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Interviews

Interview: Han Soto Talks “Cobra Kai”, Connecting with Fans, and The Power of Ubuntu

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Will Miguel recover? Will Johnny reclaim his dojo? Is the next generation of students doomed to repeat the same mistakes as their senseis before them? Following the shocking cliffhanger that left fans on the edge of their seats, hit Netflix dramedy Cobra Kai is back and ready to answer these burning questions and more in its action-packed third season.

Continuing the ever-evolving rivalry which continues to boil between original Karate Kid stars Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and John Kreese (Martin Kove), fans can attest that Cobra Kai has come a long way since the initial movie first kickstarted the martial arts franchise in 1984. Yet, while many things have changed, there are certain fundamentals that are simply too classic to budge.

Infamous as the merciless founder of the Cobra Kai dojo, Kreese remains a conniving villain throughout the TV adaptation. However, to the delight of fans, the series treats viewers to a set of Vietnam War era flashbacks in which the fearsome sensei’s backstory is finally revealed.

Key to molding the budding antagonist into the snake-like nemesis he is today and inadvertently providing his dojo with the notorious Cobra Kai name, actor Han Soto stars as Pham Minh Thao, the soldier who keeps Kreese and his unit captive as prisoners of war. Putting the young veteran’s virtues and karate skills to the test, Soto’s character helps tip the scales in Kreese’s path to full scale supervillain status.

An accomplished actor, producer, and partner at film distribution company Kamikaze Dogfight, Soto can be seen in a variety of popular TV and movie sensations with credits ranging from Olympus Has Fallen and Grudge Match with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, to MacGyver and The Purge. However, he is just as passionate about helping others get their big break.

Check out our interview with Han below as he gives us a special look into his Cobra Kai character, connecting with fans, the power of ubuntu, and more!

Congratulations on season 3 of Cobra Kai! The series is one of my current favourites. It only took me two days to binge-watch all of the new episodes on Netflix! 

That’s the only way to do it! (laughs) Did you watch all of Season 1 and 2 leading up to it?

I followed along as they came out and enjoyed re-watching the episodes you starred in!

Nice! Thank you for the support!

Absolutely! I heard that you’re a big fan of the original movies as well. What was your reaction when you first booked the role and got to play a part in the Miyagi universe?

I love the movies! Who isn’t a fan, right? When I got the part, I did this really weird happy dance that I didn’t even know that I could do! That lasted for about two minutes and I was exhausted after! It was a dream come true and I had to pinch myself. Later, when I dove into the character and realized the impact that he had on the Karate Kid universe, that’s when I had to pinch myself twice.

Did you go back and watch the movies or the previous seasons again before filming?

Yes, I did! I actually watched Cobra Kai prior to even getting the role in an attempt to manifest a part for myself in the series. Before that, I had done an audition for a bartender in one of the seasons. I didn’t get that one and I’m grateful everything worked out the way it did.

My seven-year-old daughter watched it with me, so she had a lot of questions about bullying, fighting, and why they were doing things the way they did. That was very interesting for me.

I totally get that. I think communication could have saved the day, but it made for such good drama. I was hooked!

Exactly! (laughs) Where are you calling from?

I’m from San Diego, but the magazine is based in Toronto. I noticed you have a Louisiana caller ID. Is that where you’re located? 

Yes, it says Louisiana but I actually live in Colorado.

Colorado’s great! My family is big into skiing, so we love visiting Snowmass whenever we can.

That’s a lot of fun! I recently tried putting on skis for the first time. We did two bunny runs and then decided “ok we got it”, so we jumped on double blues! That killed the experience for me so I switched back over to snowboarding.

Oh no! Well, if all else fails, there’s always making snowmen and sipping hot chocolate by the fireplace!

Totally!

Jumping back into Cobra Kai, you hinted at the impact your character has on the series. Pham Minh Thao is instrumental in shaping John Kreese’s villain origin story. I was curious, what do you love about playing the villain in a show like this? 

I love the freedom of it. My character has this space where he can do whatever he wants without any consequences. Most human beings can only dream of having that kind of environment outside of the screen, so it’s nice to sort of walk in and know that I am the boss in that scene. The way I played the character, even his own people wouldn’t dare cross him. If they did, they’d get shot and he wouldn’t ask questions as to why they did what they did. That’s how evil and impulsive he is.

I heard you had a lot of room to play with the character’s personality and what you wanted him to do and say. Do you tend to prefer a more impromptu or a more scripted style of acting? 

I really like improv acting! With Cobra Kai, I was able to edit most of the material that was written for me in order to make the character into who he was.

There are filler words in Vietnamese that a writer could never really hone in on because unless you’re embedded in the culture, you wouldn’t understand. It was nice to work in tandem with the scriptwriters and creators to let them know what I was going to be doing with this character linguistically. It was very free and they trusted the process. I really appreciated that.

You got to keep everyone on their toes!

I did! (laughs)

Viewers seemed to really love meeting your character. I know the first day that season 3 dropped on Netflix, you received thousands of messages, causing your Instagram to crash! Do you have a favorite fan interaction that you could share?

Yes! There was a guy who sent me a message. He said “it’s very scary how familiar you portrayed that character. I felt like I was watching my Grandfather”.

He saw a lot of similar mannerisms in the way that I moved and he said it was eerie how much of his Grandfather he saw in Pham Minh Thao. I responded and asked him if he was in the war, and he basically described everything that I was kind of experiencing as a character.

He’s an extremely nice guy and the grandfather is super compassionate in this stage of his life. I’m very curious to see how the grandfather is living now. Whether he’s living with regrets and things like that. It was nice to engage with somebody who related to the character in that way.

Definitely! And given the show’s propensity to bring back characters, it’s always possible that you may make another appearance and could even incorporate some of his story into the role.

Oh yeah! If that happened, I would be reaching out to him and talking to his grandfather for sure. That would be awesome!

I think something that’s really neat about Cobra Kai is that it follows the next generation of karate students and their coming-of-age stories. Given that you have a young daughter, do you see Cobra Kai or the movies in a new light now that you’re watching from a parent’s perspective compared to when you were growing up? 

Of course! It’s a game changer when you’re responsible for another human being. Whether it be big or small, what we expose our kids to ultimately shapes and helps them create their own thoughts around certain issues. Having her see the first Karate Kid movie and watch what I saw as a child was important to me. I was able to relate to her and answer any questions she had.

Cobra Kai tackles a whole different form of bullying, so it was nice for her to see that and juxtapose it with what I grew up with as well.

Running with the martial arts theme, your company Kamikaze Dogfight acquired the rights to distribute the riveting new film Haymaker. It’s the directorial debut for Nick Sasso who plays a retired Muay Thai fighter. What do you look for in a film or a new director who is trying to make their first break? 

We look for passion. I think you can figure out within the first five or ten minutes of speaking with someone if they’re passionate about filmmaking and really care about their project. That’s the kind of culture we’re building within our distribution company.

Nick is an amazing director! He did a wonderful job with the movie and the chemistry was just astounding. Have you seen it yet?

I saw the trailer and it looks excellent! 

It really is! It came out at the same time as Palmer. Both of the movies kind of share certain characteristics with one another. It’s always nice to have another movie’s marketing strategy piggybacked on yours.

In addition to your roles as an actor and distributor, you’re also an accomplished producer and have worked on everything from documentaries to music videos. Has this experience informed your acting in any way or vice versa? 

Absolutely! It’s allowed me to see the other side of the camera and what goes on behind the scenes. As an actor, when you show up on set, the trailer is usually ready for you and all the logistics have already been done. You’re spoiled in a way. So, it’s nice to be able to cater to the talent on the projects I’m producing and give back in that way.

When did you know you wanted to take the leap from acting to producing?

I didn’t! (laughs) The opportunity actually came to me by way of a documentary called A Tuba to Cuba. Some close friends of mine in New Orleans had asked me to jump on and help them with the project, but I kind of took the helm and went a step further to go and get funding. One thing led to another and the next thing you know, we’re in Cuba right when the embargo was lifted shooting a documentary.

It was the most primal experience ever as a producer. I wouldn’t recommend doing that as your first one out of the gate! (laughs) A lot of production is dependent on electronic transmission like email and phone calls. Imagine having that stripped away from you and then saying “hey, let’s produce a movie!”

It’s crazy because that forced us to be in the moment at all times. I think that’s what helped bring out the charm of the movie. Everybody was one hundred percent present while we were filming. It really shows!

Whether it be supporting other filmmakers via Kamikaze Dogfight or through direct humanitarian or documentary work, you always seem to be an active member in your community as a whole. I was excited that on your website you have the word “ubuntu” highlighted. How did you come across that motto and how does it influence your outlook on acting and life?  

That’s awesome you’re familiar with it! I don’t remember where I first came across that term, but as soon as I read it, it really stuck with me.

I think that as a society, we tend to want more and more, but it’s always for ourselves. When I read about ubuntu, I thought to myself, “wow. This is what we’re experiencing, we just never nailed down a term to describe it”.

Sometimes you know things almost innately. So, when you read or see someone put it into words, it’s quite impactful. I latched on to ubuntu and that became the jumping off point for how I build relationships and how I’ve navigated the industry.

I feel like it’s incredibly pertinent to our lives. I was actually just speaking with someone about ubuntu the other week! 

Nice! I think everyone should learn about it. It’s powerful, you know?

Agreed! Maybe you heard about it through the anthropologist story?

Is that the one with the basket and the kids?

That’s it! 

Yeah! I love that story. It’s very touching. Those were kids who didn’t have anything, but were still kind. I’m so happy that you know the term!

When I saw it on your website, I felt an instant connection! (laughs) 

Yes! It’s really great!

In addition to ubuntu, another area of your website that sparked my interest was your music work! Particularly your role as a producer in Paul McCartney’s “Come on To Me” video. Could you tell us a little bit about your involvement in that project? 

The same team that we did A Tuba to Cuba with called me and asked if I’d produce that as well. There’s a level of trust between us. It really goes back to ubuntu because we’re all in it together! No matter who lands a project, we always try to find a way to bring the other person in. They happened to have the need for my skill set in this particular project and I got to go in, have fun, and do what I love!

That’s excellent! I’m a huge music buff, so I knew I had to ask you about it!

Oh, you definitely have to watch that documentary we did! If you resonate with music, I think A Tuba to Cuba would make you cry! We retraced the steps of New Orleans jazz to Cuba and then all the way to Africa.

The crazy part was, we didn’t even have Africa written in it! We discovered it when we came there and had to rewrite the script as we were going. Allowing the film to organically come together played a big part. Sometimes you’re resistant to new ideas just because they mess with the plan. But I think it was very important for us to stay authentic to what we were trying to do.

One of my last questions for you is, are there any projects that you’re currently working on or are excited for coming up?

Oh man, where do I start! At Kamikaze Dogfight, we’re taking on filmmakers and putting out two projects every month. I think by the end of the year, you’ll be seeing Kamikaze all over the place in terms of horror films and some profound documentaries. We’re also producing projects with the filmmakers who we’re already distributed with through a film fund. It’s exhilarating how everything kind of ties in together.

I also have Reminiscence coming out with Hugh Jackman in 2021. That should be fun! I’m just staying busy and keeping the creative juices flowing!

We have a good group of people in our corner and there’s open communication with everyone. I think that’s important because whether it’s in its infant stages or not, no one feels like their idea is bad. That’s the kind of positive outlook we cultivate. If you have an idea, throw it out there. You never know if someone is going to pick it up and run with it.

To wrap things up, I have a couple fun fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Yes! Let’s do it!

In addition to Cobra Kai, a show I can’t wait to binge-watch is…

Outlander!

In my free time I love to…

Hike.

If someone were to make a movie about my life, the actor I’d want to play me would be…

Edward Norton!

My favorite TV or movie villain is… 

Is Jeff Bridges an answer? I feel like he’s played some good evil villains!

Last one for you! In the Super Bowl coming up, between the Chiefs and the Buccaneers, I’m cheering for…

The Chiefs! Tom Brady just beat my team, the New Orleans Saints! (laughs) I’m still recovering!

Cobra Kai season 3 is airing now on Netflix

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