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‘The Tax Collector’ Star Bobby Soto on Getting Tattoos and Teaching Theater with Shia LaBeouf

When The Tax Collector trailer was released in early July, the story of LaBeouf’s real tattoo work for the film recirculated across social media and various media outlets. While Soto didn’t feel any pressure to do his own grand gesture, he was right next to LaBeouf, getting his own tattoo, in preparation for their roles. Soto and LaBeouf clearly hit it off which is why they’ve continued to collaborate at their theater school.

“We were both on the tattoo table. So, it was really beautiful seeing him do that. It was inspirational,” Soto explains. “Shia and I have a [theater] class together that we started right after we wrapped up the movie. So, I’ve seen Shia every day for the last two-and-a-half years.”

This past April, Soto also delivered a scene-stealing performance alongside Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham in Scott Treems’ slow-burn thriller, The Quarry, and he feels nothing but appreciation for his time with two acclaimed character actors. Naturally, Shannon gave him a little bit of anxiety.

“Michael Shannon, whoa man, he’s like a lion!” Soto proclaims. “He’s just, wow, he’s beautiful. So it’s like, what do you do when you’re inside of a cage with a lion? Really, what do you do? You let the lion be. You let the lion be and you just take your breaths and you work with it. You see how you can move with it because you don’t want it to attack. It was great.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Soto elaborates on his close relationships with LaBeouf and Ayer, working with Shannon and Whigham in The Quarry and what could be in store for his Narcos: Mexico character. He also shares a full-circle moment he had with childhood hero Jimmy Smits.

From Narcos: Mexico to The Quarry and now The Tax Collector, you’re having quite a year despite the world being an absolute disaster. Have you felt a mix of emotions since your career is doing really well at a time like this?

To be honest with you, I’m forever grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m open and willing to play more and to do more. So, that manifestation of more work to come is beautiful. And honestly, I wouldn’t say there’s any kind of praise or applause right now. It’s more like my job as the actor is to do the work, get involved with stories that matter and the projects that mean something to myself and to the community I represent. So, these job opportunities you mentioned, they’ve only been blessings for me. And if anything, I have family that’s been affected by these disasters that are happening around the world. So, I’m empathetic to all of that. And unfortunately, it’s the way the world is working right now, and we’re adjusting. But we’ll get through it together, you know?

Once an actor works with David Ayer, they tend to rave about the experience after the fact and want to work with him again. Now that you’ve worked together, do you now understand why he has such vocal supporters including Shia?

Definitely. The guy’s a true artist. He’s also a great listener and a great friend. He’s a well-rounded human being, and I can understand why everyone says that and why they rave about him. For me, personally, he’s like a big brother to me. I met David at a dojo. We were actually sparring and working out and exercising together before I even knew he was a director. He didn’t carry himself like he was some hotshot, high-ranking celebrity or something. He just carried himself like a regular person, so much so that he became friends with someone like myself, who he didn’t know at the time. There was none of this, “What do you do? What do you do?” It was really just authentic friendship and trust, you know? We ended up talking about what we did maybe a year into our relationship as people. And so, he told me he was a director. He also told me all about his success with Training Day. I mean, of course, it’s a classic, so it’s something that just rang a bell. When I told him I was an actor, he was like, “Oh shit, let’s make something together. We’re already friends.” That’s the dream, no? To make things with your friends. We fell in love that way, and he gave me the opportunity to be in this project with him and Shia. And I’m forever grateful. To this day, we’re friends. To this day, we’re like family more than that. I can call David any time of day. He’s been there for me, and I love that guy so much, like I love Shia. Shia and I have a [theater] class together that we started right after we wrapped up the movie. So, I’ve seen Shia every day for the last two and a half years.

David often puts his actors through some unique experiences in order to prepare them for their roles. The cast of Fury can certainly attest. Was there anything he had you do that was unusual?

For me, everything is inspiration, not a distraction. And so, everything that comes with the job, with the work and with this journey that I’ve chosen to take part of in my life, I’m willing to do, and I’m willing to go anywhere I need to go if it’s for the art and it’s for the craft. So, everything David did was beyond something I had ever imagined because of course, I hadn’t worked at something at this level yet. And for me, it was like winning the lottery ticket. It was everything I didn’t expect, and everything I ever wanted. We just worked really well together. So, I wouldn’t say anything was strange or unorthodox. I think it was necessary. The process and getting to know each other, the times we all spent together at the dojo or the times me and Shia spent living in the same house together or driving to work together. Everything we did came out of a place of need, out of a place of love and out of the same desires and sensibilities to attain something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the movie, bigger than the character, bigger than anything. To touch the human being’s heart, you know? To really open up and really transcend. So, whatever’s necessary.

Early in the movie, you had a great monologue that really defines the world of The Tax Collector. Since exposition can be tricky to perform in an engaging way, how did you approach this scene?

It’s like jazz. You’re playing a note, and your partner over there is playing another note. And the other person over there with the camera is playing another note, and the other person over there has got another tune, and the other one’s got another tune. And eventually, all of these tunes mix together and it starts making music, and it’s beautiful. And somebody’s leading, and then the other one picks up and then the other one leads and then the other one leads. It’s a beautiful rhythm that is getting played throughout every scene and throughout every take. The approach is really with everyone and being open to what’s happening to everyone in the moment. You hear a lot about that in acting class — being in the moment. But this is really like if you’re listening, if you’ve really got your feet planted and you’re really there with your partners, then everyone that’s in that room can play jazz together. Like, if I’m the bass guitar, somebody else is the drums and we just pick up where we left off and we keep going. Yeah, so all of this exposition, it’s really like, where do you find the music, you know? Where’s the music in this? Where can you hear it? Where can you find it? Where can you smell it? Where can you taste it? Where can you see it? How can you touch it? It’s everywhere. If you’re open to it, you can really connect. And that’s our plan. We’ve got to connect with this. So, it was beautiful.

Once you saw the tattoo that Shia got for his character, Creeper, did you feel a little bit of pressure to do your own grand gesture?

No, there was no pressure to do anything grand. Actually, I was with him when he got his tattoo. We both got some tattoos. We were both on the tattoo table. Whatever he needed to do for his own work and for his own way, I can’t speak for him. But for me personally, it’s only inspiration. It was inspirational to see someone go as far as he can and go the distance with themselves. For the betterment of the project, for the betterment of the film and to move the story forward. So, to see that, to take that into your own hands, to take ownership of your talent and your art, of your power and your respect, I think that’s what every man and woman wants. To be loved, to be respected, to be trusted. And so, when you really show that work ethic, when you really show everyone around you that this is your life and you really, really want it and you really care about it, then that affects you. That transforms people. Literally, it’ll transform you. When you’re in love with someone, when you’re in love with something, it’s like going to the beach or going on a date with your girlfriend and taking a walk. It’s the things that are the most simple, but the most impactful. And if you can see those things happening along the way and throughout the journey, then I’m being open to it and allowing it to affect me. Take it in, absorb it and metabolize it, and then, it just starts to transform everything around you and everything you do because now you’re in love with this person and your whole being is something else. You know what I mean? When you fall in love, you’re not the same person you were ten seconds before you fell in love. This whole thing that transforms you is because of this entity that’s in front of you. So, now you’ve transformed. And now, it’s like, “Okay, we’re all in this together.” So, it was really beautiful seeing him do that. It was inspirational, like I said.

David tends to work with a lot of the same actors in his Los Angeles-based films. Were there lots of familiar faces for you on this set?

When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about acting. My family doesn’t come from this industry. They know nothing about it. So, my mother actually took me to some background stuff to understand the technicalities and mechanics of being on set, and to really figure out if this is something we wanted to continue with or not because maybe the energy for it wasn’t something we wanted in our lives. But my mother and I went when I was young. I was an extra in some show that Jimmy Smits did, and I was playing against him. I remember being like ten or eleven years old. And then, when he came on set for The Tax Collector, it was like a big, full circle. I told him that story, and I was like, “Man, now look. You’re playing my Dad on this, and we’re doing something special, man.” It was great. He just welcomed me with open arms. And everyone, from Noel G to Chelsea Rendon to Noemi Gonzalez. You know, Brian Ortega was there! That was a blessing to have him there. He’s a champion fighter, and he’s just amazing. Brendon Schaub. Conejo, you know, who’s a beautiful human being. We had so many people from all walks of life, but at the same time, we’ve either seen each other growing up or we’ve watched each other grow and rise to the occasion. So, it’s a community of family, really. It’s like a family reunion. You haven’t seen each other in five years, but here we come, “This is what I’ve done” and “This is what I’ve done.” It just becomes like a big barbecue.

Your character, David, is put through the wringer in this film, and he sees the worst that humanity has to offer. Are you the kind of actor who channels their darkest memories and experiences in order to capture what he might be going through? Or do you trust the text and the special effects work that’s right in front of you on set to get you where you need to be?

I trust David Ayer. If we’re talking about the film, I trust the director because you’re swimming in a tank and the leader of the pack is right there with you. You can do anything. You can go as far as you want, but you’re still feeling like you’re safe. David allows you and gives you that space to search within yourself. And he really lets you go as far as you need because he tells you. On the first day, he told us, “I’m right here. Wherever you go, you turn around, and I’m going to be right behind you. I’m going to take care of you.” So, just having that trust and having that faith within each other, it allows an actor to really dig deep and find whatever they need to find, do what they’ve got to do to get there and feel like they’re luxuriating in their power. For me, personally, there was an ease to it. Of course, there’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure because you have a job to do. And so, if you get your job done, you’ll feel great about it. Having that safety net and feeling safe with a director, you can go anywhere. So, yeah, it was a very complex but interesting process. I want to do it again, if I could. I’d do it again.

Earlier this year, I was rather impressed with your performance in The Quarry. Did you immediately feel comfortable going toe to toe with Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham, or did you need a few takes to calm your nerves?

Well, working with those guys, they’re masters of the craft. And so, it gave me a lot of anxiety, but at the same time, a lot of excitement. (Laughs.) Because I was just feeling so evermore grateful to be in the presence of those two greats. Michael Shannon, whoa man, he’s like a lion! He’s just, wow, he’s beautiful. So it’s like, what do you do when you’re inside of a cage with a lion? Really, what do you do? You let the lion be. You let the lion be and you just take your breaths and you work with it. You see how you can move with it because you don’t want it to attack. It was great. They’re great human beings on and off set. They’re gentle people. They have very soft-spoken voices, so it allows you to connect. It’s not threatening at all. It’s very welcoming and homely. It’s something that’s very open. And I think that happens with the best artists out there where they’re just open, completely, and you can approach them and talk to them. They’ll make you feel at home, and those guys did that for me. They really empowered me, which just blessed me to work with them and for more to come.

Oddly enough, you shot The Tax Collector first, right?

Yes, I did. It happens in the right time, you know. Everything happens in its time. 

Do you expect to return to Narcos: Mexico season three since the real life of your character, David Barron, suggests that he’s still on the board in a major way? In fact, there’s a rumor that the season already started shooting in secret.

I guess we can stick with the rumor, but yeah, the character I was playing and the character I had in that last season had a big influence on those storylines. And so, hopefully, we get to see more of that.

***

The Tax Collector is now available at drive-ins, in select theaters and on demand.



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