Written by: Adam Vaughn | February 12th, 2021
On Friday, January 29th, I had the pleasure of speaking with actor Han Soto, who recently starred in Netflix’s third season of Cobra Kai. Soto has a dominant cameo appearance as the ruthless Vietnam War general Pham Minh Thao (as part of a flashback where John Kreese is stationed as a soldier in the middle of that conflict). We discussed his early acting career, his transition from an entirely different, some of Mr. Soto’s fondest onscreen memories, and his experiences with many of today’s cultural shifts in cinema.
Adam Vaughn: First off, congratulations for your role in Cobra Kai. That’s pretty exciting, and I enjoyed the show and your performance.
Han Soto: Thank you so much!
AV: Absolutely! And as you can imagine, the first question for you is Cobra Kai related.
HS: Let’s do it, man. Let’s rock and roll!
AV: So your character, Pham Minh Thao, can be considered one of the bay-guy characters of the season. How did you get into the mindset of your character’s background and how he justifies what he’s doing?
HS: Well part of what I do for my studies is I create characters! I have about 18-20 different characters, and they span across all kinds of personalities. There’s a schizophrenic, there’s a man who battles depression, I have a handful of “evil guys.” Why they’re evil is kind of the backstory that I’ve built from that. So every week I revisit these and I go “Aw man, maybe this guy smokes a certain type of cigarette, maybe he does one of those non-filter cigarettes, you know, ‘cos he’s a badass.” So I had this guy already built up, but he was more like an African region, diamond-trade sort of military leader of a person. So was already a pretty badass guy with a machete. So I just replaced him with a gun! I took him off the shelf, dusted him off, and I made him Vietnamese, and now he’s got a gun. So it was cool to be able to take him off the shelf and apply him to Phan Minh Thao, because in his situation he kind of feels the same. His motivation is to torture…… for revenge. And who’s he revenging against? He’s revenging his countrymen. Why are these American soldiers coming into my country and killing my people? But now I got you, and I can do anything I want with you. So put him in a lawless place and let your imagination go wild. And so I was the boss, man. I was the boss on set, nobody crossed my path. Even my own soldiers, if they crossed my path, they get shot. No questions asked. So that’s kind of the level of evil I want him to be.
AV: That’s a pretty cool role to fill, I can imagine!
HS: It’s wild! Really wild!
AV: Sounds like a pretty demanding role.
HS: It was a demanding role, and they let me be as free as I wanted to be with the character. I wasn’t tied to lines or what was on the script. You get the broad stroke of what they wanted, and the creators just kind of let me be.
AV: That’s awesome. So, I was looking through past performances for you, and your career in Hollywood goes back a few years. You have credits for the most recent Fantastic Four movie, Logan, all the way back to G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Looper …
HS: That’s an oldie but goodie!
AV: And through this span of performances, what was a moment for you, either a specific film or just a personal moment you’ve had, where you realized you had that “breakthrough,” where you realized your career had advanced to the next level?
HS: There were a bunch of moments where it wasn’t necessarily a “breakthrough,” but I think every credit I have on there was like a notch to the brick, and as that brick kind of falls off to the other side, it gets to the point where if you hit the right brick the whole wall falls down and you’re free. I’ve been very blessed working with amazing castmates and watching my fellow thespians in the Southeast region. I’ve actually never set foot on a set in L.A.
HS: I’ve never been to a studio location or a stage, everything I’ve shot has been in the southeast region. Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Florida. So with that being said there are a bunch of us like that. And it’s nice to see everyone carve their own path of success. And it just happens, one day you’re just chilling, the next day you’re 8-10 interviews a day. And [you’re told] you gotta learn a Media class on how to do interviews. It’s crazy, it’s a learning process. The breakthrough is just keeping at it. And then looking around and seeing who’s still around. Because you start with a team, and the hope is to just have that same team when you get to the top.
AV: Very cool. What has been your favorite film set experience?
HS: Hmmm… I really enjoyed being on the set of Ender’s Game. I played Harrison Ford’s lieutenant [assistant], so I was on set for about four or five months. And with that being said, I was able to watch the production come alive in every aspect! I was camping out in “video village,” watching performances of Viola Davis, Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley. It was magical to see everybody working, and I was watching it for that side of the camera, from the other side of the camera. And just to mix it up, I was called in to do a scene with them. I had a lot of time to decide where I wanted to spread my presence. I always enjoyed hanging out around the video village where you can see the performances!
AV: Was that one of the first times you’d been in the video village?
HS: That was not the first time. Every set I go on, I try not to go to my trailer too much. I like watching the action go down. It’s like a master class!
AV: That’s a great way to think of it! So before you started with entertainment, you had worked in places like the trade industry, branded businesses, Information Technology, and you had a pretty good success with these areas of work. Was it always a dream to be an actor someday, or was it something you discovered while tackling all of these different roles?
HS: I think part of finding what you want to do is do a whole lot of things you don’t like doing. ‘Cos I’ve done everything man, I sold knives at one point, sold insurance, I’ve done all of it to know that I don’t want to do it anymore. I worked at Gordon’s Jewelers when I was 17 in the mall. I always liked people and stories, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor. I stumbled on this career path when I did a Madden commercial as an extra, and I immediately got upgraded to principal. And when it aired, the checks started rolling in, and I told myself “Okay, financially this could work!” But then I started digging in at “Okay, how do I make this work?” So one of the ways to make it work was to sell whatever companies I had existing. So I didn’t have a safety net to fall back on. So I sold them, and I gave myself five years to do it. I want to say within three years I booked the role with Harrison Ford, and the rest was history. I keep working at it though, keep developing these characters. I feel like opportunity is both luck and preparation, so that’s kind of where my sweet spot is, just keep working even when you’re not working.
AV: Cool. What advice would you give to any actor who is up-and-coming or looking to break into today’s entertainment climate.
HS: Make sure your team is strong. Don’t focus too much on the destination but enjoy the journey, and figure out who you want in the car with you on that road trip to your destination. That’s where the sweet spot is. You’re going to celebrate when you get there, so who do you want with you? So my advice to them is to find people that will lift you and not take you down.
AV: That’s a cool answer, I like that.
HS: The goal is to make sure we’re lifting each other up. There’s no point in one guy getting to the top and the others are just kind of down there…. Not at the top. It just doesn’t feel right…. “Ubuntu” have you heard of that phrase?
AV: Remind me.
HS: It loosely translates to “I am because we are.” And the people around me, that’s how we do it!
AV: Very cool! What challenges have you faced as an Asian actor breaking into screen acting in the U.S.?
HS: When I first started out acting, the challenges were there were not that many roles for someone who looked like me, and it was always the “corner store clerk,” stereotypical stuff, and every time something was written it was like the writers were playing into the stereotype, and at the time I wasn’t in a position to say no to work, so I said, “Alright man, I’ll do it.” So I did a few of those. The challenges….. I’d say we’ve come together collectively [as a generation] to make sure that the road that’s paved for the next generation is a smoother one, and that Asian actors aren’t just doing karate moves and speaking broken English. But….. if you don’t speak up and let people know, or let the creators/writers know “Hey can I try something different, something not so broken English.” then you would never have the opportunity to do so. I did it on Heist, when I was opposite Robert De Niro. RIGHT before we roll take, I asked the director, “Do you mind if I just do my thing? I don’t want this guy to have a broken accent. It’s just not as powerful” And he’s like (and this is the first time!) he says “Go, do it. Do your thing, I trust you!” And when he said those words I was just like “Wow!” So there you go! That’s for your other question “What’s your big breakthrough?” He said, “I trust you” and I did it! We shot one take, and that’s the end! He comes over and grabs my neck and goes “I love it that’s awesome!” It’s just I’m more powerful when I speak English (laughs) There are challenges though. But like I said, if you don’t speak up and say “Hey this is not really who we are” then they’re never going to hear it.
AV: Do you think that it’s often just something that isn’t thought of?
HS: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling anyone stupid, but if you don’t know you just don’t know. And I feel like that’s a responsibility for an Asian actor, or any actor really, if someone is writing about your culture, it’s okay to speak up. They’re not going to fire you for it.
AV: Because at the end of the day, I feel as if, in that moment (with your example of Heist) you brought something to the table by saying “Can I do it this way?” that maybe that director just didn’t think of. Maybe they didn’t think “Hey this could work” and in your case it worked perfectly.
HS: ‘Cos it’s like they write it, and they think writing a broken English accent for a high-roller poker gambler is….. is right.
AV: Either it’s been done before and it worked for that film, or….
HS: But it doesn’t have to. And that’s what I’m saying is just be brave in your conviction and… but don’t change things just to change it! That’s the other thing. If the character grows up in an uneducated household, and he just didn’t go to school, sure broken English is great. I would do it. But he’s not!! This guy made money! This guy’s a high-roller, he made money. Why the hell is he not speaking English? So that’s kind of my mindset. And I’m opposite De Niro, so it’s like let’s be strong together. If I speak like that, it’s going to bring him higher. So yeah, it was nice. Refreshing.
AV: You mentioned that you think we’ve set up for the next generation a solid concept of where to go with representation. Is there any particular moment in Hollywood where you felt that shift in the tide where we’re now seeing things in a different way?
HS: For me we’ve recently lived it. Crazy Rich Asians for example… I mean if that’s not setting the foundation for “Hey, an Asian lead can make money” in movies. And shoutout to Henry Golding, he’s been doing great. A lot of romantic lead roles, and that’s setting “the path.” To show that Asians are not just a bi-product. It’s bankable. It really did a good job in setting that foundation and in allowing Hollywood to see that “Wow, there might be something there!” Fresh off the Boat, same thing.
AV: You have something where it’s like “I didn’t know there was a story to tell there.”
HS: I’m proud of the position we’re in right now, and I think it’s just going to get better and better as we progress on this journey. It’s just making sure that we all stay the course. And not just with Asians, but with all races across the board.
AV: Absolutely! Very cool. Without spoiling anything about Cobra Kai, clearly there’s some setup for a 4th season in many ways. Can we expect to see more of Pham Minh Thao? Or is that story over and done?
HS: I can’t really comment on that, but I will say this: when Vietnamese soldiers do what they did then, there’s a lot of remorse that surrounds that. So any kinds of reunions that happen later in life are those of compassion and forgiveness. Seeking forgiveness. Just the majority of what I’ve seen. I don’t think they’d come back to battle it out or anything like that.
AV: Right, I would imagine they would keep it in that “flashback” setting.
HS: It would be cool!
AV: But I didn’t even think of a present-day encounter. I mean we’ve seen that with Daniel LaRusso and Chozen in Season 3, where two enemies come back and learn from each other. That angle would be quite interesting!
HS: That would be nice to see Kreese in a more compassionate space, if not for a short time. They can go anywhere they want with Season 4, and I think they will. We’ll just have to stay tuned. I hope that I do come back, and if I do I’m going to bring it even more!