- Ella Wu
A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Helenna Santos
The Universal Asian got to know Helenna Santos: actor, writer, and producer. Her poetry book “A Long Dark Summer” is available for purchase. See her website for details!
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from/where did you grow up?
Well, I was born in California, and my mom is from the Vancouver, British Columbia area, so I had dual citizenship from when I was really young. My dad is from the Philippines, so we actually lived in Singapore and the Philippines before he ended up immigrating to Canada when I was 5. I was in Canada from 5 to 26-ish; then I moved down to L.A. for 10 years. I’m back up here in Vancouver now, working and living. I’ve been a little bit all over the place, but I’m grateful that I had such a varied experience and life as an artist. The thing about Vancouver is that it’s stunningly beautiful five to six months out of the year, and then the other six is torrential downpour. I always tell people: if you’re going to visit Vancouver, you want to see her as beautiful as she is, but if you want to move there you should probably go in the fall so you understand the reality of what it’s like here half the year. It shocks a lot of people.
When did you start acting?
Like, earnestly? Probably when I did the BFA—I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in college; graduated in 2004. Before that I’d done musical theater shows and plays in school, but not a lot of it. I was actually a jazz singer, and I was planning on doing that for my life. I had scholarships to go to places, but I actually decided to stay closer to home, which I’m glad I did, because deciding I was really bored just doing jazz music theory all the time is kind of what propelled me into finding acting and everything that goes along with that. With the creative endeavor of being an actor, you can be a writer and a director and a producer, and all of the other things. It’s a fully collaborative art form that I don’t think I would have found if I had just stayed in the track to be a jazz singer.
Do you have a preferred genre in film or TV?
I love so many different things for so many reasons. I really love episodic television in general, whether that’s a limited series or a long-running network show. There’s just something about, as an actor, being on set in something that has this life that goes on for years and years and years, in some cases. It’s just really exciting to be a part of. I do really enjoy the CW network shows; some people find them cheesy or whatever, but I really love acting in that kind of stuff because there’s always a little bit of comedy you can throw in there, but the stakes are really high. There’s a lot of room to play with stuff. I also love independent film. I’ve produced two indie features and I’ve done a lot of indie films, and I love that for completely different reasons. That’s the fun part about being an actor; you get to play in all of these different worlds, whether that’s a world you helped create or somebody else’s world. It’s kind of the best thing, truly.
Who is your dream director to work with and why?
Oh my gosh, so many. Okay, if I had to choose one director right now, it might have to be Karyn Kusama. She did Girlfight (2000), Jennifer’s Body (2009), Æon Flux (2005), and then she did The Invitation (2015), which is an amazing indie horror film. I really love her work, and I feel like she doesn’t get recognized enough for how absolutely incredible she is. Her work is great; her sensibility is amazing. She kind of floats between genres a little bit, in a way that a CW show kind of does. She does really hard-hitting drama, but then Jennifer’s Body (2009) is this really subversive, cool movie that got slammed when it came out, but it’s got so many levels in there that, since it became a cult favorite, people are now starting to discover. I feel like it’s time for her to really get recognized, and it would be such an honor to work with her and learn from her. There’s so many people, but she’s top of my list right now for sure.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
Ooh. Hours of advice. When I started out, there wasn’t really much in the way of guidance. I mean, the Internet was just starting to be a thing. I graduated in 2004 so Facebook hadn’t even started yet, there was no Instagram, no Twitter, podcasts didn’t exist, and YouTube wasn’t a thing. Now with so much at our fingertips, it’s imperative for anyone interested in being involved in the industry to educate yourself on what that really means. You can be an actor who does community theater or you can do your own short films—you can go about it that way and really enjoy your life and have fun and be an artist that way, but if you want to make it a business and you want that to be your career, it’s a whole different thing. I would say one of the best places to start off is just listening to podcasts. There’re so many podcasts now that are amazing resources for actors, that can help you dip your toe into the world and see if that’s what you want to spend time and energy and training on, or if you want to have it be a hobby, which is completely fine. Being an artist in any form can be a hard road, but if it’s something inside you that you have to do, it’s a calling. For most of us that stay in this business a really long time, it’s not an easy “do it or don’t do it.” It’s like, we have to do it and figure out a way to make that work, whether it’s a hobby or a career.
What do you want to see in the future of AAPI representation on screen?
More, more, and always more. I was actually watching a Hollywood Reporter roundtable the other day that had the comedic actresses of this year, and there was zero AAPI representation. We think it’s getting better, and it is getting better, but in these tiny, incremental steps. It’s not enough. But, the great thing is that one of my favorite shows, Kung Fu (2021), is an accurate picture of people living their lives. Yes, it’s about her (the lead character) background and stuff, but the people in it, they’re just humans living life. It doesn’t have to be a show about specific heritages and things; it can just be humans. Why can’t the lead in whatever thing—you know that whole thing #StarringJohnCho, it was shocking to me when I did see those posters because I was like, woah that is weird to see him in those lead roles. Why is that weird? Oh yeah, we haven’t seen any of that. I haven’t seen any of that. Part of the reason why I started producing work is because I didn’t see anybody who looked like me. Why can’t this other character, who is white, in a show just be a POC or mixed-race actor instead? The CW and Freeform do a really good job with that. I think that because those are networks that are skewed to slightly younger viewers, it’s expected. Everyone knows the world is changing and growing, and that representation is different and needs to be important. So it’s kind of a non-issue, whereas, some of the longer standing studios and networks, it’s a little harder to break down their ideas because they’re still run by very powerful, older white men. It’ll take some time, but we just need to keep championing each other’s voices.
You recently published “A Long Dark Summer.” How did that come to life?
For so many years I had written poetry as a hobby, and one of my things was that I always wanted to publish a book of poetry one day. At the top of the pandemic, I really wanted to put it all together and figure out a way to do that in a narrative form that would make sense for all the different pieces—and there was a whole lot of new stuff I was working on. I just wanted to do it because I love writing poems and telling stories in that way. So I put together what I call a pseudo-memoir, because it is loosely based on my experience as a biracial woman, growing up where I grew up, and my experience in Hollywood. It takes the reader through 1993 to now, 2021, and it has an overarching narrator that you go on a journey with. It’s got a dark tone, but it also has a lot of nice bite to it, and some humor. It’s very indicative of who I am; I always say that my Filipino side and my Russian-German side are at odds with each other. There’s this bright Filipino and then there’s this brooding Russian. It’s kind of like, if you want to get to know who I am, just read this book. It’ll tell you exactly what kind of person I am and what I am as an artist.
Cover photo: Bjoern Kommerell