Superstore has the best comedy ensemble on television. Yeah, I said it.
A lot of comedies can’t grapple with real-life circumstances without turning it into a “very special episode,” but the way the writers and actors of the NBC underdog composed the story of Mateo’s undocumented status is one of the greatest accomplishments in the show’s five seasons. Nico Santos’s performance is so grounded that he gives us a character to root for.
At the start of the latest season, Mateo is being held in a detention center, and it’s a very dark moment for a show that is so light and spry on its feet. Instead of introducing this storyline and letting it exist for ratings, the fifth season shows its audience that undocumented people like Mateo would struggle to find and keep employment and might feel ashamed about the entire thing.
Santos told me how the cast works together in those hilarious break room scenes, and Mateo gets a more serious love interest in Amy’s brother, Eric (played by the dreamy George Salazar). With the world still managing the COVID-19 pandemic, Santos excitedly looks toward the future of Cloud 9 because the employees would still be working.
Superstore has always been able to sneak in the heart under all the jokes, and Nico’s Emmy-worthy performance is the perfect example of that.
Awards Daily: The first time we see Mateo, he is in a holding facility. I had forgotten some of the dialogue where you say, “This is one of the nicer places” and it ripped my heart out. Can you tell me what that day was like?
Nico Santos: That was a really surreal day to film that scene because the ICE raids in Mississippi, I believe, just happened. I might be blanking on the city here. They had rounded over 600 undocumented people and there was that horrible news and then we had to go film that scene. The significance of that moment was not lost on us on set that day. All of us are looking around and we are all fortunate and privileged to be in this position and this is some people’s reality. They don’t have the leisure of going back to their lives after they call “Cut.”
AD: That was one of the toughest moments of the entire show. I love that Superstore brings that to light in such a unique way by also not letting the issue go away.
AD: We see Mateo struggle to get a job and he has that embarrassing moment with the ankle monitor at Sandra’s wedding. It’s not like we are leaving the issue at the detention center.
NS: Those moments that you mention are just little glimpses into what everyday life is like for an undocumented person. That’s just the everyday reality for Mateo. He doesn’t get to opt out of being undocumented—he has to deal with every day of his life. Every hour, every minute. The things that he needs to put into consideration to live his life aren’t the same as everybody else’s. It was important for the entire creative staff to make sure we weave that into the storytelling. We work with a wonderful organization called Define American which is a media organization. It’s similar to how GLAAD advocates for responsible storytelling for LGBTQ characters in media; Define America helps productions to tell immigration stories correctly. They’ve helped us along the way to make sure we are telling Mateo’s story with accuracy and dignity and truth.
AD: I wasn’t aware of that organization. That’s really great.
NS: Yeah, they’re wonderful.
AD: I think the cast of Superstore is the best comedic ensemble on television, and I love any opportunity to see large numbers of the cast play off one another. Those openings in the break room sometimes feel like a snowball rolling down a hill and no one can stop it.
AD: It feels so easy and effortless and breezy. Can you talk to me about working as an ensemble together?
NS: It really is all of that. We have this core group of actors and then we have the extended cast of all the recurring characters and I find myself working with upwards of 20 of my closest and dearest friends who are all seasoned actors and comedians. You put us all in one room and it becomes this amazing environment to bounce off of. My favorite days to shoot are the break room scenes.
AD: Those are my favorite.
NS: We have to film those in one day generally because it’s a lot of moving parts with the entire cast. There’s a lot to tackle. We just get to goof around. I will look at Kaliko [Kauahi] who plays Sandra and I say to her all the time, “Can you believe we are getting paid to do this?” We are basically getting paid to act like stupid bitches.
AD: And it gets changed up so much, too. Mateo has a lot of scenes with Cheyenne but you get moments with Dina and Garrett.
NS: Those are my favorite. Obviously each character has a different dynamic with every other character and you get to explore those tensions or non-tensions with the different characters. Mateo and Garrett have something different than Mateo and Cheyenne. And then you add in the entire ensemble. It’s just a wonderful process.
AD: In the season finale, you are trying to help Cheyenne plan her 21st birthday party, and it made me feel really old.
AD: I also forgot how young her character is.
AD: I am worried that your characters are growing apart!
AD: I need you to soothe me because that’s one of the best relationships on the show.
NS: Nothing will every come between them. Cheteo forever! Mateo will always be there. I absolutely had the same feeling you did. I just turned 41 this year.
AD: You’re 41?!
NS: She is 41! I have some friends that are young friends that are around Cheyenne’s age, and when I hear them talk about they did when they were 21, I sound like a grandfather.
AD: I have a younger roommate and I’m constantly worried he’s going to call me a boomer to my face.
AD: How do you think the store is going to deal without Amy’s leadership?
NS: That’s such a dynamic change. We’re going to miss America so much. It’s such a bittersweet thing that she’s leaving. We certainly understand why she is leaving but she has been there since Season 1. We bonded so fast. Literally when we filmed the pilot, there was a moment when we all realized that this was really special. We didn’t know that we would be here five seasons later, but we really bonded as a cast. We became a family so it’s hard to say goodbye to her.
NS: At its core, Superstore is an ensemble show. I have no doubt that the creative team will find a way to soldier on without Amy being there. There are so many stories to draw from. It’s not just about Amy and Jonah’s love story, but there are other stories intertwined in the fabric of the show. We have so many stories to tell. SO many more funny moments. It won’t be the same but we are very confident to tackling the new season especially with the pandemic. Workers at a place like Cloud 9 are now considered essential workers and people on the front lines. Our show has never shied away from tackling topics like that.
AD: I am really excited to see what Cloud 9 will do with that.
NS: Our show is really good at putting a lighter touch or injecting humor into some the most serious topics we have. Our show does that so well. I can’t wait to see what the cast is allowed to do with that.
AD: I had forgotten how obsessed Mateo is with Celine Dion. What’s Mateo’s favorite Celine song?
NS: I would imagine Mateo is an old school, hardcore fan and it started with “Love Can Move Mountains.” Early Celine and it blossomed from there. He loves all those older divas. Celine, Whitney—people like that.
AD: You make a lot of references to different divas through Season 5. I thought we could make an entire VH1 Divas Live lineup just from Mateo’s references.
NS: We could! Oh, man, VH1 Divas Live Bringing it old school!
Superstoreis streaming now over at NBC and it will be available on Peacock.