NICO SANTOS [SUPERSTORE]
WORDS BY IRVIN RIVERA
Actor Nico Santos currently plays Mateo Liwanag, an ambitious sales associate armed with his wit and sarcasm in the hit NBC comedy series SUPERSTORE. Santos’ undocumented character was the highlight of the show’s past season finale. And as the fifth season premieres, SUPERSTORE will pick up where it left off and hopefully further explores Mateo’s narrative.
Nico Santos’ participation as a queer, Asian, Filipino actor in a diverse and important show that features the lives of characters that most people can relate to is very important in terms of representation in mainstream media.
In 2018, Santos was nominated for the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Superstore. Last year he was also casted to become one of the cast of global phenomenon Crazy Rich Asians as Oliver T’sien.
In this exclusive interview, read on as the SUPERSTORE and CRAZY RICH ASIANS actor dishes about his acting journey, the importance of playing Mateo Liwanag’s character, Asian representation in media and the most Filipino thing about him.
How did acting start for you?
I did a lot of theatre in high school and college. Then I got into stand-up comedy. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I really had no intention of acting again. My acting professor in college told me that this was not the business for me that I was never gonna make it as an actor. I really was just focused on pursuing comedy when I moved to Los Angeles but my manager encouraged me to audition for stuff and I started booking acting roles and one job led to the other and eventually I landed Superstore and it really opened the doors for me.
Do you still talk to that teacher?
No. I heard he retired. And if I did I’ll be like, mmm.
Did you ever expect Superstore to blow up?
No. I had no idea. Honestly, Superstore was my first big break. I was just happy to get the job and get the opportunity. As you know, it’s very hard to be a working artist here in Los Angeles. To be a working actor in itself is sort of a big victory but to land that big part, I’m really happy about it. Also the fact that it has gone on its fifth season is tremendous and incredible and not what I was expecting.
“The fact that I am able to tell the story of someone who is queer, is an immigrant and is Filipino- I don’t take that responsibility lightly; I‘m very honored and privileged to do that. “
How was it to play and see the evolution of Mateo throughout the seasons of the show?
It’s been incredible. When we started, Mateo was just this bitchy employee. It would have been really easy to keep him as a two-dimensional character but we’ve added so many layers to the story and making him undocumented was really a brilliant move. I never saw somebody like myself on television or in films before. And the fact that I am able to tell the story of someone who is queer, is an immigrant and is Filipino- I don’t take that responsibility lightly; I‘m very honored and privileged to do that.
I read somewhere that he wasn’t originally written as someone who is Filipino?
He wasn’t. Mateo was not Filipino or queer. He was supposed to be a straight, latino guy. I don’t know if they saw my last name and they’re like, we’ll bring him in. His last name is Santos. So they asked me to audition for the part. And I remembered reading so much about Mateo and all the materials associated with him. It struck me as something that a bitchy queen would say. I interpreted the character and gave it my own spin and they liked it and here we are four seasons later.
What’s the best part about playing Mateo?
The best part about playing Mateo is that Mateo is not a character that we’ve seen before. The fact that I’m able to play somebody so close to my own experience is a blessing. I never thought in a million years that I would have a career playing somebody so close to myself. I just didn’t think that it would be possible in Hollywood. So, thank God!
Based from what happened to Mateo in the season finale, what would Nico do in Mateo’s shoes?
I don’t even know. Mateo is one of the strongest people I know. I honestly don’t know if I would react the same way. I would’ve fallen apart immediately, I think. But Mateo is a very resilient person. He’s been through a lot. As most immigrants, I’m an immigrant myself, I don’t think I’m as strong as Mateo, but I think immigrants are some of the strongest people out there because we just have to give up so much and sacrifice so much in search of a better life and we know what’s at stake.
How was it to play queer Asian characters in mainstream television and cinema?
It’s amazing, It’s incredible. If I only play these types of characters for the rest of my career I would be completely happy. We just don’t get that type of representation. I in no means feel stifled that I don’t get to play straight roles often, or if ever, all the roles I get so far are queer and Filipino. I would much rather have a lifetime career of playing roles that are just like me so that we have representation out there.
Dream role or project?
I would love to be in a show about the Filipino experience. There’s such a tremendous response about Mateo’s character in the Filipino community. They’ve been really supportive. I would really love to create a show centering on the Filipino experience. We are one of the largest Asian Communities in the United States and the fact that there aren’t more shows or characters out there that are Filipino is baffling to me because there is so many of us out there.
What’s the most Filipino thing about you?
I love to eat! My world and my day revolves around food. That’s probably the most Filipino thing about me. We recently had this problem on set that happened where there was a problem with the snack that’s being put out on set. If there’s one thing you don’t mess around in the Superstore set, it’s our food. So we had a whole text chain that goes “What are we gonna do about the situation? They can’t mess with our food!”
It’s been rectified since.
It sounds like an actual episode of the show.
Oh my God it was drama. We had a long text chain about it. America had to be involved and be like “listen, bring our food back.”
Do you have a favorite memory of growing up in the Philippines?
I love hanging out with all my titas and titos in the Philippines. My mom came from a big family. I have lots of cousins as well. I love going to these huge Filipino gatherings where everybody is eating and there are so much food. Christimas in the Philippines is really magical and special, because as you know, the Philippines is a largely Catholic country so Christmas celebration in the Philippines is more along the lines of tradition and not commercialism so Christmas in the Philippines is what I miss the most.
If you were a book, what book would you be and why?
I would be a The Alchemist. I know that’s so cliché but I love that book. I remember when I first read that I was like, “you know what, I am what I’m searching for.” I just love that book and its message.
Find out what happens to Mateo after that shocking season 4 finale only on NBC.