In the new film Gun Hill Road, which opens today in select theaters, a macho ex-con (played by veteran actor Esai Morales) is released from prison after three years. He returns to his family in a tough New York neighborhood only to find they’ve evolved in ways he could never imagine. Under the direction of Rashaad Ernest Green, newcomer Harmony Santana elevates the film with a remarkable and very raw performance as transgender teen Michael/Vanessa.
“When I read the screenplay I could relate to the character in a lot of ways,” Santana recalls as a breeze tousles her curly shoulder-length hair while she sits outdoors at a coffee shop in Hollywood. That’s understandable. The 20-something Santana is also transgender, and she was one of 13 kids in a blended Dominican–Puerto Rican family. Green spotted Santana while she was handing out HIV prevention fliers during a gay pride parade in Queens. The director had been looking for someone with the right mix of toughness and ambiguous physicality to play the challenging role of Michael as he transitions to Vanessa. Santana, who transitioned while filming Gun Hill Road, first auditioned as a male, was asked to return as female, and was offered the role.
“It very much reflects the life of a transgender girl, so I know where that person is coming from. Although Vanessa went through a lot more dramatic things than I have in my life,” says Santana, who hasn’t talked to her father in years. Her mother, though, chose the name Harmony from a baby names book, renaming the actress as she transitioned.
The response to her performance from screenings at film festivals has been overwhelmingly positive. Santana, who also appears in the next two installments of the Eating Out raunch-com series, realizes there’s a paucity of working transgender actors and there’s potentially a lot riding on her shoulders. “I feel like I have a big responsibility and I’ve been overwhelmed by it,” Santana says. “As a transgender [person] I didn’t know if I wanted my life out there like that, but I know what I have to do and I’m going to do it.”
How will she cope with the upcoming onslaught of public attention? “I’ve hired a therapist,” she says, laughing.
Watch the trailer for Gun Hill Road below.