Forging a career in Hollywood is tough right? I mean that’s a given. Imagine being an ethnic character actor. That’s the conundrum that I’ve been in over the years as an actress of Middle Eastern descent, who is too charactery to be a leading lady, but often times told that I’m not “charactery enough” to play a character role. I’ve also been told that I’m not “ethnic enough” to play an ethnic role and not “western looking enough” to play a more Americanized role. Over the years, I’ve heard insane things in the audition room and on set, especially when I play a Middle Eastern character and have to “hijab it up.” Unfortunately in this business, being politically incorrect and stereotyped will never go out of style.
In my ongoing column, I’ll chronicle the experiences of my fellow ethnic actresses and all the stereotypes and discrimination they’ve had to encounter. It will be a surprising and revealing look into this business as I also interview behind-the-scenes people in the industry, be it casting directors, producers, directors and screenwriters and get their take on this occurrence. There is, however, a silver lining in all of this and I will profile that in my column. In this modern day and age, we have amazingly creative people in the industry like powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,””Scandal,””How to Get Away with Murder”) who utilizes color blind casting and shows a better representation of society in her multiple award-winning series.
For my first interview I thought it would be best to start with the “Ms. in the Biz” herself, our founder, Helenna Santos. In addition to running Ms. In The Biz, Helenna is an actress, producer, and writer. She has worked in traditional TV and film as well as the digital space and can often be found on panels at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con and Stan Lee’s Comikaze. She currently has an award winning short horror film “The Infected” playing on the festival circuit, and is in production for an LGBT experimental short film. She also has the digital superhero series “Henchmen” slated to come out in 2015, and is in development for 2 feature films “Snatched” and “Specious” with her husband at Mighty Pharaoh Films. In addition to all of this she is about to publish the first Ms. In The Biz book and is also acting in a number of projects this winter season. So without further ado, let’s talk to this busy lady!
HELENNA: Ah….the “poo” story. Ok, that could sound weird to people. The only place I’ve talked about that story was in an interview for Film Courage, so I should explain.
I was about 9 years old or so and my supposed best friend at the time and I were fighting. She was yelling at me and told me I was “brown like poo, and should be in the toilet.” That was the moment that I realized I looked different from everyone around me in my hometown, which was mostly Caucasian. I think that’s also the moment that I decided in my child’s brain that I wanted to show people that every single person is significant and important no matter what color their skin is.
It was definitely a defining moment.
VIDA: What is it like to be an ethnically ambiguous actress in Hollywood? What roles do you normally get cast as?
HELENNA: Well, sometimes it feels like a gift, other times, not so much. There is already so little work for women, and even fewer roles for minorities.
What’s great is that because I’m a minority my look opens some doors, but on the flip side, my look can confuse people. I’m Filipino/Russian/German so I’m not easily put in a box. That being said, because my last name is Santos some people automatically assume I’m Hispanic. I’ve booked Hispanic roles in the past and spoken a bit of Spanish for parts, but if I’m up against a native Spanish speaker they are much more likely to book the job. I’ve also read for a large variety of roles of many ethnic backgrounds which is so much fun. It’s one of the great things about being an actor. You get to play in a number of different worlds and cultures.
Personally, I’d love to be able to do period pieces, but that’s something that I could really only do on the stage because there weren’t really any women who looked like me hanging out in middle class America during the “Mad Men” era. I am a big fan of color-blind casting, but again, for historically accurate period films/TV shows, it’s just not something that I’m able to do which is completely understandable, but a total bummer.
On that note, for awhile it was “in” to be “ethnically ambiguous.” It seemed to be flooding the breakdowns. But now, I feel like it’s stopped being the hot ticket, and there are once again very few roles. A lot of the time too, I think that many roles could go to someone who is a minority, but people have a hard time seeing outside of the box.
VIDA: It’s admirable and so important in this day and age that you starred in the “Infected.” This short film is the horror genre, which rarely has ethnic women in lead roles. How was that experience for you?
HELENNA: It’s funny, until we wrapped shooting, I never even thought about the fact that I was a minority actress playing a lead role in a horror flick and how completely out of the norm it was. It really wasn’t until we were putting together our crowdfunding campaign and looking at what makes our project different that I was like, “wait a sec, this rarely happens.” I could only count about six or so horror flicks that have minority leads, which was shocking.
Strangely, I often don’t even think about the casting when I’m watching something until I realize that I haven’t seen a single person of color. At that point it’s usually because they are the “token” minority. It’s strange that this still exists, but sadly it does, and that’s across all mediums and genres. Things are getting better though little by little, but we still have a really really far way to go to show the ethnic diversity that we see in the real world accurately mirrored in entertainment. In fact, a friend of mine posted on facebook awhile back, that while riding the subway in New York there were more Caucasian faces on the billboards for the new fall shows then there were in the entire train car full of people.
VIDA: Lots of shows like “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have color blind casting, thanks to the wisdom, talent and foresight of award-winning showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Do you see that as a trend that will hopefully expand?
HELENNA: Oh man, I really hope so. For Asian actors and actresses specifically, there are just so few roles. When John Cho was cast in “Selfie” this fall I was inwardly, and well..outwardly too, jumping for joy. That role would traditionally have been played by a Caucasian actor, so it’s really exiting to see an Asian lead.
VIDA: Do you find it inspiring that an actress like Mindy Kaling is the star of her own series?
HELENNA: Absolutely! God I love her. Her career trajectory really shows what Ms. In the Biz is all about. She created her own work and is a powerhouse in the industry. The thing is, if she hadn’t worked so incredibly hard and shown herself to be the force of nature that she is, I don’t know that Hollywood would have given her the opportunities that she has created for herself. She is such an inspiration.
VIDA: What advice do you give young actresses, especially those of mixed backgrounds who fall into the ethnically ambiguous category?
HELENNA: Rock the traditional route of auditioning and booking gigs and be able to be a chameleon, but then also create your own work to show people how to cast you. That is a good thing for anyone to do no matter what your ethnic background, but especially for people of color.
I was having a hard time getting people to see me as a comedic actress, so I did a pilot for a comedic webseries back in 2008 called “The Day Player” which inadvertently lead to me having the opportunity to audition for and book “American Reunion” written and directed by two of my favorite comedy writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg (of “Harold and Kumar” fame). I don’t know that that opportunity would have come around without me having written a project to star in.
The same thing goes for the horror genre. I am such a huge horror fan, and now that “The Infected” is doing its festival run and won a Best Horror Short award, I’m excited to get it into the hands of people who can hire me to work in that genre.
Again this is just the best way for actors these days to go about doing things, and I feel like it’s almost passé or commonplace at this point just because so many people are saying the same thing. But it’s because we all need to be multi-hyphenate actor/producer/writers these days and really take advantage of this golden age of the internet. Don’t wait for the work to find you, make the work. And this is especially true if you are an actor of color. No one is going to hand you the keys to the kingdom, so you just have to create your own.
VIDA: You seem really motived to break out of the limiting and limited small character roles that unfortunately most ethnic actresses are relegated to…the friend, the teacher, the nurse. While those roles are great, leading roles would be amazing for you/our type. So great that you are forging ahead on your own projects, which is very inspiring. What are your future goals with the projects you are creating?
HELENNA: It’s interesting. The only time I really think about the fact that I’m “ethnic” is when I look at the stats for Asian American actresses in film and TV and see how pathetic it is. Even though it’s getting better, we definitely have a long way to go. I get pretty inflamed when I watch something and everyone is Caucasian and I just think to myself, “there couldn’t have been just one minority face even if it’s not the lead?” It’s frustrating. But again, I don’t like to live in a world where I complain all the time. I would rather stay in action and create the change instead of getting overwhelmed by the lack of opportunity. And while being “ethnically ambiguous” can be tough because there are often even less roles that I can go out for since my look isn’t specific enough, I can also be a chameleon which is awesome.
As far as the projects I’m producing, and thank you for the kind words, I’m just going to keep putting myself in projects and creating roles that I’m jazzed to play. I’m currently in production for a super experimental LGBT short film. It’s very different from anything I’ve done so far so it’s been an absolute blast. The features that I’m developing with my husband Barry W. Levy for our production company Mighty Pharaoh Films also have lead roles or strong supporting roles that I’ll be playing that are written for specifically for me.
We don’t ever mention the fact that I’m not Caucasian, it just happens to be the way it is, which for me is a big deal. By that I mean that I love that Glen in “The Walking Dead” just IS Asian. There is never any talk about the fact that he’s Asian. He just happens to be Asian. I think that once we are able to just see people as people there will be a lot more opportunity for actors of color to fill roles that we otherwise would not have played. Until then, there will continue to be stereotyping. Again, this is a blessing and also not. By being stereotyped you are being cast which is great! But at the same time it just perpetuates the problem. So really the only thing to do is to keep pushing the boundaries, and for me that means creating projects for my ethnically ambiguous self to be seen in.
Going back to Mindy Kaling, I get that feeling from her too, especially since I’ve had the pleasure of working with her. She’s a comedic actress that happens to be of Indian descent and not the other way around. I think it’s so wonderful that you have a great attitude about this business and don’t sit by the phone like most actors waiting for your career to happen. As artists, it’s so important to be proactive and create opportunities for ourselves. Kudos to you Helenna and thanks for this outlet to express my opinions!