Smashing Hollywood’s Stereotypes

For quite a long time I didn’t know how to “be Filipino.” In a lot of ways, I still don’t.

Like many people who are half Asian, I’ve dealt a lot with being “not Asian enough” and fielding questions like “What are you?” Growing up as a young child in a very white town in British Columbia, Canada, I had a turning point moment when I was told that I was “brown like poo and should be in the toilet.” It was a slap in the face that made me realize I didn’t look like the other kids I knew, that my skin was a different color, that it made me “the other.” From that moment on, I turned my differences into a badge of honor instead of letting that realization paralyze me. I didn’t worry about fitting into any sort of idea of what I “should” be, and instead celebrated who I was. I loved any and every form of creativity and eventually ended up diving into the entertainment industry.

As an actor in film and TV I’ve had an interesting journey. Being half Filipino and half Russian/German, I’ve never been able to fit into the stereotypical molds that Hollywood traditionally loves to box people into. When I was starting out in the late 2000s, I didn’t “look Asian” to the industry at large, but I definitely wasn’t White; so ethnically, I was confusing. At the time the buzzwords for this were “ethnically ambiguous” - which was helpful because I could read for a wide variety of roles, but also added to the confusion because I couldn’t be put into a specific box.

When you’re an actor just starting out, being able to slide into a specific category is a great way of breaking into the industry. There are a lot of what are referred to as “Day Player” roles; actors who come on set for literally one day to play the characters that are incredibly important in filling out the world of a story, but aren’t the main characters: the lawyer, the bank teller, the DMV worker, the maid, and so on. At the time when I started out, these roles were often cast along the lines of cultural/ethnic stereotypes. Add on the fact that most of the series regular roles on television and lead characters in feature films are played by white actors, and one can see how there would be less and less opportunity to find longevity as a minority actor. Now, as a woman in my thirties, I’ve seen firsthand how there truly are a slim number of roles for women, especially women my age; and then only a fraction of a fraction for minority women, and even less LEAD roles for minority women past their college years.

Things are definitely starting to shift, but it’s still a slow-moving train. Hollywood and the film and TV industries are finally waking up to the fact that if you produce stories that are inclusive and speak to different groups of people who haven’t had an opportunity to see themselves on screen, the box office numbers will drive up with overwhelming support. Get Out, Crazy Rich Asians, and Black Panther all had to have huge financial success before the studios took notice to the fact that perhaps if they produced more inclusive stories, it will (big shocker) make them a lot of money. Television, especially shows made for a millennial audience, is much farther ahead than feature films and we are seeing many more ethnically diverse faces. There is a lot of progress being made and it’s very exciting, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

With all that being said, where does this leave me? Well, like a lot of other people who have found themselves in similar situations, I created my own solution. I cast myself.

After many years producing award-winning short films and digital series, I decided it was time to jump into one of my biggest passions: independent feature filmmaking. At a 2015 SXSW speech, filmmaker Mark Duplass said that “the Cavalry isn’t coming”, meaning that no one is going to come and save you or carry you effortlessly away into the land of “success,” and that is very true. I quickly realized that I may never be cast in the roles that I wanted to play or be seen in the way I wanted to be seen as an actor and an artist, which created great motivation to just do it myself.

At Your Own Risk is a feature film I produced and co-star in now available exclusively on iTunes. It’s a psychological thriller that tells the story of "two career driven women who are hired to test out a unique treasure hunt deep in the New Mexico desert. Their exciting adventure takes a drastic turn as friendship is tested, and survival is pushed to the limit and before long they realize that not everything is as it seems.”

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I am incredibly proud of this movie not only because I produced this project with a couple of my closest friends, but because just by virtue of me being cast in a lead role, the dynamic shifts just a little bit in the film industry.

Geena Davis’s slogan at the Geena Davis Institute is “if she can see it, she can be it.” This is one hundred percent true, and I think it should be added that if anyone sees something that is outside of the norm of what they are used to seeing, a paradigm shift occurs. It allows for more people, productions, and projects to take chances and cast actors who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be thought of for specific roles.

Thanks to Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, and Paul Feig’s A Simple Plan, Asian-American men are finally being seen as lead characters and love interests. Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before shows that an Asian-American teenage girl can be the lead of a romantic comedy instead of the sidekick in her white friend’s love story. And hopefully At Your Own Risk can show that a young woman, who doesn’t necessarily look like she fits into any particular ethnic box, can play a lead role in an adventure movie. To me, as a half-Filipino woman in her thirties who is strong, capable, and independent, that’s an important story to tell. And truly, I hope that I can show that there are many ways to “be Filipino,” that our differences even within the Filipino culture should be celebrated, and that I was and always have been unique, original, and more than enough.


5. Helenna Santos photo by _Cathy Baron Photography_ 6.jpg

Helenna Santos is an actor, writer, producer, and the founder of Ms. In The Biz. Her latest movie At Your Own Risk is now available on iTunes. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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