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How Afro-Latina Actress Santana Dempsey Is Giving Women Of Color Who Feel Unnoticed A New Dimension

"Characters like Kaylee, and many of the other lead characters in 'Lowlife', are usually in the background of urban thrillers and action movies ..."

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Lowlife, a new feature film from IFC Midnight, has been called “Quentin Tarantino with heart.” It is a bloody and bizarre thriller, a story of kidnapping, organ donation, sex trafficking and so much more, set in a strange underworld of Los Angeles street life and Mexican wrestling. 

Santana Dempsey, a rising Afro-Latina star with credits ranging from hit TV shows to feature films, to a recurring role on ABC-TV’s Scandal, is at the center of the chaos and revelation that is Lowlife. She portrays Kaylee, a pregnant, drug-addicted sex worker whose kidnapping is the catalyst for a twisted and ultimately murderous story – a character who displays far more depth and courage than the stereotype would imply.

It was this hidden and surprising complexity that drew Santana to the role in the first place. “Characters like Kaylee, and many of the other lead characters in Lowlife, are usually in the background of urban thrillers and action movies like this,” Santana said in a recent interview. “But Ryan (Ryan Prows, director and co-writer of Lowlife) brings the usual background players to the forefront. He lets you know what their plights, their struggles, and their joys are. Lowlife lets us explore who they are. They are the lowlife people of our society, who haven’t had the opportunity to be looked at in a humane way.” Prows’ vision, and his willingness to work with his actors and production team, has made Lowlife a standout at film festivals across the United States since its premiere at the infamous Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.

The heightened use of the Spanish language, Mexican folklore, and luchador culture gives the film and its characters additional richness, and Santana’s identity as a mixed-race woman in Hollywood (and America) today proved to be an important factor in bringing Kaylee to life. “Kaylee is mixed race,” Santana said, “but she’s also mixed between worlds. She was adopted by a crime boss and grew up as a sex slave after her birth parents gave her up when she was small. They had addiction problems; she was born into addiction and as an adult, Kaylee has addiction problems of her own. It’s a cycle.”

Santana herself worked closely with Prows and the other writers to mold Kaylee into the surprisingly powerful woman that is portrayed in Lowlife. Kaylee’s lines in the scenes with her husband El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) were originally all in Spanish, but Santana argued that didn’t make sense for the character. “I really wanted her to have that distinction – that she is not a native speaker. Most of the people that are trafficked in the film are Latino; it sets it up that way. She just happens to get sold into it, and though she’s going to pick up some Spanish words, she’s going to sound like a gringa.  Which is OK– that’s her truth. I just felt I wouldn’t be serving myself or my community in an authentic way if we didn’t make this change, and I really needed that to be heard by the producers and the writers. None of the writers were mixed and none of them were women and that, for me, is something I’m an expert at.”  Prows and the writers welcomed Santana’s views and they all worked together to create Kaylee’s world.

Kaylee and Santana share some other facets as well. “I was abandoned as an infant – taken away from my parents for neglect -- and I wasn’t adopted until the age of six,” she says. “I spent three years in foster homes; that’s lifelong work I have to do every day, so I don’t do the unhealthy things that Kaylee did. Which is why I understood Kaylee in that sense. Once I stripped away all the resources I had -- thank goodness I was adopted by great parents – I realized, I could have been like Kaylee. It would have been easy. I think that’s what people don’t realize: how common it is to turn to things that make you feel good when you’re struggling because they’re easy." Making Kaylee an understandable and even sympathetic character was a challenge for Santana. Ultimately, however, it became a process of evolution and revelation that works for everyone, including critics and fans who have praised her performance and the film. 

In the final analysis, Kaylee in particular and Lowlife in general is full of surprises. The characters transcend stereotypical expectations; the plot twists and turns in unexpected ways, and delivers far more to the audience because it pushes both cultural and cinematic boundaries. Its popularity on the film festival circuit and its high Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes numbers bear that out.

Santana Dempsey is proud of the work, even though she is virtually unrecognizable as the exhausted, desperate, and extremely pregnant young Kaylee. In the end, she was able to give the character a voice that is being heard beyond the edges of the film itself. “Kaylee didn’t have much of a voice in the film, but there’s a reason for that,” she said. “Of course she didn’t; she wasn’t taught to have a voice. She was never seen except for her body.  Never loved.  Never valued. I saw a lot of similarities in what Kaylee was going through and what women, especially women of color, go through every day. I’m glad I was able to bring that to light.”

Lowlife is running in select theaters including the Arena Cinelounge May 11–16 in Los Angeles. It's also available on VOD.

Interviewed by Chanel Bosh

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