Written by: Hannah Tran | April 16th, 2020
I recently had the opportunity to talk over the phone with actor Bobby Soto, whose mystery thriller film The Quarry (which I also reviewed), co-starring Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) and Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Nocturnal Animals), will be released on demand on April 17, 2020. This official SXSW selection, based on the novel by Damon Galgut, follows a drifter who, after murdering a preacher, must travel to a small town and convince its members that he is the man he killed. Below is a transcript of that interview, edited for clarity.
Hannah Tran: So you’ve talked about being from South Central Los Angeles before and how when you were growing up you weren’t really surrounded by the arts. I was just wondering what that was like and how you got into acting?
Bobby Soto: Yes, that area covers a pretty wide radius, but there is no real program for art. There is no dance class, no singing class, no painting class. There’s none of that. If anything, there are after-school programs where you can play basketball or handball or something, which is great, but there’s no art. It’s the first thing that they removed from the educational systems down there. And it was really unfortunate, because there were a lot of other negative things that you could get involved in, like, there is a liquor store on every corner, and that environment causes a ripple effect. That was just something I wasn’t interested in.
As a kid, I had the inkling I wanted to do something with art. I personally didn’t get involved with acting because I chose to. I had older twin sisters who, like every other kid at the time, wanted to be on Nickelodeon. So I was fortunate that my mom took it upon herself to look into it, and she found this couple by the names of Lisa Picotte and David Kaufman, in West Hollywood. So, my mom would drop us off at this teacher’s house, and that was a way for her to go to work, and then she would come back and pick us up. And you know, we didn’t really know what we were doing in this white lady’s house, and we were learning about something that we never knew about, but, little by little, we got used to it. And, after a year, she told my mom that my sisters weren’t really progressing, but that she should keep me there because it was good for me. And I studied with her for about five years before I even got into an agency or anything like that.
HT: Wow, I can’t imagine it was easy to stay actively engaged with acting in that environment. Is there anything specific that kept you motivated?
BS: I mean, my grandparents are immigrants from Puerto Rico and Mexico. They’re people that work in businesses doing the jobs in the shadows that you never hear about. Working hard to get a house and to get a family is their entire philosophy. I was about fifteen when I did my first commercial, and from there my mom realized that it actually gave some results and stability. And so, my mom said that it was great and that I should actually continue in this art form.
As I got older, I actually began to understand and love the craft of it. You know, it dates back to, like, the ancient times and cavemen. Thespians have been alive for thousands of years. And it’s only about a hundred years ago that we’ve built this industry surrounding it. And I fell in love with it, you know, the romanticism of it and the poetry of it, and it’s really inspiring, so I continued with it to this day
HT: Yeah, it’s really interesting to hear how you’re, in many ways, continuing your family’s legacy, but in your own way. I’ve also been really interested in one of the projects you’ve been working on in recent years, Slauson Rec, which was partially inspired by your childhood. Do you mind telling us a bit about that?
BS: Great, yes, Shia LaBeouf and I created a class for the community of South Los Angeles. It’s called Slauson Rec Theatre Company. Pretty much, what we’re trying to do is provide a space to feel safe and be strange and to explore things and get involved with like-minded individuals. We’ve had these great experiences with people from the industry who come and share their knowledge and experience with people who have never experienced anything like that. We’ll have people like the late, great John Singleton come by all the time. And we’re actually opening up free online Zoom classes because we had to close our doors a couple months ago. It was difficult to progress with new people pouring in all the time, and, now with the unfortunate events of the pandemic, we decided to do these Zoom classes. It’s gonna be a little different, of course, seeing as we’re not in groups together, but people can now watch us and see us and interact with what we’re doing, and we can finally open up the doors for everyone who has been wanting to get in.
HT: That’s amazing. It’s really such a great and creative cause. And, just to get into your current film, The Quarry, I was wondering how you got involved with that project and what the casting process was like for it.
BS: Before doing The Quarry, I had shot a film with David Ayer and Shia LaBeouf. That’s how I met Shia. So, Scott Teems, our director, was friends with David, and they talked, and he heard about the project that I did. And then, he talked to me and asked if I would be willing to read the novel. So, I read the book, and I met him, and we talked about it, and he wanted to know more about my personal life, and it was a very intimate conversation. We got down and dirty about ourselves. He and I were open books, and we intertwined with each other and fell in love with each other over lunch. Even at the time, though, he wasn’t sure if this was something that could happen. Things are always up in the air in this industry. It took a few more months before he called me back and was like “it actually happened.”
HT: So, you read the book before doing the movie. Were there any major differences between the two and what drew you to this story?
BS: Well, the novel is actually set in Africa, but I was happy that they adapted it to be a story that takes place here. That was great because there are similar things that happen throughout humanity, like racial discrimination or social injustices, but I was able to put my heart in this because it felt like a story that needed to be told right here and now. And, as you saw in the film, I can use what I’ve been given, you know, my history, my family, my experiences, the color of my skin, and I can use these things to tell stories that actually represent people who don’t have those opportunities. And hopefully, I can open up my heart and allow the people watching me on screen to open up their hearts as well. I think that if I can do that, the rest of humanity can see they can do it too.
HT: Is that what drew you to the character of Valentin? Or are there any other similarities you think you share with him?
BS: Definitely. I’ll tell you the truth. When I was in the third grade, I had a substitute Mexican-American teacher, and he said to us “I’m going to call off your first name, and I want you to call off your last name to mark that you’re here.” When he got to my name, he said “Bobby” and I said my last name. He looks at me and says, “Are you Mexican-American?” and then he goes, “Why do you say your name without respect and without love? You have to have that love in you when you say your name.”
Growing up, my only language was Spanish, and I didn’t know English. So I was taught for a long time how to speak and pronounce things like they were in English and not Spanish because you had to conform to the educational system or you wouldn’t pass. Growing up, I understood what it was like to experience my own social or racial injustices. It’s so sad. I’ve been here my whole life. When I read The Quarry, I related to these experiences that happen to people all day all around the world. It’s real, and it’s unfortunate, but it’s something that needs to be told. So it was really inspiring to get involved with it.
HT: And, just to wrap up, you mentioned you’ll be starring in the upcoming David Ayer movie. I was just wondering if you could tell us about that or any other future projects that we should look forward to seeing you in.
BS: Yeah, the David Ayer film The Tax Collector, from what I know, is coming out this year in August, so look out for that. And, of course, there’s the Zoom classes with Slauson Rec, so we’ll just keep building from there and see where it goes.
HT: Well, it was a pleasure speaking to you. I enjoyed hearing about your life, and I look forward to seeing you in all your upcoming projects. Thanks so much!
BS: Likewise. Thank you so much, and stay safe!