A Fil-Am actor’s life: Nico Santos | Inquirer Entertainment
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A Fil-Am actor’s life: Nico Santos

By: - Columnist
/ 12:30 AM August 17, 2017

Nico Santos in “Superstore”

Nico Santos in “Superstore”

(Fourth of a series)

LOS ANGELES—He was flat broke in LA, deep in debt, sleeping in a friend’s couch that turned out to be infested with bedbugs. “We Filipinos are really great about keeping a positive attitude … We’re survivors!” exclaimed Nico Santos, who overcame the hurdles and now stars as Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag in NBC’s comedy series, “Superstore.”


Nico has landed the Oliver T’sien role in Jon M. Chu’s much-anticipated adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestselling novel of the same name, “Crazy Rich Asians.”


Also in the ensemble cast are Kris Aquino, who makes a cameo appearance as a Malay princess guest in the story’s pivotal wedding, our friend and colleague Lisa Lu as the family’s grand matriarch Shang Yu Si, Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong and Gemma Chan. Filming has wrapped up in Singapore.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Nico, in his midteens, immigrated with his brother to join their father in Oregon. He attended Centennial High School in Gresham and Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Then he moved to San Francisco where he started doing stand-up comedy.

The inevitable next stop was LA, where Nico faced tremendous challenges. But he soldiered on, bolstered by his family’s support and confidence in his talents.

Nico’s persistence paid off when he bagged the role in “Superstore,” where he is breaking new ground—a Filipino actor actually playing a Filipino part, Mateo, in a prime-time show on a mainstream network (NBC). Mateo, an ambitious superstore salesclerk, is also network TV’s first undocumented Asian—and Filipino—immigrant character.

“Superstore” was renewed for Season 3.

The show, which also stars America Ferrera, Ben Feldman and Lauren Ash, airs on Sony Channel in the Philippines.


Paul’s other credits include “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” and “The Clapper.”

Excerpts from our interview:

How would you describe your journey as an actor so far? Unexpected. Fun. Soulcrushing. But after years of hard work and struggling, I’m just really happy and grateful to be where I am. In this business, there are no guarantees—it is either feast or famine. I’m lucky enough to be living my dream. I’m constantly wondering when I’m going to wake up. I never really thought I would be acting again, let alone star in a network sitcom on prime-time television.

I majored in theater in college, but sadly, my acting professor told me I would never make it as an actor. I was foolish to believe him at the time so I switched my emphasis to costume design. Eventually, I found myself working as a dresser/wardrobe assistant for a professional theater company in Oregon. It was there that one of the actors suggested I give stand-up comedy a try. I became obsessed with the idea.

I quit later that year and moved to San Francisco and that’s where I got my start as a comedian. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had no intentions of being an actor. I was focused on trying to break in the comedy clubs and maybe land a writing job or something. But once I got an agent and began auditioning, I started booking small roles here and there. One thing led to another and here we are!

How do you prepare for an audition? Any good luck rituals? It depends. I’ve gotten auditions with as little as two hours’ notice. Those don’t go so well! For the ones where you do have time to prepare, I just go over the material as much as possible. Sometimes, I run the scene with other actor/comedian friends—whose humor and talent I trust and respect—just to get a fresh pair of eyes on it. As Edna Mode from “The Incredibles” once said, “Luck favors the prepared!”

What is the most frustrating part of trying to land roles in Hollywood? For me, it’s the whole audition process. I hate having to sit in 2 hours of traffic on the way to an audition that will last 5 minutes, and have to sit in another 2 hours on the way back. I come from a stand-up comedy background, in which I have the energy of the audience to play off.

In an audition, you’re acting for two people in a room, and you’re the 500th person they’ve seen. They’ve heard the scene over and over again. The vibe is very different, and you have to go through that experience many times before you land something.

How do you handle rejection? Not well. It took me a long time to learn how to forget about an audition the minute I leave that room. Now I move on and focus on the next once I am done. It’s out of your hands at that point, so there’s no use in  thinking about it. All that waiting and wondering can consume you, so it’s best to not think about it. Easier said than done, believe me.

Have there been times when you almost gave up? What motivated you to keep trying? Plenty of times … but the thing is, I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else. I had a rough start when I moved to LA. I couldn’t find a job, so I couch-surfed for the first two years. At one point, I found myself crashing at a friend’s place whose roommate turned out to be a crazy alcoholic. And the couch I was sleeping on had bedbugs.

I was flat broke and in so much debt. I just went into a survival mode and powered through it. We, Filipinos, are really great about keeping a positive attitude and seeing the silver lining in all things. We’re survivors!

My family always believed in me, even when I didn’t. Having that love and support made me not afraid of failing. I knew my mom would be proud of me just for taking a chance and pursuing my dream.

As an actor of color, do you feel that opportunities for minorities are improving or getting worse? I feel like it’s always two steps forward, one step back. But change takes time. A lot of it. While it has certainly gotten better, we have a long way to go.

It’s great that we’re starting to see more people of color and LGBTQ characters onscreen. Representation matters! That said, I’d love to see more … in positions of power behind the scenes in order to create an even bigger impact.

To people who are planning to pursue acting, what should they prepare for? It’s a long and tough road. Be kind and professional. No one wants to work with a jerk. Be prepared for a lot of hard work and heartbreak, but enjoy the ride because, when you finally get there, it’s amazing!

(To be continued tomorrow)

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TAGS: Entertainment, Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag, news, Nico Santos, Superstore

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