Ralph Macchio is still associated with the characters he played decades ago—in slight heroes of The Karate Kid, My Cousin Vinny and The Outsiders—but the actor, now 51, also has a newer role that’s proven enduring: the role of Ralph Macchio. Though he’s hardly the first actor to play a version of himself, Macchio has made the most of those opportunities. He played “Ralph Macchio” on Entourage in 2005, on Head Case in 2007, in a Funny Or Die short in 2010. He’ll be tackling the role two time this month—on an episode of How I Met Your Mother and in the upcoming indie comedy He’s Way More Famous Than You (opening, in limited release, May 10). Macchio talked to TIME about what makes a good fictional Ralph Macchio and why he needs to take a break from “wax on” one-liners.
How did you end up playing yourself in so many things at once?
What happened was, I just stepped off the Dancing With the Stars stage and wanted to take a little rest as I was hobbling around, and Michael Urie, who I worked with on Ugly Betty said, “We’re doing this movie [He's Way More Famous Than You] for a dollar and fifty cents, and it’s really funny, and would you help me out?” When you do these types of passion projects, you’re doing someone a favor — but you also have to believe in it. We found an angle to play the guy who was an anti- version of me. I’d had this video through Funny Or Die called “Wax On, F*ck Off,” which I co-wrote and created right when the Karate Kid remake was coming out. Before, on Entourage, I played myself and it was a pretty cool version of me. And I said the same thing to How I Met Your Mother: find something that is an interesting angle of me-being-me. Then, it’s worth it. But I’m going to take a step back from it right now. He’s Way More Famous Than You was filmed two summers ago; with the irony of it coming out within 10 days of when How I Met Your Mother aired, I feel like bit like we’re a little over-Ralph-ed. But as long as people laugh, it’s okay.
What makes a Ralph Macchio role appealing to you?
When it’s smart and irreverent and pays homage but turns it on edge a little bit. With How I Met Your Mother, I initially passed, but my kids stopped talking to me. The writers called me from the show and they came up with the whole Barney-mirroring thing. It was finding the angle. And He’s Way More Famous Than You was about the guy who takes acting classes, going back to his roots, with funny lines.
What would be your advice to other actors playing themselves?
It has to be smart and not feel like you’re just running alongside the train. You don’t want to be window dressing for the sake of a name or a joke. You always run the risk—with me it’s how many “wax on” jokes can be in there, how many “sweep the leg” jokes, how many ‘80s jokes.
So what’s the answer? How many “wax on” jokes can there be?
Like I told you, I need to take a break now.
You’re waxed off.
Exactly. Listen, I embrace it. It’s awesome to have a footprint, that something that’s almost 30 years ago is now part of the American lexicon. And it’s embraced in a positive way. In the case of both of these projects, there was an angle that made it fun and not just a one-way street of “here’s the Karate Kid joke.” It was a character. Then it becomes smart and less “look who they dug up.” The fans love it, but from an industry standpoint you have to be careful.
And didn’t you do Ralph Macchio on Head Case too?
That’s right! That was early.
From a casting perspective, why do you think people keep coming back to you with roles for playing yourself?
Listen, it is stunt casting. But it connects past with present — and I think some of those films back in the day have stood the test of time. My Cousin Vinny is on every week. And The Outsiders kids still read. I have so many 14-year-old Twitter followers who think I still look like that. It‘s nostalgia, in a good way. That’s the plus-side. The down side is if it overstays its welcome. And it doesn’t take long for that to happen.
So now you’re directing your own movie.
It’s called Across Grace Alley. It’s a short film, about 24 minutes, with Karina Smirnoff and a new discovery, a kid by the name of Ben Hyland. It’s a coming-of-age story infused with music and dance. I’m very excited about that. And I finished a film called A Little Game with Janeane Garofalo, Rachel Dratch, and F. Murray Abraham. That’s what I do in between them all. As long as I can tell stories, be creative and somehow get the food on the table, that’s how I balance it.