Nico Santos on Championing Queer Representation in Hollywood

Nico Santos On Hollywood, Representing Queer Filipinos And His Career Evolution

Photograph by Logan Cole, Courtesy of Nico Santos

Nico Santos is intent on breaking boundaries and becoming a beacon of pride.

Though he is now an established name, Nico Santos’ rise to the top was the result of years of hard work. From performing at open mic comedy shows before landing his roles playing Mateo in the NBC sitcom Superstore and as the snarkily fashionable Oliver Tsien in the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, his career defining moments where things that he had to make happen himself.

“I grew up in Manila before moving to the US with my brother at 16,” the comedian shares with Vogue Philippines in the middle of his Cap City Comedy Club US tour. “Like many immigrants in my shoes, I had to deal with the culture shock that comes from living comfortably in the Philippines to a middle class lifestyle elsewhere.”

He shares that he was actually in the closet up until he moved out. “But I was always one of those kids who couldn’t really hide being gay. I went through a phase of trying to fit in more. But I just reached a point where I was like, “This is who I am. And I can’t hide or deny that part of myself. Engaging in art was one of the ways I felt I could reinvent myself,” he says.

Pursuing your dreams as a queer person of color means frequently getting told that you wouldn’t succeed and he is no stranger to hearing that. “I studied theater in college, but, in my first year, I was told by my lecturers that they didn’t see me succeeding in the industry and to switch to costume and design,” Nico admits. “I didn’t have the self confidence to believe in myself at the time so I agreed.”

He ended up working at a theater company as a designer. One of the actresses there advised him to try stand up comedy. “And in between that I decided to pursue acting and I finally gained confidence in my work,” Santos says. “Soon after, I booked my role in Superstore which was my big break and that opened a lot of doors for me.”

Photograph by Logan Cole, Courtesy of Nico Santos

Nico credits his decision to own his identity and sexuality as the key to his success. “It was when I became more comfortable in my skin, that things started opening up for me,” he says. “In stand up, I was pretty open and frank. I talked about my queer identity. I talked about my Asian identity. So pretty early on, people knew right away what they were getting.”

He says that it was actually hard to go from stand up, where he was so used to being himself, to becoming an actor, where “you had to fit the mold of what they were looking for.” (Originally, Mateo wasn’t supposed to be a queer character, but since he landed the role,the creators decided to change that.)

“The fact that I got to play another queer character in Crazy Rich Asians was huge. I never thought I’d have a career by being myself,” Nico says. “I always thought that being an actor in Hollywood meant that I would have to put that side of me on the back burner.”

His being a Filipino is also a big part of his identity, and his memories of the Philippines are still fresh. Though he has not been to the country since 2017, he still has family here. “When I got my green card I was able to bring my mom to the US,” Santos shares. “But, like my character in Superstore, my mom and extended family were undocumented. We were able to fix their status thanks to the help and support of the Filipino community in our neighborhood.”

He visited Manila while filming Crazy Rich Asians and quickly realized that there was no place like home. His wish is to take his husband on a trip to the Philippines for Christmas.

When it comes to queer representation in mainstream media, Santos advocates for non conventional representation.

Photograph by Logan Cole, Courtesy of Nico Santos

“I think we should be allowed to show our flaws. It’s hard when you’re out there, and you’re trying to represent your community because you want to put your best foot forward. Like with Mateo in Superstore, I love that he’s allowed to be a little bit of a villain. I feel like, before, people were like, ‘You can’t have the Asian gay guy be a villain. That’s putting a bad name to the community.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s just part of his personality. Some people are bad. Some people are good. Not all the time.’ But you have to show what’s real, right? You have to be able to represent what’s real about the person,” he elaborates.

Nico adds: “And I really hope that we’re getting to that point where people are getting to show more interesting, well-rounded characters that don’t have to be like, ‘Well, see this is what gay people are.’”

Photograph by Logan Cole, Courtesy of Nico Santos

Ultimately, representing the Philippines globally is Santos’ goal. “Adobo is one of my favorite dishes and I’ve come to see a lot of Filipino food has finally been getting their deserved recognition globally and I’m so proud to be part of that,” he says. 

He also had a quieter June. “I used to celebrate Pride Month by going to parades and parties. But since the pandemic and losing some of my family to COVID, I’ve decided to live a stress free lifestyle. I had a pride pool house party at the start of this month and overall. I think celebrating pride is not just about the presses, but also about the community you’ve formed.”

On most days, he sees himself as “a silent queer activist bringing visual representation to people of color like me.” While proudly himself, Nico Santos continues to put in the work. 

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