Nico Santos On Why ‘Superstore’s’ Mateo Deportation Storyline is Close To His Heart
When Nico Santos first started in entertainment, he was often offered roles that required him to play a non-descript Asian. All that has changed, last year, he starred in Crazy Rich Asians, one of the highest grossing films of the year. Jon M. Chu’s film featured an all-Asian cast.
Santos can also be seen on NBC’s Superstore. His character, Mateo is queer and Filipino. It’s a role Santos said he never thought he’d get to play. This past season, Mateo’s storyline revealed that the Cloud 9 worker was an undocumented immigrant. The finale ended on a devastating cliffhanger with Mateo being taken away by an ICE van.
It’s a storyline that struck super close to Santos. He wrote a personal blog for Entertainment Weekly about being an immigrant and having his own family members as undocumented immigrants.
I caught up with Santos who was driving back from Texas with his boyfriend to talk about Mateo’s Superstore and to make one last plea with Emmy Voters to consider Santos for an Emmy.
Let’s go back to when it was revealed in the “Olympics” episode that Mateo was undocumented. What was your reaction to seeing the script that first time?
Before I saw the script, showrunner, Justin Spitzer mentioned to me that they were thinking about making Mateo undocumented. I thought it was a brilliant idea. It’s such a common story within the Filipino community, but not just within the Filipino community, but also with immigrants in general. It’s a more common story and a more common experience. It’s one that hasn’t been told, and what better way to introduce the story to the broader American public than through a character like Mateo. 99% of the time when it is a story about undocumented immigrants, it’s about the border process that is discussed, but there’s a whole breadth of stories to tell within the community. The undocumented part of it is one small thing of being a border crosser, so being able to tell the story through Mateo’s lens was so great to tell.
What was it like to shoot that season finale because my gosh, it’s so triggering, I can not even begin. As a fellow Filipino, I’ve heard stories in the past, seen things and it was just so powerful to see that on TV.
When I saw the script and we did the table read, I was warned. But when we read it, I knew it was coming, it was still really shocking. It packed such a punch because of the current political climate. Especially now with how immigrants and undocumented are being treated in this country at the moment. It was so triggering. I remember looking over after we had finished reading the script, and we were all sobbing.
They shot the episode, and there were moments of true fear. When we shot that, I thought, “Oh my God!” There’s that scene when Mateo is in the back of the van, and we did a take where Mateo told his fellow Cloud 9 co-workers saying, everything was going to be fine, and everyone broke into tears. It was so triggering and so sad to see.
When we look at what’s happening, people just set it aside and don’t think about it, especially when they think, “Those are people I don’t know or encounter.” When it’s told through a story like Mateo, I start getting so many stories. I was hearing from people saying they didn’t want to see that happen to Mateo or they didn’t want to see him in the back of the van. He’s a person they’ve learned to love and so it has such a dramatic effect.
Mateo is such a celebration of being Filipino and queer, and now you have this whole undocumented storyline happening. What is that like for you as an actor to be playing that?
I never thought I’d be able to take part in stories like this. When I began to pursue in entertainment, I always thought I’d have to downplay my identity and be so openly queer and playing an actual Filipino. When I started, I was asked to play a non-specific Asian. Having the opportunity to tell a Filipino story and this storyline with the queer component attached, it’s so phenomenal to me. I never thought it’d be possible. It’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
What’s the on-set vibe like because despite all the hot topic issues and drama, we still get our laughs?
It is the best working environment that I’ve ever been in. When I first got the job – I’ve heard from other actor friends, you’re entering a minefield and there are on-set egos and divas, I thought that’s so not what this set is like. We are truly a family. I think that chemistry and the love we have for each other truly transfers off-screen to what you see as an audience. It’s such an amazing work environment. I can’t wait to be at work. I love it so much.
Your background is in improv, do you get to play that much?
We do. We are always encouraged to do it. We have the script, but we have the scripted version shot, but they really encourage us to play it and do a fun run, it’s really in those moments that they capture what makes the final cut.
Do we know what’s going to happen to Mateo?
I’m back to work on Monday. We’ll discuss what’s going to happen because the challenge will be finding a way to keep Mateo in the store. Now that his status is known, he technically can’t be an employee. It’s an opportunity to tell a story outside of the confines of the store which is something we really do. I’m excited to see where it goes.
It’s so fascinating that we’re talking about Mateo’s status today as Trump is threatening ICE deportations and raids tomorrow. This isn’t America.
I was reading on Twitter about those ICE raids and tearing families apart. We were driving from Austin, near El Paso and we saw a trailer pulling border patrol and an ICE van. I was like, “What is happening? What is going on?” It’s gut-wrenching when you don’t recognize the country you live in anymore.