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Crazy Rich Asians' Nico Santos Isn't Afraid to Play Femme Characters

NICO SANTOS

As the smash hit rom-com Crazy Rich Asians heads into awards season, Nico Santos, the actor behind the sharply dressed Oliver T’sien, says he’s gotten criticism that the gay character was tacked on as comic relief. But Santos (and plenty of fans) disagree, arguing Oliver is “essential to the plot.” After all, it’s his outsider-insider status as a gay member of the über-wealthy Chinese family that enables him to shepherd the film’s protagonist, Rachel (a true outsider), into the fold.

“I think it might be lost on some people,” Santos says about Oliver’s pivotal role. “They would like to brush Oliver aside. It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s just like this comic relief, whatever, small gay character.’ … [But] Oliver has had to learn how to navigate conservative Singapore and ultra-rich circles where he knows that he can’t be fully out. The fact that he has become this cunning player who kind of manipulates and knows exactly how  to place himself in the right position, in the right time, at the right place speaks highly to the type of character that he is. He’s not just some sort of throwaway.”

Indeed, despite being the “rainbow sheep of the family,” Oliver is present at all the important family functions in the film. That’s critical in a world where gay Asians are often invisible or denigrated for their sexual orientation. Of course, Oliver is allowed to be “out” in part because he provides the family something they need. Santos has called Oliver the Olivia Pope of the billionaire Young family.

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Vincent Rodriguez, Nico Santos, and Jake Choi photographed by Luke Fontana

Oliver gets stuff done. He procures some of the more exotic items that the wealthy scions want, but he also has a way of delicately handling interlopers. We see him disentangling an out-of-place gold-digger from the arm of one of the family’s prized sons and leading her to a party-boy relative more her speed. It certainly isn’t done as a favor to her, and yet she’s happily distracted.

Perhaps his outreach to Rachel is initially meant in a similar vein — helping her navigate the room not so much to prevent her from embarrassing herself as embarrassing the family. But Oliver quickly becomes Rachel’s fairy godmother, and the fashion designer, with the help of Awkafina’s “Asian Ellen” (as her father calls her) turns the out-of-place American economics professor into — well not so much a princess, as a more self-assured and sharply dressed version of herself. These two queer characters help Rachel not win over her boyfriend’s icy tiger mother exactly, but at least demonstrate that banishing Rachel will irrevocably damage the older woman’s relationship with her son.

Santos says the fact that queer characters play a central role in Hollywood’s first Asian-American blockbuster in decades is important. “I also love the fact that I am a queer Asian actor playing a queer Asian part. It is about time. I’m very happy that at least I was able to bring authentic representation to a part that should be played by somebody who is queer and Asian.”

The Filipino-American actor was born and raised in Manila where he lived until his teens, before moving to the Portland, Ore., area. It wasn’t until after Santos — who also plays the gay, undocumented immigrant Mateo on the NBC sitcom Superstore — moved to the U.S. that he came out as gay.

“I came out to one or two people in high school and then it wasn’t until I was a freshman in college that I was fully out of the closet,” he recalls. “It was like the late ‘90s. The environment back then was very different.”

In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered just two states over from where Santos was attending Southern Oregon University in the small town of Ashland. He describes Ashland as a tiny, liberal town, but adds, “If you drive just 10 minutes outside of Ashland, it’s a bunch of KKK people.”

Santos says after college he realized, “I am a single, young gay man and I’m a person of color and I’m in a small town in Oregon. I need to leave.” But there was something else pulling him to go as well.

The stand-up comedian-turned-actor admits, “I started out as an acting major in college, and my professor said, ‘You’re not really good at this. Maybe you should switch your major.’”

Santos took the advice to heart and followed encouragement to switch to costume design “because I love design. I worked at Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a dresser, as a wardrobe person assistant and it’s actually one of the actors there who was like, ‘You’re pretty funny. You should do stand-up.’ I had this dream of doing stand-up comedy. Really, the closest city that I could see myself pursuing that dream was San Francisco. It made perfect sense because not only do they have a great comedy community, but it’s San Francisco! It’s where the gays were, so it’s where I headed.”

He recalls arriving in the queer Mecca broke: “I think I had like $200 to my name.” In San Francisco, Santos did become a stand-up comedian; in fact, he discovered he was good at it. He became a hit on the comedy circuit in the San Francisco Bay Area and says those were “some of the best years of my life.”

But, eventually Santos says, “I felt like I had done everything I could as far as comedy in San Francisco. I was a regular at the clubs already and the next logical step was either move to New York or move to L.A. I was broke [and] it was a lot easier to get to Los Angeles.”

The man who would eventually play an ultra-rich Asian remembers couch surfing for “the first couple of years,” after arriving in L.A. It’s ironic that those hard times played  role in his even auditioning for parts like Crazy Rich Asians’ Oliver.

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“When I moved to L.A., I had no intention of really pursuing acting. I wanted to focus on stand-up. It’s crazy to me that my acting career took off much faster than my stand-up career.”  To this day, there are comedy successes he hasn’t achieved.

“I’ve never done a late-night set. I’ve never done huge comedy festivals. I put stand-up on hold. I still do it every now and then, but when I started booking acting jobs, the acting gigs paid better than a week at a comedy club. I was booking them more frequently. I was like, ‘I guess if this is paying the bills more, I should stick to this.’”

Santos reflects on his career since.

“When I look at my career sometimes — it’s just so funny where life really takes you because I’d almost given up on [acting]. I didn’t think it was ever going to happen. The fact that it’s happening in such a way that… I’ve never had to compromise who I was in order to get these jobs. I’m portraying out characters, I’m portraying femme characters, characters that are really outside of the box. I never thought I would get that opportunity to portray those characters at all, much less have a career that I have.”

Not worried about getting typecast, Santos is happy to have played gay on queer shows like the webseries Go-Go Boy Interrupted, and on Superstore, the mainstream workplace sitcom starring America Ferrera, whose writers turned the character Mateo gay for Santos.

As he told Pride.com in 2016, “Mateo was originally… written as a straight, Latino guy. He was supposed to be a gangbanger, so when I got the material for the audition, I was reading through it, and I was all like ‘Girl, I can play butch, but not that butch.’ But I was reading the text, and I was like, ‘This is something a shady queen would totally say,’ so I just kind of did my own version of it, and portrayed like this uptight, more back stab-y version of myself, and they really liked it. They made the role to fit me, a gay Filipino guy.”

Of course, as Superstore has developed — it’s now in its fourth season — so too has the character of Mateo. Santos has imbued Mateo with a sense of intelligence, warmth, and compassion that undercuts his Mean Girls witticisms. And the writers have given Santos plenty to work with, including an immigration backstory (Mateo is technically a Dreamer, a kid brought to the U.S. without legal papers, something he discovers during an Olympic-themed episode in season one). Ten million viewers tuned in to the episode when Mateo became the first Asian undocumented network TV character in a sitcom. The moment led to discussions (on and off screen) about the complexities of a broken immigration system. Mateo later found love, in an interracial, mixed-class, gay relationship that was profoundly impacted by his immigration status.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Superstore’s ratings are on the rise, and the “show is NBC’s most consistent and top-rated comedy in the Thursday block.” (For the record, that block includes Will & Grace, The Good Place, and I Feel Bad.)

These groundbreaking roles like Oliver and Mateo — and increasing visibility for Asian-American queers — matter, Santos says.

“We talk about representation all the time. That’s like such a buzzword in Hollywood right now, but really it is — as somebody who’s like a double minority, as somebody who is queer and brown — it’s important to bring that to the forefront. My brownness is something that I can’t hide. There are some straight-acting or straight-passing queer people out there, but I’m not one of them. This is something I would rather not have to hide.”

Even his personal relationship could be seen as groundbreaking — and it’s another thing Santos isn’t going to hide. He’s dating Survivor’s Zeke Smith (who appeared on Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X and then Survivor: Game Changers, where he was outed as transgender by a fellow contestant).

“I remember just seeing him and going gaga over him,” Santos says of Smith. “He’s such a great guy. He’s amazing!”

But in the gay community there’s still prejudice about dating trans men. Santos believes anti-trans bias (including within the gay male community) is “definitely changing. Even in just the last five years, certainly. I think Zeke completely helped change the narrative, too. He brought so much attention to the community.”

Just as Santos is helping to increase visibility and representation for Asian-American queers, Smith is doing so for transgender men.

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“I certainly don’t want to speak for Zeke or the trans male community,” Santos says. “But they are probably the least visible out there. We see a lot of visibility with trans women but there’s still hardly any trans men out there. Zeke is one of the few visible trans men.”

As terrible as it was for Smith to be outed on national TV, he’s now one of the most widely recognized trans men in America. That visibility is truly priceless in helping advance trans acceptance, and Santos says, “I hope that sort of balances it out.”

As someone on the more feminine side of the scale, Santos also wants to see more visibility for femmes.

“It’s important to show that side of the queer community,” he says. “I just remember in the ‘90s, there was a big push in queer representation that really focused on, ‘Look at these gay men. Aren’t they just like everybody else? They’re masculine, they blend in. They’re not those type of gays.’ Which I think was important for our visibility and our fight. For people, for the larger community to understand that not all gay people are ‘stereotypical.’ I hate that word sometimes… [It’s] like when Jack’s character on Will &Grace first came out, it was like, ‘Oh, God. He’s such a stereotypical queen.’ I’m like, ‘That’s a real person. People are like that.’”

Santos has faced some of that same criticism for his portrayal of Mateo and Oliver. His response: “Just because the character is femme does not mean they’re stereotypical. Femme people exist. It’s a part of the fabric of our community.”

He sees the dismissal of femme gay men not only as a sign of homophobia, but deeply rooted sexism.

“I just hate the fact that people center on that one particular trait and then have to label it stereotypical, which goes to show how crazy — how misogynistic this society is that even the notion of femininity without a person actually being female is already so off-putting to people. That’s how sexist this society is.”

Photographer Luke Fontana
Stylist Benjamin Holtrop
Hair and makeup Blondie for Exclusive Artists, using Alba 1913 and MAC Cosmetics
Photo assistant Dillon Matthew

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