In March, NBC said a bittersweet farewell to its six-season hit, Superstore, that featured an oddball family of sorts as the employees of the supersized megastore Cloud 9 dealt with customer issues as well as their own life’s maladies. Presented as a heartfelt comedy with some outlandish storylines, the show cleverly represented a wide variety of social themes without pomp and circumstance, making Superstore a huge mainstream success in representing issues that dealt with class, ethnicity, ability, religion, immigration, and sexuality.
Meant as a vehicle for Ugly Betty star, America Ferrera, the show’s impeccable casting turned the show into a true ensemble piece with every type of actor under the rainbow being represented. Not merely checking off diversity boxes, the characters had depth and sincerity to them. Hot topics like surviving on minimum wage, on-the-job harassment, and equality of women in the workplace, were covered as well as the timely issue of undocumented workers in the United States. One of Superstore’s most colorful characters, Mateo, dealt with the ever-present threat of being deported while never being able to advance his career because of his lack of citizenship – oh, and he’s gay. In a major win for LGBTQ as well as Filipino representation on network television, the role of Mateo was perfectly cast with costumer, turned stand-up comic, turned actor, Nico Santos. A stand-out in Superstore, he also held his own (often stealing scenes) in the powerhouse cast of Crazy Rich Asians, sharing the screen with the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, and Henry Goulding. Nico’s own life story could be a sitcom itself, detailing his journey to find his identity and his place in the entertainment world.
Born in Manila, he moved to the States when he was sixteen, a hard age for anyone. Dealing with puberty is challenging enough, add being an immigrant on top of that?
My parents are divorced, and it was my father who first moved here. My brother and I stayed back with my mom in the Philippines. Being a divorced single mother of two in a very Catholic, conservative country was not easy. My mom wanted more for us, so we explored our options and decided to give the US of A a good ol’ fashioned try! It was such a big move at such an impressionable time in my life. I had only spent time in the United States as a tourist before, so in my head, America was all Disneyland and Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Plus, since I grew up watching American TV, I was fully expecting Beverly Hills 90210. I moved to Gresham, Oregon and it was just the opposite of that.
He and his brother attended Gresham’s Centennial High School, earning their designation as the only two Filipinos in the entire school.
People would just say stupid things like, “How come you look Chinese, but your last name is Mexican?” and “OMG did you live in a hut?!” Yeah it was just having to constantly educate people and dealing with microaggressions or sometimes just flat out blatantly racist stuff all the time.
Though moving to the States would offer its challenges, it also opened his eyes to a whole new world.
I always knew I was different; I just did not have the language for it. But it wasn’t until I moved to America and I was exposed to all sorts of people and wasn’t under the grip of a super Catholic upbringing, that I started being honest with myself. I came out to a couple of people in high school but by freshman year of college, I was fully out and loving it.
I had to tell my mom over the phone because she was still living in the Philippines. When I finally mustered up the courage to tell her, she stops me and says, “You’re gay? Wait …didn’t we talk about this last year?” “I think I would remember coming out to my own mother,” I replied. There was a small beat then she just carried on, “I’ve known since you were four years old,” and just proceeded to dish about my titos and titas, [Laughs] Mothers always know.
His advice for someone coming out?
Coming out is hard. It is also very personal and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Nowadays, there are many resources for help if you don’t have anyone from your immediate family or friends to turn to for support. Just make sure you feel safe and supported when you do it. Just remember you are loved, you are perfect, and there are a lot of us out here waiting to lift you up when you need it.
His parents’ divorce estranged Nico from his father, but his mother took up the reigns to become Nico’s support system – in life and in his career.
My mom and I are super close. She was very supportive of me going into the arts and entertainment, which I do not have to tell you is so not typical for immigrant parents. But even when I was just starting out, she would go to a lot of my shows at bars and stuff. I even took her on a gay cruise that I was performing at and she had the time of her life. LOL. She was constantly going up to guys and asking them, “Are you single? My son is the comedian on the ship!”
Nico’s love for entertainment would come from where most gay performers get their inspiration. Musicals.
It was seeing Carol Burnett in the movie Annie when I was a kid that left such an impression on me. I just thought she was the funniest person I had ever seen, and I remember thinking, I want to do that! I kept quoting her screaming, “Leapin’ Lizards!” or “She hadda go bathroom …” and other kids would be looking at me like I am crazy.
His family’s chance move to Oregon would place him near one of the best theatre groups in the nation, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Each year, the festival offers 800 to 850 matinee and evening performances of a wide range of classic and contemporary plays to a total annual audience of nearly 400,000. At any given time between five and eleven plays are offered in daily rotation six days a week in its three theatres. Nico studied with them as a junior in high school for their summer program, and later when he attended Southern Oregon University. Even with this prestigious group, Nico was still trying to find his place in performance. He was discouraged by the acting program and transitioned to costume design – all because of a nasty acting coach.
He was an awful teacher, but honestly, that program was just not right for me. I did not really want to do classical theatre, but at the time I thought that was the only way into being on stage. It was not until I discovered stand-up that that notion was shattered for me. If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t go to theatre school and would have just moved to a big city and gotten into comedy immediately.
Nico moved to San Francisco and would establish himself in the stand-up comedy circuit, often performing at open mic nights after a day of working in retail luxury.
The first open mic I did was at this bar called Club Deluxe near Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco. I had been toying around with the idea of doing stand-up for a while but was always too afraid to do it. Then I got a call to see if I wanted my old job in Oregon and I said to myself, “You moved to San Francisco to do something different, just try it out and if you don’t like it then you can go back to Oregon.” I was working at Neiman’s at the time, and I turned to my friend on the sales floor and asked, “Does your friend still do that open mic?” After a few minutes she said, “You’re all set. I signed you up and it’s tonight!” There was no backing out, but the moment I finished my set I was hooked. I cannot believe I even waited this long to do it. It was a light bulb moment for me.
His decision to stick with it would start his journey to Hollywood. Chelsea Lately, hosted by comedian Chelsea Handler, came calling. Also giving rise to gay persona Ross Mathews, the show would be Nico’s debut on television.
I opened for Heather McDonald in San Francisco and she put in a word for me, and one of Chelsea’s producers happened to see me that night too. So, like a lot of things in the industry, I was in the right place at the right time.
His reaction to seeing himself on TV for the first time?
Exciting and vomit-inducing at the same time. It’s hard to watch yourself because you can’t help but tear yourself apart and criticize what you could have done better.
In 2015, NBC would choose Superstore as their one out of three pilots to greenlight for that year. The series debuted following an episode of The Voice with 7 million viewers, making it the second-highest rated new comedy behind Life in Pieces. It then moved to Mondays and would become the highest-rated NBC comedy that did not have The Voice as a lead-in since The Michael J. Fox Show back in September 2013. After Season 1’s finale, the Los Angeles Times called it “One of TV’s best new comedies.” Led by America Ferrera and Kids in the Hall veteran Mark McKinney, the cast of relatively unknowns would quickly become recognizable fan favorites. What was the audition process for Superstore like?
Nerve-racking. I hate auditioning. It’s all so awkward and you don’t want to come off too thirsty even though you totally are. Especially when you are just starting out and you just want to book that one job that will make a difference. So, all I remember was being very nervous and just wanting to do my best. I make a conscious decision to try and forget my auditions because if you don’t, you end up obsessing and that is not what you want to spend your time doing.
Nico’s first day on set would prove to be interesting, complete with a scene with America Ferrera and vomit.
During our lunch break, a friend of mine who works at Universal met me and asked if I wanted to sneak into the theme park, so we did! We had a blast exploring. Then he said, “Let’s go on the Transformers ride.” I had never been on a motion simulator ride before and I didn’t think anything of it. But good grief after we got off, I was so nauseous. I immediately had to film a scene with America Ferrera where I had to spin and dance. I puked in my trailer immediately afterward. I ended up having vertigo for a couple of days.
His bold performance belies a shy, unassuming Nico. But his time in Superstore would not only bolster his career, but it would also help him find his footing and his identity.
I am not the most confident person but working on this show has changed that. I am surrounded by some truly mega-talented artists who I respect and have admired for so long that being able to hold my own with them, having them respect my work, and being able to make them laugh, made me believe in myself just a little bit more.
Not reveling in his newfound stardom, his first Critic’s Choice Nomination for his role would come as a pleasant surprise.
I honestly still forget that that happened sometimes because it feels not real. I was nominated the same year Crazy Rich Asians came out, and I started getting all these congratulatory texts. I just assumed they were congratulating the movie being nominated. My agent even called me saying, “OMG CONGRATS!” I was very calm and was like, “Oh thanks yeah, the movie has been doing well this awards season, blah blah blah …” And they were like, “No, YOU are nominated!” I just screamed and my boyfriend thought someone died or something. [Laughs]
The fact that I was nominated for playing a role so close to who I am, I just never thought it would happen. It meant a lot. When you grow up different, so many voices keep telling you to hide who you are. So being nominated as a queer Filipino immigrant playing a queer Filipino immigrant felt special.
With Nico’s natural personality and comedic timing, his over-the-top character Mateo did not just become a sitcom stereotype. He kept the audience laughing while presenting the complex issue of immigration. No spoiler, but his character does have to deal with some of his worst fears in his story. Being an undocumented American was certainly a hot issue under our last administration, and Nico’s own parents were both undocumented before becoming citizens. He has a unique point of view through his own life and his character.
People have this impression that undocumented immigrants just leech off the government, when, in fact, undocumented workers pay about $27 billion in taxes every year. You are more connected to undocumented people than you think. They are your neighbors, your friends, they are hardworking, contributing members of society.
Saying goodbye to the show with two Critic’s Choice nominations, stardom, and a hit movie under his belt is bittersweet. If his journey thus far is any example, Nico’s next step will be just as fabulous.
It has been a couple of weeks now since Superstore wrapped, but I still feel like I’m just on hiatus and I’ll be coming back to work any day now. I got paid to be silly and goofy and if you had told me years ago that was a legitimate career option, I would have said you were crazy.
Working on the show has been such an education and you cannot help but get better just by being in proximity of such amazing actors and comedians. What did take a second to get used to was just the mechanics of working in front of the camera. I am used to being on stage and doing whatever I want. Having to hit your marks, learning about camera angles, coverage, etc. took a second to adjust to.
The success of Crazy Rich Asians was a Hollywood blockbuster surprise. With a modest budget of $30 million, it had a worldwide gross of $239 million. In October 2018, it became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the last ten years, and the sixth highest-grossing ever. Playing Oliver T’sien, perhaps the most colorful character from the story, is the result of a deft act of high comedy meets artful preparation.
I wanted to stay true to the book version of Oliver. I worked on the voice first then built everything from there. Oliver is an outsider even in his own family. His queerness is never explicitly discussed because of the social circles he is in, and he is not as rich as his family members. That is why his heart goes out to Rachel Chu, because he too, due to circumstances he can’t control, “will never be enough.”
Remember that time spent working in retail luxury in San Francisco? Life would come full circle and his experience would come in handy.
When I worked retail, I had a few crazy rich Asian clients and I often wondered, “Who are these people?” Who can spend this much money every month on shoes and handbags? Turns out my retail experience turned out to be helpful not only in Superstore but in Crazy Rich Asians as well.
And, of course, it is a gay man’s fantasy to share screen time with Michelle Yeoh.
God, she was just so amazing. A LEGEND and I just savored every second we worked together. I was just in awe of her because I know her mostly from action movies and to see her give this silk and steel performance was incredible to watch.
Playing gay as a gay man in Hollywood is a testament to how far we have come in our representation. We still have far to go. Crazy Rich Asians also started a conversation about increased Asian representation in the industry, perhaps sparked by the high earnings but certainly carried through by those who believe in ethnic equality in film.
I love all the representation that is happening in front of the camera. More of that, please! But I truly believe that the only way things will change is if there’s diversity behind the camera, in the boardrooms. We need to diversify the people who make the decisions and write the checks because right now it is mostly old/cisgender/heterosexual/white/male city up in there!
Projects with Asian leads or very diverse casts started getting greenlit once Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther came into the scene. Now, if your team or cast is not diverse you will definitely get called out.
Looking back at his journey from the outcast kid in high school, to getting yelled at in acting classes, to braving open mic nights, to earning critical and audience acclaim, to his current position as a role model for LGBTQ POC actors, he still has an “awe, shucks” aura about him.
My life is not that different. Sure, you get recognized a bit more, but I am not super famous. [Laughs] Plus I live in LA, people here just kind of leave you alone.
You know I just keep thinking of what a scared little kid I was when I moved to the US. I was clueless and afraid. The fact that my life has ended up like this is truly a miracle and I am living proof that anything is possible. You just have to put in the work.
What is next on his plate?
Right now, Asian storylines in TV and film tend to be all lumped together and there is such a vast and different number of creative wells to draw from. I would love to tell more Filipino stories. Also, I want to be in Wicked. [Laughs]
His message to the LGBTQ community is clear and perfectly Nico –
Be nice and stay fabulous.
Last modified: April 1, 2021