By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Nico Santos plays Mateo on the NBC sitcom “Superstore.” The TV series starring America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty,” “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) centers on a group of diverse and outspoken big box store employees and the customers they have to deal with on a daily basis. The series, which premiered in 2015, is in its third season.
Santos was born in Manila in the Philippines and emigrated to Oregon with his family when he was 16. He said he immediately got to work on losing his Pinoy accent fearing otherwise “I’d get my *** kicked.” Drawn to comedy from an early age, the natural funnyman decided to take a leap of faith and move to Los Angeles in 2009. He picked up supporting roles in feature films including 2014’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” and “The Girl Who Loved Godzilla.” The bespectacled actor (who doesn’t disclose his age, although his birthday is on April 7) considers his Hollywood breakthrough was getting tapped for snarky yet loveable Mateo, a sales clerk at the fictional Cloud 9 set in St. Louis, Missouri. The comedy series is produced by Justin Spitzer, who was a writer on the American version of the hit sitcom “The Office,” and the half-hour show has a similar offbeat quirkiness to it.
Here’s what Santos had to say about working on “Superstore,” and being an openly gay Filipino playing an openly gay Filipino character in a Midwestern U.S. city on a network TV series.
Q: What led you to Hollywood?
Santos: I moved to L.A. and I gave myself six years, and if I wasn’t happy where my career was at that time then I was going to move to a different city and try doing comedy there as well. The year I got cast in “Superstore” was my sixth year in L.A., so I was like, “OK, I’m staying.”
Q: What has been the feedback from the Filipino community to your character?
Santos: I’ve heard nothing but positive things. Starting from the first season, everybody was happy to see that kind of representation on television, especially in the second season when the Olympics episode came out, and I spoke Filipino onscreen. I thought, “Oh, what a cool moment. I’ll get to speak my native tongue.” But the amount of response that I got from the community was really mind-blowing. So many heartfelt message like I’d never seen. They wrote to me things like, “I’ve never heard my language spoken before on an American network television program. Filipinos are the second largest Asian community in the United States. We’re one of the most underrepresented communities here.”
I’m not only honored and happy to play a Filipino but also an out, queer Filipino, whose character is undocumented so the show is really blowing a lot of doors open.
Q: Were you able to add your own twist to the character?
Santos: Yeah, initially Mateo was written as a straight, Latino guy. He was the only character in the script that had a specific ethnicity attached to it. America Ferrera’s Amy was specified as Latina. Colton Dunn’s Garrett wasn’t specific as African-American. Mateo was the only one written as Latino, who was this sort of tough guy. They weren’t counting on me walking in. (He laughs.)
Q: Who is Mateo based on?
Santos: Basically, I worked high-end retail in San Francisco for a long time. I worked only on commission and it was really cutthroat among all the sales associates, who were really sharks on the floor. They did really shady stuff so I really based Mateo on some really shady and sharky queens that I had worked with. Anything shady that Mateo does has also been done to me on the sales floor. I know it’s not too far-fetched; it’s based on real experience. It was such a well to pull from because it’s not the same customer base as Cloud 9 (the fictional big box store featured in the TV sitcom) but the experience is still the same. There are still the rude customers and the craziness of Black Friday, just in a different setting. It’s finally like all those years working in retail paid off.
Q: What did you sell?
Santos: I was a handbag specialist for Neiman Marcus. I also worked at Dior and Jimmy Choo. I was selling mostly accessories. And then I worked at Bottega Veneta, where I sold everything from clothing to shoes and accessories.
Q: How did you blow the producers away and convince them to change Mateo’s ethnicity and sexual orientation?
Santos: I was really looking at the text that was sent to me that they sent me to audition with, and there was so much in the writing that really spoke to me. I saw him as a really shady, stab-you-in-the-back kind of person. So instead of playing his as a tough, competitive guy, I played him as a shady, competitive, conniving manipulative person, and I guess they liked the tape.
Q: Do you seem him as inherently evil?
Santos: No, but he will do whatever needs to be done. Like myself, Mateo is an immigrant and you have to do the hustle and make things work. You’re in this new country in search of a better life and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get it done.
Q: In what other ways are you similar to your character, Mateo?
Santos: Well, we both wear glasses.
Q: There are two different types of Filipinos—those who eat Balut and those who don’t. Which are you?
Santos: I’m in the middle because I love the broth but I don’t eat the chick part because that’s too much for me. But the soup inside is delicious and I will drink a whole bowl of it. The chick part, I’m like, “Uh, no thank you.”
Q: The production quality on the show is amazing—it really does look like a Wal-Mart or other type of superstore.
Santos: We have an amazing production team that pays attention to everything, down to the minute detail. It’s like a real store. It’s funny because sometimes when I come to work, I look around and think, “Oh, I need to buy some toilet paper.” We don’t get paid for product placement. That would have been a very different show.
Q: Are you friends off-set with any of your co-stars? Do you hang out with them?
Santos: Lauren Ash (a Second City alumna who plays tomboyish Dina) and I just clicked from the beginning, but they don’t pair us up much on the show, even though we bug the writers about it all the time. We keep asking Justin Spitzer (the show’s producer) to give us more scenes together. I think Lauren is one of the greatest improvisers out there so when we get to do scenes together, I’m always cracking up. It takes about six hours to film and the director gets mad at me because I’m cackling like a madwoman in the background. She tried to kiss me and I started laughing. I think that’s on our blooper reel. I’ve told Lauren many times if she had a penis, I’d marry her.