good note.
Cobra Kai is such a family-friendly show and next you have Blue Beetle. Is there a pressure to be a role model off camera? I read a bunch of your interviews and you didn’t swear once. Earlier in our conversation, you actually said “my gosh” and “dang.” How much of this is you vs. interview you?
That’s me still living with my parents (laughs). I don’t know if there’s necessarily a pressure. My family instilled these values early on. I don’t want to make too much noise. There are so many different ways that things can be misconstrued. I do curse with my friends. But I’d much rather be my most authentic self, because it gets tiring pretending to be one person on social media and then pretending to be a different person with the people you work with, and then coming home to my family and being Family Xolo. I’d rather be the same way and as authentic as I can, because it’s draining to lead lives that aren’t real. So, no, I don’t think there’s pressure. We can talk again in a year once the magnifying glass gets real big and we’ll see if my answer has changed.
Which brings us to Blue Beetle, which you landed without even auditioning. What was getting that like?
In the beginning, there was a bit of impostor syndrome. Like, “Oh my gosh, how do they know? I haven’t even read a word of the script! How can they be so sure?” Everyone was so welcoming and instilled so much confidence in me through the filming of the movie. It just comes back to the thing that I was saying earlier: Blue Beetle isn’t to make me the next heartthrob or biggest star. It’s just to show people, “Hey, these stories about Latinos don’t have to just be about narcos or crossing the border or being a gang member. You can be portrayed in a positive light.” A superhero seems like the most positive light you can get in this industry.
Speaking of, I have to ask: What was your reaction to Warner Bros. canceling Batgirl [which starred Latina actress Leslie Grace]?
It obviously feels very close, right? Warner Brothers and Beetle. But I think everything that has to be said on the topic has been spoken from [those involved]. I think the creators and Leslie said everything that had to be said.
There are obviously so many superhero projects. What else is going to make Blue Beetle unique?
I always get so nervous talking about the movie. Let me preface this by saying that everything that I’m saying was in the comics, OK? I don’t want to hear anybody say, “Xolo was giving away spoilers from the movie.” Jaime Reyes/Blue Beetle has been passed the torch from other Blue Beetles. There are other iterations of the character. My iteration is a kid from Texas who stumbles upon these powers. The thing that makes this movie different than any other superhero movie I’ve seen — well, there are a ton that I haven’t seen. There were superhero movies before Iron Man, right?
Iron Man made it cool to be a comic nerd. There were superhero movies before it that I haven’t seen. But the family aspect to this movie and to the character is inherent to the comics and so special. The family we’ve been able to create in the movie — the mom, dad, uncle, sister, grandmother — I feel like that aspect of being a superhero hasn’t been tapped into a ton. So many superheroes have alter egos, these aliases and personas. They have one life where they’re Spider-Man or Batman and then they go home and they’re Bruce Wayne or whoever. They’re constantly hiding their identity. But with this character, he lives with his family and there’s no way to hide who he is. Right from the very first moment he gets his powers, his family knows. That’s different.
That’s a good point. So many superheroes are orphans or loners.
It’s a dynamic that’s so foreign to the superhero world. It’s one of my favorite parts of the comics and I hope that it translates to the movie.
What’s it been like for you going from Cobra Kai into a big movie production like this? How is it different than you thought?
I had no idea what the difference was between filming a TV show and a movie. The pacing is different and the feel is different. But I think one thing that remained constant was that I’ve been fortunate to work with people where the chemistry is there from the very get-go. I wish I could say, “I carry this movie.” But both Cobra Kai and Blue Beetle are great ensembles.
The biggest difference is that on Cobra Kai, I can look to Billy and [Ralph Macchio and Martin Kove] to be the head honchos. They’re the ones who have all the pressure. I just have to sit there and kick butt sometimes with the other kids. But with Blue Beetle, it’s like, dang, my character is the name of the movie. There’s a pressure that I can’t think about too hard or I’ll just freak myself out. But being No. 1 on the call sheet doesn’t mean being the best actor. That’s too much of an ask. It’s not realistic. We have frickin’ Susan Sarandon in the movie; we have Elpidia Carrillo and Damián Alcázar. We have so many amazing people that being the best actor … I don’t even want to be that. I want to be a sponge and absorb everyone else’s knowledge and ability and really be in the moment and play off them. So to me, being No. 1 on the call sheet means being the most prepared and the most invested in this project. In front of the camera, behind the camera, and with every single person in our cast and crew, it means showing them respect and showing them that I’m dedicated.
I’m not sure why reporters always ask this question to actors stepping into a superhero project, but it seems like we’re supposed to: What was it like trying on the suit for the first time?
Every time getting in the suit I get so giddy. The thing is sick, it’s awesome and being in it is even cooler. I’m really excited for everyone to see everything that the suit can do in the movie.
What have you learned about navigating the business that you’ve found valuable?
I think something I’ve learned is that humility and respect is something that goes far in this industry. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some down-to-earth and selfless people. Those experiences just are so intoxicating that it makes you want to be just as pleasant. The flip side of that is like, dang, nobody wants to work with a jerk. There’s too much going on on these sets for that. Also, I learned that the work is never done right — there’s always practice to be had. And, you can’t take things personally. I booked less than 1 percent of the things that I’ve gone out for. I started acting as a 10-year-old and you’re hearing “no” all the time. That could sometimes feel discouraging. “Oh my god, they hate me, they didn’t want me.” But [the rejection] could have been for a number of reasons. You really have to be resilient.
Earlier I asked what your hope was for your Cobra Kai character. What’s your hope for yourself as an actor? What do you ideally want to do?
Two years ago I might have been like, “I want to win an Oscar!” Now I realize: How is that a goal? How do you preemptively do that? Maybe it sounds super Zen, but I think my goal is just to be happy. With the movies and social media and the publicity … that exposure can be super helpful but it can be a little detrimental. I have no problems with failing — on and off camera — as long as I can learn from the experiences. So if there’s one thing I can hope to control, it’s my own happiness. Everything else will fall into place if the universe wants it to.