Carlos Santos grew up in Puerto Rico, where he spent two years at an English-speaking school, but he mostly learned the language by watching TV. It was his gateway to entertainment and wanting to perform. He came to California to attend college at Fresno State, where he started out as a computer engineering student but quickly switched his major to theater arts and started doing stand-up.
“I knew I wanted to do comedy but hadn’t had anybody to tell me the path,” he said.
After graduating college, Santos moved to Los Angeles, where he joined Second City’s improv training. His career took off from there: He became a host on the bilingual network LATV and then was a host on “Mi TRL” on MTV Tr3s. However, his real breakthrough came when he landed the role of Chris Morales on “Gentefied.” On the short-lived but acclaimed Netflix dramedy about a Mexican-American family struggling with gentrification in Boyle Heights, his character was the family member quick to embrace change.
Now Santos, 37, is co-starring as Ryan, one of five uncles to Rafa Gonzales, the teenage protagonist in “Primo,” a semiautobiographical comedy created by Shea Serrano about a sprawling Mexican-American family living in San Antonio. The first full season of the series is now streaming on Amazon Freevee.
Santos, who spoke recently by video about “Primo” and his career, still keeps his improv chops with the all-Latinx comedy and variety show “Spanish Aquí Presents” at Upright Citizens Brigade. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your characters in “Gentefied” and “Primo” both either think they know more than they do or let their insecurities push them to act that way.
That’s my wheelhouse — I’m uncomfortable in any situation. That’s my gift to humanity.
With Chris on “Gentefied,” his behavior was coming from a place of concern about belonging and identity. With Ryan on “Primo,” he’s a younger brother, which was easy for me because my two sisters are 10 years older than me and I started school very young — I was 2 in preschool and 5 in first grade — so I grew up with a mascot mentality.
With both when I read the script, I felt, “I know this guy.” “Gentefied” is more of a dramedy, so with “Primo” I could let loose and play in the sandbox of comedy.
Ryan also has a much bigger mustache than Chris did.
Oh yes. This is all I can grow [he points to his mustache and goatee] and the rest is baby butt skin. So whatever helps me to change it up, I do. I wanted Ryan to look different from Chris and I think I did it.
I’m willing to shave it for a part but it’s easier for me to have it and get rid of it because it takes two or three months to grow it out.
When did you shift more toward acting from hosting?
It was March 2009. I had the epiphany when I was watching “The Proposal” with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds — it has nothing to do with this — and I realized I was being pushed toward just being a host. Hosting was great at the beginning of my career — it turned me into a man, getting my first job and working my butt off — but with minorities you get pigeonholed very easily.
I was still under contract with MTV but I knew I had to quit. I cut loose and started from scratch. I was broke for the first few years. It took me 10 years to get “Gentefied,” but there was never a plan B. I survived for a long time with commercials keeping me afloat. I was doing stand-up and performing at UCB regularly, so that felt productive to me. I felt like I was on my way to the opportunity.
When “Gentefied” came, I wasn’t nervous before the audition. I was the right amount of jaded. When I finally got to that point, I booked “Gentefied.”
I’m happy it took so long — I have perspective and I’m able to enjoy it. I have the least manageable amount of imposter syndrome. I really am enjoying this moment.
But it must have been upsetting when “Gentefied” was canceled.
I doom-prep emotionally so I’m ready for all the worst news. I’ve prepackaged the process of dealing with it.
We were never guaranteed even a second season. Netflix operates in a specific way that doesn’t give you certainty. So it was really sad because we should have had one last season — and I’d come back and do a reunion movie — but I was also really proud. If this is it, we left it all on the court.
And I got lucky. Netflix had the decency to cancel us at the beginning of pilot season. “Gentefied” was officially canceled in [January 2022] and within a month I was auditioning for “Primo.”
There’s more comedic banter on “Primo” than “Gentefied,” which was a dramedy. Do you call on your improv skills for that?
I started at Second City and did the conservatory here in L.A. That training is relationship-based and really lends itself to acting because it’s very grounded and lets you find the pockets of true moments within the scene but without taking over so you’re still sharing the scene.
On both shows, that helps make everything look fresh; it keeps you from just reciting lines. It allows me to be in the present with what is happening so I can play around; it’s like jazz.
With the comedy here, it was very easy for me to find my pocket in what was already prepared. On “Primo,” we do the whole scene and then they let us play and throw some new punchlines in there. My true north is always finding what feels organic. It’s very collaborative. I may have snuck in a couple of jokes that I improvised but the writers did most of the heavy lifting.
Do your live shows help keep you sharp?
Yes, I keep the muscles trained by doing those and stand-up regularly so every month I’m working on something new. When I go on auditions, I don’t feel rusty.
This is your second series playing a Mexican-American character. As a Puerto Rican actor, will you start seeking roles that tell your specific story?
For a long time you’re just an actor for hire. It’s easy to get stuck in the “please, I need a job” mentality. But I’m finally getting to the point where I’m developing ideas for myself and those are starting to cook now.
Still, when I was at MTV, a big chunk of what I did was by myself, writing and acting and editing all the sketches. I got sick of working on my own. So for me it’s about aligning with the right people. That’s what I’m trying to do more than looking for the perfect vehicle.
Where: Amazon Freevee
Rating: 13+ (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 13, with advisories for substance abuse, alcohol use, violence, sex and coarse language)