In July, David Ayer tweeted that he “grew up hood” in an attempt to defend himself from critics. The writer and director of 20 years continues to prove that he has a reliably misplaced relationship with his Latino characters. From the exaggerated homies in Training Day to the stereotypical drug dealers in Harsh Times, Ayer’s portrayals of Latinos on screen, apart from Michael Peña’s character in End of Watch, have been one dimensional at best.
Ayer continues his streak of writing insubstantial Latino characters with The Tax Collector—a tacky and unintelligible crime drama set in the gang-infested streets of South Central Los Angeles. Although actor Shia LaBeouf (Honey Boy) has attracted much of the film’s press over the last month with people wondering whether he is playing a Latino character (he’s not), this is not a Shia LaBeouf movie.
The Tax Collector is, in fact, a Bobby Soto (TV’s Narcos: Mexico) movie. Soto plays David—a husband, father and one of two “tax collectors” whose job it is to collect money from local gangs for their imprisoned crime boss. The other is Creeper (LaBeouf), the main enforcer who instills fear into gang members who are short on their payments.
When their boss’s rival returns to power after a decade and interferes with their business, David is forced to find a way to stop him from overtaking their turf and to keep his family safe from the enemies who want him to suffer.
Remezcla caught up with Soto to chat about The Tax Collector, the negative reactions it received online when the trailer hit, Latinx representation in Hollywood and more.
The Tax Collector hits theaters and VOD on August 7.
What was your initial reaction to the negative comments online about co-star Shia LaBeouf’s character’s ethnicity?
Being Chicano myself—Puerto Rican and Mexican-American and growing up in Los Angeles—I felt that was the worst controversy that ever existed. The people that understand what [Shia] did with his character and what he did as an artist are not complaining. The people who are complaining have no idea. I felt it was controversy just to make controversy, so they could have a little flair on their end. I thought it was the pettiest controversy that ever existed. I feel once the movie comes out, the people that know this are gonna back it up. Those people that don’t know shit are gonna shut up.
Most people would consider your character an anti-hero of sorts, but what would you say are his redeeming qualities? I think one could argue that because of the decisions he’s made and the role he plays in his neighborhood, he doesn’t have any. What’s your take?
The truth of life is that we don’t choose where we’re born. My character didn’t choose who his father was. He didn’t choose his upbringing or his way of life. It was already ingrained in his DNA at a microscopic level. Regardless of his actions, it was all part of the way he was taught and the way he was raised. I don’t see him as being a “bad person” because who’s to say what you or I would do if we were put in this predicament? What really matters when things are falling apart? Is it the people you love? There’s a song by Kendrick Lamar called “Loyalty.” If you hear the song and then see this movie, it’s the same thing.
When it comes to Latinx representation in film, we all know the stats aren’t great. Recently, director David Ayer said that to increase Latinx representation you have to, ‘Hire them. Hire them for jobs. Give them jobs and give them their voice.’ But is that enough? Is giving Latino and Latina actors jobs enough if those jobs are to portray stereotypical characters?
David Ayers is an advocate for the Chicano and for the Brown person. He’s always included Chicanos in his stories. I do agree with what he said, but I also agree with letting the best actor take the job. I don’t think, ‘Oh, because you have this color of skin, you deserve this story and this movie.’ I believe if you’re the best person for the job and you do it genuinely, then I have no complaints.
A lot of actors don’t believe they have the power to shift the narrative. Say you take a job that is stereotypical or cliché because there are no opportunities in this industry for Brown people. It’s the job of the actor to take his power and say, ‘This [character] doesn’t work because of this.’ I think a very unique person who has understanding and awareness of who they are would say, ‘Hey, this isn’t something I would necessarily do.’ You can make these [roles] human. These people that are playing these stereotypical parts that people have complaints about, you can make it into something worth watching. You can make it into an outstanding performance.
It’s up to [the actor] to make that decision. If they don’t, then they’ll continue that repetitiveness of, ‘Ah, there’s no jobs.’ No. Work your ass off. Do it really well and bring that shit to the table and don’t be afraid to stand your ground.
You had a role in the film A Better Life in 2011 with Demián Bichir, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing a day laborer. I think characters like that, which might seem stereotypical on paper, are able to find ways to break the mold because they are such multilayered characters. Wouldn’t you agree?
Yes, I totally agree. It was the work of [A Better Life director] Chris Weitz and Demián. The Bichir family from Mexico are all theater actors. So, when you get a trained actor like that from Mexico and put him in a big-budget movie in Hollywood, of course he’s gonna get nominated. He’s layered and he’s practiced. The guy’s been training all his life. He’s invested his time in the art. If you have this confidence and this appetite for [acting], that’s going to turn into something. It’s up to the person himself or herself to make those decisions. You can’t wait for someone to say, ‘his is what I want you to do.’
So, you don’t see a problem with the way David portrays Latinos in his films? Think back to all the Latino gang members in his movies like Harsh Times and End of Watch. Even Jay Hernandez looked like a member of Mara-Salvatrucha in Suicide Squad. You don’t find those negative images antithetical to the cause?
No, not even in The Tax Collector. Have you ever seen a Latino in a gangster movie wearing a leather jacket or have a combover? Nah, it doesn’t exist. That’s breaking cycles right there. This has changed the narrative. David is shifting the narrative in all his films. I don’t feel like it’s a negative thing. I went to a screening one day of Fences with Denzel Washington. They asked him, ‘How did you get an all African-American cast?’ And he said, ‘I walked in there and asked for it.’ That’s it. But that’s because he’s Denzel Washington. But it took him 20-something years to ask that and to get that to happen. For us Latinos, we don’t have a Denzel Washington or a Jay-Z or an Oprah. We’re blessed to have David Ayer telling these stories authentically and putting a brown person in front. He’s making things happen for the community. David has a specific way of telling his stories. That’s his world.
During a recent Q&A, David asked, ‘Where is the fucking Hollywood Chicano superstar?’ Do you have an answer for him? Is it you?
I mean, if it is, I’ll be grateful. I’ll continue doing what I gotta do and fighting the good fight.