She’s received critical acclaim for her feature-film acting debut in “Gun Hill Road”… And, now Harmony Santana could be reaping the rewards too.
The 20-something transgender actress has received a Gotham Award “Breakthrough Actor” nomination for her spectacular performance in the coming out drama.
The film, which co-stars Esai Morales and Judy Reyes, centers around Vanessa (born as Michael), a shy male teenager trying to live openly as a girl while dealing with a disapproving ex-con father and supportive mother.
The half-Puerto Rican, half-Dominican actresses’ only previous acting experience was playing a Boy George look-alike in a high school production of the musical “The Wedding Singer.” But that didn’t stop the film’s director, Rashaad Ernesto Green, from selecting Santana for the hard-to-cast role.
“I looked at attractive gay males who might have had experience with drag to see if they might be able to portray the character,” recalled Green in a recent interview with The New York Times, who was seeking an actor who looked 16, could play a transgender character without what he called ‘significant female development’ and could convincingly convey a Hispanic background. “But they didn’t have the essence I was looking for. There’s a difference between someone who’s pretending to be female and someone who actually believes they are.”
But Green’s luck changed when he discovered Santana at the Queens gay pride parade.
“She said she was at the beginning of her transition, which was like, ‘Bingo,’” says Green.
Santana, who has only been living full-time as a woman since last year, was able to tap into her own experience of growing up in New York as a transgender teenager for the role.
“At one time I hated my father so much because he would always fight with my mother about me,” remembers Santana. “I would hear them through the cracks in the door that I shouldn’t be playing with my little sisters and doing girl things.”
“Gun Hill Road” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January and has been featured prominently on the gay film-festival circuit before opening commercially in New York City in August.
The Gotham Awards, which honor films produced outside the major studio system, will be handed out in New York on November 28.