Were he a product sold in stores, openly gay comedian and actor Nico Santos would be flying off the shelves today. Starring as Mateo in NBC’s hit comedy about the employees of fictitious big box retailer Cloud 9, Superstore, now in its fourth season, he received an even bigger dose of visibility in the buzzed-about, Hollywood game-changing romcom, Crazy Rich Asians.
Born in the Philippines, Santos moved to the USA as a teenager and pursued stand-up comedy in San Francisco (one of the shows he put together and fronted at SF’s Cobb’s Comedy Club was titled Fags & Hags). He appeared as a roundtable panelist on talk show Chelsea Lately, wrote for Joan Rivers’ Fashion Police on E!, and started landing roles in shows and movies 2 Broke Girls, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, and webseries Go-Go Boy Interrupted.
Shot in Singapore and Malaysia, Crazy Rich Asians, about an Asian-American millennial, Rachel, who discovers that her hunky boyfriend Henry hails from an insanely wealthy, well-known Singaporean family, co-stars Santos as Oliver, Henry’s gay cousin and Rachel’s newfound ally.
Boyfriends with Zeke Smith of Survivor fame, and currently based in Los Angeles, Santos joined us in the VIP Lounge for a chat about Crazy Rich Asians, his days working retail in real life, if he’d fare well on a season of Survivor, and, of course, travel.
While shooting Crazy Rich Asians, what was the most surprising thing that you learned about Singapore?
I think people have this conception of Singapore as this police state, the caning thing, and while part of that is true, it’s such a fun city to be in. The food, shopping—it’s a great party town! There are gay bars, even though being gay is technically against the law, and a version of pride called Pink Dot, and every year its getting more traction. Hopefully it’ll get to a point where our Singaporean LGBT brothers and sisters are seen as full, equal human beings.
Do you actually know some crazy rich Asians?
Not personally, but I did when I worked high-end retail in San Francisco while I pursued stand-up comedy. Some of my best clients were crazy rich Asians and they were great. They’d come in, drop $15,000 on a handbag like it was Target, and be on their way.
What thing about working retail drove you crazy?
When people would try to return stuff all the time and claim, ‘I never wore that,’ and I would be like, there is literally a half-eaten burrito inside this purse, ma’am. Gowns with stains on them. Girl, you wore this to the club.
Today, as a star of Superstore, do you find yourself idolized by real-life Mateos when out shopping?
It’s crazy. When I go to a Target or something, inevitably someone will come up to me and be like, ‘are you here for research for an episode?’ No, I’m here for toilet paper. I’m a human being. I need stuff for my house.
Where would you and Zeke love to go for a honeymoon or romantic trip?
We’ve been talking about London actually because we’ve both never been. I’d also love to take Zeke to the Philippines and show him to my homeland.
Could you ever do a season on Survivor?
Hell no! I would die in an hour! No way. I would last a day and be like, can we go to a Starbucks please?
But what if it was like a coupl’s edition Fiji and they invited both you and Zeke together?
I don’t think he’ll ever go back. There’s no way. I love nature. I would love to go to Fiji, just not on Survivor. Give me a five star resort and I’ll be right at home.
Have you ever had an airplane nightmare?
I’ve been fortunate enough that the only time I fly recently is for work, and when that happens its business or first class. I will say, however, I flew to Toronto to do press for the movie (and this is such a first-world problem) and I asked the flight attendant what the Wi-Fi signal was and they said there was none on the flight. I thought it was a joke and I was like, oh my god, how is that possible? I will also say, I got to business class and they were like, ‘can I see your boarding pass?’ giving me shade, and I was like, ‘you’re not checking any of the white people here!’
As a Filipino, where do you fall on the popular Philippines snack, balut, a boiled duck egg with a partially developed embryo?
I’m half and half on it. I don’t eat the entire thing, but I do love parts of it. I don’t eat the chick part, it’s too much for me, but growing up I ate it all the time and the yolk and broth parts are pretty good, but the rest I would give to my uncle: ‘you eat that.’
How often do you visit Manila?
Shooting Crazy Rich Asians last year was the first time I was back in 21 years. It was such an emotional, amazing homecoming. I moved to the USA as a teenager, and I don’t know what took me so long. Well, I was too poor to afford it. But when I went home everything had changed yet remained the same. It was home. I forgot how much I missed it until I was back.
Is there a food or dish in Southeast Asia that you would actually consider taking a trip all the way back just to eat it again?
Too many. But actually, it’s the fruits. All these tropical fruits you can’t get in the USA because they’re not allowed to import. I hadn’t had a Philippine mango in 21 years and its very, very different. It was the first thing I had back in Manila.
This is my new favorite question to ask: do you ever get mistaken for other actors or celebrities when out and about?
When I first moved to LA, I was mistaken a lot for Alec Mapa, which is funny because we don’t look anything alike, we’re just both Asians with glasses. Also Rex Lee, who plays Lloyd on Entourage. People are like, ‘are you Lloyd?’ and I’m like, no, you’re just racist.
As a local, where would you take a visitor in LA?
To LACMA, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Getty Center. I would take them to The Broad Museum downtown and The Grand Central Market, a great food hall. I also love The Grove and live by it. People love to hate on the Grove because it’s so touristy, but I love to walk around, get a cup of coffee, people watch, and go window-shopping.
If you could invent a gay app what would it be like and what features would it have?
I would invent a gay dating app where people aren’t dicks. People aren’t like, ‘no fats no femmes, no Asians.’ That shit wouldn’t be allowed.
Finally, what do you always travel with?
My skincare products. I’m obsessed with Aesop, from Australia. They have an antioxidant serum I love as a moisturizer. I love their eye cream. And they have a vitamin C facial concentrate that’s amazing.