Helenna Santos on Latest Project The Infected and Ms. In The Biz – A Site Written by and for Women in the Entertainment Industry
FC: From your IMDB page, it reads that you were a singer and performer from the age of 5. Who took you on auditions? What was your first one?
HS: I actually didn’t audition much as a child because I was focused more on singing and didn’t actually start acting until college. All my performance was based in choirs and as a solo singer for the most part. That being said, the first major audition I had was for Les Miserables to be one of the children in the chorus. We had to sing “Oh Canada,” because I grew up in Canada, and I just remember being cut off after the first few bars. They basically just said “next!” Yah, I cried the whole way home. Pretty traumatizing for a 7 year old.
FC: What was the most defining moment of your childhood?
HS: Wow, that’s a huge question. This is kind of depressing, but important. 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 your skin is.
FC: Do you miss home?
HS: Yes and no. I was born in California but raised just outside of Vancouver, BC Canada. I miss my family and friends there, but not the weather. The year before I moved back to LA there was a torrential downpour of 30 days of straight rain. I had fake sun lamps all over my apartment. Gotta say, nothing beats the weather in LA.
FC: Were you a follower or leader in high school?
HS: Well, I definitely followed the beat of my own drum. I wasn’t concerned with being in the popular group at all but I definitely had a lot of really great friends in all social circles. I was majorly into band and choir and was a bit of a “Rachel Berry.” That being said, I also went through a big grunge hippie phase and I wrote poetry voraciously all through high school.
FC: Your website mentions your love of The Doors – what is it about Jim Morrison and The Doors that moves you?
HS: Oh man, everything. Partially because I used to date only guys in bands. No kidding. Well, sort of. But seriously, there is something so raw and simple and elegant about all of his poetry. I just love it. And The Doors, man, they are just such great rockstars.
FC: What have you been told is your ‘type’ in terms if casting? Do you embrace what you’ve been told or do you want to extend beyond it?
HS: That’s an interesting question. My “type” has always kind of been a strange thing for me. As far as race is concerned I’m Filipino, Russian, and German, but most people think I’m Hispanic because my last name is from when the Spanish were in the Philippines. While I don’t speak Spanish, like many actors, I’ve learned lines for roles before in Spanish. My first professional gig was actually for “The Dead Zone” on USA Network and I was screaming in Spanish in a van while drowning. Such a fun day on set!
I’m rarely seen for Asian roles even though I am Asian. It’s a great thing to be labeled as “ethnically ambiguous,” but like I mentioned because my last name screams Spanish to many people, sometimes I won’t be seen for some of the “ethnically ambiguous” roles. For awhile I was going by my married name “Helenna Santos-Levy” which just confused people further, so I decided just to stick with Helenna Santos professionally. If people are already confused, it’s best not to confuse them any more I think.
As far as type I go out for everything from sexy Latina chick, to quirky secretary, to nerdy sidekick. I often joke that my Filipino and Russian/German sides make up two sides of the same coin when it comes to my strengths. The Filipino side is great with quick witted comedy, and the Russian/German side revels in dark characters and gritty drama.
FC: Before you leave for an audition, what do you do? After you leave an audition, what do you do?
HS: Before hand I always do Jack Plotnick’s affirmations. They are amazing! You can read them in his online book “New Thoughts for Actors” on his website. He is one of the coaches I go to and he is just freaking phenomenal. Afterwards I usually get myself a treat like a bit of chocolate or something so that I can reward myself for a job well done and move on with my day.
FC: What made you begin the entertainment site Ms. In the Biz?
HS: I was always a fan of blogging and had been blogging for another site at the time. I am also a person who absolutely loves connecting others, and am really passionate about giving women more of a voice in entertainment. Take those things and mix in the fact that I think it’s really important to share experiences that we all have in this industry to help give other people tools that they need to succeed, and voila, Ms. In The Biz was born! I now have over 100 contributing bloggers and we are read in 195 countries. We actually just turned 1 year old which is really exciting for me. I am really proud of all of the women who write for the site and I feel honored that they are so gracious in sharing their experiences with our readers.
FC: What type of voice do you want Ms. In the Biz to showcase?
HS: Basically, Ms. In The Biz is all written by women in entertainment and for women in entertainment. We all know that the stats for women in Hollywood and the industry as a whole royally suck. That being said, Ms. In The Biz is all about “well, if that’s true, then what do we do about it? What are the actionable steps we can take to change things.” At the same time though we also have a lot of pieces that aren’t quite as heavy. Things about crowdfunding how tos, how to submit to film festivals, how to pitch, how to self tape an audition, how to pose for your headshots. We really cover it all. And the best part is that I know a lot of men who read the site and love it too!
FC: Of the numerous interviews you’ve done – what is one quote from someone whom you interviewed which never left you?
HS: Mena Suvari was the first spotlight interview for the site. I met her on the set on “American Reunion” and thought she was just lovely. In her interview she said, “I believe it’s most important to take the time to get to know who you are.” I think that stuck with me so much because so much of what an actor does in this industry is trying to get a job to fit into an already existing idea of a written character and sometimes that can take you away from really focusing on who you are and what you want in life. At least, I know that for me, whenever I tried to guess what “they” wanted or tried to mold a career patterned after what I thought it should be, should with a capital S, I have ended up being unhappy. Every time I’ve stayed true to myself, what I want, what my life and career goals are, I’m just a much much happier person.
FC: We understand that you will play the supporting role of Layla in the new project THE LAST BEAT (which is a fictionalization of Jim Morrison’s last days). How did you get involved?
HS: Through twitter actually! Robert the director reached out to me about the indiegogo campaign he was running because my twitter bio says I’m a Jim Morrison groupie. I originally gave to the campaign and we started tweeting back and forth and then met in person.
FC: Have you ever faced a casting couch scenario?
HS: Honestly no, but I think that’s because I’m married and very publicly married. By that I mean that when we moved down to LA people knew me as being married and I’ve just never put myself in a situation where I even have to deal with the “casting couch.” I have friends who have definitely dealt with it, but luckily it’s just not something that I’ve encountered.
FC: You’re also involved in the horror film project for THE INFECTED -how did this come about?
HS: Well, my producing partner Barry Morgan (different Barry than my husband Barry Levy who is also a filmmaker and an actor) actually wrote the script for the short off of my story idea. Basically, I came up with the beginning, middle, end, all the characters and the situations and he filled in the blanks.
I was in an acting class and met two of my co-stars who are in the short and just really wanted to work on a project with them. I’m a big fan of the zombie genre and horror in general so I thought, ok, let’s take the strengths of these actors and write something tailored to them.
As far as films that spark my interest? Well, there are a lot of zombie and body horror films out there. Some of my favorites are “28 Days Later” and the Canadian film “Ponty Pool,” but those didn’t really influence this short film. “Bug” with Ashley Judd, “Cabin Fever,” and “The Divide” are sort of the films that we pay homage to in a way. We are currently writing a feature based off of the short right now and it’s actually going in a different direction than the short which is exciting. The world of the story is much wider than what we could tell in fifteen minutes so it’s really fun to get in there and dig around and come up with the next incarnation. It’s actually moving away from the zombie genre a bit, but that’s all I can really say right now. Slapping an NDA on myself.
FC: You mention in your crowdfunding campaign for THE INFECTED that this project is unique because you are a minority actress playing the lead role – (an unrepresented) character by Hollywood standards – even quoting a UCLA study of the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report. Can you share any of your own experiences with typecasting or feeling prevented from certain roles/exposure? How much change have you seen in casting over the last 5-10 years?
HS: Yah it’s funny, when we were putting the short together we never even thought about the fact that I’m a visible minority. It was only after we started post production that I started thinking about the fact that there are only a handful of North American made movies where the lead is a minority much less in the horror genre. It’s now become something where I really want to show that visible minorities can be more than just the supporting character.
Because of the color of my skin and how I look, I know I won’t ever be able to do certain period pieces that I am dying to do, that is, unless it’s a twist on the story. For instance I’d love to play a flapper girl in the 20s or a be in a 50s period piece like “The Help,” but half Asian women who look Latina just didn’t exist in those stories the way Hollywood likes to tell them. Hence, why I’ve decided to dive deep into producing my own work and break down some of the stereotypes. Because there were in fact women who looked like me in these periods so you know, what are their stories, who are they? This is a tough thing though because even now a girlfriend of mine posted on Facebook that while in the subway in New York there were more Caucasian faces on the billboards on the train than there were in the entire train car. Now that’s saying something. The media as far as television and film is really not reflecting the world we live in now. That being said, the CW does a pretty good job with ethnic diversity and thank god for Mindy Kaling, but we still have so far to go. I think that this is part of why “Orange is the New Black” is doing so incredibly well. People are finally seeing stories that they can relate to and are seeing people who look like them on screen. Growing up there wasn’t anyone on screen who looked like me. At least we’ve made some progress even if it’s at a snail’s pace.
FC: When you have news to share about an upcoming role – what’s your method and approach?
HS: A bit of fun and a bit of hard hitting. I love instagram so I’ll make up an instagram-able announcement, I’ll post to facebook and my personal site as well as twitter. I tag all of the people involved and create a dialogue around the project so it’s not just about me, but about the team of awesome people I’ll be working with. I also do a press release when it is something that outlets might think is press worthy.
FC: What’s your opinion on actors who love acting and being on set, but feel uncomfortable with self-promotion?
HS: That’s a good question. The craft of acting and the business of acting are so intertwined in this day and age that self promotion is a necessary evil. For instance, part of me feels like if you are lucky enough to have landed a huge role on a show then self promotion doesn’t really exist, the show is really doing the promotion for you. But, at the same time I know that isn’t totally true. I have friends who are leads on network shows and are on twitter all of the time connecting with fans and talking about the show. The reality is that things now are so different than they used to be even a few years ago. With social media just being a normal part of life now, audiences and fans really want to get to know the people that they watch. And it’s getting to the point where I’ve seen a lot of projects in their casting calls ask what your twitter followers are. On one hand that’s ridiculous because having tons of twitter followers doesn’t have anything to do with the art or the craft of acting, but on the flip side, if it’s an indie project the producers know that the more someone is active on social media, the more their project will get out there and have a chance to cut through the noise of all of the zillion other indie projects. Right now there is just so much content out there that people need any bit of help they can get from all angles, and a self promoting actor is a definite asset to a production.
FC: We understand you served on a number of panels at Comic-com, Wonder-com, etc. What have you been asked to speak on? How incredible is it to be asked to speak and address an audience?
HS: Comic-Con was a big check off the bucket list for me. My good friend Leah Cevoli formed a traveling panel called “All Shapes and Sizes” a couple of years ago and asked me to join in from the beginning. It’s a panel that focuses on women’s issues in entertainment focusing in on body image primarily. It’s really amazing to be able to speak to women and men who aren’t necessarily in the business but who feel the pressure of the entertainment industry’s ridiculous standards. We generally create a dialogue with everyone in the room and talk about our own personal experiences. it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever been a part of.
FC: How does a woman be bold, brave and still retain her femininity?
HS: I think that boldness and bravery are both a part of being feminine. Women are strong and feisty, gentle and sultry. We are so many things and we need to embrace it all with courage and openness so that we don’t box ourselves into thinking that being feminine means being meek and mild. Heck no. Femininity is power.
FC: Los Angeles is many things: beautiful scenery in parts, full of culture and activities, hectic, and (at times) fickle in nature. How do you keep your spirits up? What do you do to take time for yourself, while juggling all that you do?
HS: My husband and I have “date day” once a week where we do our best to keep away from any business that day and just connect with one another. We literally have to schedule it in every week because if we didn’t we would rarely see each other and this industry has a way of pulling you into its tidal pool before you even know it. I often joke that the entertainment industry, especially in LA, is like a down-moving escalator that you are trying to run up, but keep getting pulled back down. It’s just about placing one steady foot climbing in front of the other.
This is going to sound very new age-y of me but I do my best to eat as well as possible rockin’ the green smoothies every morning. I also get regular exercise and have been trying to build a steady meditation practice. Also there are just so many things that I could be doing at any moment of the day to be propelling my career forward, that I need to take time to decompress and take care of myself or I’ll just explode. So yah, decompression is really important, knowing when its time to just chill for a night instead of working to the bone even if my creative juices are flowing strong. Sometimes you just have to let all parts of yourself rest so that you can get back at it with even more energy and enthusiasm.
As an actor she has appeared in a wide variety of projects from feature films such as Universal’s “American Reunion,” (the fourth theatrical installment of “American Pie”), to high profile digital productions like “Black Box TV,” as well as a number of network television series.
Helenna is a member of the “IAWTV” (International Academy of Web Television), can often be found on panels and in appearances at “Comic-Con,” “WonderCon,” and Stan Lee’s “Comikaze,” and is producing and starring in 3 short films and a feature film in 2014.
FUN FACTS: Helenna loves zombie flicks, is an aspiring superheroine, rocks it on the archery range, listens somewhat obsessively to “The Doors,” and thinks that Joss Whedon’s collection of works should be required viewing.
Helenna “has a smile that won’t quit. [Her] acting is every bit as good or better than you will find on sit-coms that are on TV everyday. Take a look. You won’t be sorry.” -Terra King, Article from Examiner.com
“Helenna is professional, hard-working, and a pleasure to be on set with. She’s funny and intuitive and really understands how to interpret comedic material. Her timing is impeccable.” – Jennifer Rice Genzuk (executive producer/writer “Slou, Foot, and Doucha” and staff writer for BET’s “The Game”