LORAIN — Ten years ago, Kenny Santiago Marrero began a journey. It was one that took him across the country, navigating Hollywood, skirting the Los Angeles nightlife and acting in an award-winning film before landing him back in his native Northeast Ohio, where he prepares to act alongside John Travolta.
In June, 34-year-old Marrero, a Lorain County Community College graduate, returns home to act with Travolta in “Criminal Activities,” a movie being filmed in Cleveland this summer.
“It’s beyond an honor,” Marrero said. “I’m not nervous, but I know I need to bring my A-game.”
It’s no surprise Marrero isn’t nervous. He’s had more than a decade of experience with writing, acting, rejection and accomplishments. In the past few years, he says his career has taken off and he credits a lot of it to growing up in South Lorain.
“Everything I bring to the table reflects the community I grew up in. I can play different roles because of the diverse community (of Lorain),” he said.
He plans to do this with his newest role of “Renaldo” a street-wise, rebellious young man, not unlike many of the teenagers Marrero said he was surrounded with growing up.
Though he’s enjoying the excitement that surrounds a major film role, Marrero said the years leading up to it have not been easy.
In 2004, Marrero graduated from LCCC, where he studied theater. With a scholarship, Marrero moved to San Francisco to study at the Academy of Art University, where he quickly discovered that breaking into acting is every bit as difficult as people say.
“You have to do something unique and different to be acknowledged,” Marrero said, remembering how he completed only three films during his first semester — far fewer than he was supposed to.
He found his footing only when he befriended veteran actress Diane Baker, who encouraged him to write a script.
“She became my other mother in Hollywood. I felt like I couldn’t let her down,” Marrero said.
Drawing on his experience growing up in Lorain — where he was incarcerated as a teenager for robbery — Marrero wrote “21 Days,” about a teenager who’s sent to the same prison as his younger brother’s killer. The script, which Marrero calls “a story of revenge and forgiveness,” won “Best Original Script” from the academy.
Suddenly he was inundated with job offers to work on scripts and act in films in and around the academy, including a small part in the 2006 Will Smith movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
The struggle to break into acting was far from over.
Marrero, who remembers the first few years after graduating from the academy in 2010 as wrought with rejection, said he made gaining experience and working hard his primary goals. It was important, he added, to avoid the temptation of Hollywood nightlife and focus on furthering his career.
“It takes time to understand how to pay your dues, to prepare yourself for when you are in the midst of professional film-making,” he said.
Marrero continued working both behind and in front of the camera until he landed the lead role in “First Do No Harm,” a 2014 film about a shooting at an elementary school.
After that, Marrero said, his career took an upswing. He played another lead role in the award-winning film “Fin del Ano,” and now is taking part in “Criminal Activities.”
With his hard work paying off, Marrero is able to look back at the years since he left Lorain County to pursue his dream and said he prefers to think about the journey rather than the outcome.
“Make sure you leave a great impression. Don’t think about the reward,” he said.
Though, he added, he continues to hold his childhood in Lorain, acting in local theater, at his church and helping to establish the Lorain County Film Commission, as driving forces.
“It’s a really unique town. There’s something special here,” he said.