Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After over 37K likes, 10K retweets, and three years since the T.V. show “Superstore” first premiered, Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag has officially gone viral on Filipino Twitter. The video shows the Cloud 9 wholesale warehouse employee, with his thick-framed glasses, hair slicked back, and the Philippine flag pin on his blue vest. This isn’t the first time a Filipino’s been on Western television, but what catches everyone off-guard is when Mateo speaks in straight and fluent Filipino just as he discovers his illegal immigrant status from his lola.
The 29-second clip was the first time many Filipinos have ever heard Filipino spoken on a Western sitcom. It was also the first time a lot of people have ever encountered Nico Santos, the born-and-raised Pinoy behind the character of Mateo.
Santos first moved to the States when he was 16. His parents were divorced, and his father had relocated to Oregon. His mother had urged him and his brother to live with their dad and experience what life was like in America. “It was a tough move,” says Santos. “We left a fairly nice and comfortable life in the Philippines to live in a blue-collar town in America where my dad was struggling.”
At the time, he says that he also wasn’t open about his sexuality and it proved to be a “rough transition” as a teenager. “But it was also a chance to reinvent myself.”
It wasn’t until Santos moved to America and joined his high school’s drama club that he discovered his love for the arts. “We did one production of ‘West Side Story’ in San Agustin, but that was really the only exposure I had,” he says. “We weren’t really exposed that much to live theater. And as far as T.V. or film acting, that seemed like such a pipe dream. I never even thought I’d have this career at all.”
It’s been 21 years since Santos has been able to go back to his home country, but fortunately, he landed a role in the upcoming “Crazy Rich Asians” movie as Oliver T'sien, which also gave him the chance to revisit the Philippines.
“When I filmed 'Crazy Rich Asians,' I had time between my scenes in Malaysia and Singapore … It was really… Talagang… It was really magical and emotional, and really special just to be in your home country again,” he recalls. “I’m a proud Filipino, I’m always going to be a proud Filipino.”
Santos talked to CNN Philippines Life about his experiences as an immigrant Filipino actor in Hollywood, how he went from doing backstage work to performing onstage, and why it’s important to be an openly gay Asian on T.V. or film. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
What did you think you were going to do if not act?
You know I really wanted to be a fashion designer! I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to be a pastry chef. One of those three things.
Marine biologist? Where did that come from?
My cousins are all very book-smart, very matalino. I had a cousin who worked in UP, and I would tag along in some of their field trips.
And the fashion designer dream?
I collected comic books as a kid, and played Dungeons and Dragons. I would always design the costumes for the superheroes, and in fact that’s how my mom found out. “I knew you were gay because I would find on the back of your homework you’d have these gowns.” I thought I was really going to do something along those lines. But it wasn’t until I got really involved in theater in high school and I majored in theater in college that I thought I may want to do something with acting. I thought I was going to be on Broadway someday. But then my college experience wasn’t what I had anticipated it to be.
People used to ask, “You weren’t born here?” And I say, “Yes. We speak English in the Philippines. Most people speak English in the Philippines. Not all of us live in grass huts.” Those were the questions I was getting. “Do you guys pee and poo in holes in the ground and live in huts?” “No, I had a big house, and a maid, and a driver.”
What do you mean?
My acting professor was not encouraging, and actually told me I was never going to make it in business. They said, “You seem to be really good in design. Maybe you should switch your major to costume design.”
I really listened to them at that point. I thought they really knew what they were talking about. I switched to costume design, and eventually I ended up working for this pretty prominent regional theater called the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I was doing wardrobe for them for a few seasons. While working with them, a few actors I was in charge of dressing were like, “You’re really funny! You should try stand-up.” I thought, “Oh my god! I should try that!” That’s kind of what put that seed in my brain. “I’m going to leave this small town in Oregon, and I’m going to go to San Francisco — which was the closest big city — to try and pursue that.”
What was it like to transition from doing backstage work and costume design to performing on your own?
It was hard. The job I had was a dresser at a theater company, and I couldn’t get that job in San Francisco because they had unions for that kind of thing. I had to find a day job pretty quickly.
The first job I got was as a phone operator at a call center for a high-end shoe catalogue, and then I ended up working retail. I worked in Neiman’s and Dior and the fancy boutiques in San Francisco. After doing that for about three years, I told myself, “You said you were going to do comedy in San Francisco, and you’re just selling handbags! You should just try and do it.”
I had a co-worker at Neiman Marcus who said, “If you ever want to do an open mic, I have a friend who runs an open mic.” And I was kind of just like, “Okay. I think today’s the day I’m going to try and do an open mic. Let’s do this.” After three years of not doing anything with my life except selling handbags, I asked, “Is your friend still doing that open mic?” And she was like, “Let me make a phone call!” She called that person, and said, “You’re on. It’s tonight. 7 p.m.”
What was your first open mic like?
I was so nervous. Scared shitless. And I really sort of fell in love with it. I was just like, “Oh my god, I should’ve done this a long time ago.” That kind of snowballed into my daily routine of doing retail during the day, and stand-up at night. And I did stand-up in San Francisco for six years until I decided I was going to move to LA. And when I moved to LA, it was another having to start over again with the scene there
How did you get your start in acting?
I never really thought I would be acting while I was in LA. My main focus was just stand-up and to get into the comedy club scene there, maybe get my Netflix special someday, Comedy Central or something like that. But then I was pretty fortunate that the first year or two I was here, I started doing “Chelsea Lately.” I had opened for one of the writers before, so that’s how I got to do the panel. That’s where my current manager saw me. And once I signed with my current manager he was the one who encouraged me to start auditioning for acting roles since I was in LA. I started booking acting roles, to my surprise, because I was told I wasn’t an actor! I thought I was just a costume designer, right?
One thing led to another. More auditions, more parts. And then I booked “Superstore.” It happened early on, and I was really lucky. “Superstore” was the fifth acting job that I booked, which is — in the grand scheme of things in Los Angeles — very short. But I’ve been hustling for a long time. It took me 13 years of playing in shitty open mics at shitty bars to get to this point. But as far as the acting, it happened kind of really quickly.
Did you know you’ve gone viral on Filipino Twitter because of a “Superstore” clip?
Because I spoke Filipino in that one episode?
Somebody had brought that to my attention, and this clip was like from three years ago! The Filipino people are just sort of realizing that … I think the show is shown in the Philippines.
It was surprising, sort of getting this second wave of traction, and people going “Well, I need to see this show!” I was really happy that the creatives of the show really incorporated my background into the character, because Mateo’s character wasn’t written to be Filipino originally.
Yeah, he was supposed to be a Latino character. A straight Latino character. And then when I auditioned, I kind of just played a version of myself and they liked it. They asked me, “What’s a Filipino last name?” And told them we all have Spanish last names as well. They asked for a “more Filipino-sounding last name.” So I just came up with Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag. “Liwanag,” for bright, because it was my bright moment.
In the clip, he realizes that he’s an illegal immigrant.
Yeah, and then he talks to his lola. [Laughs] That was crazy because they basically just gave me the English version of what I had to say, and used Google Translate. I was like, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!” And thankfully, I’m fluent in the language.
I was reading some of the comments on that Twitter thread saying, “I’ve never heard my language spoken so naturally on television.” And people were asking, “Are you really Filipino?” I’m like, “Yes, of course. Talaga naman!”
You don’t get a lot of immigrants from Asia who don’t have an accent on T.V.
I am an immigrant myself, but I don’t have an accent. So a lot of the times when people meet me, they think I was born and raised in California, All American. Often, I have to remind people that I moved here when I was 16. I spent the first half of my life in a completely different country. I think it’s really important to show all types of immigrants that are out there, because when you hear “immigrant,” a lot of times they do think someone with a super thick accent. Someone who’s “fresh off the boat.”
People used to ask, “You weren’t born here?” And I say, “Yes. We speak English in the Philippines. Most people speak English in the Philippines. Not all of us live in grass huts.” Those were the questions I was getting. “Do you guys pee and poo in holes in the ground and live in huts?” “No, I had a big house, and a maid, and a driver. Y’all are crazy. We’re not all the stereotypical characters you think we are.” But I’m glad now that we are able to portray immigrants in a much broader sense.
How do you feel about characters with accents?
There’s nothing wrong with having an accent. I think people shouldn’t be afraid of that. Having an accent doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. It just means you have an accent. And people shouldn’t be afraid of showing characters with accents, but at the same time it’s important to show immigrants that don’t have accents as well. It’s important to represent everybody.
The character of Mateo came naturally to you. You’re a Filipino immigrant like him, but with Oliver T'sien for “Crazy Rich Asians”…
He’s Singaporean with a British accent. That was a challenge. But I really did feel it was important for Oliver to stay true to how he was portrayed in the book. And I wanted to sort of showcase a different side of myself as an actor. Because a lot of people know me as Mateo, and Mateo’s pretty similar to my natural mannerisms and all that — maybe just a little heightened.
I went to dialect coaching and really tried to work on that accent, and it’s a really fun character to play. I’m glad I’m able to show a different kind of queer Asian character out there. We’re not just all this one type of person. There’s a lot of Asians out there. And we’re all different from each other.
It’s important to show immigrants that don’t have accents as well. It’s important to represent everybody.
Both these major characters you’ve played so far are openly gay Asians. Can you talk about the importance of that?
I think it’s just important to let them live out in the real world, right? I mean, representation matters. Just having them out there is a huge thing. I, myself, didn’t see any gay Asian people on television growing up. And if I did, even in the Philippines, we had Roderick Paulate. That was very stereotypical. Very broad, stereotypical, florists, hairdressers, all that stuff. And then now, in America, it’s the macho gay character. I think it’s really refreshing to see that we can represent everybody.
We can have the swishy queens, and there’s nothing wrong with being a swishy queen. That’s who you are. That’s who I am! And there’s nothing wrong with being a masculine gay guy, but I think it’s important for the straight community and everybody out there to realize that there’s so much more to the gay community than these two things. It’s a broad spectrum of people, just like the Asian community. We’re a broad spectrum of people.