David Ayer‘s The Tax Collector may not have collected great reviews from critics, but whether you were a fan of the director’s latest LA crime movie or not, you had to come away impressed by newcomer Bobby Soto, whose family man David proved to be the film’s true protagonist.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but for months, the media has sold The Tax Collector as a Shia LaBeouf movie, because Shia gets clicks, and, you know… the guy tattooed ‘Creeper’ on his torso for the film. It was certainly understandable from a traffic perspective, but it was a lazy simplification that overlooked the film’s real star.
Soto burns with a quiet intensity next to LaBeouf, and manages to his hold his own despite very little experience as a leading man. The two actors developed a real friendship over the course of filming, going so far as to launch a youth theater company in Los Angeles, where Soto grew up “in South Central near Huntington Park by the Florence station off the blue line,” he said, as only an LA native could.
At 26 years old, Soto took me by surprise, and I wasn’t alone, as Variety said he “could easily go on to become a marquee name,” and the Hollywood Reporter said he “makes a reasonably charismatic lead,” which is high praise coming from the trades with regards to this movie — one that I happened to enjoy, for the record.
You may recognize Soto from guest stints on TV shows such as Narcos: Mexico and Brothers & Sisters, or perhaps Michael Shannon‘s recent indie movie The Quarry, but he really took me by surprise in The Tax Collector, and I believe the handsome 26-year-old has a bright future in Hollywood, which is why he’s Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month for August. Get to know him below.
What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to get into this crazy business?
BOBBY SOTO: I’m gonna be honest with you, I have twin sisters, and my twin sisters were like every other kid that wants to be on TV. Long story short, I follow my twin sisters into this classroom — my Mom had to drop us off because she would go to work, so she’d take us to this class — and I just stuck with it. The teacher’s name was Lisa Picotte, and her husband’s name is David Kaufman. They still actually have a youth program, and they coach a lot of kids to this day, and that lady pretty much saved my life. She saw something that I didn’t see, nor did my parents because nobody in my family is in the arts. No one’s in the entertainment industry, or dances or sings or anything like that. My family is blue-collar. They work really hard, and they come from a place where they have to work, and keep their feet on the ground and keep their chin up with the way that they live. So I was raised like that.
The acting thing was a very different thing. It was something I never even saw before around my household or something that was ever discussed, so it took me a while to find my footing in it. And then, as I grew older I kept up with it and I started liking it, and as I continued doing it and doing it, I started meeting people from all over the world and different places, and people who came to Los Angeles, and I fell in love with the people I was able to come in connection with, and meet, and become intimate with. It’s taught me so much more about the world and about life, and it teaches me every day how to challenge myself to be a better man, really, because it’s a lot of searching within. So all that search, I’m addicted to that.
I’m addicted to that feeling of someone who’s opening up themselves, and I, too, am willing to open up myself, and we can communicate. So it just went deeper and deeper for me, from a place of like, ‘what is this? I’ve never experienced something like this,’ to ‘this is my whole life.’ It took a long time, too. I started doing that when I was just a kid, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, as a way to stay out of trouble and just keep my mind focused on stuff, and I just continued doing it. Now it’s something I want to do for the rest of my life.
Tell me about the audition process for The Tax Collector. How’d you land the job, and how’d you ever get in the room in the first place?
SOTO: Well, I’ll tell you, about four years ago, I was walking, and I had studied in Paris with a teacher by the name of Jack Garfein, who taught me a lot about the art of acting. He was in his ’90s, and he was part of the Actor’s Studio and all that great history from years ago. And it just reinvigorated my spirit with a lot of passion and a lot of love. I came back from Paris about four years ago after doing a class with him where it was just me and another poet. At the end of the day, he was a poet from another generation, and it was just inspiring to be around this person.
When I came from there, I stumbled upon a dojo in Echo Park, and the sensei’s name is Alexander Mesquite. He runs a dojo called RMMA in Echo Park, and when I went in, it just felt like, for some reason, I felt like this was family. The guy, the sensei, just felt so at home with me that I felt comfortable to open up. I was there with him, so I started fighting and training, and I trained for about a year and a half, and off and on I’d come into the gym at different hours of the day and I’d work out, or I’d spar and I’d train, and I started working with some tall white dude named David. I didn’t know who he was, I just knew him as ‘Dave.’ He was just my friend Dave, and that was it. We would work out together, and we’d run around the dojo together and spar together, and we were just really friends, authentically, first and foremost. I didn’t know anything about his career, or anything about what he did. I was his homie. We were just really, really good friends, and we still are to this day.
But one day he told me he was a writer and that he makes movies, and I told him, ‘I didn’t know that. What movies did you make?’ He says ‘I wrote Training Day.’ And I say, ‘whoa, that’s crazy! Training Day is a classic. I love that movie. Everyone loves that movie.’ And he’s like, ‘yeah.’ I was like, ‘that’s cool, man.’ So he started to introduce me more and more to his process, and what he does for a living, and he asked if I was an actor, and little by little he was mentoring me, and talking to me about things in the industry. He was like a big brother to me or an uncle of mine. We fell in love with each other’s artistry and with each other’s souls, and one day he just called me and said, ‘hey, you wanna make a movie?’ And I said, ‘yeah, of course.’ And he said, ‘okay, cool, we’re gonna do it.’
A couple of months later, we’re in the process and Shia’s there, and we’re getting to know each other, we’re opening each other’s souls up, and just really creating a family and a community that we’re going to take for the rest of our lives. What I saw in Shia and what he saw in me, and what we saw in each other, the whole cast, we all just fell in love with each other. We’re really a family. We see each other so much. I see Shia every single day. Every single day for the last 2.5 years, almost three years, I’ve seen him. It’s a really deep bond, what this film and this process have created among all these human beings from all these places in the world. To come together and experience something special, that’s something I’m really attuned to and have an appetite for, and I always wanna attack those things and go after those feelings and those moments and those experiences. So that’s how the movie came about, and we continue this process of life altogether.
That’s an incredible story. So when David said you were going to be the star of his next movie, did you go out and celebrate?
SOTO: The first thing that went through my head was, I have to plug into this thing completely, 100 percent, whatever that meant so I was actually just ready to work. I was celebrating in a way of like, ‘I’m ready to do my homework and get involved and just go for it, all-in,’ so there was a moment of joy and ecstasy when someone tells you you have a job, and then you go, ‘okay, now I get to really show what I can do and present myself as an actor.’ It’s a very exciting thing to hear when someone tells you, ‘hey, you have this opportunity.’ As actors, that’s exciting because that’s our whole life, so that’s important, you know?
Have you ever asked David why he’s so interested in gang culture? Have you guys ever talked about stuff like that together?
SOTO: Nah, we never really talked about it like that. It’s more of a mutual understanding because we come from the same upbringing. Different generations, but very similar experiences and lifestyles. So it’s only normal for me to be like, ‘Yeah, of course! You’re the dude who wrote Training Day, you’re the dude who did End of Watch,’ so it’s like second nature that he’d be the one to be writing these movies, and creating them with his vision and adding his spice to it. All people from all walks of life, they know David Ayer’s work, and they know that his work is very, very specific, and it represents a culture and it represents a community that’s not really represented unless you’re watching a David Ayer movie, really. So it’s only normal, ya know?
Did you view your character, David, as a bad guy, or did you think he was just doing what he had to do to provide for his family?
SOTO: I wouldn’t say he’s a bad guy, because I think that’s subjective. People can have their own interpretation of what makes someone good or bad. For real, I think he’s someone who’s providing for his family, someone who’s doing what he knows best, and someone who’s a product of his environment. He’s someone who used what he was given and made the best out of it. We’re put in these positions sometimes where we have to choose between two things, and sometimes [choosing] one or the other might feel like you’re going to be frowned upon, but in all honesty, you might have to do it because your life depends on it. Or, you have too much to lose, and you don’t want to do that. So life kind of puts you in this jam, and it’s up to you to make a decision, and sometimes those actions aren’t seen as positive, or good. But I think it’s a beautiful character, and I try not to judge anyone, really. That’s the truth, or at least, my opinion.
What was your first impression of Shia and his commitment to the role, getting all tatted-up and everything?
SOTO: Shia’s my best friend, to this day. I can truthfully, honestly say that right now, and I’ll say it to his face. We were just talking, and he’s my best friend, man. It was like getting on a rollercoaster with someone you can trust, and you’re going to go on this journey, you’re gonna go on this ride, and all you’ve gotta do is brace yourself and go for it, because you’re on the ride with everyone. The boat doesn’t go if everyone’s not using their own paddles, so everyone has to work, and there has to be a balance, from the cast to the crew.
But Shia’s amazing, man. He’s taught me so much. We connected on a level that I’ve never experienced with any other actor or any other human being. He was always so authentic and honest and genuine. I love that. I love the hard work, and putting everything you’ve got into one thing and making it work, and I love the challenges. Shia is just a beautiful human being. He’s rare. He’s a rare commodity.
Are there any actors who you admire or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
SOTO: There’s a lot of actors that I actually look up to. Ellen Burstyn. Amy Adams. Joaquin Phoenix. Shia. There are too many to name, and they’re all great. Mark Ruffalo. Anthony Hopkins. Andy Garcia. Esai Morales. The list goes on and on. Everyone has their own talents and their own skill sets that are just beautiful to watch and experience.
Are there any directors you’re eager to work with?
Soto: Yeah, definitely. I want to work David Ayer again, that’s for sure. Darren Aronofsky. Christopher Nolan. Derek Cianfrance.
Hold up. You’ve mentioned Derek and Mark Ruffalo, so is it safe to assume you saw their recent HBO series I Know This Much Is True?
SOTO: I did, man, I did. I actually met Derek Cianfrance when I was 15 years old. I had auditioned for The Place Beyond the Pines. I was going for the son because Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling have a relationship, so the son was either gonna be brown or white. I remember Derek was like, ‘We’re gonna have to figure this out,’ brown or white because Eva Mendes is Latina. I’ve tracked his work since then, and Ruffalo is just a genius. He’s amazing, and that show was really good.
Do you feel a little resentful that this movie, your first big movie, isn’t going to be seen in theaters, and that people are going to have to watch at home? Do you feel robbed of a big moment?
SOTO: No, no, no. Not resentful. I mean, I had so much fun. It was screened at a drive-in cinema where I grew up. Like, I went to that drive-in as a kid, so for me, that was the best thing to happen for me. Having the film come out at the drive-in I grew up at, that alone was amazing. I don’t have any resentment about any of the things that are happening. Of course, everyone wants it to be in the cinema because the sound is so much better inside there, but I think it’s great that people can see it on their phones.
I think if the job is done well, it doesn’t matter what the size of the screen you’re watching it on is, it’ll resonate and transcend, and if that’s possible then that means I’ve done my job right, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on a big screen or on a little telephone. So I think it’s okay, whichever way it comes out. As long as it comes out and people get a chance to see it, then that makes me happy. As long as family and friends can see it. Maybe 20 people can’t buy a ticket, but one can, and now they can see it at the house with 20 people, then that’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.
How have you been spending your downtime during this pandemic?
SOTO: Actually, I’ve been building a play. Me and Shia, after the film, about two years ago, we created a theater company called Slauson Recreation Theater Company, right off of 53rd and Compton, in this recreational park, right when the movie wrapped up. During the time we were actually filming, we got to know people who lived on the same blocks that we worked on, the same neighborhoods that we worked in, so we got to know people intimately, Shia and I. So we opened up this theater company, and like I said, I’ve seen this guy ever since, and we work on projects together, and we’re working on building a community of actors.
And right now, since COVID, we wrote a play from scratch, with our words, and we’ve been in rehearsals for the past few weeks. We keep COVID regulations, we wear our masks, we take tests every week, and that way we can continue building together. We just got funded by a museum here in Los Angeles, and we’re looking to perform in late September-early October, possibly, so we’re in the rehearsal process right now. I just left there before I got on the phone with you. Everyone wrote it, it’s all of ours. The play is written by the Slauson Recreation Theater Company and everyone that’s a part of it. Because everyone has their own say and has power and respect, as well as the time to talk and say what they have to say. It’s a collaborative community. 100 percent collaborative.
Are you planning on beefing up your social media presence at all as more people discover your work?
SOTO: You know, I have a thing with social media. I use it, and then sometimes I go away from it, and then I come back to it. It’s a great way to connect with people I haven’t seen in years. That’s the beautiful thing about it. People from far away, from family to friends, anyone can connect with you on social media. I like it, I use it, and I respond to people. I respond to family and friends. It’s interesting to me to keep up to date with everyone’s stuff. I think that’s the best thing it’s done for me. I can keep up with my friends or whoever is online, and see what they’re into or what’s next for them. I like that, I appreciate that. I’ve been trying my best to use social media, but I’m still figuring it out.
Do you plan to read your own reviews for The Tax Collector or have you been cautioned against that?
SOTO: I don’t know, it depends on how I feel, I guess. I really like being involved in whatever we’re doing, in rehearsals and plays, so I’m always keeping my mind busy doing something. If that comes up, it’ll come up, but I won’t be looking for it.
What’s next for you, Bobby?
SOTO: This play. This play, right now, is the most important thing in my life today. It’s something that we can do for our community and the people who can watch it and experience it with us. It’s something we’re going to take for the rest of our lives. We’re really building something beautiful there, at the Slauson Rec. Actually, this COVID has created more intimacy. It’s made us even more tighter-knit, so I’m really excited about that, and I really want to see where else we can go. But this right now, this is beautiful. I’m amazed, every day. Every day, my jaw is just hanging, watching this process. Because we started 2.5 years ago, and now we’re at this place where it’s like, ‘whoa!’ It feels like we’re on the All-Star team.
The Tax Collector is currently available on VOD platforms.