09/02/2012 07:08 pm ET

Ralph Macchio Brings 'American Gypsies' To Life

Getty Images

Ralph Macchio may be better known for delivering crane kicks than reality TV, but the former Karate Kid has learned a few new moves in recent years (and not just thanks to his stint on "Dancing with the Stars"). Now, Macchio is making his first foray into reality-show producing with the National Geographic Channel's "American Gypsies."

Premiering on Sept. 3rd, the new docu-series follows the Johns, a Romani family (more familiarly, and derogatorily, known as "gypsies") living in New York City. The prominent and outspoken family let Macchio and his crew in to film them as they struggle to keep their traditions alive, pulling back the curtain on a subculture that prides itself on staying pure from outside influence, all in the hopes of dispelling negative stereotypes about gypsy culture.

HuffPost TV recently spoke to Macchio in advance of his new show's Canadian premiere. We chatted about the Johns family, his feelings on reality TV, and criticisms "American Gypsies" has faced from fellow members of the Romani community.

How did you get involved with this project?
"American Gypsies" came to me as rough footage cut together by two young film students, one of which is the son of a friend of mine. They were looking to do a graduate documentary film on the Johns family, one of the more prominent gypsy families in New York. Sort of peeling back the curtain on this secret society and subculture that exists right under our feet in New York. And I saw the footage and they said, "We think this would make a great documentary or a TV series." And they knew I had developed stuff behind the camera as well as my career in front of the camera, and they asked for advice. And I said that it's my advice to just let me take this [around], because I think we're going to be able to sell this someplace.

And so I brought it to Stick Figure Productions, a small production company in New York that I was working with at the time on another project that never came to fruition. And they nurtured it and edited a reel for it, [but] it took four, four and a half to five years and three networks to finally get on with National Geographic, who embraced it fully and put their energy behind it and have gotten the story out there.

Wow. That sounds like a long development process...
It was. It's always a journey; it always takes beyond a village to get any of these things going. And it was my first foray into the docu-series world. I come from the world of scripted movies and television, and that's where I'm most comfortable. So this was kind of new for me. That process of getting a network to develop it, and working alongside them, and they want it to be something else, and yet you're trying to still document what is happening, but you have to get something entertaining.

And I think we do that. I think it's very entertaining, and yet educational in a way that is not like watching a boring documentary. It's really fascinating and high energy; [the Johns] have very big personalities. That's the first thing I noticed, these personalities came popping off the screen. And in a weird way, they reminded me of some of the strong-minded cousins and people that I grew up with. Whether it's my Italian-Greek ancestry, there's a relatable family element to it. As unorthodox as the Johns family is, there's still something relatable about it and entertaining at the same time.

Is there a particular character you relate to the most?
I think Bobby's story. Bob Jr., who's trying to keep one foot in the cultures and traditions of the Romani people, and yet still have all the opportunities and afford all the opportunities to his kids that the American dream can offer. I think that he seems the most sympathetic to me, and a character that I relate to as a father, and someone trying to do right by his children but not lose the respect of his own family. It's not the way I choose to live my life, but I do find certain elements of it relatable. I mean, as far as the home-schooling and the court system and the arranged marriages and everything else [though], it's fascinating that it still exists in 2012.

What do you think the value is in showing audiences this world that they wouldn't normally see otherwise?
I think what it does -- and you draw your own conclusions, I think that's healthy for everyone to have their own opinions based on what they see -- I think that it hopefully breaks the negative stereotype across the board. I still think there are things in the show, they're certainly not necessarily something I would embrace, but it dispels some of that negative gypsy stereotype. That they're all toothless, nomadic, and fortune-telling people that rob, cheat, steal and move town to town. The family [is] trying to exist and trying to move forward, be progressive, yet still hold onto traditions. I mean, I hold on to some traditions in my family, be it religious traditions or holiday traditions that may not be embraced by my next-door neighbor, but we at least recognize that as a different style of life or different choices without stereotyping it one way or the other.

So was that the Johns family's impetus for doing the show?
I think so. When I spoke to them early on, I asked the same question everyone would ask: "Well, if you live within a culture that wants to not show itself for fear of being contaminated by the outside world, why are camera crews [being] let in?" Because it begs that question. And he's ailing, Bob Sr.; he's got five sons, and there's a little bit of conflict between them, but family comes first to them. And the whole family comes first element is something that people don't take for a reality of the gypsy people, and it's important to him for that to be seen. And that's the whole reason that the Johns all wanted to do the show, it's their father's wishes. And then it turns into, after four-something networks in five years, it begins to take shape as a TV show and what the network wants the show to be. So you have to try to balance the documentary, docu-series elements with the reality show elements, and somewhere in the middle is the truth of it all.

How conscious are you of balancing those elements, the sort of "made-for-promos" moments with that character development?
I get it. At the point that the show is sold and the buyer has bought [it], then it becomes how they want to promote it. And I could not be happier with National Geographic's support of the show and the launch they gave it here in the US and now in Canada. [But] there's always the concept of the poster being so important, or the coming attractions of what you're seeing. Sometimes I find it heavy-handed, in television and movies. You sit through trailers in the movies and, ugh, it's just like sound and explosions, bad editing. And I think that that's a bit of a comment on society. You have to grab someone in 10 seconds, or otherwise they're leaping for the remote or they're turning someplace else. You know, when you're invested in the characters and you feel you get to know them personally, you get to see another side of them, the heart of who they are, then you become more invested in the long term. You can't eat dessert all day long, you'll get sick.

And I think that in ours, there are those quieter moments. And yeah, Nicky and Bobby fighting and pushing and throwing punches at each other, you know, it's exciting, but that's not all that the show is. And when it balances itself, I think it becomes a richer piece of entertainment.

Do you think your celebrity helped you get more access to the relatively private community at all?
Well, I'll say this much: when I was invited to a gypsy wedding -- this was during the development part -- I was pretty popular, I will say that much. So I think the celebrity aspect does help a little bit. But then now they also get mad when I don't follow them on Twitter or something. So now it's a double-edged sword. [Laughs]

Any time you can use whatever you have to bring more eyeballs to the piece that you're working on, I say take it. As long as I'm not exploiting myself or the culture. This Johns family wanted their story out there, and I just found it too fascinating not to help find an outlet for it.

"American Gypsies" premieres Sept. 3 at 9 PM on the National Geographic Channel.

Fall TV: Fresh Faces