[Only IN Hollywood] Fil-Am actress Sam Morelos off to promising start with ‘That ’90s Show’

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] Fil-Am actress Sam Morelos off to promising start with ‘That ’90s Show’
'I don’t know what my future holds but I’m excited to find out,' says Morelos, who stars as Nikki in the spin-off of the hit teen com, 'That ’70s Show'

LOS ANGELES, USA – “I think I screamed and danced around for a solid 20 minutes before cooling down,” admitted Sam Morelos, a first-generation Filipino American actress, about learning That ’90s Show, where she stars as Nikki, was renewed for a second season on Netflix.

“But once I really allowed the news to resonate, I was filled with so much gratitude,” added Sam, who started performing for family members as early as five years old.

The 17-year-old plays Nikki in the spin-off of the hit teen com, That ’70s Show, which aired on Fox from 1998 to 2006, and helped launch the careers of several talents, including Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Topher Grace, and Wilmer Valderrama.

In That ’90s Show, actors from the original show, Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith, are back as main cast members while Wilmer and Laura Prepon have recurring roles. Tommy Chong, plus Ashton and Mila (who are, of course, now real-life husband and wife), and Brian Austin Green are among the actors from the old show who have made guest appearances.

The show’s ’90s incarnation, set in the same locales that appeared in the forerunner show, debuted on January 19.

This time, the sitcom centers on Leila Forman (Callie Haverda), the teen daughter of Eric (Topher) and Donna Pinciotti (Laura), and the new friends she makes when she spends summer 1995 with her grandparents Red (Kurtwood) and Kitty (Debra Jo).

Sam and Callie join these young actors who make up the fresh, promising batch of the new show: Ashley Aufderheide (Gwen), Mace Coronel (Jay, the son of Ashton and Mila’s characters), Reyn Doi (Ozzie), and Maxwell Acee Donovan (Nate).

Sam Morelos and Maxwell Acee Donovan. Contributed photo

In his IndieWire review of the show titled “That ’90s Show Is Way Better Than It Has Any Right To Be,” Steve Greene wrote, “It’s obviously too early to say that these actors won’t go on to have the careers that the original lightning-in-a-bottle crew did. It’s not crazy, though, to imagine a world where at least a few of them are breakouts. (Morelos and Doi seem like the strongest first season contenders). Overall, this is a cast that has a natural group chemistry and a sense for the timing and attitude that the predecessors turned into a generational touchstone.”

“Thank you!” Sam humbly answered when I asked for her reaction to that review portion. “It’s so wonderful to be part of this ’70s/’90s universe, especially seeing how the original show launched the cast’s careers. I don’t know what my future holds but I’m excited to find out.”

Sam is the younger child of Francis and Jennifer Morelos, who both grew up in Quezon City. Born in Los Angeles, Sam has a brother, Matthew who is in college.

Jennifer Morelos, Francis Morelos, Matthew Morelos, and Sam Morelos. Contributed photo

Both Sam, as a solo artist, and Jennifer, as a member of the Philippine Chamber Singers – Los Angeles, have performed in separate concerts with the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra (FASO), the only Filipino symphony orchestra outside of the Philippines.

I still remember Sam, then only 14, singing “La Vie en Rose” with FASO, led by music director and conductor Robert Shroder, at the famed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2019.

Sam’s screen and stage confidence comes from early training, including workshops with FASO and The Music Center’s Spotlight program. “It is extremely helpful,” she stressed about being enrolled in the Acting Conservatory of the California School of the Arts – San Gabriel Valley, where she performs in campus productions.

The busy teen, who takes voice, piano, and guitar lessons, is now also a member of The Echo Theater Company in LA.

The following are excerpts from my email interview with Sam.

Congratulations on the show being renewed for season two. How did you learn about this good news?

Thank you so much! Honestly, I wasn’t surprised but I was still very much in shock. They asked all of us for our availability to hop on a Zoom call together. We all took to our group chat to debrief about what the meeting might be about.

I was approaching it with cautious optimism because it was still so soon to hear about a second season. The second they told us, my hand went to my mouth to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor. It was a lot of joy and excitement.

It was raining that night so I ran outside to soak it all in and I was able to sit down with the gratitude I felt. I am so happy to continue the stories.

Going back to how it all began for you, how did you land the role? What was the process like?

The way I landed the role was completely unexpected. I did not have any representation — agent or manager. A talent search flier was sent out to performing arts high schools in the greater Los Angeles area and I came across one of them on my school’s bulletin.

It was very simple. I just had to send in an introduction video with some information about myself and answer questions like what I liked/disliked about the ’90s and how I related to one of the characters from the breakdown on the talent search sheet.

The next thing I know, I get an ominous email with a phone number attached, asking me to call ASAP. This was the beginning of the live virtual audition process, which spanned three or four months.

I was the last person in the show to be cast. I received the call three days before we went into pre-production and I’ve been pinching myself ever since.

Indar Smith and Sam Morelos. Contributed photo

And when you were told you got the part, what do you still remember most about that moment?

For context, I had been talking to the casting associate for the show a lot during the process and had told her that I took up knitting recently. She joked that I should knit scarves for everyone as a wrap gift.

I didn’t make much of it. The night I got the call, I remember getting a text from my manager asking what time I can hop on a call with my mom as I was pulling into the driveway from school.

How helpful is it for you as an actress to be enrolled in a performing arts school?

It is extremely helpful. The training from a performing arts school shaped the foundation I needed to be a professional on a real set. My school also provided a space for me to find my footing as an artist and actor.

Of course, that discovery will never stop but I was in an environment where exploration was not only encouraged but almost required. Constantly acting with my peers in class and in school productions helped me to shape my experiences and identity as an actor.

What do you still remember about the first taping day?

The first taping day was a blur of pure energy and excitement. We didn’t film any of the new gang’s scenes in the first live show taping since we weren’t complete but it was still so fun to be able to see everyone work.

Topher Grace, Laura Prepon, Kurtwood Smith, and Debra Jo Rupp had so many scenes together that I would just watch take after take from the sidelines. I was just so starry-eyed and couldn’t believe that this was my life now.

And it’s always with a tremendous amount of gratitude. They also had a DJ that had a killer ’90s setlist. I remember jamming out to those songs in my chair or on the side.

Sam Morelos. Contributed photo

In what ways do you identify with your character, Nikki? And in what ways are you different from Nikki?

I identify with Nikki’s wit and sarcasm. I love a good sarcastic dig, and sometimes our senses of humor line up perfectly. Another thing I identify with is her drive. She is so dead set on her goals and she knows exactly what she needs to do to get them.

We are the same in that regard, except my goals are artistic and creative while Nik’s are academically driven. I don’t think that I could ever be as smart as Nik. Or love school as much as she does.

Like I said, my goals and passions lie in the creative side of things. I could not imagine myself ever getting a desk job where I’m not constantly on my feet creating something.

Nik, on the other hand, is laser-focused on her goal of being a doctor. That requires a lot of studying and patience that I don’t have the discipline for. I look up to her in that way.

What’s it like working with the cast?

It’s the best. I have nothing but good things to say about my cast because they are all so incredibly talented and just wonderful people to be around. Whenever a break or even just a weekend rolls around, all I could think about was the next time I get to hang out with them and act with them.

The gang clicked in a very special way, and I feel like I consider them some of my closest friends. Not only are they fun to be around but they’re all amazing scene partners because they’re all great listeners.

Listening is a very important, if not the most important, thing for an actor. There is a very distinct energy tradeoff between the six of us, which elevate scenes.

And working alongside Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith was like a dream come true. They are the sweetest people alive, and watching them work together was like a master class every day. It was very educational to observe their work ethic and their attention to detail in their scenes.

Sam Morelos and castmates – Debra Jo Rupp and Kurtwood Smith on the far right. Contributed photo

How much fun do you have working with a fellow Asian-American, Reyn Doi, who is a hoot as Ozzie?

I adore Reyn so much. Everything he does is so specific, which elevates his comedic timing to a completely different level. Reyn is very mature for his age, and I love that about him.

Working with him is not only fun but also very professional and dynamic. He always gives you something to play off of whenever you’re in a scene with him, and even just watching him from the monitors is so entertaining because he is so funny.

I think it’s also incredible how we are both Asian Americans and we have the opportunity to be representatives of our community.

And how did you feel filming your first screen kiss, with Maxwell Acee Donovan?

It was a very safe space, and I’m very grateful for that. The second Max and I met, we became very fast friends. We like to say that we’re the “same person, different font” because of how similar we are.

Honestly, I was very nervous at first because I became very self-conscious about everything that was going on. But at the end of the day, it never felt awkward. I think a large part of that was because of mutual respect for one another as people and actors.

Max is such a talented actor and I love being able to work with him, especially because he has insane acting chops. We are also able to play off of each other really well, energy-wise, which tracks all the way back to our chemistry reads. And after we heard “cut,” we’d just crack jokes and talk about nothing until we did another take.

Sam Morelos. Contributed photo

Share the first thing that comes to your mind about meeting and/or working with (I understand that maybe some you met or worked with only briefly) the following:

Wilmer Valderrama, who is also a hoot, returning as Fez, now a hairstylist who owns a chain of salons.

Fun! He is such a wonderful person to talk to and be around. Wilmer is very magnetic and kind. We had a brief circle scene in the basement together, and in between takes, we would talk about music.

I grew up listening to Michael Jackson. Wilmer and I talk about our mutual love for his music and about which of his albums were our favorites. He is also very welcoming to us as the new generation and gifts us nuggets of wisdom from his past experiences on the original show.

Tommy Chong – are you familiar with his Cheech and Chong movies?

Yes, I am! I watched the first Up in Smoke eons ago and double over every time I watch it. Needless to say, I am a huge fan and I was definitely not very subtle about it.

Tommy Chong is a legend in his own right, and I still get giddy every time I bring up the fact that I’ve met him before.

Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis

I didn’t have any scenes with either of them but the two of them were very down-to-earth and grounded. Watching them step onto the sets and seeing them interact with the producers and everyone from That ’70s Show was like watching a family reunion.

The stages were just radiating with nostalgia and love for one another. It was really nice to see.

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Topher Grace

Topher Grace and Debra Jo Rupp had lunch with all of us once and it was really fun. Topher was also very down-to-earth and chill, not afraid to sit on the carpeted floor with us.

He talked about his time on That ’70s Show and how he had been cast straight out of high school with zero representation.

It was nice to hear that because like me, he didn’t have a mile-long list of IMDb credits before booking the job. It’s nice to know that I wasn’t alone in that experience.

What have been the highlights and most memorable moments in being part of the show so far?

I’ve been able to meet so many cool and talented people after being part of this show. I made a lot of friends, not only from my cast but the crew members also.

Playing Mario Kart with our P.A. Christian after wrap, exchanging inside jokes with our props master Jim, long discussions with the set teacher Laura. I was able to create fun and meaningful relationships because of being on this show.

I also loved our taping nights because of how much fun they were when I wasn’t in a scene. I would infiltrate the writer’s video village and squeeze my way into the writer’s huddle where they come up with the jokes that are thrown into a scene on the fly.

It was so exciting and fun to be an observer in that creative process.

Sam Morelos and castmates. Contributed photo

What is your favorite decade and why?

Unironically, I think that the ’90s is my favorite decade. I love the comfy and grungy fashion of the ’90s. The music of the ’90s is also amazing. There was a surge of iconic R&B artists and grunge rock artists.

Ms. Lauryn Hill and Fiona Apple are two of my favorites. I will say, though, I also like the ’50s and ’60s, mostly because I love jazz and crooner music.

Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald are constantly being played on my car playlist. I like to think I’m an old soul.

What do you look forward to about season two?

I just really miss being with the gang and acting with them. All of us are scattered all over the place so I don’t get to see all of them very often.

I’m also excited to see how the story plays out, so I’m definitely looking forward to receiving the new scripts.

What kind of acting career would you like to have?

At the end of the day, I want a fulfilling one. I understand the ambiguity of that statement but to me, it means that my acting career will be filled with projects and stories that mean something to me.

Projects that I am passionate and excited about. I would like to be able to be versatile, both on camera and stage. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into one type of character.

I’d like to explore roles that are wildly different from one another so that my anthology of past projects is diverse and has variety. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.