As a leading Afro-Latina actress, Cobra Kai’s Vanessa Rubio carries a unique perspective on the Emmy nominated Netflix series. Join us for a discussion of BIPOC representation in pop culture, the challenges of always having to “represent” for a larger group, how Vanessa finds time for self-care, and her thoughts on Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid.
As a leading Afro-Latina actress on Cobra Kai, actress Vanessa Rubio carries a unique perspective on the Emmy-nominated Netflix series, which returned for its fourth season in late December. In the show, Vanessa’s character, Carmen, develops a romantic relationship with William Zabka’s character, Johnny Lawrence. In addition to Cobra Kai, Vanessa also recently starred in the Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as the character Nagaina. Her additional TV credits include Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, Master of None, Gone and Deception. Join her on Instagram @veryvness.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome everyone, calling into the show today, we have Vanessa Rubio. As the leading Afro-Latina actress on Cobra Kai, Ms. Rubio carries a unique perspective on the Emmy nominated Netflix series. Her character, Carmen, plays a single mom to a teenager and develops a romantic relationship with William Zabka character Johnny Lawrence. Ms. Rubio, welcome to the show!
Vanessa Rubio: Thank you so much, Gabe, it’s really wonderful to be here. I have been listening to the episodes of your show and I’m really in awe and really grateful for the work that you’re doing for mental health. Thank you.
Gabe Howard: Oh, thank you so much for saying that, because I am in awe
Gabe Howard: Of you. I am a huge Karate Kid fan. I’m 44 years old. I love Cobra Kai. It’s like a blanket of nostalgia, just washing over me every time I watch it. So now I don’t want there to be spoilers. But after we’re done recording, we have to talk about your character’s relationship with the evil, evil, evil Johnny Lawrence.
Vanessa Rubio: Absolutely. It’s so funny when I watch the show myself, I feel like a fan myself, I’m watching and I’m like, This is such a great show. And then I remember, Oh yeah, I’m a part of it. I understand.
Gabe Howard: I have to say it must be surreal to see yourself on The Karate Kid because you weren’t part of the original series, the three that came out in the 80s that the Cobra Kai is based on. And, you know, the movies were very white. I mean, they had Mr. Miyagi, of course, but it was still a very stereotypical white journey. How do you feel about that being a BIPOC actress in the community, knowing that you’re part of such a, you know, for lack of better phrasing, such a very stereotypically 80s white franchise?
Vanessa Rubio: Oh, gosh, it’s such a complicated question that I’ll do my best to answer. It is kind of half and half, you know, growing up for me, I’m the daughter of immigrants from Colombia. Both my parents came over when they were in their early twenties and just hit the ground running, started having children, worked so hard. My parents’ work ethic is something I carry with me throughout my life. They were just hard workers and got themselves educated too. Although they had their degrees from Columbia, they also reeducated themselves here and got their degrees here. But in my household growing up, I mean, I grew up in a household in New Jersey. And that alone really says right to the character of Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid, who comes from Newark, New Jersey. And that movie in itself, I think the subject matter is so relatable to the underdog. The director, too. I mean, he directed Rocky and all these movies that had this sort of real-world grit that I think a lot of people in that era could relate to. And my family was no different. I mean, I’m the youngest of three and my older brother, who is properly the generation of The Karate Kid, I could tell in his experience watching the movie what it did to him, you know? And then he started taking karate and we all started taking karate, and it was like, we related to it.
Vanessa Rubio: And I think those scenes are universal, the themes of being the underdog. And that relates very much to the experience of being the children of immigrants and the immigrant experience and kind of the different traumas that can happen from that. I think the beauty of that story is that it’s highly relatable on so many levels. Just being the new kid and coming into this environment where you have to adapt and maybe code switch and find your inner strength to survive and evolving. And along the way, learn some beautiful lessons about humanity, you know what I mean? I think the Mr. Miyagi character is introduce everybody to these virtues.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about the Mr. Miyagi character for a moment, I know how 12 year old white middle-class Gabe saw Mr. Miyagi and of course, I loved Mr. Miyagi. He had so much wisdom and he was so mystical. But if you know, of course, here we are in 2021 and there’s criticism of his portrayal. Not everybody from Asia can clap their hands and cure you. There’s not magic.
Vanessa Rubio: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: There is an undertone there that we probably shouldn’t ignore.
Vanessa Rubio: Oh, my God, absolutely. I mean, there’s so much to unpack, it’s like we see this character and then so many other BIPOC characters and they exist in this world that is of the white lens that is comfortable viewing these characters in this way. You know, thankfully now and in hindsight, and even just what you said is a testament to our evolution and our continual perspective widening of why did we view him that way? As the actor didn’t have an accent You know, like my character? I don’t have an accent, as you can tell. It’s such a balancing act to bring these characters forth in all their beauty and complexity. But then also sort of tear them away from this white lens to just be and exist as their own without such a white lens over them.
Gabe Howard: I am not an actor. I want everybody
Vanessa Rubio: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: To know that. I’m not in Hollywood, but one of the things I notice is I live with bipolar disorder and whenever there is a movie that has a main character who has bipolar disorder, all of my friends and family are like, Hey, hey, hey, what’d you think? How is that representation? Is that what you go through? But again, I’m not an actor. I had nothing to do with creating that character. Is there pressure on you to get it right? To represent your community? And knowing full well that when I say you get it right, you’re not the writer, you’re not the director, you’re not the producer. So again, I think of how I have to represent and discuss bipolar characters in the abstract. What’s it like for you? That has to be a lot of pressure.
Vanessa Rubio: It is a lot of pressure, and I take it as like, OK, and I’m a big fan of whatever I wake up with in the morning that I wasn’t able to let go of the day before, that’s what I need to do. That’s what I need to nip in the bud or be vocal about. There were instances where I’m like, well, you know what? I feel all of this pressure on set and making this character, and I really have nobody to voice that with, except my own community of friends and Latinx creators who are not on the show and who I can bounce ideas off of. And I was like, you know, I’m just I realized I’m expending a lot of mental energy on trying to figure these things out, is she being represented in the right way? So I both voice that situation, and I was able to suggest the Latinx writer to the writers and just bring it to their attention and the producers as well. And they heard me out. They didn’t end up hiring the Latinx writer who I recommended, but at least it got the ball rolling. And in my mind, I’m like, well, you know, if I just have to continue talking about this, so be it. If I don’t get it done, maybe it’ll get done for somebody else down the line. I feel there is a thing about taking in information and realizing what is bothering you, what is not sitting well with you in any situation. In this case, we’re talking about the workplace and being BIPOC. And then what can I do? How can I voice it in a way that can instigate some change? All the while taking care of myself, you know, all the while remaining dedicated to my self-care technique. There is a thing of being overwhelmed by being the bearer of so much responsibility of representation. So I’m a big fan of reminding myself and other people, take care of yourself first, but also voice your opinions because we need to speak up now more than ever.
Gabe Howard: I love that you’re an advocate, and I love that you’re educating people, and I appreciate that on so much because I can’t possibly know anything that I cannot see or hear. So I have learned so much from interviewing so many people on all kinds of topics. So thank you for being that advocate. But it has to wreak havoc on your mental health. Just wandering around representing constantly has to be a burden for you. How do you manage it? How do you stay, you know, healthy and happy and mentally fit?
Vanessa Rubio: It is such a mix of things, and you’re totally right. You know, there are days where you’re just like, you know, I don’t want to deal with this, I don’t want to do that. And instead of sort of just forgetting about the whole responsibility in those instances, for me, I just take a self-care day where I’ll listen to what my intuition is telling me that I need to do and especially my body, because so many of these cases, they can kind of, for me, in my experience anyway, encourage me to escape my body in some way, you know, go off into dreamland or, you know, have a glass of wine or all these things that we can escape our bodies. But as an actor and as a human being, I am more powerful when I am in my body and I am aligned and I fight for that alignment in my body. Because for me, when I felt strong in my body, I was just more present to be present with my emotions and the little things that life was throwing at me. And I love this term microaggression. I got to say because just five years ago, that term really didn’t exist and we didn’t have a name for it. Those constant small aggressions and slights that BIPOC people are experiencing, which they take a toll on their mental health and the well-being of an individual.
Vanessa Rubio: I’m all for our evolving perspective on these matters because they bring to light and they name things that before were unnamable and added just to the stress of bearing the weight of something that you couldn’t quite name. So back to kind of the thing and remaining in the body, I think it’s a point of power for so many people, especially BIPOC people, because like I said before, we are in these positions where by our mere presence, we’re making people potentially uncomfortable because they don’t know how to deal with us or look at us or think about us, or they’re already projecting all these ideas on us. So we kind of have to know ourselves better than any anybody else and bring ourselves fully into these situations, but also with the compassion self-compassion to know, you know, some days, I can’t deal with that. I can’t. So I’m going to take an Epsom salt bath. I’m going to do some breath work. I’m going to vocalize and meditation because I feel like the more we take care of ourselves, the more we can provide space for ourselves during the day when we might be presented with all of these different challenges.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with actress Vanessa Rubio from the Netflix series Cobra Kai. I’ve learned a lot about mental health in the workplace, and then, of course, I learned even more about mental health in the workplace from the BIPOC perspective, a perspective that is not my own, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. And the entire time that I’m learning this, the workplace in my mind is in office, right? That’s, I’m just, everybody’s in an office. Like, there’s no other workplaces in America, everybody’s in an office. So that shows you the unintended bias that I already have, that everybody works at an office. But, you know, moving a little to the left of that, you work in Hollywood, you work on a movie set, you work with actors and actresses. What’s that like for you? Is workplace mental health a thing in Hollywood?
Vanessa Rubio: For the first time, actually, we were offered when we came back to film the ability to seek out mental health counselors and that is fully covered by the production. The way it was presented was in light of the pandemic, which I think is a positive thing coming out of the pandemic because we all went through a trauma together and through very strange times together. So to expect people to come out on the other side, OK and ready to work as they did before is not, it’s just not possible. And I think in this instance, it’s kind of a blessing because everybody knows that. Everybody feels that truth, that we’re not the same as we were before the pandemic and we can’t expect each other to act the same. Fortunately, I feel that shed so much light on so many things. You know, the Black Lives Matter movement probably wouldn’t have happened. I don’t know if it would have happened if we weren’t all on lockdown and could have this space and time to see that there is a real problem in our society. So it’s coming and it’s better and better. But, there are still things to work out. Me personally, I just kind of I always want my mental health professional, especially with talk therapy to be a person of color. I save 10 sessions just with that. I don’t have to explain certain things. They just get it. So it is getting better progressively.
Gabe Howard: While I love my wife and I love my friends and family, some of my best supporters are people who also live with bipolar disorder, people who live with bipolar disorder and have careers, houses, marriages, because they’re like me. And when you said you prefer a therapist of color because that saves you 10 sessions right there, that that really spoke to me. And then I thought, who is your support group?
Vanessa Rubio: My friend group is largely made up of Latinx writers and performers and actors, so most of my friends, my personal friend group, are Latinas or Latinx people. They either have been in the performing arts or currently still are. And there is a plethora of talent. I mean, the Latinx community is not lacking in talented people or quantity of people. And that’s part of the problem. We’re just not being hired. We’re not being seen fully. I am able, fortunately, to lean on my group of friends a lot. And even in the instance where I needed a Latinx writer of the right quality and type to recommend for the show, I was able to reach out and be fully held and supported by the group of Latinx creatives in Hollywood. I mean, I reached out and one person knew another person and put me in contact with this person and they were all there. There’s this wonderful group created by Gloria Calderon Kellett, the producer of One Day at a Time, and showrunner at One Day at a Time, excuse me. And Tanya Saracho, the showrunner of Vida. And they made a group called the Untitled Latinx Project. And it’s online and it’s all free and it’s all there. And there’s a list of Latinx writers and there’s a list of Latinx producers and directors and their bios and their contacts. So it’s like it’s right there. The community of Latinx people in Hollywood is fortunately so giving and especially these two women, Gloria and Tanya, they’re just widening the table for everybody. We’re all there. It’s very present. It’s a very supportive community.
Gabe Howard: I know that we’re running out of time, but I wanted to touch on something real quick and in feminist activism, there’s something called the Bechdel Test, and it’s to determine if the show actually represents women or is just using them to further a plot. In short, it asks whether a fictional work features at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Is this a concept that is needed to determine how minority characters are utilized in fictional works?
Vanessa Rubio: I would say why not, and I love the Bechdel test. I love the documentary This Changes Everything that Gina Davis has put on Netflix. Yes. Why not? Because it’s a good, clear test, right? To just see what’s happening here, and it’s revealing to everybody because then they take the test or they see a movie for this test and they go, Oh my God, we didn’t pass it. It’s very I think it’s a very good test. And yes, why not? Yeah, extend the test to BIPOC actors to see what the content is there
Gabe Howard: I feel like the Rubio Test is something that we’re all going to be talking about in the next year. I like the Bechdel Test concept because, you know, I have, I have a lot of female friends and they’re like, Hey, there’s not a lot of women in movies. And I was like, That’s not true. Every movie has
Vanessa Rubio: [Laughter] Right.
Gabe Howard: A woman. It’s just.
Vanessa Rubio: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: We’re done. Conversation over. I saw a woman. And they’re like, Well, yeah, but what are they doing? I was like, Well, what do you mean? They’re in the movie and they’re like, OK, but and then the Bechdel test, you know, came up, it rose to prominence like, Apply this and I was like, Wow,
Vanessa Rubio: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Oh man, that’s, that’s a mess. And
Vanessa Rubio: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: I imagine that if we had the equivalent test for the BIPOC community, we find out that, you know, just because there’s an African-American in the movie doesn’t mean that they’re well-represented or they’re not playing a stereotype. On one hand, it’s fascinating. But on the other hand, it’s just incredibly sad. And it’s not lost on me that we don’t need a white male test. And as we become more and more aware of this, I, I’m thankful that there’s actors like you representing in the community because I do think we’re making progress. It’s a shame that progress needs to be made, but since it does need to be made, thank you for your contributions to said progress.
Vanessa Rubio: Thank you, thank you so much, I only can grow with these experiences as we all can. Yeah, when we take these tests, the Bechdel Test, when we see, Oh my god, is this character not being represented well? It presents as a challenge and yet we do have to take a time to, in essence, kind of grieve a little bit about, Oh, where are we coming up short? But then we have to take action and change it because 10 years down the line, who knows what the entertainment industry will look like? I hope it will look so different and that will be better for everybody.
Gabe Howard: Ms. Rubio, thank you so much for being here. Listen up, you have to check out Cobra Kai. It’s out this month on Netflix. It’s the fourth season. If you’ve missed the last three, this is like a great three day weekend.
Gabe Howard: Now, Ms. Rubio, where can folks find just you on the web?
Vanessa Rubio: I’m a big fan of Instagram. My handle is @veryvness. Like the word very, the letter V and then N E S S. That’s the one I use the most. I try for mental health reasons not to use Twitter, but you’re more than welcome to follow me on Instagram.
Gabe Howard: Well, I hope everybody does that,
Vanessa Rubio: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Thank you for being here and thank you to our listeners for tuning in. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who is probably available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show, it is absolutely free. And recommend the show to your friends and family and co-workers and colleagues. Share it on social media, send a text, email, world of mouth is still a thing. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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