In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month we spoke to Cara Santana, an actor, activist, and entrepreneur. You might know her from her blog Cara Disclothed or the company she founded, The Glam App. You might have seen her work in the television series Vida or Santa Clarita Diet, or maybe you’ve heard her advocating for immigration reform in El Paso, Texas, the border city where she was born and raised. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon her social media, where she talks about an issue even closer to home: addiction and sobriety. “When I share about my recovery, I really do it as an act of service, because other people did it for me,” she says. “And there’s nothing more comforting to me than the truth.” Below, the multi-hyphenate shares how she first got into acting, the worst experience she’s ever had while filming, and how she’s using her voice both off and on set.
My first job
My first job was as a hostess at The State Line in El Paso, Texas, when I was 16. I convinced my parents to let me go to boarding school for the performing arts, and there was a six-week gap between when regular school started and when boarding school started. They were like, you can’t just sit home alone and watch television for six weeks. You need to get a job. I became a hostess, and I loved it. It was my first foray into independence—social independence, economic independence. I remember being like, oh, this is what it’s going to be like to be an adult. I can’t wait to have my own life.
My worst experience on a job
When I was about 20, I was on set of a really big TV series. It was my first real job as an actress. We had been shooting for a couple of days, and I had gotten comfortable. I forgot that mentality of: I’m a worker among workers. We were doing a take, and I was goofing off after I was off-screen. But I was still on-camera; I just didn’t realize it. The director was like, “Cut! What the fuck are you doing? This is a fucking professional environment. We don’t have time for your fucking goofing off.” It was harsh, and I was really embarrassed. But I learned something, which is one, not everything’s all about me, and two, it’s important to have a sense of decorum and professionalism. And I never goofed off like that again.
Why I wanted to become an actor
I’ve always had an incredibly strong desire to escape. Fantasy was really my first addiction, and I loved getting outside of myself. The easiest way to explore that is through other people, through make-believe, dress up. My parents saw that in me as a little girl—this imagination and desire to create—and helped get me into acting classes and plays in Texas. Once I understood that you could do this as a career, I was like, I have to explore it to its fullest. I remember watching Geena Davis in A League of Their Own or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love—these strong, amazing female characters, people exploring and me feeling something as a result of watching it. I was like, this is what I need to do.
How I’ve learned to speak up for myself on set
I was working on a project recently, and the director wasn’t calling me by my name. They would say: “Hey, can you do this? Hey, can you do that?” But the other four lead characters were all being called by their names. The only thing I didn’t have in common with everybody else is really the way that I look. Usually I would’ve sat on that set wondering, why the fuck is this happening to me? But finally I was like, this is not okay. I can address it, and I can do it respectfully. So I said, “Can I speak to you for a second?” and I pulled the director off set, and I said, “My name is Cara, and I would be so appreciative if you could address me as such. I feel dismissed. I feel like you are not valuing my presence as a collaborator on this project, and I need to be addressed by my name.” And she did. We went on, and it was fine. But I feel like a younger Cara, a more fearful Cara, would’ve just taken it for the three weeks of filming and been really miserable.
The most important thing I learned from being a CEO
You will get more nos than you get yeses—but you only need one yes. When I was raising money for The Glam App, I would sit in these meetings with venture capitalists, the majority of whom are male, and nine out of 10 times, the guys would say: “Huh, so you’re the CEO? But aren’t you, like, an actress? You’re just so young and so cute. You really run this company?” And shockingly, I felt like the women were equally as hard on me. My spirit sort of broke at times thinking, people don’t believe in me, I’m not going to be able to do this. Then I pitched to Jesse Draper, who runs Halogen Ventures. She focuses on female-founded businesses. I pitched her this idea and she was like, “You have it. You have the idea. You have the ability. I’m writing you a check.” All I needed was that one yes to open the door to raise the money. So keep your eye on the fucking price.
Why I share my addiction and sobriety story
I was always looking for a way to escape. When I found drugs and alcohol, I was like, this is the fucking best escape. At first, it was fun. Then it was fun with problems. Then it was just problems. It led me to a really dark place. Everything I said I would never do, I was willing to do. My life was completely emptied—spiritually and morally bankrupt. I was really sick, and I almost died of a drug overdose in 2004. I knew that if I continued doing what I’d been doing, I would inevitably die. I had experienced cocaine-induced psychosis; I was experimenting with every drug that you can imagine. So I decided I was going to get sober. My sobriety date is April 1, 2004. I was fortunate enough to find a 12-step program, and I’m an active participant today. I take a lot of girls through the 12 steps and help them recover. It’s probably the single most fulfilling thing in my entire life, being a part of other people’s recovery and participating in my own, one day at a time.
Without my sobriety, I really have nothing. And when you look at what’s happening on a macro level in our society, there’s a lack of connection, a lack of humanity. So what can I do? I can be open and honest and transparent about my reality and hope that someone out there can connect and identify with my experience and not feel alone.
How my dad influenced my activism
My dad was the first person to go to college in his family. He’s dedicated his life to trying to better the lives of other people. He worked in the juvenile probation department for 30-something years. He really believed that rehabilitation was key and that there are no bad kids, only people who are misguided. One time I was at a McDonald’s drive-through, and when I gave my card to pay, the guy at the cash register said: “Santana? Are you Sam Santana’s daughter? I got sent to lockdown, and your dad changed my life.” It was really profound. My dad has always stressed to use your voice for people who don’t have any and doing it with humility and humanity. Because of that, I find myself really driven to speak about drug reform and immigration reform. There are so many fucking issues in the world. But where I feel connected and feel like I’m educated enough to speak on it, I try to.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.