Interview by Jana Letonja

Sam Morelos is a proud first-generation Filipino American artist. She is one of the lead stars in ‘That ’90s Show’, the sequel to the hit series ‘That ’70s Show’. ‘That ’90s Show’ premiered on Netflix on 19th January and has just recently also been renewed for the second season. 

Sam, you’re one of the lead stars in Netlix’s ‘That ’90s Show’, a sequel to the very popular ‘That ’70s Show’. ‘That ’90s Show’ is set in the summer of 1995 and features characters that we all got to know in the original series. Have you watched the original series before you joined the cast on this sequel?

Yes, I did. I actually binged the entire thing over quarantine when ‘That ’70s Show’ was still on Netflix, before I even knew about the sequel, so it’s been a crazy full circle moment to be in the sequel. I was a huge fan of the show because it made me smile during a time where everything felt pretty dull and bland. I was so drawn to the original show because I thought it really accurately depicted teenagers, even if it was supposed to be set decades before my time. 

The cool thing about the ‘That ’70s Show’ and ‘That ’90s Show’ is that it is relatable to teenagers, regardless of the time period. In modern media, the teenage experience is often linked to an edgy, gritty drama about teenage angst, especially in the moments that are motivated by technology and social media. So being able to transport back in time before the internet existed was really relieving. And dark teenage dramas aren’t always reflective of the high school experience. Sometimes it’s as simple as hanging out with your friends. 

Being a fan of the original made the experience a million times more exciting because I got to meet the legacy cast and step onto a set that was once two-dimensional to me. 

What made you decide to audition for ‘That ’90s Show’?

My audition process was slightly more unorthodox than my peers’, because I submitted through a cattle call on a whim. Netflix sent out a talent search flyer to performing arts schools in the greater Los Angeles area and I found the notice on my school’s online bulletin. At first, I wasn’t going to submit an audition video because I didn’t expect anything to come of it anyways, so why try. But as the deadline came closer and closer, I decided there was no harm in submitting a tape.

I really love to act, so the audition process was really just me having fun with the character and workshopping the lines in the callbacks. I did not have any expectations whatsoever, so I was free to play and explore the character rather than focus on booking the job. And I think that’s the most important thing to do in an audition, to not focus on ‘booking the job’, but rather shift your focus into telling the story truthfully and remembering why you act in the first place. And I act because I love telling stories and because it’s fun. I never thought I’d make it this far, so I’m so glad that I decided to audition.

In the series, you portray Nikki, who’s described as smart, ambitious and laser-focused. What’s your favorite thing about your character and her story in the series? Do you in any way see some similarities between Nikki and yourself?

At times I thought that there were more differences than similarities, but the more time I spent with her, the more I related to her and even looked up to her. At first glance, she takes on the girlfriend role without much perspective in who she is as an individual. But when you tilt your head and squint, there’s a lot more going on with her than what meets the eye. And I think that is one of my favorite things about her. 

Nikki is her own person and she does not allow her relationship to define her choices and personality. I think that is one of my favorite things about her, because there is always the stereotype of the girlfriend character and how their sole focus is only on their boyfriend. In the story, she has this really great moment when she tells Nate that she wants to have a future. I think a lot of teenage girls can relate to this feeling of knowing that high school doesn’t last forever. She approaches this fact in a very mature way by keeping their love and relationship in the present because she can’t predict the future or reserve her future for only him. I find it admirable that she has these ambitions to pursue college and her career, and she is determined to not let a relationship interfere with these goals. 

Nikki has this fire to her. You don’t see it at first, but as you get to know her, she really comes into this confident character that is never afraid to say what’s on her mind. She’s blunt, sarcastic and outspoken, all qualities that I’m not only drawn to for a character, but also in a friend in real life. I like to think that creating a character is like becoming their best friend, never judging them and trying to get to know them and understand them better. That way, there is a bond created between myself and the character.

I’ve always been independent, even when I was very young, and my goals have always been a driving factor in everything I do. I relate to Nikki in that way, because we both know what we want out of life and we both know what steps to take to get it. We also have a similar sense of humor, looking back at that summer storm episode arc with Leia and her kissing arms. Nikki definitely responds to awkward situations or other people’s misfortune with humor, never with malice, but more in a fun and teasing way. We are definitely similar in that way, because I always cope with humor. If I were to meet Nikki in real life, I think we’d be very close friends, even though she definitely would roll her eyes at some of my quips. 

You’ve been performing since you were 5 years old. What made you and still makes you fall in love with performing and acting?

From the very beginning, what made me fall in love with performing was being able to affect people and make them feel things. I had the power to tell a story and take an audience on a journey with me, through the discovery of my character and the plot. And there was no better feeling cheesing on stage and feeling the spotlight on my face as a little kid. It was exhilarating and a high that I was constantly chasing.

But now as I grow older and I begin to tell stories that require less cheese, my love for performing and acting has shifted into a different energy. Acting is such a convoluted art form because it’s directly connected to your experiences in everyday life. And it begs the question of “are you brave enough to be vulnerable and share the deepest parts of you to an audience? ” And it’s a question that I will spend the rest of my career trying to answer, because there are so many ways to answer that question in different circumstances. But the goal is for the answer to be “yes”.

I fall in love with acting every day because it is a mirror of reality. It is impossible to have the same performance twice and feel the same way about your character or the choices they make because there is a never-ending cycle of discovery. It is such an active art form that moves at the same pace as life. I find that exploration dynamic and exciting. 

Even though I technically know what happens next in a script and the character work that I’ve done would’ve been extensive and thorough, what really matters is my scene partner. And you never know exactly what your partner will be giving you to play off of. It’s all about listening and being present, which is not dissimilar to life in general. I love it so much I could talk about it for ages.

Besides acting, you’re also a singer. You have sung solos at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra. Is singing something you want to explore more of in the future?

Singing and music is such a foundational part of who I am. I grew up in a very musical household, was classically trained in piano for eight years and write my own music on my guitar. I came from a predominately theatre background with roots in musical theatre, so singing was actually the initial goal. I just love all kinds of music, but I do listen to a lot of jazz and standard crooners. One of my dreams is to just drape myself over a piano and sing a jazz set with a trio or quartet.

Music is another form of storytelling and humanity that I’ve fallen in love with throughout my entire life. It’s been a form of escapism for me, like a crutch I can lean on whenever I feel something words fail to ease. When I write music, it’s usually just me sitting on the floor of my room with my guitar, recounting the things I’ve felt or seen throughout the day. It’s an outlet of expression and also a way for me to decompress and process my emotions. So I definitely intend to pursue music because it’s a part of me that will never go away.

You are first generation Filipino American. How did Filipino representation in the arts matter to you while growing up? And how does it still matter today?

Representation in the arts will always matter because it opens up an avenue to young people that they never knew existed until they see themselves on the screen. Growing up, I ached for someone who looked like me to look up to, but they were few and far between. I was constantly surrounded by the Filipino food, language and culture in my home, but once I walked into a movie theatre, I somehow disappeared. And it wasn’t the most encouraging thing for a young performer to realize.

But now, there has been a shift in the narrative. Filipino artists and even just Asian artists are fighting for a place at the table and it is powerful. Representation in all forms, whether it be for Filipino Americans or for any marginalized community like the LGBTQIA+ community or other BIPOC communities, is not only inspiring, but essential. 

The stories we tell and the world we create have to be a reflection of the world we live in today. Otherwise it will be a falsified version of reality that rejects people from different backgrounds the opportunity to be seen. Everyone deserves to have their voices heard and their stories told, which is why representation mattered when I was growing up and still matters today.

How do you want to inspire other young Filipino artists in following their dreams?

I mostly just want to extend that hand to them by showing them that they can do this too. I mean, I didn’t come from much professional experience or connections in the industry. All I had when I walked into the room was work ethic and a love for what I did. And it just so happens that my job allows me the platform to uplift other Filipino artists. Circling back to representation, I’ve been granted the opportunity to represent my culture and community on an international level because of the global reach that Netflix has. 

The inspiration that I can provide is only limited to my ability to speak proudly of my Filipino heritage and encourage other Filipino artists to do the same. The rest is up to you. Follow your dreams because you love it. Or rather, because you can’t live without it. 

‘That ’90s Show’ is your first role in TV and film. How would you describe your feelings of being cast on your first acting project?

I’m just incredibly grateful for the opportunity to surround myself with not only very talented people, but also very kind people. This show being my first professional acting project outside of theatre has been the most serendipitous and rewarding thing to ever come to me. The feelings are always along the lines of overwhelming gratitude, excitement, a little bit of nerves and overall joy. Mostly because I got to meet some of my new closest friends and just hang out with them for a living. 

With a successful series also comes newfound fame and recognition. How do you deal with fans following you on social media and media writing about you?

I used to be crazy intimidated by the notion of being seen and having a following, because I had never had to deal with even the idea of that. And I think I still am intimidated by it, because there are people that I will never shake hands with that are drawing conclusions about who I am as a person. But they have never met me before and probably never will. So the question still stands, “How do you deal with that?” There were times where I would search for the answer and it was such an enormous and heavy concept that I would be crushed under the weight of it. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by beautiful people who not only pull me out from under this massive idea, but shoulder the weight with me. 

I’m still trying to navigate it myself, but I’ve been trying to look at it from a lighter angle. There are parts of me that I want to keep for myself and the people who matter most to me. The people whose opinions I truly care about are the people who I’m directly affecting and who affect me, because they’re the ones who actually know who I am as a person, artist, friend and otherwise. This way of thinking keeps me grounded in reality and in where my values lie. I share on social media whatever I feel like sharing, then love it and leave it. The way I am perceived by social media is not in my control and I don’t intend it to be. 

It’s definitely been a process, but I also tend to laugh about it too. Because amidst my existential crisis, I actually feel pretty normal. I still go to school, go grocery shopping and trudge along everyday life as I typically do. Except now when I meet new people, I’ve got some really cool stories to share.

Well, ‘That ’90s Show’ has already been renewed for the second season, but what are some of your other upcoming projects for this year?

I’m actually directing and editing my first short film this year and it’s been an exciting process of discovery and learning. And I’m currently in Atlanta filming a quick fun part in a Disney+ project, which has been so fun. I love this cast of crazy talented people and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

Talent Sam Morelos @morelos_sam
Photographer / Creative Director Nick Rasmussen @bynickrasmussen
Stylist Anastasia Walker @neoncomplex
Hair / Make-up Caroline Yasukawa using About Face Beauty @yasulina @aboutfacebeauty
Photography assistant Lu Dawn @ludawndawn
Editor Timi Letonja @timiletonja
Agents: Jennifer Millar & Lindsay Hatcher from  Paradigm Talent Agency @paradigmtalentagencyManager Suzanne Coston from de  Passé Jones Entertainment @bostoncoston
Publicist Amanda Abelita from Abelita PR @abelita_pr