Nico Santos of “Superstore,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.3” shares the story of his acting journey with DAMAN and talks about his love for comedy, as well as Asian representation in Hollywood
Representation is arguably one of the hottest ongoing discussions in screen media, particularly in Hollywood. And representation of Asian-American talent has recently come to the forefront. An interesting milestone in this journey came in 1993, when “The Joy Luck Club” was released. The movie was celebrated as one of the first full-length motion pictures to feature a majority Asian cast in a modern setting. Fast forward 25 years and we come to “Crazy Rich Asians” which further became a benchmark for Asian representation in Hollywood. It was also incredibly well-received—something that Filipino-American actor Nico Santos can attest to.
Born in Manila, Santos has always been curious about acting and in high school he dived into theater. When he moved to San Francisco, he ventured into standup comedy, before eventually getting into acting and appearing in movies such as “Superstore,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” In a recent conversation with DA MAN, the comedian talks about his passion for acting and his thoughts on Asian representation in Hollywood.
DAMAN: Hello Nico! What keeps you busy these days?
Nico Santos: Well right now, it’s wedding planning! My fiancé Zeke and I are getting married this year and we are in the throes of choosing florists, invitations, etc. It’s fun and exciting and stressful all at once. [Laughs]
DA: How did you discover your passion for acting and what is it about acting that you find fascinating?
NS: I was always curious about performing, even at an early age. But my school in the Philippines didn’t really have a robust arts program. When I moved to Oregon, it just so happened the high school I went to had amazing theatre and music departments and I became heavily involved in that. My first role was playing a Nazi in “The Sound of Music”! Talk about color blind casting! So, high school set me on an early path of discovering what I wanted to do with my life, which is such a blessing.
What about it do I find fascinating? I just like the fact that it’s fun, especially since I work mostly in comedy. Even when the days are long and the work gets very challenging and a million things are going wrong, it never feels like work.
DA: What challenges did you encounter during the first years of your acting career and how did you tackle them?
NS: I think realizing that auditioning is a completely separate skill set than acting. It’s something I’m still trying to master, to be honest. For me, learning from your mistakes along the way was really the best teacher.
DA: You were cast in the NBC sitcom “Superstore.” How do you feel now that the series has come to an end after six seasons? Can you share with us the experience of working on such a big and long project? And what do you miss the most from working on “Superstore”?
NS: I miss it every day! Mark McKinney, who played Glenn, told me early on that being on a show like this, with a cast that gets along, where everybody is nice and the work that you’re doing is fun and challenging … is such a rarity. And that you need to stop and reflect on how lucky you are. He was absolutely right! It was such an amazing show to be a part of and if that show ran for 100 seasons, I would’ve been happy to be a part of it.
DA: When it comes to your filmography, we have to talk about “Crazy Rich Asians.” What was it like being part of such a groundbreaking project?
NS: It was amazing! I would compare it to my experience filming “Superstore,” in the sense that the cast and crew were wonderful to work with. Plus, filming in Asia for that amount of time was truly like a paid vacation. Business and pleasure! Spectacular!
DA: What would you say were your best moments or scenes from “Crazy Rich Asians”?
NS: I have a very special place in my heart for the dumpling scene. It was one of the first group scenes we filmed and I was feeling particularly nervous. As you can imagine, I was working with some real legends including Michelle Yeoh, who I think could sense my heart jumping out of my chest. Before cameras were about to roll, she leaned down to me and gently whispered in my ear: “Relax. Relax.” And I remember looking up and seeing her smiling at me and I smiled back. Then Jon Chu called, “Action!” And you know what? It worked. She completely put me at ease. I will always cherish that
DA: “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first Hollywood movie that features a majority Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club,” which arguably changed Hollywood’s perception of Asian-American talent. As an actor yourself, how do you see Asian representation in Hollywood at the moment?
NS: It’s definitely changed since “Crazy Rich Asians.” That is undeniable. What’s wonderful is that, with the advent of streaming, so much more content is being made. There isn’t just the one Asian role that we all have to clamor over. We’re starting to see more diverse stories, more diverse casts, more diverse creatives behind the camera as well. Plus, the work for diversity and representation is never done. It’s something we constantly have to fight for.
DA: Let’s move on to your more recent works, especially the upcoming Marvel movie “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” How did you get involved in this project?
NS: Well, I was discovered while working as a barista. The director saw me making a macchiato with such pizzazz that they offered me the role right on the spot! Just kidding … there was no special story here. I just went through the audition process!
“The work for diversity and representation is never done. It’s something we constantly have to fight for.”
“DA: Can you tell us a bit about your character in the movie1
NS: Yes! I play a character named … NDA! Y’all know I can’t share anything about that!
DA: What can viewers expect from “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3”?
NS: Like with all the other Guardians movies, you can expect a lot of action, laughs and heart. And great music! Go watch the trailer!
DA: Do you have any muses or inspirational figures you look up?
NS: Carol Burnett. She’s my earliest memory of what being funny was. I remember watching “Annie” as a kid and laughing out loud at her performance. To this day, I still quote all her lines from the movie.
DA: Prior to acting, you pursued a stand-up career. Can you tell us more about this?
NS: I started stand-up in San Francisco. It’s really where I got my education in comedy. San Francisco has such a rich stand-up comedy scene. I started out with people like Hasan Minhaj and Ali Wong. It’s amazing to see a lot of us from the SF scene make their mark in the industry.
DA: How do you find material for your stand-up performances?
NS: Well, the thing about inspiration is that it can come from anywhere and you never know when it’s going to hit you. You just have to be prepared to listen when it does.
DA: What are some of your most memorable stand-up experiences?
NS: There are so many! But a long time ago, I got to open for Sandra Bernhardt at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and it was one of the warmest receptions as a comic I’ve ever received. But also, there are not so great ones like the time I did a college gig and had to do an hour long set but no one was laughing at my set. I just had to keep going with a very silent crowd because I was contractually obligated to finish the hour or I didn’t get paid,
DA: Between acting and stand-up, which one do you like better and why?
NS: They both challenge me creatively in very different ways. I won’t say that I like one over the other, but as someone who never expected to have a career as an actor, and knowing how difficult it can be to break into the business, I’m really enjoying this acting ride for now.
DA: Last but not least, what is your greatest hope for yourself and the industry’s future?
NS: Listen, I can sit here and tell you that I would love to win all the awards and get all the accolades, blah blah blah. But, really, as long as I continue working and do so with amazing, talented, kind people and can occasionally work with my friends, I think I’ll be a happy camper.
PHOTOGRAPHY MITCHELL NGUYEN MCCORMACK
STYLING KIMBERLY GOODNIGHT
GROOMING JAMES DUNHAM using Imperial Matte Pomade Taste
STYLING ASSISTANT SHANE GOLDSMITH
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CASTING INDUSTRY LIFESTYLE CONSULTING
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