Talking To Melissa Fumero About The Wonderful Nerdery Of Amy Santiago

"Yeah this is who I am, and I am pretty awesome because I'm super fucking smart and I'm a badass, and I have a great job, and so yeah sometimes I say dumb stuff and I'm a little awkward, so what?"

Brooklyn Nine-Nine Melissa Fumero interview

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“I feel like I should have studied,” Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Melissa Fumero tells me.

I’ve just asked her to define her character Amy Santiago using ONLY three words, and as I shuffle through my upsettingly over-comprehensive interview notes, I realise that I’ve been aggressively quizzing her — that I’ve gone full Amy Santiago myself.

There’s nobody who would awkwardly over-prepare like Amy Santiago.

The three words that Fumero chooses to describe Amy with are “smart — obviously, ambitious and… socially awkward”. It’s an unappetising mix on paper, but it comes together to create one of the most surprisingly wonderful and clever characters on television.

I’ve always been obsessed with the Amy Santiagos of the world. They’re people who are too passionate and nerdy and keen to ever be “cool”. They’re the polar opposites of the chicly disaffected — they’re always 100-200% keen. When they were children, they were probably labelled as bossy, and they whipped you with their hair.

They also make things happen.

Over the five seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (and assumedly into the sixth), Amy Santiago’s growth has been one of the most complete, interesting and heartwarming in the show. She has become a beacon for power-nerds everywhere, an icon for uptight, ambitious, competitive, weirdos. She’s amazing.

She’s introduced as a “by the book” detective, someone who likes rules and order. But it doesn’t end there — we’re shown that she’s not simply a foil to the goofy and more maverick Jake Peralta. She’s a fully fleshed out character — who is sometimes vulnerable through her dorkiness, and often completely kickass.

It would be so easy for the show to simply fix her as the butt of everyone’s jokes, the traditional place for any character who enthusiastically loves stationary and learning and being the teachers pet. And she is funny — like all of Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s characters, they embrace the humour of their flaws, even when those flaws are absurd.

“I haven’t gotten an F since I failed recess in grade 2,” says a panicked Amy in one episode.

But as well as enjoying her ridiculousness, she’s also celebrated for it. She’s beloved by her squadmates for her passions, at the same time as being ribbed.

She’s unapologetic about wanting to get ahead, about being ambitious and having the abilities to achieve those goals. She has a “life calendar” which apparently hangs above Jake and Amy’s bed. It’s such a pleasure to actually watch a woman on TV be unapologetically ambitious, and to have her ambitions taken seriously.

And that’s only a small part of what makes Amy Santiago such a perfect character.

Talking to Melissa Fumero ahead of the sixth season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I have to squash the urge to rattle off more intimidating pop-quiz questions. “What’s your favourite episode, what’s your favourite joke?” I want to ask, like I’m in charge of one of the many interrogation scenes in the show.

But instead of the grilling, I mange to relax a bit and we simply talk about our mutual admiration for the character she plays — and I learn why Amy Santiago is so important to Melissa Fumero as well.

When you were first handed the script to the pilot in the first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, what was your first impression of Amy Santiago?

The very, very first version of the pilot was a very different Amy — well that’s not true.

When Amy’s in cop mode and she’s really focused and like confident, strong, and kind of badass, she was a bit more like that — but she was mostly just the opposite of Jake, a little more serious.

“Do you think the writers are just watching me and can tell how nervous I am about the role

We had like a week of rehearsals before we did the pilot, and in that time we kept getting new scripts every day. And every script that came in she was a little bit more socially awkward and all those Amy-isms that we know now were coming out, and I kept joking with my husband when I would come home, asking him “Do you think the writers are just watching me and can tell how nervous I am about the role, and they’re making that a part of the character or are they just making it part of the character because they think it’s funny?”

I feel like that will always be a mystery, but she was sort of different.

I like the idea of your potential nervousness influencing Amy. How much of yourself do you see in Amy, apart from that?

I mean, I think I’m a much more chill version of Amy.

I do love to be organised. I do have a really great recipe binder. There are certain similarities– maybe my personality, dialled up to a thousand.

I don’t quite operate at her high level of perfection anxiety. I’m a little more — I think a lot more — laid back. But yeah, I think there’s definitely bits that spill over.

And I think probably when I am very nervous I definitely am awkward. So that probably did happen a bit in rehearsals and the pilot. You know, writers watch you like hawks and they were probably like,

“Oh, that’s funny, like, we should play with that.”

Over the five seasons that I’ve seen, I think Amy has had a really beautiful and sometimes subtle growth as a character. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on what her biggest change from the first season to now would be?

Oh gosh, I think Amy’s always been a confident person, but that confidence wasn’t always one hundred percent real — and I feel like over the course of five seasons she’s gotten closer to actually thinking it, you know?

She’s approaching her goals that she’s dreamed about, of becoming sergeant — and at first maybe she was trying to fake her way to that that. And now in sixth season you’ll get to see her actually being a sergeant.

My favourite part about Amy is as socially awkward as she is, she doesn’t feel bad about any of it, you know what I mean? There is no shame with it.

She is like, “Yeah this is who I am, and I am pretty awesome because I’m super fucking smart and I’m a badass, and I have a great job, and so yeah sometimes I say dumb stuff and I’m a little awkward, so what?”

And I love that she never really apologises for it.

I feel like in five seasons she’s almost like leaned into that a bit more — with the way that she celebrates things with her weird dancing, and the parts about her that maybe were made fun of more in earlier seasons, she’s just kind of like, “Yeah I guess that’s me, I’m gonna embrace it, deal with it. This is what I’m gonna do when I have this many drinks, this is what I’m gonna do when I have a big win.”

And she kind of like rubs it in everybody’s faces a bit more, which I loved, cause she’s like really owning it.

I love that. Actually, you alluded to what I think is my favourite Amy moment, which is “Six Drink Amy” — what’s the most fun you’ve had with the character?

I think all of the action stuff — anytime I’ve gotten to play that badass cop, that tough girl side.

Because that’s the other thing I love about Amy too. She can be a dork and be awkward and kind of not always right in social situations, but then she’s also very smart, very capable, a very tough cop and detective. I think that that’s been such a fun thing to play, because that’s like real life. Sometimes you might meet a person like that and be like, “Oh they’d never be able to beat somebody up.” But yet she can. She’s completely capable.

So anytime it has to do, like ‘Tactical Village’ was so much fun, ‘Windbreaker City’ was so much fun, like all of the Jimmy Jab games episode, like I love anytime you get to show Amy being a badass cop and also competitive.

Amy is super fun.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine just does some really great stuff with really positive representation — and not shying away from talking about some really important issues. I wanna ask, how important to you has it been to play not even the only female Latina detective in the show, one of two. Is that a huge thing for you?

Huge. When we first booked the pilot, Stephanie and I were so nervous that one of us was gonna get fired, because there was no other show that had two Latinas on it. We couldn’t think of one — we never saw one.

“We never see this, this never happens.”

We were like, “They’d never take two of us. There’s always one, and they are gonna off one of us for either another ethnicity or for like a white girl.”

That’s just how it goes on every show, you know. We talked about wearing our hair really different in the pilot, just stupid things that now seem so ridiculous. But we were really scared. We were really genuinely nervous that they wouldn’t keep both of us, because that was so against the status quo.

And its crazy and its also so reassuring to think that six years later, that idea sounds ridiculous. Which is great cause that means we’ve come so far, but at the time that whole first season every panel we did, every interview we did, everybody was praising the show about two African Americans and two Latinas, because everybody was like, “We never see this, this never happens.”

Getting to play Amy Santiago was very special to me, especially because every time Dan Goor or Mike Schur would talk about the casting, they were just so, kind of casual, shrug their shoulders and were like, “This is what New York looks like. Our show’s set in Brooklyn, we wanted it to look like Brooklyn and we wanted the best people for these roles. It didn’t matter what they looked like or what ethnicity they were.”

Which at the time was like, “Oh my god, that’s so groundbreaking! Like what are we talking about, nobody does this that way!”

But really it’s the way it should be done, and they were never like patting themselves on the back, they were just like, “You guys are making a big deal of this, but this is not a big deal to us. This is the show we wanted and these are the people we wanted.”

And I think every time they said that, Stephanie and I would like hold hands and try not to cry, just have a moment with each other like, “Oh my god, that’s awesome, we’re working with great people that get it.”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season six hits NBC January 10, and airs locally on SBS Viceland January 11th.

Patrick Lenton is the Entertainment Editor of Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.