Out Filipino-American actor Nico Santos started in the stand-up circuit, took on television and is now on the big screen. After performing as a comedian he was noticed by the Chelsea Lately television show and became a member of the roundtable.
He landed the role of sales associate Mateo Liwanag in the NBC series Superstore to popular acclaim going into its fourth season this month.
With the new romantic comedy film Crazy Rich Asians he plays Oliver T'sien, cousin to the star. Watch him and Awkwafina steal the show as the story of a wedding in Singapore dramatically unfolds.
Santos talked with Windy City Times when he was visiting Chicago for a Define American panel.
Windy City Times: You are originally from the Philippines?
Nico Santos: Yes. I moved to Gresham, Oregon, when I was 16. I went to college in southern Oregon. After that I moved to San Francisco, where I started stand-up. I have been in LA for about eight years now.
WCT: When did you come out of the closet?
NS: I started telling people my junior year. I told my best friend and a couple of other people. I told my parents my senior year of high school. When I was college I was out.
It was like in the movie Love, Simon where he planned to be completely gay in college. That was me!
It was not like people couldn't tell. I was the vice president of the drama club…
WCT: To some parents, it is more real though when they actually hear it.
NS: My mom was really cool about it actually. I had to tell her over the phone because she was still living in the Philippines. When I told her she said, "Oh, I thought we talked about this last year already." I would remember coming out to her, so no that didn't happen. She was completely okay with it. She said she knew when I was little kid because I would take my homework and draw gowns on the back of the paper.
WCT: You were lucky your mother was so accepting.
NS: I was, especially since that is the exception to the rule with many Asian parents. She was really supportive and great.
WCT: How did get on the show Superstore?
NS: Well, I got the audition for it because I had booked a small role on the TV show Mulaney. I had two lines. The guy who wrote the episode I was in was the creator of Superstore. My agents were able to parlay that into seeing me for Superstore. I went through the whole audition process after that.
WCT: The part was written for a straight person, though, wasn't it?
NS: Yes, it was written for a straight Latino guy. In Hollywood I never want to get my hopes up so I think I'm not going to get it. I finally tested for it and I am glad I got it.
It was my fifth acting job. I had only done small roles before it. It was my big break!
WCT: I heard from Michael Urie that America Ferrera is a big supporter for LGBT rights.
NS: America is one of the best humans out there. She is the real deal. She's an activist and supports everybody. She puts her money where her mouth is. She inspires everybody to be better.
WCT: How important was it to you to have your character undocumented?
NS: The creator of the show had the idea of making Mateo undocumented. When they came to me I thought it was brilliant and genius. It is part of many people's stories. Every Filipino knows someone that is undocumented. Many of my family members were undocumented for quite some time. It added another layer to Mateo. You get to see why he is competitive and cutthroat. The basis is he yearns for something better.
WCT: Where do you want to see your character go on Superstore?
NS: I would like to see him move ahead. He is still this employee at the store so I want a better life for him.
WCT: Have you ever worked at a similar store?
NS: Not in a big-box store but I have worked retail a lot. In San Francisco that was my day job. I worked boughie retail like Neiman Marcus, Jimmy Choo and Dior. I would do that during the day then comedy open mics at night. I incorporated that into my act. I would talk about my retail day job. The straight comedians would be in their hoodies and I was wearing my three piece suit! I was, like, "What's up, bitches?"
WCT: Tell our readers about your role in Crazy Rich Asians.
NS: I play Oliver T'sien, who is Nicholas Young's cousin.
In the book, he is a Christie's art dealer. He really helps out in the family and takes care of a lot of things for them. In the movie, he sees Constance Wu's character and empathizes with her. He shows her what she got herself into.
It is a fun small role and I shot in Singapore and Malaysia for six weeks. It was an amazing experience. It is our Black Panther. We should call it Asian Tiger!
The last time Hollywood made a movie with an all-Asian cast was 25 years ago, with Joy Luck Club. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn't count because it was made by a Chinese studio.
The themes in the movie are so universal that you don't have to be Asian to get what is going on. It is not a period piece or a kung-fu movie, it is just about family, love and relationships. I hope it resonates with a lot of people and they go see it.
WCT: Do you feel Asian representation is getting better in Hollywood?
NS: It is getting better, but I feel they don't know what to do with us. They need to do more to put us in roles. It shouldn't just be Crazy Rich Asians. There should be more content regardless. While it is better, the work is not done.
WCT: What are your thoughts on RuPaul Drag Racer Kim Chi bringing attention to "No fats, no femmes, no Asians?"
NS: Listen: I used to be 250 pounds so I was fat, femme and Asian. I think it is unfortunate in the gay community that we are so segregated. There is so much femme shaming and bottom shaming. It is crazy to me because it is so rooted in deep misogynistic sexism.
It is saying, "If you are anything resembling a woman that you are gross."
There is nothing wrong with being femme, but for some reason there is that toxic masculinity creeping into our community as well.
WCT: I saw people disguise it while saying Asians were not their type when it was actually racism.
NS: Some will say it is a preference, but it is disregarding everybody and saying any Asian person is not attractive. The fact that they are so blatant about it is insane to me. I feel our community is so behind in certain ways. They need to catch up.
Listen for Santos as one of the voices in the upcoming Sony Pictures Animation film Wish Dragon. Crazy Rich Asians currently plays in theaters everywhere.