Gianni DeCenzo chatted about his role as Demetri on Netflix’s Cobra Kai, a continuation of the popular Karate Kid movies, as well as what to expect from Season 4.
On Cobra Kai, Demetri is a bullied high school student who later learns Miyagi-Do Karate as a form of self-defense. Perhaps Demetri’s most notable storyline to date has been his rivalry with vicious Cobra Kai student Hawk – who, in another life, was his best friend Eli Moskowitz.
Read on below for Gianni’s full interview with Courageous Nerd where he discusses his acting background, experience on Cobra Kai so far and what to expect in Season 4 of the upcoming series.
Welcome, Gianni and thank you for taking the time to speak with us!
Gianni DeCenzo (GD): Yeah, of course, thank you for having me.
You’re only 19-years-old and have already accomplished a lot in your chosen profession. Was acting always the path you wanted to take?
GD: I’ve been acting since I was about 8-years-old. I’ve been doing it for I guess 11 years now? It’s been a big part of my life, definitely. The reason why I got into it was [because of] my parents, they actually met in an acting class. My Dad proposed in that acting class. It’s just kind of always been a part of the family. Then, one day, I just walked up to my parents and asked when I was going to be on TV. The rest is history there!
My Mom took pictures of me in our backyard with my best little button-up and sent it out to short films at the time. We submitted a lot of stuff ourselves. From there, we got a bit of a film reel that we could show to agents and managers. Yeah, here I am now. Very happy with the path I took.
Of course, most people would know you for playing Demetri on Cobra Kai, which now streams on Netflix. Although you are a series regular now, Demetri was a smaller part in Season 1. How much did you know at the beginning about his long-term future on the show?
GD: I didn’t really know anything about Demetri going into it, especially in Season 1. Like you said, I became a series regular later on. In Season 1, I was recurring. In Season 2 and beyond, I’m a series regular. Going into Season 1, I didn’t even know how big this show was going to be, or how criticised it could be. I realised after it came out and was a success that people were expecting it to fail. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know that while I was filming because I would’ve been a little bit nervous.
I’m really excited to see where Demetri goes further. It’s been great to develop the character over time. Especially on a long-running series like this, the character kind of becomes its own person. It just comes to life.
The majority of Cobra Kai characters are in high school. In real life, however, did you know any of the other actors before joining the show?
GD: Normally with acting and when you grow up with acting, you’ll see a lot of people from your auditions. You’ll audition for the same thing and run into each other in the waiting room, stuff like that. I didn’t know anybody… actually, wait, no, that’s not true. I actually knew Mary Mouser who plays Sam. She and I filmed a pilot episode – it never took off – for a show called Saint Francis, she actually played my older sister. That’s the one person I did know.
It was really kind of freaky because on the very first day, I was like 16 years old and with my Mom. I didn’t recognise [Mary], she didn’t recognise me. My Mom actually pointed her out – we’d worked together in the past and didn’t even realise it until about halfway through filming. So, that was interesting. Other than her, I didn’t know anyone.
When you were first auditioning for Demetri or during early Season 1, how was your process of discovering the character? Was this immediately a role you could see yourself playing?
GD: I think it was a pretty smooth transition because the scene I auditioned with was the cafeteria scene, the very first time we meet Demetri. It was so long ago, but I think I just kind of went with it. There’s a lot of pieces of Demetri that I can see within myself and there are obviously some differences. I always try to bring a piece of myself to every character I play. I went in there, auditioned, I think I read it twice. They gave me a little note, I tweaked it a bit and yeah, there we go.
The audition process was actually really weird for me. Normally on something like this, you’d have to do callbacks, test reads, chemistry reads, stuff like that. They had been looking for my part for such a long time that by the time I auditioned, it was going to be filming [in] the very next week. They needed someone right then and there. I just did my first audition… they were like, “Great! Fly to Georgia.” That was the first time I had ever had to film anything outside of California. It was a very new and wild experience, right then and there.
In many ways, the character of Demetri is intrinsically linked with Jacob Bertrand’s character Eli ‘Hawk’ Moskowitz. Although friends drifting apart is not uncommon, their separation particularly in Seasons 2 and 3 was defined by violence. What do you think the loss of that friendship meant to Demetri?
GD: Yeah, it was a very hard loss for Demetri. When we first meet him, his only friend was Eli. They sit at the table together, cosplay together. We find out they went to coding/computer camp together; they did everything together. To lose your best friend, the only friend you have growing up in high school and throughout school… that’s never fun. It was definitely hard on him, luckily he was starting to make some more friends and starting to get more confident in who he was, with karate and stuff like that. That’s when he started to realise, “Hey, maybe I don’t have to play the long game as much…. I’m a badass, not a total badass, but somewhat of one.”
It was so hard, especially when Eli broke his arm. Like you said, people drift apart but it’s never as violent as breaking each other’s arms. That was a little bit rough there. It kind of showed, ‘maybe there isn’t too much hope for this friendship.” Luckily, Eli kind of comes back at the end.
Starting in the second season, Demetri has been under the mentorship of Karate Kid protagonist Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). Considering how sceptical Demetri initially was about karate, why do you think he and Daniel were able to bond? Did yourself and Ralph Macchio have any discussions about their sensei-student relationship?
GD: Well, we always try to stay close on the set – laugh and have fun inbetween [scenes]. Before going into it, we’ll have rehearsals, stuff like that. I think the reason why Daniel was able to break through to Demetri so much is because Daniel’s kind of a nerd at heart. Demetri and Daniel are basically the same, that’s Demetri in 20 years or something. It’s a nerd-to-nerd, especially when he starts referencing Game of Thrones. Demetri’s like, “Oh, okay! You’re a nerd? Help me.”
It also gives Demetri hope. He sees if Daniel can make it in this world and flourish, maybe he can too. He can win these All-Valley tournaments. That kind of shows Demetri, “Maybe I don’t need to take quite as much of a flag football approach to things. Shred up the worksheets, I can actually do the drills.” Daniel is such a great sensei, he knows how to get through to his students and takes a different approach with each one.
In a lot of ways, Demetri is an pinnacle ‘nerd’ figure – and as we are Courageous Nerd, that is important to mention. From what you have seen, how wide-reaching has Demetri’s impact been on fans of the show – whether they are bullied teens or karate aficionados?
GD: There’s been a lot of people saying, as far as being bullied in high school goes, that Demetri kind of helps them realise, “Okay, I can stand up for myself. It’s not going to be all that bad.” Demetri, he’s gone through the worst of it. Not only has he been bullied, he’s been bullied by a gang of karate experts. It’s the worst scenario you could possibly have growing up in high school. Me, personally growing up, I was never the most popular kid in school. I know what it’s like to be made fun of. It’s definitely some stuff that I bring to Demetri.
The fact that I can show other kids, you know, it’s not all that bad and it can be better. It’s definitely really helpful and I wish I had something like that growing up to show me that it can be good. I’m just glad that I can help kids realise that.
It has already been announced that classic Karate Kid villain Terry Silver (once again played by Thomas Ian Griffith) will be back for Season 4. As far as these cameos, Easter Eggs and references to original films, do they go over your head or are you able to appreciate them as a fan?
GD: I knew about the different cameos and stuff like that, all the Easter Eggs. Before getting Cobra Kai, I had seen Karate Kid 1, 2 and I think 3. It was never my biggest thing growing up, because it’s not from my generation. My Dad, he watched that stuff growing up and it was his big thing. I always liked [the films], it just wasn’t my generation.
I’m definitely a fan of The Karate Kid series and see the cheeky Easter Eggs that they throw in here and there. Sometimes, I do have to look references up and stuff like that, but I know. Nothing gets past this guy, I see all.
Now that you’ve played Demetri for four total seasons, are there any other characters you would like for him to have more scenes with?
GD: I think I would want to see him in more scenes with Johnny. We don’t really get too many scenes together. Who knows what happens in the next season? I can’t even spoil anything. Really, the only interactions we’ve had been Demetri and Johnny result in him getting flipped. Then with Kreese, him getting punched in the face. He has bad experiences with the sensei’s over at Cobra Kai. Maybe some more of that? We’ll see what happens later on down the road, I can’t spoil anything.
Outside of Cobra Kai, are there any other projects you are able to discuss at this time?
GD: With COVID and everything like that, it’s been a little rough. Auditions and stuff like that are only just starting to open up. Now that there are starting to be more auditions and there’s stuff I wanna work on my own, who knows? We might see something in the future. For now, just looking for the same thing.
Professionally or personally, what do you hope to accomplish with the rest of 2021?
GD: The rest of this year? I want to get into acting classes because I think you can never stop learning as an actor. So, that’s a really big deal. I also kind of want to take piano classes. Maybe start to explore the musical side of things? I don’t think I’m the best singer in the world. Who knows, maybe? I could get better. Also, maybe complete my Magic: The Gathering collection? You can never have too many cards.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Gianni. Take care and stay safe!
GD: Yeah, of course! Thank you so much for having me.