Gun Hill Road has been winning rave reviews from critics and audiences since its premiere in competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, the film — about a recently-released convict who returns home to discover his teenage son is living as a woman — scored the prestigious opening night slot at Outfest and a theatrical distribution deal. It will open throughout California and the US beginning tomorrow.
I had the opportunity to speak privately with Harmony Santana, who plays the movie's central trans character of Michael/Vanessa, as well as writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green during their recent visit to Los Angles. Currently undergoing her real-life transition from male to female, the 20-year old Santana is stunningly beautiful both on- and off-screen. She was just beginning the process when Green cast her in Gun Hill Road.
"I was looking for the genuine article," Green said. "I was looking for a real transgender person to play this transgender teen role, which was really hard." It took Green two months of searching through New York City nightclubs, GLBT community centers and drag shows before he was referred to Santana during NYC's Pride events. Santana was working an HIV prevention booth. Green described the part of Michael/Vanessa and asked Santana to audition even though she had no acting experience apart from a high school play.
Of her first professional acting experience, Santana glowingly recalls "It was like I was living a dream; I loved going to set, and the makeup and hair, everything." She said she found great support during the three-month shoot from her much more experienced co-stars Esai Morales (La Bamba, Caprica) and Judy Reyes (Scrubs), who play her parents. Santana gives an outstanding performance, and has already followed it up with what she describes as "a bitchy role" in not one but two entries in the Eating Out comedy series. "This is the start of my career," Santana says of her plan to become a successful actress and ultimately play non-transgender roles.
I asked her how she is both like and unlike the trans character she plays in Gun Hill Road. "We have the same boy problems; I think all transgender people do," Santana said in terms of the similarities. That being said, she had a boyfriend of two months at the time of my interview and reported things were going well. Of the differences, Santana noted her relationship with her father is much more estranged than that shown in the film between Michael/Vanessa and her father. "I haven't spoken to my dad in like four or five years," she said. Fortunately, Santana's family ties with her mother and 15 siblings are much stronger and they have been very supportive of her personal transformation. "I also didn't go through the physical stuff." Santana says in comparison to the abuse that Michael/Vanessa endures from her father and others.
Family isn't only the dominant theme in Gun Hill Road but was, according to Green, the inspiration behind his screenplay. "Someone very close to me in my life went through something similar, where he had a child in transition," Green shared. "I watched their family deteriorate over the course of a few years because of his inability to accept his child's transition, but at the same time he loved his child so much and I saw a child without her father." In the wake of this experience, Green decided he "wanted to make a piece of art that didn't necessarily give all the answers but at least pointed them in the right direction."
Audience response to the finished film (both nationally and internationally) has been tremendous, according to both Green and Santana. "People's eyes are being opened to a world they thought they knew but now they are getting to see another side of it," Green said. Santana has experienced viewers "coming up to me and hugging me and crying and saying how much the film means to them." She appreciates in particular a group of lesbians who came up to her and told her how much she is inspiring them, as well as Facebook messages she regularly receives saying the same.
As a trans person herself, I asked Santana about when she first began realizing she was different from other boys. "I was in the second grade," she replied. "I had gone into the bathroom at school and another boy followed me into the bathroom. We started making out and that was my first kiss ever. It all went from there." The three of us laughed as Santana debated whether her personal and romantic experiences have gone uphill or downhill after that early start.
Santana offered the following advice to other trans people: "Be yourself, be happy, and have hope in your family; they might not be supportive now but it takes time." Even if things don't work out, she spoke encouragingly of finding "family in other places, especially among your friends."
For more information on Gun Hill Road, visit the film's official website.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.