Buzz building for indie film starring Hannibal native Santana Dempsey

Hannibal native Santana Dempsey rose above bullying and times of adversity through success in sports, honing her dedication along the way to becoming a movie star.

Dempsey said sports instilled in her the perseverance that would bring her success in the acting business. But acting wasn’t the first career path to cross her mind — Dempsey said she secretly wanted to compete in the Olympics, but she plateaued after undergoing knee surgeries. Competing in scholastic sports shaped her future and helped her move forward from the tough times in her life.

“Sports really healed me. Particularly, running. It was you against you, “ she said. “Mind, body and heart. Playing sports in Hannibal helped train me to overcome obstacles mentally. I had great coaches like Mark St. Clair and Charlie Newland who believed in me.”

Now, Dempsey is starring in a film that weaves together character’s stories in a dark, violent and comedic presentation that Dempsey described as “frenetic.”

“Lowlife is a horror/thriller dark comedy about an organ harvesting caper that goes very, very wrong,” she said.

Dempsey said the film echoes some of the societal issues that she grappled with during her childhood. She said the movie’s themes like adoption, interracial relations, PTSD, sex trafficking and substance abuse are often considered taboo and not discussed at length.

“It all spoke to me,” she said.

Dempsey had lengthy discussions about her adoption experience with the writers, producers and director, where she “used parts of my feelings of abandonment for the role.” Dempsey said her character Kaylee’s situation in the movie was much more serious than her personal experience — she portrays a pregnant drug addict who was given up as a child and sold into sex trafficking because her biological family could no longer care for her. Dempsey stressed that her own situation could have been similar if she had not been adopted.

“So many people are stuck in the system and have no way out, so they turn to drugs and prostitution out of desperation to survive,” she said. “Kaylee is a survivor. Despite her circumstances, she never gives up fighting for herself and her child.”

Dempsey was adopted from foster care with her biological sister, Gala, by Terrell and Vicki Dempsey. She recalled that growing up in Hannibal meant she endured adversity, especially during high school — where she was often bullied for her mixed race heritage and for being adopted by affluent, white parents. But she found a burning passion for sports, especially running — never missing a day at least two years straight — and she created some controversy in eighth grade when she played as the only girl on the football team.

“I had a tendency to push the boundaries back then,” Dempsey said. “Well, I still do.”

She continued to work hard throughout school, serving as junior class president and writing for the school newspaper. Dempsey attended the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, before switching to a degree in theater when she “soon realized I craved to be a part of the news, not report the news.” She said that her level of dedication helped her to deal with the inevitable “no” replies that come before that joyous “yes” for an acting role.

Once Dempsey started working on the movie “Lowlife”, she bonded with a team that became like her other family during the 10- to 12-hour days. Once each day concluded, she felt a sense of loss without them — coupled with lingering emotions from a film filled with intense imagery and subject matter. She recalled feeling emotions that ranged from “sadness,” “confusion” and “anger” to “elation,” “joy” and bliss” during the filming process. For Dempsey, all of the hard work and emotions were worth the sacrifice.

“Acting is by far one of my greatest joys,” she said. “It means someone took a chance on me, saw I was right for this particular role and is allowing me to give their character a voice.”

Through all of the experiences and hard work to make the film, Dempsey said she felt elated about the response that Lowlife is receiving. Dempsey said she couldn’t have reached this point in her life without people who always believed in her: her sister, her parents, Prof. Clyde Ruffin, Dael Orlandersmith, Brad Munson, Angela Ortiz, Jessie Disla, Stacy Fiehler, Casey Gordon, Drew Carey, Nikkolas Rey, Mitch Clem and the entire Lowlife team.

“You always hope indie films will be seen, but never did I think we’d be getting the kind of attention we are. It is so cool. I am grateful every day that it is being received so well,” she said. “I can’t wait for my family and friends to see it next week in Chicago. That is going to be surreal.”

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com