Critics Choice nominee Nico Santos sits down with Awards Daily to discuss what it has been like to say goodbye to his beloved breakout role on Superstore and what it has been like to find a comedic and provoking way to portray the pandemic in a way that honors frontline workers.
For the past six years Nico Santos’ Mateo has defied expectations of what a modern sitcom character can offer. Like the rest of the underrated Superstore ensemble, Santos has seamlessly weaved together perfect comedic timing with political and social issues in a way that never sacrifices one for the other. It’s through that compassion, both for Mateo and the world around him, that Santos has been able to explore such complicated narratives like immigration and the pandemic in a way that always feels full of compassion, never forced, and most importantly hilarious.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Critics’ Choice nominee Nico Santos looks back on the past six years of his breakout role, what he will miss the most about Mateo, why Superstore has been so successful at portraying the pandemic, and of course why, deep down, we are all a Sandra.
Awards Daily: Let’s go back to the beginning of Superstore and discuss Mateo’s evolution. The show begins with a more cutthroat version of Mateo that would do almost anything to get ahead. Over the course of the show we were given the opportunity to see him evolve. I’m curious, what was that like for you as an actor to portray and what direction did you really want to take him across this journey?
Nico Santos: Well, I think what really changed everything was the discovery that Mateo was undocumented. That was something [Superstore creator] Justin Spitzer had thought up towards the middle of the first season. At the beginning I pictured Mateo as super cutthroat, somebody who would throw anyone under the bus to achieve what they wanted. I modeled that after these sales sharks that I used to work with in retail. That’s what I had in my head.
I was still in the middle of this process of discovery of what was really driving him. The introduction of that detail about his life was the missing piece and it gave me a better understanding of why he is the way he is. Throughout the seasons it gave me a better understanding of Mateo but at the end of the day he’s always going to be who he is. He’s the snarky guy who can’t help himself and will always have a quip. That’s what I really like about him. He is who he is and he doesn’t apologize. While he may be dealing with what seems like insurmountable circumstances, he’s not going to let that define his experience.
AD: What I loved about that is that Mateo proved that unapologetic ambition, even when relentless, is not a necessarily a bad thing or something to be ashamed of.
NS: I think anyone who comes from the immigrant experience can relate to that drive and ambition. It was certainly stressed in my own family and it is why we moved to America. I was just thinking about what my life would have been like if we had stayed in the Philippines and I really can’t picture it. This certainly is not what I would have expected to happen. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be doing six seasons of a network sitcom and it definitely would not have been possible if I had stayed back.
AD: Speaking of your journey to becoming an actor, I read that you’re also from Portland, which is my hometown too, and I always love to see someone from there succeed!
NS: When we first came to America we moved to Portland. It was in high school that I had gotten involved in the theater department. When I moved to the United States I looked at it as an opportunity to reinvent myself and what does a closeted, little gay boy do to reinvent themselves and assimilate properly? They join the drama club!
I went to college in Ashland, Southern Oregon University, and started out as an actor there. I was really discouraged by my experience there and they pushed me to be a costume designer. They really didn’t want me to be an actor. I eventually moved to San Francisco and started experimenting with standup comedy. When I did standup it was like this lightbulb went off and I knew it was how I could continue performing without the restrictions of what my college department had forced on me. Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and realized there was a career path for me where I could still be an actor, utilize my skills as a comedian, and find a way to have fun with it.
AD: One of the plotlines that I vividly remember is earlier on in the show when Marcus [Jon Barinholtz] moved in with Mateo and his family, including Tita Irma. There was this perfect moment where we find out that Marcus has become fluent in Tagalog and it leads to Mateo and Marcus getting into a fullblown fight in the language. It struck me as probably one of the first times I had heard Tagalog spoken on American television like that. What was it like to film that scene and what was your reaction when you found out you would get the opportunity to include your own language into the script?
NS: I will always jump at the opportunity to infuse my cultural experience into the work that I do. Mateo had spoken Tagalog on the phone in the episode where we found out he was undocumented. I remember when the episode aired there was a huge response from the Filipino-American community. No one could believe they were hearing Tagalog in an American sitcom. Since that episode I was constantly bugging the writers for more moments like that and thank god they came up with that hilarious plotline of Marcus being taken in by our family.
They crafted the scene and I helped them retool the Tagalog parts. I remember recording it on voice memos so that Jon Barinholtz could hear it phonetically and I thought he did great!
AD: My favorite element of Superstore was how successful the show was at weaving in social, political, and class issues whether that be immigration, unionization, corporate greed, a changing economy, and of course COVID. Why do you think Superstore was so successful at doing this in a natural way when so many other shows miss the mark?
NS: I think it comes from a familiarity that people feel with the characters on the show. These are people you encounter every day whether it’s because you work at a big box store or because you shop at one. These are people you’re so familiar with. Everyone is always mentioning to me that they have a Mateo at their work or they have their own Dina or that they know a Justine.
It also helps that the show is obviously a comedy. What I love about comedies is that they disarm people and allow us to put our guards down. When you reach that place where you don’t think about it too much and then we sneak in these larger messages it allows people to engage with it in a different way. You don’t even realize that it’s influencing you to approach these subjects in a different way because you are laughing so hard and then by the end of it you’re able to engage with it completely.
AD: In the final season Superstore deals heavily with COVID and the pandemic. To be honest, I was not looking forward to any show covering the pandemic simply because I wanted an escape from what we are still going through but you guys engage with and process what we are going through right now incredibly well. I don’t think any other show was able to accurately portray frontline workers and the way average Americans reacted to all of the the confusion and anxiety. What was it like for you as an actor to portray this while simultaneously living through it?
NS: It was amazing in some ways but hard in so many others. There was never a question of whether we would cover COVID. We owed it to essential workers and the people that we portray in the show to honor them and not shy away from what they are going through. Our show has never shied away from uncomfortable topics so why would we shy away from this? It was never a question for us.
It was difficult for me on a personal level. I have lost four family members to COVID. Having to shoot the show in the middle of a pandemic while simultaneously dealing with my own grief and loss was hard. It was also healing in a weird way to be able to work through my grief while filming the final season.
AD: There has been a lot of focus on the romantic relationships of Superstore whether that be Amy & Jonah or Dina & Garrett but one of my personal favorite relationships is the friendship between Mateo and Cheyenne. What was it like creating that emotional connection with Nichole Sakura over the past six years and do you have a favorite moment between the two characters?
NS: There are too many to even count! You’re right, it is such a beautiful relationship between the two of them. It’s one of my favorite things to play and whenever they pair us together I get really excited. This last season when Mateo and Cheyenne get into a fight was hard. Nichole and I turned to each other and we were like “Ughh I do not like this!” It was not something we wanted.
It’s a genuine friendship that reminds me of the ones that I have with my closest gay friends and closest girlfriends. It’s a ride or die friendship where there are times where we can fight and immediately jump back into being thick as thieves. I think people related to that; the bestie you can be stupid with and laugh until your belly hurts with. Cheyenne is like that for Mateo and Nichole is like that for me. We have grown so close and it is what I will miss the most.
AD: My colleague Joey Moser wanted me to ask: How did Mateo and Cheyenne not figure out the big twist regarding Elias and the feet at the end? They were in everybody’s business and if anyone could figure it out it should have been the two of them!
NS: You know what, he is absolutely right! We should have been the ones to crack that code but we were probably too focused on Chateo.
AD: Besides Mateo, Is there a character that you relate to the most or makes you laugh the most?
NS: Sandra! I love Sandra so much. Younger Nico who was still scared and naïve and didn’t know what fuck was up was kind of like Sandra. He would let people walk all over him. I really related to her and over the years she found her voice and would snap and not take shit from anybody! Kaliko Kauahi is one of the sweetest, most endearing human beings I have ever met in my entire life and I love her so much.
AD: After being on Superstore for six years what are you hoping to do next?
NS: Being on Superstore was such a gift. I didn’t think I would be able to portray a character so close to my own experience so early on in my career. I had been doing standup for many years but Superstore was my only my fifth acting job I had ever booked. I was very lucky. Moving forward I would love to continue that trend and usher in stories from my own experience that all people can relate to. In the end our struggles, our dreams, our hopes are all the same. I want to tell stories from my perspective and help people realize how alike we are.
For his performance as Mateo Nico Santos is up for consideration for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and “Superstore” is eligible in all relevant categories. All six seasons of “Superstore” are available to stream on Peacock and Hulu.