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Hackers at 25 with Renoly Santiago

Posted on November 13, 2020

Renoly Santiago has starred in such box office hits as Dangerous Minds and Con Air — but to his fans in the infosec community, he’s best known for playing Phantom Phreak in the cult classic Hackers

The film marks its 25th anniversary this year, and we caught up with Santiago to talk about the making of Hackers; the movie’s enduring legacy, and what it means to him personally; and the relationship between technology and the arts.

When Hackers was released in 1995, only about 15% of Americans were online, and the world of computers and computer hacking was still largely unknown to the general public. 25 years later, the movie has achieved cult status, big screen depictions of hacking are commonplace, and even our coffee machines have Internet connections! 

An up-and-coming Renoly Santiago played Ramon “The Phantom Phreak” Sanchez in the film, and his character—a fast-talking teenage hacker with a knack for breaking into phone systems—quickly became a fan favorite. A multidisciplinary artist, Santiago has gone on to have a successful career as an actor, director, singer, writer, and teacher—but says he still remembers that early project fondly:

I loved making Hackers. We had so much fun, everybody was awesome, and was really dedicated to making it a great movie!

Time flies, but even though it’s been 25 years, it really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long! I loved making Hackers. We had so much fun, everybody was awesome, and was really dedicated to making it a great movie. We all put everything we had into it. So it’s really nice to see that people can still talk about it and enjoy it now. I feel really happy with it, and glad I was a part of it.

In developing the role of Phantom Phreak, Santiago says that he didn’t have much to go on at first—but was able to use the material in the script to bring his character to life: 

Basically all actors, when they create a role, start with just the plain script. And they build everything off of that information. There’s always something in there that they give you — before you audition for a role — that’s like a couple of sentences about the character and how they see their personality. Funny enough, however, the only description of my character was that he was a “dapper Latino kid”! But the script had all of my lines, starting with that scene at the beginning of the movie when Jonny Lee Miller approaches me while I’m on the telephone with my girlfriend, so from there I just interpreted the role. 

To fans, one of the most memorable aspects of Hackers is its unique aesthetic: the bright colors, the psychedelic CGI, and—of course—the rollerblades! As Santiago recalls, some of film’s most iconic elements came from the director himself:

The way that they dressed us, which was really fashionable, and really cyberpunk, wasn’t really mentioned in the script. When directors make a film, they choose who their costume designer is, and make decisions about the art direction. They have their own vision. And Iain Softley saw Hackers as a very stylish movie, with really great clothes! He’s also responsible for creating that wonderful element of the music. 

Because the movie was filmed at a time when most people—actors included—didn’t have an Internet connection, the cast required a bit of coaching to help them portray computer hackers convincingly. Santiago says that this entailed a sort of technical boot camp to cover the fundamentals: 

We had two weeks of training. They got us all laptops (which back then not everyone had!) and they taught us all the basics about how to sign in and out and how to go on the Internet. It was really a time when all of this was just starting to become part of the mainstream, everyday culture—but that’s what the director and the team that made the movie felt was going to happen. They were looking to the future.

It was really a time when all of this was just starting to become part of the mainstream, everyday culture—but that’s what the director and the team that made the movie felt was going to happen.

These days, of course, computers are ubiquitous, and “hacker” has become a respectable career goal for students to pursue. Asked about the film’s legacy, Santiago says that he believes Hackers did have an effect on the public’s perception of hacking, and also of hackers themselves: 

It made it fun. It made it acceptable. And it represented what people were already doing, or were about to start doing. It really did give another identity to the intelligent person, to the “hacker”, and showed that they could be hip, and sexy, and outgoing. It also showed that all kinds of people could be hackers: It was really great to see the multicultural element in the film.

Hackers was ahead of its time in many ways, and the diversity of the cast is one of the most striking examples of this. Even today, the tech industry—including the infosec community—struggles with issues of diversity and inclusion. Santiago, born in Puerto Rico and raised in multicultural Union City, New Jersey, says that he was “absolutely, one hundred percent” conscious of the importance of playing a Latino tech whiz in the film, an awareness that he credits in part to his earlier work with a non-profit organization in New York:

I’ve always been sort of an activist in my own right, which is also how I related to the characters in the film. I’d gotten involved with a group called the City Kids Foundation, which is an aggressively multicultural youth and arts organization in New York, a few years before the film, and I was still part of it when we were making Hackers (as was Peter Kim, who plays Blade in the film, so it was really cool that we both ended up in the film at the same time and knew each other from there!). I was always very into trying to represent Latinos, which to this day is still an issue. We’re still battling to have inclusion, and to have more representation. But Hackers was this golden moment in which the powers that be allowed a project to be made that incorporated many people of different races—and in the lead! So that was a big blessing. 

Let’s hope that more projects are as inclusive as Hackers. It was definitely something special back then. And it’s still special now.

Santiago says that there are issues with cultural and racial diversity in his own field as well, and that this is one reason why Hackers was so important to him personally:

Every time I get a big movie like that, I always thank God. I get very emotional, because I know how many Latino actors and how many people of color are trying to be artists. But one of the things that we have to confront when we want to be artists is that we are not represented—and that it’s not an equal playing field. In this business, when they write a character, they have to identify whether the character is white, Black, Latino, Asian, Indian, whatever, and that’s determined by the writer, and by the producers, before any actors are allowed to interview: they have to be specifically of that racial background to be considered for the role. So let’s hope that more projects are as inclusive as Hackers. It was definitely something special back then. And it’s still special now.

Over the years, Hackers has developed a loyal following, drawing fans from all walks of life. But the film has special appeal to people who work in cybersecurity, and in tech generally, perhaps above all for making hacking…well…cool. Asked if he ever hears from fans who were inspired to go into a technical field because of the movie, Santiago says, “Yes, all the time”, and remarks: 

It’s always an honor. It really touches me to know that something that I may have been a part of would spark an idea in someone’s mind, or continue to inspire them to reach for and to try new things. It’s so beautiful.

It really touches me to know that something that I may have been a part of would spark an idea in someone’s mind, or continue to inspire them to reach for and to try new things. It’s so beautiful.

As an actor famous for playing an elite computer hacker—and responsible for inspiring a love of tech in untold numbers of fans—Santiago has had occasion to reflect on the relationship between art and technology, and he has some strong views on the subject. And although the two are often thought of as opposites, he says that this is a fundamental misconception:

Art and technology go very much hand in hand. This is why we say “the arts and sciences”, they really relate to and really need one another.

Art has an incredibly precise, almost mathematical structure to it when it’s complete. When you’re building something artistically, creatively, whether it’s physical, or conceptual, or as a piece of writing, it has this engineered dimension to it. And when we look at science and technology, there has to be creativity, there has to be thinking outside of the box. There’s a sort of artistic, creative element that’s needed there too. 

One place you can see this connection between art and technology is in film. Science and technology play a huge role in filmmaking: the cameras, the sound, the lighting; and of course nowadays everything relies on computers. When we make movies, we’re always using the highest technology available. But as we know, there are also directors like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg who actually contribute to technology, who innovate. The two worlds are beautifully connected.

That viewpoint, however, is not shared by everyone—least of all by politicians who treat STEM subjects as the be-all and end-all of modern education, or school administrators eager to put arts programs on the chopping block when it comes time to make budget cuts. Yet although he recognizes the importance of science and technology, Santiago argues that the arts play an essential and irreplaceable role in our society, and in our educational system:

The arts are extremely crucial to a healthy society. And if we take the arts and humanities out of education, we’re doing a huge disservice to ourselves. As an advocate for the arts, I have to flat out say that the arts can save the world! 

The arts are extremely crucial to a healthy society. And if we take the arts and humanities out of education, we’re doing a huge disservice to ourselves. As an advocate for the arts, I have to flat out say that the arts can save the world!

Art creates peace and harmony. Through the arts, people find their voice, they find their place in the world, their connection to each other. And when you have the arts in education, there’s also a kind of consciousness that gets developed in the student; it heightens the other senses; it helps develop critical thinking. 

The arts also help to create unity. There is no war in the arts, there is no fighting in the arts. If you look back to street culture, for example, when breakdancing came into the street, people battled in dance instead of fighting. Even capoeira, which goes back centuries and is now known as a Brazilian martial art, was originally created as a dance instead of a form of fighting. 

The City Kids Foundation, which I used to be a very big part of, incorporated social issues into everything that we ever did creatively. We’d have a song about the environment, a song about non-violence, a song about racial harmony. And I’ve seen with my own eyes, as a teacher in the toughest neighborhoods in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, that the schools that have the least violence are the ones that have dance programs! 

This is not to say, however, that the social benefits of arts and humanities education only extend to at-risk youth. As Santiago sees it, teaching these subjects in our schools can provide the basis for a far more holistic approach to education: one that emphasizes social and emotional development, dialog and shared experiences, just as much as it does technical prowess. The potential upside for our society, he says, is enormous: 

I remember having a conversation with the principal of a school in Brooklyn, in which we were discussing how we could work together, and she mentioned the term “SEL”, which stands for “social and emotional learning”. This is what is needed; we need more social and emotional learning in our schools. Because when people don’t have this development, we run into real problems. And this is happening now, because we don’t place enough value on the arts, and humanities, and emotional development. 

We need to have conversation, we need to have an exchange of ideas and shared experiences, incorporated into our educational system, so that there’s also an element of social development going on. You know, for example, this is how I know Black lives matter. There are people who are confused about these issues, or who don’t understand them, simply because they don’t have a best friend who happens to be Black. Sometimes I’ll talk to people, and I’ll say, “Well, you don’t know, because you don’t have any Black friends…” and they’ll say “Oh, but I do!”, but then I’ll turn around and ask, “Well, have you ever had dinner at their house? Do you know each other’s food and culture? Have you spent the night at their home?” Because that’s what close friendship is; that’s what qualifies you to say you have friends of other cultures. And when you don’t have that, this is where the miscommunication comes from. But if education can incorporate shared experiences, and foster that kind of social and emotional development, through things like the humanities and the arts, I really feel it could make a huge difference. 

These days, the cast members of Hackers have largely gone their separate ways, but Santiago stays in contact with at least one of them—and says that he still feels a great deal of affection for his former colleagues, even after all this time: 

I’m in touch with Laurence Mason; he’s a New Yorker, I’m a New Yorker, so it’s a little easier to reconnect. As for the rest of the cast, when we made the movie, we were very, very tight—and I’m sure if we saw each other today, it would be like seeing a relative. And that’s including, of course, Angelina [Jolie], because Angelina was a sweetheart, and just a very, very good human being! 

When we made the movie, we were very, very tight—and I’m sure if we saw each other today, it would be like seeing a relative.

Santiago, for his part, continues to work on multiple projects, and looks forward to getting back to filming just as soon as it’s safe to do so:

I have several projects in the works. I’m writing film scripts that I’m really excited about. I’m going to be recording more music. And I have a film called Dichotomy which I’m really excited about; we’ll be filming next year in the Dominican Republic (when things get a little bit better with COVID-19).

I’ve also launched a t-shirt and sneaker line. My brand is called RENOLY NYC, and I have a website where people can see my designs and purchase whatever they like. 

And finally, I have a website for Hackers fans now—phantomphreak.com—that sells merchandise and autographs and personalized mementos from the movie. Over the years, people would ask me how they could get something from the film, or get an autograph or a picture, or even the Cyberdelia flyer…and so when I was approached by a team that wanted to set up a way to offer something to fans, I totally took the opportunity! I’m really happy to have that.

This has been a hard year for just about everyone, but as we mark the 25th anniversary of Hackers, Santiago has a message of hope and positivity for his fans:

I just want to say to everybody out there to follow your dreams, and to just stay positive, and that I send them all lots of love and blessings!

SecureMac thanks Renoly Santiago for taking the time to talk with us. If you’d like to catch up with Renoly on social media, you can follow him on Twitter or on Instagram. To explore his fashion brand, RENOLYNYC, visit the brand’s web store; for Hackers merchandise and more, check out phantomphreak.com.

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