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Sunday, Nov 18, 2018
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Tampa native acting, producing comedy with former porn star

Grace Santos gave up a career as an attorney in Tampa three years ago to pursue acting and producing in Los Angeles, determined to succeed but mindful of her friends’ warnings about her prospects in a male-dominated industry that prizes youth.

Santos, a graduate of King High School and Stetson Law School, has shown them all that she’s on her way with the debut Saturday of her post-apocalyptic short film “Odessa” at the Gasparilla International Film Festival — followed by a screening in May at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.

For her next project, Santos aims to draw attention to the hurdles she has had to overcome as a woman making films ­— though her friends might think she’s been corrupted by the process, instead.

Santos is a co-star and producer of a web series called “Bree Does Comedy,” with Bree Olson — star of more than 300 porn films, once a regular in all the top men’s magazines, and one of two women living with actor Charlie Sheen during his notorious career meltdown in 2011.

“No one worry,” Santos said with a giggle. “Bree does not do porn anymore. This is a comedy and at worst, it’s PG-13.”

The scripted Web series, funded in part through an online Kickstarter campaign, stars Olson as an over-the-top caricature of herself trying to transition from porn to comedy. Santos plays her quirky, protective neighbor.

The first episode is already online at the “Bree Does Comedy” YouTube page. The next four are scheduled to be up by summer.

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The series will contain plenty of cleavage and gag humor, but Santos also sees a hidden lesson.

Olson’s character is placed in situations that are exaggerated examples of what women deal with in pursuit of stardom.

“Hollywood can eat up a woman who is not confident and strong enough,” said Kathy Laughlin, Santos’ onetime acting coach at Performer’s Studio Workshop in Lutz.

Laughlin has more than two decades of casting experience, booking Tampa actors in major television series and motion pictures around the world. Santos is one of her students; so is Kim McVicar — lead writer on “Bree Does Comedy” and the actor who plays Olson’s manager on screen.

Grace and Kim have proven to be strong,” Laughlin said. “They are role models for other women looking to get into the industry.”

Much of what McVicar writes for Olson’s character ­— like when men in the business cross the line — is based on her own experiences as an up-and-coming actress and stand-up comic in Hollywood.

“I’ve been asked out backstage at the Comedy Store, said no, and had that comedian go on stage moments later and make it part of his act,” McVicar said. “I was there to perform, not date him. There was no need to make me part of his jokes.”

As a producer constantly in search of funding, Santos has been asked to dinner by a prospective financier who halfway through the meal admitted his interest was never in the film.

“It’s frustrating,” Santos said. “Especially because I’m a single mom so I need a sitter. They wasted my time and money.”

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Some men expect more than a date, said Hollywood veteran Rhonda Shear of St. Petersburg.

Now the owner of an intimate apparel company, Shear was best known for her role as the ditzy hostess of the B-film television showcase series, “Up All Night.”

“The casting couch is not a cliché. It’s all true,” Shear said. “It was thrown at me time and time again when I first arrived in LA in the 1970s. They will tell you that you’re beautiful and will find a part for you. Then they say you can really make it here but have to be willing to wallow in the dirt of Hollywood. It’s gross.”

Some women give in, Shear said, because female roles are so limited. Just 12 percent of protagonists in the top 100 domestic-grossing films of 2014 were women, according to the Study of Women in Television and Film conducted at San Diego State University,

It gets even tougher with age.

Women 40 and over made up just 30 percent of all female characters in 2014, the same study said. That number drops to 9 percent for women over 50.

It’s why Santos said she would never provide her age to anyone.

“She would get eaten alive if she said how old she is,” casting agent Laughlin said. “All actresses keep it a secret until they become too famous to do so any longer. There is a lot of ageism in Hollywood.”

Said Shear, “There are only a handful of successful older actresses. But we could make a list a mile long of actresses you saw on screen regularly in their 20s who disappeared when they turn 30. Did they suddenly lose their talent?”

Santos has also had to deal with the challenge of being a woman of Filipino decent.

“It is not the look a lot of people want in films,” she said. “So I am limited.”

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Asian females made up just 3 percent of all roles in 2014, according to the San Diego State study.

It’s why Santos added producing to her resume. Rather than waiting for the right project, she aggressively pursues them.

Her top priority as a producer is finding quality scripts she can get funding for but she also gravitates toward those with strong female characters, she said.

That’s why she fell in love with “Odessa,” about a mother who must survive a trek across post-apocalyptic Texas to save her daughter’s life.

Her character is a survivor who can overcome any obstacle. The movie screens 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa.

In an odd way, it also describes Olson in “Bree Does Comedy:” Despite repeated rejections because of sexism and her own failures, her character marches on.

The situations are exaggerated but some are grounded in reality, including her own challenges transcending the vamping she did in porn.

“I had gotten so used to what porn people wanted to see from me,” Olson said in an email interview, “that I openly admit that I may have exuded too much sexuality in an audition or two — or a hundred, who’s counting.”

In working with Santos and McVicar, Olson may have found one way of expanding opportunities for actresses.

In films with at least one woman director or writer, the percentage of female protagonists rose to 39 in 2014, according to the San Diego State study.

“Hollywood is a man’s world,” casting agent Laughlin said. “The only way to change that is for the women like Grace and Kim to get into leadership roles.”

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