On Superstore, NBC’s workplace comedy about employees at a St. Louis, Missouri, big box store, there’s no shortage of cutting remarks or competitive zeal when it comes to Cloud 9’s Mateo Liwanag, played by Nico Santos, who often describes the character as a shady queen. Indeed, the absurdly funny and scene-stealing Mateo has gone toe-to-toe with Cheyenne Thompson (Nichole Bloom) in order to buy a discounted sofa a man died on, has never been shy to cut down his co-workers -- including the show’s lead, America Ferrera -- and even assumed the creepy identity of a dead coworker after donning his likeness for Halloween in order to attend a family wedding.
“Mateo will not let go how much he looks out for himself,” Santos tells ET by phone. Yet, over the course of three seasons, the character has grown beyond “the bitchy gay guy on the show,” something Santos was admittedly concerned about in the beginning of the series.
In fact, Mateo has gone through quite an evolution, first written as a macho, straight Latino guy before being changed to a overachieving Filipino gay man, to reflect Santos’ casting. The character has since shown his softer side through a romance with district manager Jeff Sutin (Michael Bunin) -- something that Santos says will be revisited before season’s end -- and demonstrated his fears over being discovered as an undocumented immigrant. “It gave a lot of depth to this character that you just don’t see on television,” says Santos, who, like many fans of the show, is amazed to watch someone like Mateo onscreen.
Mateo being both gay and Filipino offers an opportunity for onscreen visibility. “First of all, Asian representation hardly exists to begin with,” Santos says, adding that Filipinos, who make up the second largest Asian community in the U.S., are “hardly represented in the media.” In fact, there are only two other notable Filipino characters currently on TV -- Andrew Cunanan on American Crime Story and Josh Chan on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- making Santos’ portrayal all that more special to the community.
“Filipinos everywhere say how touched they are and how excited they are to see themselves reflected onscreen,” Santos says. “It still baffles my brain that I actually get to portray a character on American television that’s this gay, femme-y Filipino guy. I never thought that would be a possibility, and here I am.”
Santos grew up in Manila, Philippines, and moved with his family to Oregon when he was 16. He studied acting at Southern Oregon University, where a teacher told him he would never make it, before discovering his funny side while working in the costume department at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He eventually made his way down to California, working retail jobs in San Francisco -- an experience that has served his character well on Superstore -- and doing standup. In 2012, he started regularly appearing on the Chelsea Lately roundtable, which was followed by bit roles on 2 Broke Girls and Mulaney, as well as the 2015 film Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.
Now a hit on Superstore, which has been rewnewed for a fourth season, Santos’ profile is about to increase with his coveted role as Oliver T'sien in the highly anticipated screen adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. Telling the story about a woman who discovers her boyfriend comes from an extremely wealthy family when the two visit Singapore for a high-profile wedding, the film stars Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong and Awkwafina. It’s a project, Santos says, “everyone wanted to be part of because it’s such a huge moment for inclusion and diversity.”
Filmed on location in Malaysia and Singapore, it was the first time the actor found himself on a set surrounded by Asian actors, as well as an Asian crew led by director Jon M. Chu. “We would look around set like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re in Singapore, making this big Hollywood movie, and it was amazing because everybody in this cast are people who look like me,” Santos recalls, demonstrating just how rare this experience is.
“You know, a lot of times when you're a person of color, when you're a queer person in Hollywood and do these jobs, you are the token. You are the only one. It wasn't lost on me, looking around, it's like, ‘Everybody here's Asian, you know, in front of the camera, behind the camera, and it was being directed by an Asian person. It was a really special moment.”
Being in Asia also allowed Santos to return home to the Philippines for the first time in more than 20 years. During a two-week break from filming, the actor spent time with friends and family in Manila. “To be home and to be walking around and not have to explain myself and feeling genuinely like I was living in my own skin and being around my people and my language and my food, it was definitely very emotional,” he recalls.
The most cathartic moment came, however, when he reunited with his childhood nanny, who helped raise him from the age of six months. “Girl,” Santos quips, describing the two crying as they reunited in a mall. “All these people were passing by us being like, ‘What is happening?’ And we were like, ‘Leave us alone! We haven't seen each other in 21 years!’”
Aware of Superstore and Crazy Rich Asians, Santos says everyone back home is “pleasantly surprised” by his recent success, going from a boy in the Philippines to pursuing his dreams onscreen -- something that’s not lost on him. “It’s really mind-boggling to me when I think about where I started and where I am now,” Santos says. “It’s kind of insane.”