Nico Santos is sleeping again after forsaking shut-eye in the name of overdue cultural progression. Considering Crazy Rich Asians is the first film featuring an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, the actor tells NewNowNext it’s a small and necessary sacrifice.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians takes the classic (and classically white) rom-com to a dazzling set in Singapore, home for Asian-born, London-raised dreamboat Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding). In tow and unaware of his family’s fame and fortune is his Asian-American girlfriend, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who must face Nick’s icy mother, Eleanor (played by Michelle Yeoh with an even icier prick than Miranda Priestly). Not even Santo’s Oliver, a gay cousin of the family, is brave enough to withstand her chill.
Known for his role on the NBC sitcom Superstore, Santos talks relating to Oliver, what America taught him about homosexuality, and hoping to become Hollywood’s go-to for gay Asian characters.
This is a milestone year for minority presence onscreen, with Love, Simon, Black Panther and now Crazy Rich Asians. How does it feel being part of this wave of change?
It feels surreal. I just never thought I would be here. I’m an immigrant. I was born and raised in the Philippines; I moved here as a teenager. I grew up watching a lot of Hollywood movies and programs, and the call of Hollywood was always the dream.
To be in a movie that’s so significant for the culture is mindblowing to me. I keep asking myself if this is real life. I really hope this movie just finally knocks the final piece of the wall down, and that we’re really able to tell these stories. People are thirsty for these stories.
I want the Oliver movie: Crazy Rich Gaysian.
Girl, don’t think I’m not trying to pitch it! Oliver gets a lot bigger in the next two books, so hopefully, if we do the sequel, I’ll get to play Oliver again.
As a gay Filipino man, was there cultural pressure on you not to come out?
Yeah, it’s a very Catholic country, and for the most part, it’s been so long since I’ve lived in the Philippines. I’ve been in America for 22 years. When I was a kid, the queer images and representation that I saw were very stereotypical. I was led to believe that if you were gay it basically meant you were a drag queen or you were trans. Moving to America made me realize there’s no right or wrong way of being gay. I can be butch, I can be femme. I can just be myself.
Imagine all the young gay Asian kids who will be able to say the same thing after seeing you as Oliver.
It’s been such an emotional week—because not only do I get to play Oliver in the movie, but I also play Mateo on Superstore. I get to play these two completely different queer Asian characters.
You just never see queer Asian characters on the screen, period. But the fact that they’re so different from each other, it’s such an honor and a privilege for me. I really do want to continue playing complex and interesting queer Asian roles, because I think it is my duty to further that representation and to show people that there’s a variance within our community.
What advice do you have for anyone who has to cross an Eleanor?
Oh, Lord! I think as people of color and as queer people, we experience this in our daily lives, and we just have to be patient and teach them and show them our tea, show them our truth, girl! That’s how we change hearts and minds: by really opening up and sharing a piece of ourselves to make people realize that we’re a lot more common than different.
What’s the closest you’ve been to a crazy, rich Asian experience?
(Laughs) Filming this movie! Being in the midst of the luxury that is Singapore, because Singapore is insane. There are more Louis Vuittons in Singapore than Starbucks. Every corner you go to you’re just like, I guess I need a handbag.
How many hangbags did you leave Singapore with?
Actually, I bought shoes in Singapore! I’m trying to whittle down my handbag collection, because I do have a handbag collection.
So you’ve already spent your Crazy Rich Asian paycheck?
I got that paycheck and I’m just like, that’s going right to Barneys.
Can we just acknowledge the fact that the gay community is going to be crushing hard on Henry Golding?
Henry Golding is a snack, girl. And you know what? She hungry! It’s like, not only is Henry beautiful, but you have (actors) Chris Pang and Pierre Png, and that’s what I love about this movie—it’s just breaking so many barriers.
And might finally change the minds of racist idiots on Grindr who stipulate “no Asians” in their profiles.
Now we just gotta work on the fat and femme part—and love everybody!
Crazy Rich Asians opens in theaters Aug. 15.