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Luke Fontana
September 27, 2019
In The Mix

His Cliff Has Viewers Hanging

From stand-up to Superstore, Nico Santos has paid his dues.

Christine Champagne

Season four of the NBC comedy Superstore ended with a shocker.

After ICE raided Cloud 9, Homeland Security took Mateo Liwanag, who is undocumented, into custody.

No one saw that coming.

“The reaction to the finale has been tremendous,” says Nico Santos, who plays the sales associate. “People all over the country have been messaging me and telling me about their own experiences being undocumented and how this episode made them feel represented.”

In season five — debuting September 26 — Mateo will return, Santos says. The actor doesn’t know exactly how the writers will keep his alter ego in the Cloud 9 universe, but he is excited to see what they’ve come up with.

“There’s so much intersectionality going on with this character — being queer, being Filipino and being undocumented. It’s revolutionary,” Santos marvels. “It’s something that needs to be seen.”

Mateo was originally envisioned as a straight Latino, a competitive know-it-all from a large family.

Santos was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States as a teen, and he’s gay. But he related to Mateo’s competitiveness. Producers were impressed with his audition. So much so, they reimagined the part for Santos, who was then fairly new to acting. “Superstore was the fifth acting job I had booked professionally,” he says.

After beginning his career as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco, Santos moved to L.A. with the goal of starring in his own comedy special for Comedy Central or Netflix one day. But after he started appearing as a panelist on E!’s Chelsea Lately, his manager urged him to audition for the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase.

Accepted into the program as a writer, Santos also pursued acting, eventually booking small parts on the TBS sitcom Ground Floor and in the film Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Ultimately, he won the role of Mateo on Superstore as well as that of gossipy cousin Oliver T’sien in the 2018 feature Crazy Rich Asians.

Santos, who still does stand-up, is happy with how his career is going. “I’ve paid my dues,” he says. “I’ve been hustling for a long time.” 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019

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