Mr. Hollywood Goes to Tokyo
By Jonathan Vankin
The Daily Yomiuri
Nov. 18, 1993
Ronny Santana, a tall Californian actor with that freshly-scrubbed. sandy-blond look one expects from tall Californian actors, is 32 years old and has spent the better part of the past 12 years in Japan. Yet he sums up his experience this way: "I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up."
Santana hasn't exactly had a career. He's had a travelogue, zipping from job to job from the Bahamas to Hawaii to Japan. But in his latest endeavor, acting, Santana describes himself standing "at a crossroads." Represented by the Inagawa Motoko Office, which he says is the leading stable for foreign talent in Japan, Santana and his agents are awaiting public and critical reaction to "Etorofu haru ka nari," a mini-series airing this month on NHK.
He has paid his dues in the Hollywood acting scene, slogging through L.A, traffic to endless and ultimately pointless auditions. But cracking the Japanese movie business presents a unique set of frustrations. The approach to non-Japanese talent transcends typecasting. Santana has played a seemingly infinite succession of military men and English teachers.
"Directors and producers do not take me or other foreign actors in Japan seriously," says Santana. "To quote Rodney Dangerfield, 'We get no respect.' The way they look at us is we're just a foreigner to fill in this part in this movie. They're locked in to this way of making movies. You've seen one you've seen 'em all. There's a bar scene, a restaurant scene. The scenarios are just hashed and rehashed.
"And in these scenarios that they write there are no parts for foreigners. Because the average Japanese person's life does not involve a foreigner. You can only write what you can relate to."
Tenacity may not be Santana's strong point. He's switched jobs at a furious pace since his days as a self-described "typical California kid," from San Jose, Calif. But enthusiasm, on the other hand, probably is his strong point.
For this interview, Santana bounces into his agent's Roppongi headquarters early in the evening straight from an afternoon "hair show" (following a quick shower to return his coiff to its normal dimensions) and maintains a virtual monologue until several hours later, well after dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant -- his favorite haunt where the management knows him as "Mr. Hollywood." But he can easily be excused this gabfest. Despite more than, by his count, 1000 parts in Japanese TV and movies, Santana is at this moment enjoying his first real round of publicity.
This month, the euphonically named Santana, and it is his real name -- Santana Park in San Jose bears his grandfather's name -- stars in the first six hours of "Etorofu haru ka nari," a grim, World War II drama. (Most of Santana's dialogue is in Japanese, and though he speaks the language well, he had to learn his lines by rote.)
The gritty historical epic depicts the Japanese invasion of China and events leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Santana, a veteran of commercials, English-instruction shows, movies and TV guest spots. gets the chance to uncork some first-class emoting as an American who suffers through the rape-murder of his Chinese girlfriend at the hands of Japanese troops and later returns as a missionary and spy.
It's all rather weighty material for a one-time male stripper. Before he first came to Japan, Santana earned his dough by doffing his duds to the presumable delight of assorted gatherings of females throughout the San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area in northern California.
It was one in a lengthy series of income-generating situations (they can't really be called "jobs" since he's flashed in and out of them with dizzying swiftness) for Santana in the United States. He said he was an early entrepreneur in the male stripping field.
"I was doing the club circuit in the Bay Area. when it was really popular," he recounts. "This was before even Chippendale's. This is when it was really a novel thing, when it was really hot. I was doing that for three years and one of my agents in the States booked shows in Japan. It was wintertime. Wintertime for stripping is usually not good because people get married in summer and you do bachelorette parties and things like that."
At that point, Santana wasto suggestion. He had served time in all the standard struggling actor occupations -- waiting tables and the like -- and some less standard ones. He sold cars and real estate and worked an abortive stint as a flight attendant until the airline went on strike shortly after he got the job.
His earnest ambition was to front a rock and roll band. But at that point he was not ready to abandon his mostly nude vocation to return to a more traditional endeavor. "Business was down. I had no place to live. I was broke. And they said. 'We have this job in Japan. Do you want to go?' I said, 'Do I get my own room?'"
Santana was a week shy of 21 years old.
He arrived in Japan to dance on the nightclub circuit here, which he did for two years before relocating to Hawaii and resuming his career in rock and roll. He bounced between Hawaii and Japan and briefly realized his fantasy to rock in Japan.
"My dream for years was to play in a band in Japan," he says. "I had seen an American band in Osaka, when I was still dancing, and I saw how much fun they were having and thought, 'I gotta come back here in that aspect, playing in a band. So I did it. I had a dream. I went for it and I did it. And after that, at the pinnacle, it was, 'Okay, on to the next adventure.'"
The next stop on what for Santana became a roundabout route back to Japan was the Bahamas where he worked for the resort-vacation company Club Med.
"It was the best job I ever had," he says, "I got paid to live on a tropical island and take people scuba diving in the afternoons. I went from that to selling cars."
A step down the career ladder, perhaps. But it was not an unusual move for Santana, who never graduated from high school and whose resumé reads like the help wanted section of a Sunday newspaper.
"Literally, I've had over 100 jobs," he says. "Cocktail waiter. Food waiter. I've had my own painting business. I was a plumber. I've had my own landscaping business. I was wholesaling cars. I was a bartender. I was an actor. I was a model. I was a stripper. I worked in a meat factory. On and on and on and on."
So is attempting to become the first genuine Western star in the Japanese film industry Ronny Santana's true calling? "At the moment I would have to say, tentatively, yes," he intones cautiously.
"I love acting. I love the art of acting. I love the feeling I get when I'm acting. But I'm not actor-crazy, I guess. I don't thrive on it. So I have to question myself. Is this what I really, really want?"