Several actors have received Oscar nominations for playing transgender characters, including John Lithgow (The World According to Garp), Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game), Felicity Huffman (Transamerica) and Hillary Swank, who won an Academy Award for her role in Boy's Don't Cry (1999). But could Harmony Santana, the half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican star of the new indie Gun Hill Road, become the first actress (who is actually transgender) to win an Oscar?
We asked Puerto Rican actor Esai Morales—who plays Santana's father in the film—that question last week in New York City. "I hope so," Morales said. "Because on the difficulty ratio (pauses)...someone who has never acted before?!"
Morales went on to compare Santana's role in the film to Jaye Davidson's character in The Crying Game (1992). "Somebody said this could be like the Latino Crying Game—like Precious meets The Crying Game," he said with a laugh.
The film's writer-director, Rashaad Ernesto Green said if Santana earns an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film, she'll make history. "It's one of the first times in the history of cinema that we're seeing a trans character actually played by a transgendered person," Rashaad noted. He added, "And Harmony—she was a Godsend. You never would've heard of this movie without her."
Green went on to tell the story of how he met Santana, and why he knew she was the one for the part right away. "I met Harmony at a Queens pride parade where she was working at an AIDS prevention booth," he recalls. "I was passing out flyers asking everyone and their mother if they knew someone who fit the description of this character...She stood up, she took off her sunglasses and said, 'I would like to audition.' I looked up at her face and it was the most beautiful and angelic face that I had seen—I took a step back. I was astounded," says Green.
That's when Santana told him that she was at the beginning of her transition. "Which was amazing," added Green. "She told me that she was Puerto Rican and Dominican, which made up Judy Reyes and Esai Morales, that she had lived in the Bronx, and that she had always dreamed of acting. She showed up to the audition on time and I saw that she had enough naturalness there that I knew I could build upon that foundation. I then asked her to come back dressed as a girl. She did. She was beautiful," he recalls.