The Macchio Curve

Ralph Macchio is allowed to bury Daniel LaRusso—especially in 2014. The boyish-faced actor, born and raised in Huntington, is revered for his roles as Johnny Cade in The Outsiders and Bill Gambini in My Cousin Vinny. It is LaRusso, the scrawny, crane-kicking protagonist of The Karate Kid, however, that has principally defined, and will perpetually define, his opus.

The film, which spawned three sequels—two with Macchio—and a remake, was theatrically released on June 22, 1984. It was immediately a critical and financial success, and even three decades later, has remained relevant: for dynamically exploring the timeless theme of alienation; for containing heaps of entertaining, ’80s-cheeseball dialogue and an epic, musically driven denouement; and most prominently, for serving as a portal into our own 1984, or whenever we first encountered Daniel-Son and Mr. Miyagi. Ay.

Macchio could ignore, even abhor that connection and the incessant attention one role has garnered, but instead, the importance of The Karate Kid is understood and embraced. He congratulated LaRusso on the anniversary on Twitter, writing “You have enhanced my life, dude! As well as so many others. Here’s to another 30 years of inspiration.”

This decision hasn’t typecast his career. Macchio has successfully maintained a presence with television, film, and, perhaps inevitable for an actor who worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Walter Hill, and John G. Avildsen, as a director. His latest directorialschtuff is Across Grace Alley, starring Karina Smirnoff, his partner during his stint on Dancing With the Stars. It screens at the Stony Brook Film Festival on July 17.

Long Island Pulse: Tell us about Across Grace Alley.
Ralph Macchio: It’s a coming-of-age story born out of my time on Dancing With the Stars, believe it or not, which I swore I would never do. But I did it and didn’t suck at it, and I developed an amazing relationship with Karina [Smirnoff], a spectacular dancer who was my partner on the show. I had seen Cinema Paradiso, one of my favorite films ever, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and The Artist, a silent film from a few years ago, all in about a week’s time. Out of that came this voyeuristic concept of a young boy struggling with his parent’s divorce, trying to make sense of where he belongs. I always gravitate toward stories told through the eyes of a child. It’s such a pure time in our lives. So he’s staying at his grandmother’s house and he becomes infatuated with this woman, played by Karina, who he sees through his window, from her window, across the alleyway. He’s a lost, broken kid and she’s a woman also at a crossroads in her life, but only silently does he see her turmoil. And these two unexpected characters connect with a brief encounter that has profound emotional affects for both of them. With Karina, I wanted to infuse it with music and dance, but I also wanted to unveil her talent as an actress. So first as we know her, then slowly peel back the layers. It also stars Marsha Mason, an amazing four-time Academy Award nominee, and Ben Hyland. There’s no movie without the kid. Ben’s from Manhasset, which is a cool tie-in with the Long Island folk. He had the innocent face I needed to give that window—literally a window—through the eyes of a child; that non-jaded point of view. He did a tremendous job.

From Across Grace Alley

Pulse: Do you like working with child actors, being that you were one? Was it easier to get you needed from Ben?
That’s a good question. I think so. Mainly because they just don’t storm off to the trailer if you give advice. You have an opportunity to massage their performance in a way. You know, it’s always mentioned that I don’t look my age, like 52-year-old child actor Ralph Macchio… [Laughs] I was always older than you thought in film roles, but yeah, I had that experience of being a young actor with not much under my belt. When I worked with [Francis Ford] Coppola on The Outsiders or [John G.] Avildsen on The Karate Kid, I was pretty young working with some pretty heavy-hitting filmmakers. I think I was able to use what I learned from these iconic storytellers and infuse it into my own experiences. With Karina, this was her first time on film with dialogue, and in her second language—she’s Russian. Ben had limited experience, too, but then I had Marsha, a seasoned veteran. With directing, you’re really conducting an orchestra because you’re dealing with all these instruments that have a different sound and you have to make music out of it. I love that. I love creating the story and the music.

Pulse: Being around, say, Coppola, did you know then you wanted to direct someday?
Totally. I was always hanging around the cinematographer and crew guys, asking questions. Why are you using that lens? What does that mean? I was one of those. When I think back, I was probably really annoying. The Outsiders had a lot of downtime, so I would go watch [Coppola] and that made me want to learn more. I remember, he had to introduce Matt Dillon’s character, Dallas, in a scene. This wasn’t in the original film, but it’s in a director’s cut version. And he said, I have to introduce Dallas: How would you do it? I had this Ralph Kramden look to me. Hummana, Hummana, Hummana. I’m asking questions and now he’s asking me to step up to the plate and take a few swings. I don’t remember exactly what I suggested, I think through the back of the house. He liked the concept, but then he noticed a problem about the camera placement. Anyway, it was just a little bit of a dialogue and I got a chance to see what my issues would be if I shot it. So my very long answer to your very simple question is yeah, I always wanted to do it. I just didn’t know how to get from point A to point B. But once I started directing—and I haven’t done a whole lot, I’m still working on the trajectory of that—once I started prepping and got on set, all those lessons that I had absorbed over time just started oozing out.

Screenshot from The Outsiders.

Pulse: You were raised on Long Island, right?
Yeah. I grew up in the Huntington area. My parents still live in the same house from when I was in Kindergarten. But I always had my head out the window at school. I just graduated Half Hollow Hills West. I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to be Gene Kelley. I wanted to be De Niro. I got to work with De Niro on Broadway in ’86, so a lot of my dreams have come true. The Outsiders, too. The book came out when I was 12 and I loved it. When they were casting, I had to be Johnny. I started acting at 17, so I looked 14. You always have to subtract a few years with my roles. It’s like “The Macchio Curve.”

Pulse: I like that. That should be a thing.
Yeah. I’m actually going to write that down right now. Maybe I could pitch a show on that. Anyway, so I went right into acting. I never went to college. I’m living through my kids right now. My daughter just graduated Hofstra about two weeks ago. My son is heading up to Boston in the fall. Time flies.

Pulse: Speaking of time, can you believe it’s the 30th anniversary of The Karate Kid?
Isn’t it nuts?

Screenshot from The Karate Kid

Pulse: I was reading something that said you’re now the age of Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi, when it was filmed.
I’ve actually eclipsed that. That was last year. I was doing an episode of How I Met Your Mother last year and that story broke the week I was on set. Everyone was like, My God, you’re that old? I felt like I was 100.

Pulse: But you still looked 13.
Right. But yeah, I guess I do make people feel old from playing an iconic character that was a piece of all of our childhoods, which I honestly think is an amazing thing. What amazes me most is the movie is still relevant. So many people are still being affected positively in some way by that film, by that character. They remade the film in 2010, as we know, which I think has only enhanced the original. It still holds the heart, soul and magic that happened in 1984.

Pulse: When was the last time you watched it?
Well, I’m being asked to watch it a lot now. A lot of cities want to screen the movie for the anniversary and fly me in. I haven’t watched it cover-to-cover in probably 10 years, when we did the DVD commentary. I did do a Q&A at the 92nd Street Y which went really awesome. I just showed up for the Q&A, but I heard everyone cheering during the final scene from outside. It was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. People were yelling stuff out. Finish him! It just amazes me that the lines have stood the test of time.

Pulse: What’s your favorite quote?
I’m getting asked that so much now and I’m trying to come up with a cool response that no one expects. Is it “Put him in a body bag” or “Get him in a body bag?” You would know.

Pulse: He goes “Get him a body bag,” but the clincher for me is the “Yeahhhh!” that follows. It’s demonic.
I’ve always liked “It must be take a worm for a walk week.” That’s another great one from Rob [Garrison]. Did you ever see the “Sweep The Leg” video?

Pulse: No. What is it?
William Zabka, who played Johnny Lawrence, he directed it. I have a cameo in it. It’s for the band No More Kings, and it’s like a “Thriller”-type music video and short about the Cobra Kai, and now they’re living in a trailer park watching the movie over and over again. They didn’t win the tournament and things just fell apart for them. It came out great. You should check it out.

Pulse: You did your own short piece, too. What prompted you to make the “Wax On, F*ck Off” short for Funny or Die?
That I had to make. I was a little bummed: I had two or three shows I was pitching and couldn’t get any of them sold. And I knew the remake [of The Karate Kid] was coming out. I knew I couldn’t just sit here and do nothing when this movie came out. So the whole Tiger Wood scandal was going on and Charlie Sheen was doing his whole “Winning” thing, and I just thought, God, I am the most non-relevant, unsexy guy there is: I’m married, I have two kids, I kiss my kids at night—I’m boring myself. So I thought, what if we did a reverse intervention where my family is pleading me to mess sh*t up and be a degenerate. I just started writing and the material came right out. I’m not Chachi, mother*cker! I walked into Funny or Die with just the title, and they jumped right on it. And they did a beautiful job of releasing it the day before the remake came out. I love that video. If I’m pissed off, I watch it and four minutes later I’m happy.

Screenshot from Funny or Die

Pulse: As a director, do you look back at your older stuff?
There are still certain scenes that I think are good, but then certain things are like, what was I thinking? I thought that was good? I don’t really go back though. You can’t fix it. There’s actually one scene in The Outsiders that Coppola was giving me direction not to do anything, not to act, trying to strip down me trying from perform. It’s at the end of the film when Pony Boy’s reading the letter. It’s a superimposed shot of me verbalizing what he’s reading. It’s really one of the purest pieces of acting I’ve ever done. And getting back to [Across Grace Alley], I think I shared it with Ben. If not, I knew I had that in my back pocket to explain to him some of the times he would “act” because it’s meant to be a certain way. And that actually circles back to your question before, about directing a child. I knew I had in my back pocket, and as an actor and director, you hope you can pass on what you learned.

From Across Grace Alley

Ralph Macchio’s ‘Across Grace Alley’ plays at the Stony Brook Film Festival on July 17. Tickets are available now.