"'DUFF' stands for 'designated ugly fat friend,'" she said of the YA novel-based film's namesake, "so we take this teen comedy about this girl getting this label and explore what she does with it."
In doing so, the film actually destigmatizes the label and, ultimately, being labeled at all — a notion Santos fully supports.
"There are always going to be labels and people are always going to try to put you in boxes. But, ultimately, how do you see yourself? I love that that's the message," she shared.
After all, Santos has some personal experience with being labeled. In high school, she says, it was "the smart girl." These days? "I have a whole new set of labels. What do directors want to see me as? What do I keep getting cast in?"
And as the daughter of Hispanic parents, she has become accustomed to labels like "diverse" and "ethnic" and "religious." But, with a sunny perspective we're quickly picking up is one of Santos' defining traits, she tells us that she chooses to embrace those labels for what they allow her to bring to the table.
"My mom is Cuban and my dad is Brazilian and I've very much grown in those cultures, just surrounded by those people," she said, "and I think one thing that I've taken with me is just a joy for life — this idea that life is beautiful and you're here. I think I bring that joy into this industry where there's a tendency to be jaded."
Laughing, Santos admits her family "knows how to have fun" and that enthusiasm for life filters into everything she does.
"Every day I want to be the light. I want to be the one who is so happy and so gracious and so grateful to be where I am, and I think that's a direct result of my upbringing," she said.
Still, it doesn't mean Santos' positive outlook has shielded her from the occasional insecurities women — and especially beautiful women, it often seems — can be plagued by.
Of the perceived flaws she has risen above over the years, Santos reveals, "Gosh, where do we even start? For years, I was the scrawny, pimply, brace-faced girl."
She always felt she needed to play the part of the smart, funny girl to win people over. Now, she says, she realizes her adolescent struggles speak to a much more universal problem.
"I think there is this pressure for girls and women, no matter what, to be a certain way, to look a certain way and I definitely felt that growing up... a lot," she explained.
"I grew up watching TV and everyone who was considered beautiful was blond-haired. And I thought that's what beauty was. I thought I had to have blond hair and blue eyes to be beautiful. I really did! I honestly did not think that I was attractive for years, because that wasn't what was presented to me as beautiful."
So, as labels go, "diverse" is one she wouldn't mind hearing more. "There's such a push for diversity these days, so I guess now if I was watching TV, I would say, 'Hey, that girl kind of looks like me,' and that I would take some comfort in that," she said. "I didn't have that growing up."
As her own career progresses, Santos hopes to see a more varied spectrum of women in media across the board, underscoring, "I think, as women, we are the most strong and amazing creatures."
In addition to simply seeing more female-heavy casts, the young star would love to see a wider cross-section of different types of women celebrated onscreen.
"In particular, I would love to see a push for strong, vulnerable women," Santos said. "To see that kind of strength — more and more — I think that could be infectious."
When it comes to the women in Hollywood who are already breaking down walls and blazing a trail for the newer generation of entertainers like herself, Santos is quick to rattle off a long list of celebrity role models.
Jennifer Lopez, because she makes a difference. Jennifer Lawrence, because she stays grounded when everyone around her loses their heads. And Meryl Streep, who she hails as one the most inspiring actresses in the industry.
But, as for her own career, Santos has a pretty inspiring goal of her own.
"I just want to be challenged," she told us, "and I want to be able to represent a group of people who don't have a voice. I think when I find that role, I'll know it."
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