Soledad St. Hilaire never dreamed of being an actress.
A single mother in her early 40s, she'd worked as a secretary and a real estate agent, sometimes waiting tables on the graveyard shift at Denny's when money was tight. She'd survived an abusive marriage and breast cancer.
Her daughter, Sabella, was the one with hopes of making it on screen, trying out for roles on TV shows and commercials. Then, one day about a decade ago, Soledad picked up the phone at her home in Cypress where she and Sabella live.
"My daughter's agent calls to tell her about an audition," St. Hilaire said. "She wasn't home. I was recuperating from breast cancer. The agent asked me to audition, saying they were looking for healthy couples. I said, 'Oh no, I don't look healthy in the eyes of America because I'm fat, but thank you.'"
Later, at her daughter's urging, St. Hilaire called back. The commercial had already been cast, but the mother was intrigued by what she heard.
"I strongly suggest you get into the business," the agent said. "I wasn't able to find one Latina at your age to come here and audition for the part."
St. Hilaire, now 53, decided to try acting. She began to research dozens of books about breaking into the craft. She learned the basic acting terms: audition, head shots, callbacks. It was the start of a new chapter in her life.
She became a cinematic commodity, appearing in films with well known names such as Kirsten Dunst, Andie MacDowell, Bill Pullman and Julia Roberts. Her parts were usually minor, but each gave her more experience and opened up new opportunities.
She has appeared in director Steven Soderburgh's "Full Frontal," "Crazy/Beautiful" and recently had a part in an episode of HBO's "Six Feet Under."
On Friday, St. Hilaire will add another film to her resume when "Criminal" co-starring Maggie Cyllenhaal, Diego Luna and John C. Reilly, opens nationwide. They independant film, produced by George Clooney, features St. Hilaire in a brief but memorable role as a waitress wo is duped by a con man.
"I worked with her in "Full Frontal" and I liked her; said Gregory Jacobs, who co-wrote and directed "Criminal." "This time I didn't audition anybody for the part. She's the one I had in mind. She is a good actress and really does a good job."
Last year, St. Hilaire was seen in in Showtime's "The Maldonado Miracle." She led the movie, directed by Salma Hayek, which is about a religious woman named Josephina who discovers a statue of Jesus shedding a tear. It was a chance for the actress to showhe ron-screen bravado. The movie was screened last year in front of a huge audience at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. It was also a chance for St. Hilaire to work with Hayek as she directed her first film.
"Salma is wonderful," St. Hilaire said. "She was personable, very focused. We had 500 extras, and she was nice to them too. The movie showed me how to be in a character and how much I could bring out of the character."
The Hollywood game has been thrilling, St. Hilaire said, but getting there ws the last thing she thought she'd pursue when she came to the United States in the early 1970s to got to school and work. She left her homeland, Panama, so she could go to school in downtown Los Angeles.
From a young age, St. Hilaire showed a penchant for being popular and enterprising, charging her classmates 10 cents to type up their school papers. Her parents divorced early in childhood, her mother eventually moving to California and Soledad staying behind with her grandmother.
After high school, St. Hilaire moved to Los Angeles, where she met a tall man with hazel-colored eyes. They married, but he turned out to be abusive and sometimes beat her unconscious. She left him. Although the relationship failed, it brought Sabella into St. Hilaire's life. The mother and daughter lived in Los Angeles and later settled in Orange County.
"I have a great mother," Sabella said. "She's been strong and brave. She has done many things in her life."
Although she recently returned to selling homes, St. Hilaire keeps busy by studying acting, networking and going to auditons every week.
"I never thought that I could be involved in the arts," St. Hilaire said. "I never sat down and said, 'Maybe I want to be an actress.' I did some research and started discovering. It was like a monster was asleep. If I was going to go into acting, it was going to be 200 percent."
St. Hilaire's eyes get big when she talks about her experiences with other actors. There was a time when she was running lines with her co-stars from "Criminal." She remembers Reilly's sense of humor.
"He liked laughing a lot and kept the set cool."
Luna, she said, was a great acting partner, and "we talked about the scene and what was going to happen."
When she's not auditioning and trying to land her next role, she speaks to young people in Orange County schools, seeking to give them a clear understanding of what it takes to be an actor. "The harsh reality, she said, is that most actors make very little money --$25,000 a year is considered a lot. In fact, a few months ago, she was on unemployment.
There's also the reality of being limited to parts as mothers or maids. But as St. Hilaire once told a casting director, "There are no small roles, only small people."
Her optimistic and bubbly perspective on life helped her get a part in director Don Roos' upcoming film "Happy Endings," with a cast that includes Tom Arnold and Lisa Kudrow.
"I still haven't gotten where I'm supposed to get," St. Hilaire said firmly "I still have to get an Oscar. I'm still waiting for the part that I can develop and people will say, 'She deserves an Oscar.' I'm determined."
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It is a great satisfaction to accomplish day by day your little efforts that makes you closer to your dreams. ¤ Soledad St. Hilaire ¤