Sam Morelos Of That ’90s Show: “The Starry Eyes, I Don’t Think Are Ever Going To Go Away.”
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Sam Morelos Of That ’90s Show: “The Starry Eyes, I Don’t Think Are Ever Going To Go Away.”

Raen Badua

The Filipino-American actress talks about her breakout role, finding her love for storytelling, and Filipino representation.

“I’m just very very grateful. I’m very green!” 17-year-old Sam Morelos tells Vogue Philippines. The Filipino-American actress stars in That ’90s Show, a spin-off series of the popular sitcom That ’70s Show, which launched the careers of household names like Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, and Laura Prepon. Like them, this is Morelos’ first official acting credit.

We catch Morelos in Atlanta, Georgia, where she’s just arrived for a new project. “This year will be my senior year in high school. I’m going through college applications right now and doing all the things!” She says. This includes juggling projects, auditions, and callbacks all at once. “It’s very nerve-wracking but very fun.”

Suffice it to say, 2023 has been quite the whirlwind, and it’s only just begun. Netflix’s That ’90s Show was just released just last month in January and has already been picked up for another season. Since it premiered, the show earned warm responses all over the world, making it to the streaming platform‘s Top 10 list in 35 countries.

As the name suggests, the series picks off twenty years after the original concludes. Leia Forman, the daughter of Eric Forman and Donna Pinciotti, spends her summer at Point Place with her grandparents Red and Kitty. She and her friends set out to experience every adventure that 1995 has to offer.

“The starry eyes, I don’t think are ever going to go away,” Morelos says. “Even these past few weeks, I’ve been pinching myself every day because it’s so crazy to me that people are seeing this.”

Maxwell Acee Donovan as Nate, Sam Morelos as Nikki, Reyn Doi as Ozzie, Ashley Aufderheide as Gwen Runck, Callie Haverda as Leia Forman, Mace Coronel as Jay Kelso in That ‘90s Show. Cr. Patrick Wymore/Netflix © 2022

Vogue Philippines: Congratulations on That ’90s Show! It was so fun and really took me back to the original series. What’s it been like for you the past few weeks since its release?

Oh, it’s been so surreal! It’s very exciting and I’m very very grateful for all of these beautiful opportunities that have come to me. We filmed the show over the summer, and to have it out now, six months after we wrapped, is so crazy! 

For a really long time, it was just this cool thing that I did over the summer. But now it’s something that people are seeing and watching and loving, which I’m so grateful for. It’s really cool that people get to see all the hard work and the heart that we put into it. 

What was the audition process like for the show?

I got in through the open call. The cattle call. I didn’t have an agent or manager or anything. My audition story is really really crazy. 

I go to a performing arts high school, and they kind of sent out a talent search to performing arts high schools in LA county because they needed teenagers. On my school’s bulletin there was this flyer and it was like “Netflix: That ’90s Show Talent Search. Send in an introduction video.” And at first, I wasn’t going to do it, and then all my friends started doing it and they started getting callbacks or just sides. It was literally me having FOMO, being like “I want a callback! I wanna do that too!”

So I submitted on a whim, it was two days before the deadline even. And it was crazy because I just kept getting called back and auditioning and auditioning. I still didn’t think that anything would come of it, because I was like “It’s Netflix!” They’re probably seeing hundreds of kids for this role too, so I’m just going to have fun!

And I think that was the most important part of my audition process because I didn’t go into it having any expectations. I was just there and I showed up because I was doing the thing that I loved to do, which is act and tell stories.

It took the pressure off. 

Yeah! Right. There was no pressure. 

When I booked the job it was the most world-shattering experience. My heart was racing, I think I fell to the floor at some point. There was no way to contain the excitement that I had and just the gratitude. 

I met a lot of wonderful people along the way throughout the audition process that introduced me to my team, cause now I have an agent and now I have a manager.

At first, I started in musical theater, so my training was, for four years, singing and dancing, and acting. The first year where I switched over to the acting department of my school was when I booked the job. Which was so crazy. It was the first year where I even called myself an actor. I used to say I was a singer first, actor second, and dancer dead last. 

This was the best kind too because I have a lot of theater background and theater education. So with the multi-cam sitcom, it was the same kind of format. 

Sam Morelos as Nikki, Kurtwood Smith as Red Forman in That ‘90s Show. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

It’s incredible that for your first role, you got to work with some of the most seasoned actors in the business. Was there anyone you learned a lot from in particular?

Oh definitely. Just in general, all my peers were phenomenal actors. They’re all kids my age. We bonded a lot as a friend group too off set, and in-between takes. Our chemistry was there and just being able to play off their energy each day was incredible. 

But also being able to work with Debra Jo-Rupp and Kurtwood Smith! As a That ’70s Show fan, I was freaking out. I was fan-girling inside but I had to keep my cool, you know?

Even just watching them work is like a masterclass, every single day, because they’re so seasoned, and are just incredible storytellers. They know their characters backward and forwards because they’d played Red and Kitty and had this relationship dynamic for eight seasons. So they were very well acquainted with the physicality of their characters, their intentions, and how they would react in certain situations. 

And Laura Prepon—she directed two of the episodes, the final two. I learned so much just from her direction too because she was so specific and had a very specific vision coming in. Also from Gail Mancuso, the director of our other eight episodes, she’s phenomenal. Just working with these creative people, though they recognize that we’re younger actors, they opened it up for collaboration. 

One thing that Gail and Laura stressed when we were working was follow your actor’s instinct, and then we’ll play and work together to see what’s right for you and your character. And I think that was really educating. Even just the smallest things like finding your light, trying not to cast a shadow on someone’s face; it’s a very calculated art. 

Did you always know that you wanted to be in this industry?

I’m very lucky to have known from a young age what I wanted out of life. When I was little, even at three or four, I would just do the most outrageous things to make my family laugh. And growing up and looking back, it was because I liked to make people feel things, and I liked to affect people. 

When I was four I entered this talent show in my little suburb, and we learned that the woman who was hosting it gave voice lessons, and she had a community theater group. So I started voice lessons with her and soon after started doing community theater. So every single summer, because it was like a summer show that we did every year, it was like “the” big thing that I was looking forward to. And every summer my love for performing grew and grew. The love has never died!

I switched from musical theater to acting over quarantine because on Zoom my musical teacher was like, “We can’t sing over Zoom! There’s lagging, you’re going to freeze. We can’t do this.” So she flipped the curriculum to an on-camera acting class because that was the medium we were working with. Might as well learn how to do eye lines and things like that.

There was something that really resonated with me. At first, I would hide behind the music in a musical. I saw the speaking lines and scenes in between the songs as fillers and lead-ups to the songs. And I also really played into the stereotype of “Actors are good liars, because they’re always pretending to be someone else,” but then over Zoom, my teacher was like “If anything actors are the worst liars because their job is to tell the truth.” Acting is not about pretending, it’s about living someone else’s truth. And that really stuck with me. 

I think acting, at its best, is the rawest form of authenticity. It’s also just storytelling, and being able to be a vessel for a story that should be heard is the most rewarding feeling. It’s such a convoluted and complex art because it’s completely tied into who you are as a person too. 

“I get to affect people, and I get to tell stories, and make people feel things, and also explore humanity, its different faces, and shapes, which is really cool.”

Do you think you’ll still pursue music in the future?

Honestly, I’d love to have my hand in all the cookie jars. I love to sing, I mean I’m Filipino. Karaoke every day. We have three, maybe four karaoke machines at home. My mom sings and my grandpa sings so I kind of inherited it from them. 

I grew up in a very musical household, I played piano for eight years, and I play guitar now. Music is such a fundamental part of who I am, so I carry that with me always. I’m also a songwriter, I write my own music. It’s also an emotional outlet for me, Sam, not a character I’m playing, to express myself in my rawest, truest form. 

I’m trying my hand at directing too. I’m directing my very first short film. I think of it like a box and I’m just switching all the sides, but at its core, it’s still telling stories. So music is one way to touch someone, acting is the same way, and directing is the same way. 

I think I’m just enamored with creative endeavors and this kind of art. And I want to learn about all sides of the box because it’s creation! It’s creation for the sake of connection. It’s humanity, and I love that. 

You mentioned your Filipino side and karaoke all the time. Have you been back to the Philippines?

I have yet to go back. I went twice, once when I was three, and then another time when I was nine. But the memories I made there just stick. 

I remember going to the Jose Rizal museum with my family. Oh my gosh, the taho! For weeks when we got back, my brother and I would find any stick or broom and we’d put our groceries at the end of it and scream “Taho!” in our driveway. 

Both my parents are immigrants from the Philippines, I’m a first-generation Filipino-American. I grew up watching teleserye. I’m working on my fluency [in Tagalog] for now, my vocabulary is limited to “hay nako!” or “susmaryosep!” The first thing I learned when I was young because I heard it all the time was “Susmaryosep, and tigas ng ulo mo!” 

I call my older brother kuya, it’s weird to call him by his name at this point. We still go grocery shopping at the Filipino supermarket. The small things that connect me to my heritage, still make me feel very Filipino. My mom’s side of the family is still in the Philippines, and my dad’s side is all in LA, in LA county. They still speak Tagalog with us, and I understand but speak konti lang. 

They surround us, the kids, with that culture and I’m very grateful that I did. But, I’m going back! I want to so bad. 

It’s incredible how much more Filipino representation we’re getting now as well, compared to just a few years ago. 

Right! I’m genuinely so grateful to be able to do these things. Not only do I get to do what I love, but I get to represent my community and culture on screen, in an international sense, because it’s Netflix! So, a lot of people all over see this show. 

Growing up, I did watch a lot of teleserye, so I did see myself on screen. But the second that you switch the channel, there’s just not any. Which is so strange to me because there’s so many Filipinos! 

The small bits of representation throughout my life that I’ve seen on screen means so much to me because they validated my career. Like, oh I can do that now because you look like me! 

Do you know the Pixar short Float? When I first saw that little animated Filipino baby, I cried. I bawled! Because we had the same nose, and I’d never seen my nose animated before. It just goes to show how important representation is on screen. 

Just the idea of being that for some kid, somewhere else, having them relate to me because I look like them and we grew up eating the same food. It’s the smallest thing, but you forget how much representation matters and you finally have it, and then it’s just a massive relief and excitement. 

Raen Badua

Photographer/producer: Raen Badua; stylist: Venetia Kidd; hair and makeup: Carolina Yasukawa

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