During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
Fans fell in love with Nico Santos from his portrayal of Mateo Liwanag, a passionate sales associate at the fictional big-box store Cloud 9 on NBC sitcom “Superstore” and Oliver T'sien, the stylish and sharp cousin of male lead Nick Young in 2018 blockbuster flick “Crazy Rich Asians.”
But for Santos, these opportunities were about more than the characters. They're also signs of an industry more interested in telling diverse stories about people like him.
Coming off the 2021 series finale of "Superstore," which ran for six seasons, Santos has been able to step back and realize how special it was.
"With 'Superstore,' having the type of cast that we had, one of the most diverse casts on television, that’s just normal. That’s the way that should be. Every show should be like that," he told TODAY.
Santos, 42, immigrated from the Philippines as a teenager, discovering his love of theater after his family moved to Oregon. After years of working retail while doing standup in the San Francisco Bay Area, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy, before finding himself gravitating towards acting. The shift paid off, in 2015 landing Santos the role of Mateo — a gay, undocumented Filipino immigrant, who felt deeply personal to him.
Portraying that kind of character ... I just did not believe it was possible.
“To be able to leave that kind of legacy portraying that kind of character ... I just did not believe it was possible,” he said. “The landscape has changed so much in the last 10 years, the last five years even, as far as representation and what audiences expect out of the shows that they’re watching and the type of stories that we as artists expect to tell.”
Before Santos booked “Superstore” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” he felt like he had to justify his existence in the industry. And even after Mateo hit the small screen, he received negative feedback.
"When 'Superstore' first came about ... people were like, 'He’s such a stereotype,'" he recalled. "It just ruffles my feathers in such a wrong way because it’s just like saying people like that shouldn’t exist, people like that shouldn’t take up space. But I based Mateo off of people I actually knew, so for people to criticize him, you’re basically telling me that I don’t have a right to be here."
In the wake of "Superstore" and "Crazy Rich Asians," which became the highest-grossing rom-com in a decade, Santos sees doors opening for more stories centered around the Asian experience.
“What projects like 'Superstore' and 'Crazy Rich Asians' have done is show that it is possible to make the impossible happen," he explained. "Ten years ago, it was impossible to make a movie like that, to make a show like 'Superstore' because the people who were the gatekeepers would just say, ‘You can’t have a movie with all Asians, that’s ridiculous. A cast that is so diverse?’"
He also feels the industry may be permanently changing.
"We’re living in a world where that is now the expectation," he added. “People are waking up to the possibility of this becoming the new normal of just the world being reflected the way it is and the way it should be.”
Still, according to Santos, there's more work to be done on diversity behind the camera to make these stories truly representative.
“Everything you see is the shiny, beautiful product that is made and neatly packaged and tied with a pretty little bow,” he explained. “It’s like ‘Here’s your diversity!’ It’s much more important to have diversity in the way that the sausage is made.”
"There’s a difference between an old white executive saying ‘Sure, go write that diverse movie!’ and a woman, a person of color, or an LGBTQ+ person in that position to be able to shepherd their own community's stories to be made."
It’s bittersweet for Santos to celebrate the progress within the industry amid a surge in violence against the Asian community, as well as the racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd and a raging pandemic, to which he lost five loved ones, including his stepfather.
“You have to cling onto some sliver of hope,” he said. "I’ve always been of the mindset that life is wonderful and horrible all at once. It just seems to me that this is just what life is."