No boundaries ! Wanda DeJesus won't say can't

 By Janet Di Lauro, Soap Opera Weekly, 1992

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Nothing entices Wanda DeJesus (Santana Andrade, Santa Barbara) quite as much as a challenge. When she was growing up in New York City she had already eliminated the word "can't" from her vocabulary. Her aspirations were big, but her will was bigger. "What always drew my attention was becoming a surgeon," she recalls. "My mom was a nurse in Puerto Rico before she came (to the United States). She used to ask me, "Well, wouldn't you want to be a nurse, honey ?" And I'd always say, "No, a surgeon."" Although DeJesus ultimately abandoned her medical aspirations, she's never forsaken her quest to reach for the highest star. Despite the fact that DeJesus, a first-generation American of Puerto Rican descent, is employed in an industry where jobs for Latinas are few and far between, she's managed to work steadily over the years. In the process, she's played a wide range of meaty, impressive roles, not just the stereotypical ethnic fare.

"I feel very lucky that I haven't had to play just hookers and the poor. But it's been rough," she concedes. "It's especially rough because when you train you're allowed to work on the classics. I got turned on to acting by watching Peter O'Toole do The Lion in Winter when I was a kid. And when I watched Wuthering Heights, it was like "Sure, I would like to do that." There was no way in my mind that I thought I couldn't do that because I think the creative heart knows no boundaries. It's just a matter of really wanting to do the role."

DeJesus believes that theatre, especially the Los Angeles theater, is the one aspect of the business that affords actors of every race and nationality a fighting chance to break through casting barriers. "In New York, for the most part, what I played were Hispanic women's roles. In Los Angeles, there's more of a chance for creative casting... a phenomenon where certain variables come together and people just (accept it). It's open to who's the best one for the role," she explains. DeJesus' agents continue to send her out on creative casting calls. "It feels good to be a part of that," she smiles. "It's an egg to crack... an interesting egg to crack." And, over the years, it's worked. "I got to work on L.A. Law," she says. "When I went in to audition, the character's name was very WASP-y. But they allowed me to come in and read for them. When I got the role, they changed her name."

The character Santana, however, is definitely Hispanic, and DeJesus is delighted to be portraying her. The actress realizes that she is one of few Latinos holding down a prominent role in daytime. She's determined to set a good example through Santana. "Latina women have been portrayed as either the sexual diva or the doormat, nothing in between," DeJesus says emphatically. "Nothing in between in terms of the fleshed out layers of what it is to be a woman today in the '90s, to be second generation here, to honor and love your heritage but also (deal with) the dichotomies of being in striving toward maybe (giving viewers) a little better understanding of that."

DeJesus' message has been coming across loud and clear through her on-screen relationship with Jed Allan's C.C. Capwell. (The couple are engaged, and she's expecting a baby.) It's the classic tale of a wealthy, older man and a struggling, younger woman, but with a twist - she's the daughter of the Capwell's maid, who's dead set against Santana insinuating herself into the wealthy "establishment." "Santana realizes there are no differences (between herself and C.C.)," notes DeJesus. "But being involved in this Capwell thing is not going to all of a sudden make her feel subservient. Santana tries to instill that in her mother. It's not that she ever was ashamed that her mother was the housekeeper. She's very proud of where her family has come from and what they've done to survive and live in Santa Barbara."

Like Santana, DeJesus worked hard to get ahead. At the age of 13, the native New Yorker was accepted to the High School of Performing Arts. The school, the model for the TV show Fame, but with a heavier curriculum, holds many memories for the actress. "It was pretty intense," she says. "You had to maintain a certain grade point average to stay in school, and you were constantly reminded that if you didn't there were thousands of other kids who wanted (to be there). They'd tell you, "Oh, you're special, but you have to work hard."" After graduating with a B.F.A. degree from The Leonard Davis Center for Performing Arts, part of City College of New York, DeJesus did a lot of theatre. It was the actress' work at the Public Theater that ultimately took her to Broadway. "I set up the reading of the work Cuba And His Teddy Bear", she explains. "The play ran for about six months at The Public and a year on Broadway with Robert De Niro. I had a couple of scenes with him. It was fascinating to watch him work and to work with him."

While appearing on Broadway, DeJesus was simultaneously getting her first taste of daytime - the role of Gomez, Reginald Love's (John Considine) sidekick on Another World. DeJesus left both projects behind to star in the nighttime series Mariah. "That was shot up in Toronto and had a life for about seven months," she notes. "It got good reviews. ABC picked it up, but I don't think there really was a place for it. There were things like Dynasty on at the time." When Mariah was canceled, DeJesus kept busy with episodic work and theater until Santa Barbara came along. The idea of steady work appealed to her, "It's a nice rest, a nice change," she says, "because we're gypsies. Actors are really gypsies. It's nice to be able to say, "OK. I'm here for a while.""

And while DeJesus is on Santa Barbara she's determined to give Santana her all. "I did my homework," she says proudly. "When I came on, I asked about Santana's history and was given a stack of paper a couple of feet high. It's what's called The Santa Barbara Bible. I sat and read through each character's life and the Andrade family history. Then, I asked different actors questions and formulated my own stuff too. As we go on, there's more to be discovered. I think there's room for Santana to be more of her own person within her relationship with C.C.," DeJesus continues. "Because there's an age difference and because C.C. is C.C. Capwell, he's like the protector and the champion. There is room in this for more of a real man/woman relationship. There's room for Santana to be her own person and have a voice, a clear voice. Right now, it's still about Santana trying to ingratiate herself with the Capwell family. C.C. and Santana's relationship is still kind of peripheral. I don't think she's lady of the manor yet. There's still a lot to be resolved."

Offscreen, DeJesus is seriously involved with actor Jimmy Smits (Victor Fuentes in L.A. Law) - and the relationship is solid. "Jimmy and I have been together a really long time... before L.A. Law," she notes. "We met in New York, worked together (on Cuba And His Teddy Bear), and became friends. I love working with him, and I know the feeling is mutual because he's told me. What I look forward to is maybe a project somewhere in the future that we can do together. Jimmy is a major part of my life," she continues. "Hollywood, being the glass bowl that it is, says what it says and writes what it writes. But I'm here to tell you that my life with him has been really good, and I think he feels the same way. A lot of people say, "Two actors together. How do you do it ?" Well, you know what ? It takes work, and it takes staying out of the actor's ego, because people forget about love and get into who's doing one more project. Jimmy's been really supportive of me, and I support his career. We have a good time because we have that in common and a few other things that keep us going. We enjoy helping each other rehearse. When Jimmy first started L.A. Law, I would help him with certain scenes. It was a good growth process for me as well. When he would have his love scenes, he would find out what the shots would be, and we would actually kind of rehearse them. It was a lot of fun," DeJesus says with a smile. "So he became part of my process, and I became part of his."

DeJesus appears to have it all at the moment - a good career, a good relationship, and, above all, the good sense to keep both running smoothly. So what does the future hold for this dynamic young woman ? DeJesus responds quickly, without so much as a moment of thought. "I'd like to have a successful life. I know it sounds really na´ve and blanket, but I really do feel that. I want to be able to look back on my life and say, "Yeah ! I did it. I did what I wanted."" Well, DeJesus is definitely on track and miles ahead of the pack.