ENCINITAS — Emmy Harrington was in her sixth-grade play, took a drama class in junior high school and participated in theater productions while attending San Dieguito Academy.
But when the former Encinitas resident decided to pursue professional acting she never imagined her career would take her to Cuba.
Harrington stars in “La Noche Buena,” a narrative short that premiered at the San Diego Latino Film Festival on March 18.
The movie is about a young American who tries to connect with a distant family acquaintance in Cuba but only alienates himself further.
“It’s a really lovely, simple story that speaks for itself,” Harrington said.
The 12-minute piece, shot in Havana in 10 days in October 2013, is based on director Alex Mallis’ personal experience.
“Creating this film has been one of the biggest challenges of my life,” he said.
Because of the trade embargo, an American-directed fiction film has not been shot in Cuba in more than 60 years.
Mallis said it took several failed attempts and two years to finally secure permission to shoot in Havana, but only after the Institute of Cuban Cinema first read and approved the script.
Harrington said she was a little nervous at first.
“There was so much paperwork, and there were so many questions that we had to be prepared to answer,” she said. “But I was with a group of people who had all done this sort of thing before.
“And I’m fluent in Spanish so a lot of my nervousness was alleviated knowing that no matter what I could sort of fend for myself,” she added. “Alex had been to Cuba. He said I would be surprised despite the U.S. relationship there. … If you go to the right place in Havana it feels very safe.
“I had the best time,” Harrington said. “I was the only American actor and the crew spent a lot of time scouting so I strapped on my running shoes and ran around Havana trying to find things for them.
“Food is not easy to get,” she said. “I had to try to figure out where to find eggs. I would stop in a ration line and people directed me.”
At times that experience was art imitating life.
“There’s two currencies, which plays a really big role in the film,” Harrington said. “So it was like, which one do I pay with and how do I make sure I’m not getting ripped off?
“I encountered that about 15 or 16 times — confronting people about how much I should be paying because there’s this huge divide between the tourist culture and the people who live in Havana. They live by totally different rules and a totally different system.”
Harrington’s first paid acting job was when she was 13. A friend entered The Old Globe’s Young Playwrights Project.
When the play was selected, Harrington was cast as the sole actor in one-person production.
“It was an incredible opportunity,” she said. “It was just me, 13, on stage by myself for 45 minutes. And it was at The Old Globe, which is just incredibly renowned. I got really lucky. I was well-directed. It was well-reviewed.”
Harrington said The Old Globe hired her every year after that until she left San Diego to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she earned a degree in theater.
After graduating in 2006, Harrington stayed in L.A. for about five years “doing the grind, trying to book commercial work, trying to book TV work, did a lot of improv.”
After visiting New York a few times and growing weary of L.A., she “packed a couple of boxes and headed east.”
“Once I got to New York things really sort of shifted and I started booking some commercials, which is good for your wallet, and booking some independent film work, which is what I really hoped to be doing and where a lot of my personal interests lie,” she said.
She met Mallis through a friend. He emailed her a few days later.
“He told me he had been trying to cast this film and thought I’d be really good for the leading role,” she said. “He asked me if I would be interested in coming in to read. And of course I said yes.
“I read for him and then I never heard back,” she added. “So I sent a follow-up email and told him I just wanted to make sure this is off the table before I take another job. He literally forgot to tell me I got the part. … About seven days later I was on my way to Miami and then to Cuba to shoot this film.”
Harrington said her family was probably more nervous than they let on, but Adam Birnbaum, he father and Del Mar’s planning manager, may beg to differ.
“I felt a combination of joy and excitement for her to be able to pursue her passion, film making,” he said. “I was also jealous that she was going to spend a couple of weeks in a beautiful place immersed in a fascinating culture.”
Harrington said her involvement in the film was “empowering.”
“It’s not like booking a one-day role on ‘Law and Order,’” she said. “That’s a wonderful experience and the pay is delightful, but it’s so different to be inside of this film for 10 days with these people — trapped with them, literally — but leaving a really good result and a really good feeling for me.”