“I grew up a chubby, dorky queer kid in the Philippines,” says Nico Santos, giving the elevator pitch version of his life story. “I moved to America in search of a better life, and against all odds it actually happened!”
This summer Santos continues his upward trajectory. He’ll make the leap from the small screen, where he plays big-box employee Mateo on the NBC comedy Superstore, to the big screen, where he’ll portray Oliver T’sien, a style-obsessed gay cousin in the family at the center of Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel. Not bad for a man whose college acting teacher told him he’d never make it in the business.
Santos admits that before he discovered stand-up comedy in his 20s, he feared he’d have to go back into the closet to find success. “There are people who can pass as straight,” he says. “I am not one of them.” But these days he doesn’t fret about being typecast. “If I spend my entire career just playing gay Asian roles, I’ll be perfectly happy,” he says. “It’s important for me to play them so that people realize there’s a broad spectrum of us. Not all Asian people are the same. Not all gay people are the same. I want to show that a gay character can be femme, but he doesn’t have to be a stereotype. A femme character can have complexity.”
Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters on August 15.