When Ray Santiago was a teenager, an acting coach gave him one of those out-of-the-blue, kinda-sorta compliments that doesn't so much warm the heart as freeze the brain.
"He said, 'You could play Ben Stiller's half-Latino son, if there was a movie for that,'" Santiago recalls, laughing. "And, I was like, 'Wait, what?!'"
What was likely a stray observation — Santiago, like Stiller, does have some prominent eyebrows — soon became the most unlikely and laser-specific prophecy of all time. A year or so later, Santiago found himself in Los Angeles, cast as Ben Stiller's illegitimate, half-Latino son in Meet the Fockers.
"I was with Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, and Blythe Danner, and what is hilarious is if you put me in a room with them now, I would absolutely s*** my pants," Santiago admits during a conversation with SYFY WIRE in a Manhattan hotel bar. "But 19-year-old Ray had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. And when you're 19, you really don't care. You don't like me? Whatever."
With that kind of exposure and confidence, the role should have been Santiago's big break. But it would instead take a full decade of hustling, and a considerable transformation, for him to transcend industry-imposed limitations and create the sort of character he never saw on TV as a kid. As Pablo in Starz's Ash vs. Evil Dead, Santiago is the heart and soul of the slapstick horror-comedy, a silly show that has opened up serious opportunities for the 33-year-old actor.
Fockers was actually Santiago's second would-be breakout role. As a 12-year-old, he co-starred in Girlfight, the indie film that stormed the Sundance Film Festival and made a star of Michelle Rodriguez. So by 21, when he moved to L.A. for good, he was carrying a pretty impressive resume to pitch around town: Santiago was a recent graduate of New York's prestigious High School of Performing Arts, and had proven himself in two hit movies before he could legally drink.
But nothing comes easy when you're a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, especially not in show business. And so he found himself navigating L.A.'s impossible bus lines, dragging around headshots for thug-of-the-week guest roles. Hollywood's collective imagination fell far short of his ambition. He saw himself as a future star; casting directors saw a recyclable criminal.
"It'd been over a decade since I'd been there, and I just jumped from show to show playing gang bangers and drug dealers," he explained, a nod to short-lived roles in shows like crime dramas Dexter, Law & Order: LA, and Major Crimes. "I'd been in every interrogation room that you could possibly imagine on television."
He tried to make the most of it. Drug dealers are people, too, he'd tell himself, so their stories had merit and were worth telling. He worked to add a bit of depth to the characters, even if they were given less consideration than what craft services would be feeding the writers that day, and had backstories thinner than the paper that day's script was printed on.
"Even though some of the lines for some of those characters were the same, because it's the same formula in these procedural shows," he said, "I was able to just be like 'Well, in this one, my character Little Dip is not as serious as whoever I played on Dexter, where I was a pimp.'"
Santiago says he mostly lived off his Fockers salary for all of his 20s, thanks to careful budgeting and the short TV arcs that supplemented his bank account. It was hard to claw his way up. There weren't many Latinos on TV when he was a kid — he name-checks John Leguizamo a few times as one of the few big names he could look up to — and even as the population became more diverse, entertainment continued to lag behind that pace.
So he took a drastic step: As he turned 30, Ray Santiago stopped trying to be what most casting directors wanted. "I decided to change things up and I grew my hair, realized I could grow a mustache and be who I am," he says, recalling the fateful decision.
The hair, tall and thick and teased straight upright, is now his trademark; the guy who was once cast as the Latino Ben Stiller now occasionally gets called the Latino Kramer, a Seinfeld comparison he doesn't love but acknowledges as at least somewhat valid, if narrowly confined to his hair. He stumbled upon the finger-in-an-electrical-outlet look while putting his hair up in a bun during a yoga class, and decided to let it stand, which immediately made him stick out.
"People were like, 'Cut your hair, shave your mustache, look like every other Latino out there,'" he says. "And I was like, 'I'm just going to be me.' I just decided to go with the quirkiness of who I am and be unique to who I am."
That Ray Santiago was definitely quirky. He loved superheroes and supernatural stories as a kid, and was such a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan that he carried a wooden stake around in his backpack during high school (security was more lax back then). One time, as a kid, he ran into Sarah Michelle Gellar in Central Park, and dared to ask a burning question: "I was like, 'What's up with no boy slayers? What's that about?' She was like, 'Oh, there's some room out there for one.'"
Once again, an offhand remark during an awkward conversation proved to be prophetic. This one took longer to be realized, but Santiago would indeed ultimately find himself killing supernatural freaks — though it would be with the help of a chainsaw, not a wooden stake.
Santiago's new look caught the eye of the producers and casting director of Ash vs. Evil Dead, the TV series continuation of Sam Raimi's iconic horror-comedy trilogy starring Bruce Campbell. The show is at its core an off-kilter buddy comedy, and it needed a loyal sidekick for Campbell's lovable moron hero. Pablo, an undocumented immigrant, works at a crappy department store and admires Ash beyond all reason, projecting the sort of innocence that no casting director had ever thought to look for in Santiago.
But this time, people were noticing. Santiago made it through the escalating rounds of the audition process, and before the final callback, recalls Raimi giving him a pep talk that doubled as larger affirmation.
"Sam came in and was like, 'Listen, just do your thing. Pablo is a really good guy but he's been kind of wronged, and I feel like you have that, and I see that. And just remember that he's the heart of the unit,'" he says.
Campbell was equally enthusiastic during Santiago's audition.
"What we liked about Ray was that he was fresh," Campbell remembers. "There was something about his openness, his smile and laugh were very accessible. And when you cast for characters in shows that are supposed to be long-living, you've got to like these people. Ray right away was like, that guy's definitely fresh and definitely different."
The mustache and hair probably didn't hurt establishing him as different.
The show, soon entering its third season, shoots in New Zealand, where Santiago now spends five months a year. It's a small, tight-knit cast that has to work at a rapid pace to get through all the set pieces, blood makeup, and prosthetics each episode demands. As the seasons have progressed, the show has grown more ambitious, with more outdoor scenes in the wilds outside Auckland, which requires a sort of bunker mentality that Campbell says Santiago brings every day on production.
"We'll randomly be sitting on set in some dank-ass location, some really lousy cave or basement set. It's dark, we're covered in blood, it's cold," Campbell says. "We'll be three quarters through the show, and we'll look at each other, and just start laughing out of nowhere. For Ray, it's a new experience to be in a show like this, and for me, I'm still doing the damn thing 38 years later."
Santiago credits much of his production education to the show, from learning action choreography to how to deliver lines while being pelted in the face by a rain machine.
"The only thing I tried to teach him was that marks on the floor matter," Campbell says. "If you miss your mark, you'll be out of focus, and you can be doing a great take but they'll miss it. Because he's very enthusiastic, a very animated guy."
New Zealand has become a haven; Santiago is dating someone there and has found his place on the show. After pushing to make Pablo more of a badass throughout the first two seasons, Santiago is pleased with where the character is headed; Pablo has "brujo" powers this coming season, which begins on February 25, reversing course on the supernatural slaying and creating a hero for a new generation.
"I've seen the evolution of Pablo going from being this naïve immigrant that people take for granted to being a strong part of the group," he says. "I think it's important nowadays for a character like Pablo to be on television, in people's homes. As a kid I didn't have very many positive portrayals of Latinos on television."
Yes, Pablo is more than a single character on a single pay cable TV show in an era of literally countless TV shows. But for kids who grew up like Santiago, looking for a hero they can call their own, Pablo is a milestone. In a time of mass cosplaying, toy collecting, and binge re-watching, Pablo won't die when the series takes its final bow.
"On New Year's Day, I was watching a Bruce Lee movie, hungover at a Chinese restaurant in New Zealand, and I was like, 'Oh, wow, Bruce Lee, he's dead, but people see him forever," Santiago remembers, laughing. "And then, I'm like, 'Oh s***. That's gonna happen with me.' So, hopefully some little boy that has a dream of being a hero, or being somebody, they can relate to Pablo."
"I love the fact that for the rest of his life, he will always have action figures that look like that, with the mustache and hair. It's just spectacular," Campbell adds, laughing.
The hope — and there are some indicators that this is happening — is that Pablo, however immortal, is just the beginning of Santiago's contributions to that canon. On the day we met, he was prepping to meet a director for a new Jennifer Lopez movie, and was working hard for an audition for the big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical In the Heights.
"On my bucket list is to be like, 'Yo. I took that six train too,'" he says, growing excited about the prospect of a meeting with J-Lo. "I took that six train too, and we don't have many people like that."