Saundra Santiago, an Actress of Cuban Origin on Miami Vice and The Sopranos

: When Saundra Santiago, an actress of Cuban origin, auditioned for the role of Gina in Scarface (1983), by Brian de Palma, she got really sad after losing to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Later on, she would get great success for her performance on the TV shows Miami Vice and The Sopranos, though.

Juan de la Maza
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2011-12-06

When Saundra Santiago, an actress of Cuban origin, auditioned for the role of Gina in Scarface (1983), by Brian de Palma, she got really sad after losing to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. However, later on she would be largely acclaimed for her role as detective Gina Calabrese on the successful Miami Vice, and as Jeanie Cusamano on The Sopranos.
Saundra, the daughter of a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother, was born in the Bronx, in New York, in 1957, but when she was 13 years old her family moved to Homestead, Florida. There she was able to study, thanks to a scholarship, at the University of Miami where she specialized in psychology, a major that would be useful to her in her acting career. During her last university years she fell in love with Brando and Betty Davis’s profession, so she took acting and arts lessons at the Southern Methodist University, where she obtained a master’s degree.
The first important part came to her in Broadway, with a role in A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller’s play. Then, she worked at the musical Smile, by Marvin Hamlisch, and joined the summer theater company Timber Lake Playhouse, for the season of 1980, where she took part in the musical classic West Side Story playing Maria.
The arrival of the year 1984 would completely change Saundra’s life with the beginning of the super-series Miami Vice (MV), which was characterized by its original integration of music and visual effects to narrate the story.
MV starred Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, who played two detectives from the Police Department of Miami Dade County, who were working undercover. The series was broadcast by NBC for five seasons, from 1984 to 1989. USA Network later began airing reruns the next year, in 1990, and actually broadcast an originally unaired episode during its syndication run of the series on January 25, 1990.
Unlike other shows based on habitual police procedures, Miami Vice was inspired to a large extent by the new wave culture and music of the 1980s. It was acknowledged as one of the most influential ones in the history of television and People magazine assured that it “was the first series that seemed really new and different since the appearance of color television”.
Santiago was chosen to portray detective Gina Calabrese, the fourth major role in the series after Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett, Philip Michael Thomas’s Rico Tubbs, and Edward James Olmos’s Lieutenant Castillo.
Originally, Santiago’s character and Olivia Brown’s (Trudy Joplin) were baits as prostitutes, but as the show was developing, their roles changed and they became undercover operation detectives.
In the series, Gina (Santiago) got involved with Sonny Crockett in a relationship that would later become a close friendship.
Miami Vice made Saundra Santiago world famous and that’s why the producers included in another classic saga: The Sopranos (1999-2007), qualified as the most economically successful cable show in the history of television and described by the critics as “one of the best TV shows of all times”.
The Sopranos stood out for its high quality standards in all aspects of production. It has been especially celebrated for its script and the wonderful performances of its stars, which made easier the way for this kind of TV show and brought success to other fiction series that came after it.
This saga won 21 Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes and, in 2009, it was chosen as the best series of the 2000s by The Hollywood Reporter.
On the aforementioned series, Saundra Santiago played, from 1999 to 2007, the double role of Jeanie and Jean Casamano, twin sisters who are Tony Soprano’s (the main character played by James Gandolfini) neighbors.
In the film Beat Street (1984), by Stan Lathan, Santiago appears in the role of Carmen Carraro, with Rae Dawn Chong and Guy Davis. In 1993, she got a small part in the film Carlitos Way, by Brian de Palma, starring Al Pacino and her Miami Vice co-stars John Leguizamo and Penelope Ann Miller.
After having worked in television, cinema and Broadway stages, Saundra Santiago was seen in Bernarda, a musical production by the Lincoln Center, where she shared stage with Phylicia Rashad.
The actress has continued to move in and out theater and television. She has been seen in the miniseries The Unusuals and in a recurrent role on the first season of Damages, starring Glenn Close.
Additionally, she appeared on Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, and even on some short films, such as Bruja, completely shot in Panama; Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Hello Again, a production of the Lincoln Center.
Santiago also played a part in the soap opera One Life To Live, on ABC, and was a guest star on Law and Order —during the years 1999 and 2004 she was seen on the episodes “Prince of Darkness” and “Memorial Day”. In 2009 she went back to stage with the play One Life To Live, in which she played the role of Carlota Vega.
Saundra created the role of Carmen Santos for Guiding Light, the longest soap opera of CBS, and for all these works she has been nominated on the category of Best Actress to the Tony and Alma Awards.

Translated by: Adriana Pinelo Avendaño
Revised by Emilio R. Febles Hernandez

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