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Nico Santos on His Superstore Breakthrough, Homophobia, and Crazy Rich Asians

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NBC’s Superstore, a workplace comedy about a big-box store in the middle of America, offers a breath of sharp, shady air in the form of Mateo. It’s not because he’s a gay, undocumented, Filipino-American working at a place called Cloud 9, but simply that he’s fully realized as a snarky, ultracompetitive romantic. This is thanks in part to Nico Santos, who deftly takes on both the absurdly comedic (like when Mateo dresses up as a white man for Halloween), and the poignant (when he has to break up with his boyfriend Jeff, the district manager of the store, because he can’t reveal that he’s undocumented). We spoke with Santos on the phone about getting direction from America Ferrera, going on a gay cruise with his mom, the difficulty of having to say a homophobic line in 2 Broke Girls, and meeting Michelle Yeoh on the set of Crazy Rich Asians.

What was your career like prior to Superstore?
I did stand-up in San Francisco for a very long time, and when I moved to Los Angeles, I was really more focused on pursuing stand-up. I found it difficult having to start over, and getting to know the whole politics of the club scene in L.A. is just kind of hard. And then I got lucky and I did Chelsea Lately within the first two years I moved to L.A., so I was doing a panel for the Chelsea Lately show for a year. But what really shifted from stand-up to the acting thing was I did this CBS Diversity Showcase. This was 2014, and my manager had urged me to audition for it, and I got in as a writer. Eventually one of their Asian guys in the showcase dropped out because he got a writing job, and they were like well we need somebody Asian to read these Asian parts, so they had asked me. It was like, well, I guess we’ll just put you in the cast. I went from like maybe three auditions in the last three years that I was in L.A. to three or four auditions a day the week after the Showcase. It was like these floodgates opened and I started booking small roles here and there, and that eventually led to Superstore.

Did they tailor the part to you? Because I assume they pull some things from your life for Mateo’s character.
Yeah, I mean they’ve definitely taken my background as a resource and the origin for how the character came to be. None of the characters written in the pilot had any specific ethnicity in mind, except for Mateo’s part, which was specified as somebody of Latino descent. In the pilot, it was mentioned that he had 13 brothers and sisters and was like this tough family guy. When I was reading the sides for it, I was just like, I can definitely make this my own, because a lot of the stuff that he was saying was something somebody super shady would say. So I was like, I can turn this shit-talking tough guy character into a shady queen character, and it was my tactic going into the audition: uptight, supercompetitive, shady person. And they really liked the interpretation, and they were like, Your last name’s Santos, you’re not Latino? And I have to tell them a mini-history lesson of Spanish colonialism and why we all look Chinese but have Spanish last names. But I’m an immigrant, I moved to the United States when I was 16, so they put those elements into the background of the character.When Justin told me that they were going to make Mateo undocumented, I thought that’s such a brilliant move because it’s such a huge part of the Filipino experience. Everybody who’s Filipino who lives in this country directly knows somebody who is undocumented.

So I assume you also know people who are undocumented in your life?
Oh, absolutely. I mean members of my family were undocumented for a long time. My father was undocumented, my mother also was undocumented, and they’re now citizens. I got my citizenship when I got into this country; I was able to petition my mom to come here, but there was a different period of time where mom and my stepdad and my family didn’t have their documents as well, but they’re all citizens now, which is great. It’s a big part of every Filipino family’s story, I think.

What do your parents think of you on the show? And your character?
Um, they love it. My mom’s crazy. She’s always been so supportive, I got really lucky on that end that I didn’t have a tiger mom. When I told her that I was doing theater in high school, college, and eventually did stand-up, she was really supportive of it. Whenever she could, she came to a lot of my comedy shows, even if it was a shitty open mic. I would take her sometimes to gigs with me. I remember one time I got booked to do stand-up on a gay cruise and mama wanted a vacation, so she came with me to a gay cruise in Mexico. She loved it! She was the most popular person in that boat because she was just literally going up to guys asking them them what their jobs were, if they were like lawyers or doctors, because she wants me to be a doctor’s wife, and be like, “My son is very single.” My mom is definitely crazy. She would totally be a stage mom if I was a child actor.

In your stand-up, you talk about how you’ve worked in retail, is that right?
Yes, while I was doing stand-up in San Francisco, I worked in bougie retail. I worked everywhere in Union Square, let’s see: Neiman Marcus, Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo. I did that for eight years and it was crazy because I would usually go to the open mics after my shift at Neiman’s or Dior, so I would still be dressed up in my retail suit, and then all these straight boys in hoodies and New Balances would be like, who the fuck is this guy? But finally, all those years working retail really has become useful in this new job. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling 99-cent toilet paper or a $10,000 gown, it’s still the same crazy people that come to the store.

Do you have any retail horror stories? 
When I worked at Dior, Paris Hilton and Kathy Hilton came one time and they were kind of crazy. She just got dressed in the middle of the store and I’m like, Paris, we have dressing rooms here, you don’t have to just drop trou in the middle of our boutique, but she did. My crazy stories are probably just competing with all the shady queens on the sales floor because they’re sharks. That’s really who I modeled Mateo after, was all the competitive, sharky people that I worked with. On the sales floor you would work with old Japanese ladies who have been in retail for like 30 years, and the other shady queens in their 20s trying to make a living in San Francisco, and it is a free for all — like they will really stab your mother in the back to get a sale. They would be hiding merchandise for their clients or lying to you or lying to the customers just trying to get that sale. It’s insane.

There’s a small scene on Superstore I think about a lot, with you, Nichole Bloom, and Jon Miyahara. It was just a shot of three Asian-American actors and it was super chill, and I feel like I’ve only seen that on Fresh Off the Boat, which is a family sitcom.
It’s weird, I feel like our cast is [some] of the most AAPI people in it. You have me, you have Nicole, you have Kaliko [Kauahi], who plays Sandra.

I love her.
I love her so much. She needs to be in every episode, she’s so amazing. You have Chris Grace who plays her boyfriend Jerry, recurring, and then Jon also is Japanese. What I really love about our show is that everybody is represented, but it’s not so in your face. We just put it out there and we let it live in this world how it’s supposed to be, and then when you’re walking through these stores, that is the people you see there. We definitely incorporate our backgrounds into the storytelling, but it’s never just that focus. You’re not going to watch our show and be like, oh I can’t watch this because there’s all these Asian people.

Mateo is a very three-dimensional character, and the plot draws on all of these aspects of being gay, Filipino, an undocumented immigrant, but the plotlines don’t solely revolve around those things.
Exactly. When he first started, he was just like the bitchy employee, right? And they really added so many more layers. It is to me such a great way of representing him because I feel like what really drives Mateo more than anything is he really wants to succeed. Like every American in this country, they are just yearning for a better life, and he really is the epitome of pursuing the American Dream.

Mateo has had a lot of emotional moments on the show, like breaking up with Jeff.
Oh my god, I was so nervous about that scene. America Ferrera directed that episode and that was such a gift for me because I felt really comfortable with her behind the lens. And I actually was like, How do I do this? I almost approached it as an impression like, How do people cry? What does it look like? What does it sound like? Let me see if I can pull this off. I had rewatched Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and that really emotional scene of America crying on the phone with her dad, and I was just like, This girl knows how to cry, oh my god. And that was my benchmark of how good an emotional scene could be because she was so good in that scene. But having her behind the lens of that episode was really such comfort because she really knew how to get it out of me. She knew how to ease my insecurities about “not being a dramatic actor.”

What did she tell you?
She just pulled me aside one time and would explain the sensitivity of the scene, and was like, just give yourself a moment and focus and try to get to that place. She was very patient and would allow me the time to refocus, because you know it’s stop and go, you have to be in so many takes. I felt like a crazy person because we shot not only the breakup scene, but there was a scene of me going back in the store devastated and Cheyenne comes up to me like, Are you okay? And then Jonah punches me and we had to do that over and over and over, so it was like crying, crying, crying, comedy, cut, crying, crying, crying, comedy, cut, go back to one. I think I understand why most actors and actresses are insane, because having to go through an emotional roller coaster as your job every day of your life would make somebody absolutely loopy.

Do you have any racist audition stories? 
Honestly, I feel I have more where I get called to play more the gay roles. I remember I did a guest spot on 2 Broke Girls, and when I got there the sides for it, I had to say something — oh god, I’m going to paraphrase this but what was originally written into the line was, “I love a caftan and underage boys.” And I was like, “Are you seriously implying that I’m a pedophile because I’m gay?” I was so shocked. I had just got done doing the CBS Diversity Showcase at the time, and I actually emailed the diversity people because they had become friends of mine and I was just like, “Oh my god, like, I’m doing this audition and I can’t believe this line is in here.” I was just kind of venting to my friend about it and then all of a sudden she was like, “Oh, I hope you don’t mind but I forwarded your email to like the head of diversity.” I was like, What? That’s not what I wanted, I was just like telling you as a friend and I’m bitching, like, don’t ruin this job for me because I’m in this position. As homophobic as that line was, I’m not in a position of power, I want the job obviously, and so many times in Hollywood, we do take these jobs that are demeaning because we’re trying to make it, we’re trying to pay our bills. But she emailed the head of diversity who then emailed the head of programming or something — basically it went all the way to the top. I was just going to the audition and they were like, “Your concerns are being heard,” and I’m like, “I’m not going to book this job, I literally am walking into this audition and they’re telling me that the head of programming knows I’m complaining about one of their shows.” Long story short, I ended up booking the job, so I don’t know if me complaining helped me book the job or they just really wanted me for the role, but in the end the line was changed. It was changed to teenage boys. So I was just like, okay. Come on. At the time it was like 2015, I was like, really? Do we have to?

Did you have any struggle with whether you should take that gig?
I was just so happy that I booked the job. Booking a job in Hollywood — the odds of even being in that room and getting the job over all these people — is such a victory for me, and finally being happy about the fact that I’m a working actor. At the time I was just a starving actor with nothing on my résumé, so I really did feel like, take the job, take the job. You also have to choose your battles. I mean certainly if something like that comes across my desk now, there’s no way, I would never, but at the time when I had a couple hundred dollars in my bank account and rent is due, you just take the job. I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do about it. I’ve done all that I could, I’d already told my friends and already had created this email conversation, but I was scared about being blacklisted.

What can you tell me about your role on Crazy Rich Asians?I’m playing Oliver T’sien. Oliver is the gay cousin. [Laughs.] Typecasting! And he meets Rachel Chu, Constance [Wu’s] character at a big party at a national park, and it’s like, hello you’re Rachel, poor girl you know nothing of who these people are and what you just walked into. He kind of takes her under his wings like, Don’t worry I’m going to take care of you. He’s Nick’s cousin and he’s kind of, I would say, he’s not an errand boy, but he’s very close to the family and he takes care of a lot of things for the family.

Where were you shooting?
We shot in Malaysia and we shot in Singapore. It was a lot of fun. I had never been to Malaysia or Singapore before and it also allowed me to go back home to the Philippines. I haven’t been home in 21 years. It was great, it was really like everything’s the same but everything had changed. It was wonderful and emotional and I got to see some family and friends. It was really getting back in touch with my Asian roots.

I didn’t have an Asian crew that I hung out with up until I filmed Crazy Rich Asians, and now my Asian crew rolls deep. It was really awesome to be a part of this. It’s really how I felt when we were filming Superstore, like we’re making something really special. It was amazing to be filming this big Hollywood movie, and literally the entire cast are people who look like me. I’m just excited for everybody to see the final product. And I got to work with Michelle Yeoh, so I can die happy now.

Did you geek out on her?
Oh my god, she plays Eleanor Young, and I had a couple of scenes with her. I’m telling you, it took all my strength not to fangirl and queen out. There were so many moments I just wanted to scream in her face, I love you! But you know I wanted to stay in the movie and stay hired, so I calmed myself down. She is the most amazing, nurturing, lovely human being in the entire world. She’s such a legend and just being that close to her, I was just like, Oh my god. Everything you could imagine Michelle Yeoh being, she lives up to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nico Santos on His Superstore Role, Crazy Rich Asians