Santiago Douglas isn’t out to change the world, but he does want to make Hollywood a better place for Latinos, working hard as a actor to prove that Spanish-speaking people don’t have to play bad guys to make it in the movies.
As if to prove his point, the former Hoboken resident has become the talk of the entertainment industry with interviews appearing in nearly every major movie publication in the country after the film he co-stars in, Girlfight, came up with top honors at The Sundance Film Festival and was among only three American-made films shown at the Cannes Film Festival in Europe.
Born in Puerto Rico, Douglas moved to Hoboken at age 2 and lived here until he was 14, attending the Connors Primary School and later graduating from Hoboken High School. The whole time, he wanted to become an actor.
“I dreamed about it. I didn’t know how it would happen, but I knew it would,” he said during a telephone interview last week. Douglas said he ran away from home at age 14, struggling to find identity. He wrote and performed in an R&B hip-hop group for several years and when that ended, a friend talked him to going back to school to study acting. Luck or strong connections to the community helped steer him away from trouble.
“I had people who helped me,” he said.
This includes his grandmother, who still lives on Jefferson Street in Hoboken, and Maurice Fitzgibbons, the Hudson County Freeholder who represents Hoboken and Jersey City Heights.
“I met a lot of good people along the way, and I struggled hard,” he said.
At age 19, he studied at the Raul Julia Training Unit in New York, where he got involved with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. He worked with such actors as Raul Julia and Mariam Colon. But the person he saw as mentor was Alba Oms, the first Latina in the Actor’s Studio, who became his personal tutor and teacher.
“Some of the greatest artists wanted her to come and train them, but she stayed in Spanish Harlem to help people there,” Douglas said. “She became an inspiration and a friend. Because of her I was able to believe in myself. She kept saying: ‘Someday you’re going to be a star.’ And it happened.”
While under Oms’ tutelage, Douglas got the lead role in a stage production called “Simpson Street,” something he sees as his big break. This was his first time on stage and he called it “a scary moment.”
“We performed the play in Spanish and English,” he said. “It was scary. But fear can make you stronger.”
Just about the same time, he got a part on Law and Order. He said he was very nervous about that role, too, but the shock helped him get through the part on the first take.
Since then, Douglas has appeared on Television in the HBO program The Sopranos, in CBS series Maloney, the NBC series Simons, and Third Watch. He appeared in an Emmy-nominated episode of Law and Order. Douglas has also worked with world-renowned state and screen actress Angela Landsbury in the CBS Movie of the Week that aired last May, a made-for-TV movie version of Murder She Wrote. He said he working with her was “incredible” and that he got to watch a pro in action. In addition, Douglas has received rave reviews for a one-man show he did called Mambo Mouth, which he performed at Theatreworks in Hartford, Conn.
Getting the part
In 1999, Santiago landed the lead role in the feature film Girlfight, whose executive producer was John Sayles – another Hoboken resident. This is been called one of the most talked about motion pictures at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
As if destined to get the role, Douglas’ tale has all the touches of a Hollywood legend. Because he was involved with the Sopranos at the time, Douglas couldn’t get to the Girlfight audition. Casting judges later just happened to see his photo among the pile and decided they wanted him to audition.
Although not a boxer, Douglas won the role, then put in many hours to portray a boxer, taking about five months of physical preparation for the six-week shoot.
“The acting wasn’t difficult, but getting myself into shape was hard,” he said, noting that he had to make himself look like a featherweight. Douglas had to lose 20 pounds. This required a lot of training and dieting.
Douglas also has the lead role in the upcoming feature film Time’s Up, just released in Europe – a film on which he also served as associate producer. He said he’s currently pushing for an American release.
Giving something back
Douglas, however, isn’t taking everything without giving back. While he said he’s not pushing to make any great social changes, he definitely wants to improve the image of Latino people in films. As a spokesperson for the Premiere Weekend Club, he has already begun to talk to young people how they can help shape their own images in the media.
“It’s my way of giving something back to the community,” he said.
Douglas said that Latino kids are the first to the box office when a new film is released, accounting about $1.5 billion a year in revenue to the industry. Yet historically, the Latino characters they get to see on film generally are negative. Douglas said the industry has to better reflect its audience and begin realizing that Latinos can play many other more important roles in film.
“I won’t take any part that doesn’t show the character in a positive light,” he said. “I know I have lost some roles because of that. But I think is something important.”
Recently, he has taken Girlfight on the road, doing screening for kids in various neighborhoods via a portable theater. “After the film we sit and we discuss it,” he said. “It tells them not to take roles as prostitutes and drug dealers, unless they are trying to redeem themselves.”
Douglas said kids tend to want to be what they see on the screen, but he cautions young actors to set a positive example. “I tell them being on film with a gun in the seat next to them or drugs in their pockets doesn’t make them superheroes,” he said.