Representation and coming home: Nico Santos on his ’Crazy Rich Asians’ experience

MANILA, Philippines – At this point, there is no doubt that Crazy Rich Asians is a game-changer.

Countless articles have been written on how the film is a hard-earned victory for diversity and inclusion. Audiences have been brought to tears. Star Constance Wu even landed a Time Magazine cover. All this from a rom-com, and with a majority minority cast at that?

The film has broken ground, even before its opening weekend.

And for good reason. Despite being a story about Singapore's closed-door elite – clearly an exclusive demographic – the film highlights the sometimes viselike hold one’s family has on a person. It's an experience that many Asians, even the non-crazy, non-rich, and non-Singaporean, will be familiar with.

For Filipinos in particular, there is also the fact that there are two kababayans in the cast.

One of them, of course is Kris Aquino, whose role in the film is small but significant – perhaps even pivotal. Kris being cast in the film already stoked Pinoy pride, but she took it further when she appeared at the Hollywood premiere in a look that was created by Filipinos – from her dress, to her jewelry, to her makeup. (READ: Here's the Filipino team behind Kris Aquino's 'Crazy Rich Asians' looks)

And then there is Nico Santos, who has a considerable amount of screentime in the film as Oliver T’sien, the designer-clad, flamboyantly gay cousin of one of the main characters, Nick Young, played by Malaysian-British actor Henry Golding.

BREAKOUT STARS. Nico appears in the film alongside Constance Wu and Henry Golding. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ Ratpac-Dune

BREAKOUT STARS. Nico appears in the film alongside Constance Wu and Henry Golding.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ Ratpac-Dune

In many ways, Nico’s story is that of the everyday migrant Filipino who pursued and eventually achieved their dreams abroad. It just so happened that Nico's dream involved Hollywood.

Nico, who moved from the Philippines to the United States at age 16, worked his way through the industry, appearing in smaller roles in sitcoms and films before winning the role of Mateo Liwanag, a Filipino sales associate, on the NBC sitcom Superstore.

His role in Crazy Rich Asians is of course his biggest yet – not only because of the scale of the production or his A-list co-stars, but also because of the film’s significance when it comes to representation. As Nico pointed out, it’s the first Hollywood film in 25 years to star a majority Asian cast.

The star talked about his Crazy Rich Asians experience in a telephone interview with Rappler, kicking the conversation off with a warm “kamusta kayo? (how are you?)”

Audition process

He then went on to share how he came across and eventually bagged the role of Oliver. It was a friend that pointed him to the part, after she met with Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu and felt he would be a perfect Oliver.

“I went and I got the book immediately, and I devoured it because the book is just like, it's like reading a soap opera. It's so good,” he shared.

“So when I was reading the book I got to the part where it describes Oliver, saying Oliver is like mid-thirties, he's gay, he loves fashion, he loves gossip, and I was like, oh my god, I have to play the part, I have to, have to play the part!”

LEGEND. Nico Santos shares a scene with screen legend Michelle Yeoh, who he considers as one of his heroes. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ RatPac-Dune

LEGEND. Nico Santos shares a scene with screen legend Michelle Yeoh, who he considers as one of his heroes.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ RatPac-Dune

He then called up his agent and auditioned for the part, though it took a while for the casting directors to respond. When they finally did, they initially told him that he may not get the part at all.

“But then I got a call a week after that saying ‘wait, I think Nico’s back in the mix’ and I was just waiting for another audition or if there was going to be a callback or something like that, but then I just got a call saying ‘you know what, they’re going to go with you, you booked it.’ A week later, I was on a plane to Malaysia,” he said.

His whirlwind casting meant very little time to prepare for the role, though even before he was told that he booked the part, Nico had already been working with a dialect coach to help him perfect his character’s British accent.

Apart from the accent, Nico said that he fell into the role easily. It was, after all, something of a dream role for him, and he already knew how Oliver would look like and what he would sound like even while reading the book.

Representation, recognition

Upon landing in Malaysia, Nico quickly got to work and jumped into filming even though he was still jetlagged. That particular scene - the makeover montage – would turn out to be one of his favorites, even if he can barely remember shooting it.

“That was a really fun scene to shoot kasi with Awkwafina [who plays the main character’s best friend Peik Lin], we really clicked right away. Yung chemistry namin (our chemistry) really clicked right away,” he shared.

Awkwafina, along with Constance and Henry, would be among the breakout stars Nico would get an opportunity to work with. But the film also gave Nico a chance to share the screen with veteran actors Ken Jeong, who he described as “amazing,” and Michelle Yeoh, who he said was one of his heroes.

CINDERELLA SCENE. The makeover montage with Awkwafina and Constance was the first scene Nico filmed upon landing in Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ Ratpac-Dune

CINDERELLA SCENE. The makeover montage with Awkwafina and Constance was the first scene Nico filmed upon landing in Malaysia.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ Ratpac-Dune

“I never really thought that I would be in this position,” Nico said. 

“Growing up in the Philippines, we watched a lot of American television shows and American movies in Manila. When you hear there's even like an Asian in a Hollywood movie we're all so excited for it. Everytime you hear a Filipino line in any American movie, we're so excited for it," he shared. 

"The fact that I grew up with this dream of trying to be a part of Hollywood and being born and raised in the Philippines, and now I find myself being flown by Warner Brothers back to Asia to be part of this huge Hollywood movie…I feel very very blessed and very grateful.”

His story highlights that persistent Filipino desire to be recognized by our former colonizers – the fulfillment of which perhaps has made his role all the more meaningful. There is of course a lot more to unpack in his Crazy Rich Asians journey – the Philippines’ post-colonial relationship with the US is complicated, after all. At any rate, Nico's face on the screen is a comfort, if only to show that Filipinos are finally being included.

Nico hopes that the film will be the first of many that talks about the Asian experience.

“This movie is very specific to the Singapore experience and I hope that with this movie it just opens doors for us to tell other Asian stories, like the Filipino story, the Indonesian story, the Malaysian story, Japanese, Korean…to show everybody in the world the broad spectrum of Asian culture,” he said. (READ: 'Crazy Rich Asians' touted as Hollywood watershed)

Homecoming

There’s another reason why the film means so much to Nico: while shooting, he was finally able to come home to the Philippines.

“We were filming in Malaysia and Singapore, and I was fortunate enough that I had about two weeks off so i was able to go home to the Philippines for the first time in 21 years. That was really, really amazing and emotional and very special,” he said. “Talagang I really missed what it was like to be back in my homeland in my home country.”

“I don't know why it took me so long,” he mused, before realizing that as an actor trying to build his career in Hollywood, he simply couldn’t afford the flight home.

DREAM ROLE. Nico's character Oliver is one he wanted to play since reading the 'Crazy Rich Asians' books. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ Ratpac-Dune

DREAM ROLE. Nico's character Oliver is one he wanted to play since reading the 'Crazy Rich Asians' books.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros/ Ratpac-Dune

He said that when he got to the Philippines, he was able to reunite with his aunts and cousins, and even his yaya (nanny), who he considers his second mom.

“So her and her son, who I also grew up with, we met at Greenbelt. We had a very emotional reunion…nag-iyakan kami sa Greenbelt, lahat ng mga tao tinitignan kami, ‘ano bang nangyari dito, bakit umiiyak ang mga tao?’” he shared with a laugh.

 (We started crying in Greenbelt. People were staring at us, wondering what was happening, why people were crying)

“That's why this movie is so special to me kasi nga (because) I was part of this really amazing all Asian cast, but it also allowed me to go back to my homeland.”

Crazy Rich Asians already opened in US cinemas last August 15 to mostly rave reviews, and, perhaps more importantly, to lots of tears from its Asian-American audience who felt connected to the story, and represented by it. It also broke box office expectations, making over US$21 million in 3 days. It’s safe to say that the film is a success.

But even if the film flopped, it wouldn’t have ruined Nico’s experience.

“What I will take away from this whole experience is the fact that I got to be part of this moment in history,” he said. “How many people can say that?”

Crazy Rich Asians opens in Philippine cinemas on August 22. – Rappler.com

Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.

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