Natalie Morales Walks Into A Bar...
The 'Abby's' actress is ready to take on starring roles, and talks frankly about identity issues and what it was like coming out in Hollywood
On her left forearm, Natalie Morales has a tattoo of the Little Prince, the titular character of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic children's book, about a planet-hopping alien boy who shares his queer and beautiful thoughts about love and loss and life and boa constrictors with a pilot who is stranded in the middle of the desert; it is a book about perception, and the ways we have conditioned ourselves to see only the things that are not essential, but have been deemed so anyway. The tattoo depicts the Little Prince clinging tightly to a handful of strings attached to a migrating "flock of wild birds," he is lifted up from his planet, brought aloft into the starry sky, bound for places unknown. I told Morales how much I loved the tattoo, and she laughed, saying its prominent location was the bane of makeup artists' and costume designers' existence.
We were walking up a quiet sidewalk in the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles, where the streets are lined with multimillion-dollar bungalows; gracefully knotty, flowering trees rained blossoms down upon our hair. Inside one of those bungalows is The Jane Club, a co-working space for working women that offers onsite childcare, which is where I'd met Morales, who you might know from her role as Lucy on Parks and Rec or her voice-work in BoJack Horseman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, to talk about her latest project, a starring role in Abby's.
Premiering this Thursday night on NBC, Abby's is a multi-camera show filmed outside and in front of a live audience, the first show to do so. The premise is familiar to anyone who remembers the classic sitcom Cheers: Each episode takes place at a local watering hole, where a motley crew of regulars gathers every night; the twist here is that the bar is an illegal setup in the backyard of Abby's rented home (landlord-related hijinks ensue!), which allows for the outdoor filming. But there is more that is groundbreaking about the show than just how it's filmed: Abby's is also the first show in decades to feature a Cuban-American lead (the last, and only, other time this happened was when Desi Arnaz starred in I Love Lucy in the 1950s), and it's the first show where the lead character—Morales, as Abby—is bisexual.
"It's sort of a Trojan horse of normalization that we're putting into your home and into your heart," Morales told me about the fact that not only is her character not the typical straight, white, male drink-slinging sage we've come to expect from our televised bartenders, but also that she's openly bi—and that it's no big deal. Abby's sexuality, Morales says, is just "one of many things about her. And I like that. I like that it's not the focal point. It's important to tell stories about people who are marginalized, but it's like, tell stories about something other than how they are marginalized as well—because if you don't do that, it keeps them in the 'other' space."
That "other" space is not something that the Cuban-American Morales felt while growing up in Miami, something that she told me really helped define her sense of self: "I was not a minority. Everyone around me was Cuban—not only Latin but Cuban. So it was mostly people that looked just like me, and were like me, and grew up just like me."
It wasn't until Morales moved to Los Angeles to start her career that she felt like she didn't belong; she told me about a time when she was hostessing at a restaurant, and a customer talked to her patronizingly. "That was the first time I realized that people looked at my skin color and my race first before deciding what they thought about me as a person," she said. "That had never happened to me before. I knew it would happen to me in really white communities, like in central Florida, but I didn't expect it to be that way in L.A. I just didn't grow up like that."
For Morales, that experience highlighted the benefits of being raised the way she was; she told me, "I never had that idea that just because I was a Latin woman that my opinions didn't matter as much as other people's—the woman part, yes, but not the Latina part. It never held me back in my own head, because I didn't grow up that way. I wonder how it would have, had I grown up somewhere else, you know? Somewhere where I wasn't the majority." Earlier, I'd mentioned how imposter syndrome can best be combatted by having the confidence of any random white guy, and Morales referenced that, laughing, "In a sense, I do have the confidence of a mediocre white man, because I was like everyone else when I grew up."
Morales wears this confidence easily; it's perceptible not in some kind of performative bravado, but with the grace with which she inhabits herself, yes, but also the characters she's played. It's this confidence that makes her believable as a variety of different characters, and it's this confidence that accompanies her as she moves throughout her life, more often than not getting stopped by strangers not because they recognize her from her acting, but because they recognize her as a person that they're sure they know.
Morales laughed while telling me what typically happens when she gets spotted: "Usually I get, 'I went to college with you! You went to Arizona State!' And I'm like, 'No, I didn't!' 'Yes, you were Melissa's roommate!' And I'm like, 'No, buddy, I wasn't!'"
On the one hand, there's little doubt that this happens because, while Morales has built for herself an interesting and varied career, she hasn't had any breakout lead roles—until now. But I think this kind of recognition speaks also to people's desire to relate to Morales, to want to have had shared experiences with her, to get up close and personal. Morales, though, while happy with her current level of public fame—"I have no experience being famous, nor do I want to be"—isn't interested in that kind of faux intimacy; the kind of recognition she is still looking for is far more specific: "All I want is for people in my industry to know and possibly respect me, and for no one else to give a fuck who I am!" She laughed, saying, "That sounds great to me."
Morales is taking control of her professional narrative by getting behind the camera, as well as starring in front of it. She told me, "I never thought I could be a writer or director, because I think some of the people that had been around made it sound like it was an inaccessible thing that only they could do. Which I guess is an insecurity thing, right? When directors and writers that you work with are like, 'We went to school for this, and we have our degrees for this, and you're a lowly little actor and could never dream of this…'" Morales shrugged, indicating how easy it is for those in power to diminish the people around them, making them feel like their dreams are unworthy. But, Morales continued, "Some of the people that I worked with early on in my career did display that; however, others did not."
Morales said, "Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who created the show called The Middle Man that I was in, was always really supportive of my writing." Morales started writing scripts, directing her friends' music videos, and working on other projects. Soon, she said, she "just realized, Oh, nobody knows shit. No one in the world knows what the fuck they're doing, everyone's just trying to do it. And you just have to start doing it to do it too."
By creating and telling her own stories, Morales is disrupting the way they're most commonly told. We spoke about the ways in which women and people of color and queer people are often silenced within the telling of their own stories; Morales cited dispiriting statistics about how little characters who aren't straight white males speak in Oscar-nominated movies and said how frustrating it was.
"Obviously, I shouldn't have to preface this by saying this," Morales said, "but this conversation isn't disparaging the white cis male, or white straight male—it's just factual. And I think we all think of a white man as neutral; a white, straight man is a neutral character. Like, 'guy walks into a bar'—it never starts any other way." But with Abby's that's exactly what is happening; it isn't just that it's a woman walking into a bar, it's that it's a queer, Cuban-American woman, an identity that is Abby's, but that is also that of Morales.
Morales does not like to talk about her private life. In fact, she said to me explicitly: "I don't ever talk about my relationships or my private life or my family for a reason—it's nobody else's but mine. I don't necessarily consider that anyone else's right to know. I just happen to be doing a thing for a living that people, I guess, like to talk about."
But, in 2017, Morales wrote a letter for Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, in which she came out as being queer. It was the most revealing thing she'd ever done—true exposure, even though it was self-directed—and it was incredibly powerful, offering up her own experience as a way to make other people who grew up like her feel less alone. I asked her why she'd felt the time was right for doing something like that.
Morales said, "A lot of people in my life—all my friends—I was out to them for years; they all knew about my life. But, again, I don't ever talk publicly about my relationships. So I was always like, of course, I'm an LGBTQ supporter—people don't know I'm a part of it, they just think I'm an ally, and that's fine." However, she explained, "Something shifted, I'm not exactly sure when that happened, but I was like, I think I can give up a little bit of this privacy if it helps even one person feel like someone out there is like them, and is fine and is living a normal, healthy life, and their family still loves them, and it's all okay."
Morales knows that not everyone will have that experience though, and said, "And if their family doesn't still love them, people around them will still love them. Or they will help that parent or that friend or whoever who doesn't know what a queer person looks like, or what someone who's not straight looks like—be like, Oh okay, that's not terrifying, that's fine, it's normal, it happens."
"I thought about myself as a kid," Morales continued, "and it was really, really hard for me. I thought there was something really wrong with me, and I suffered a lot. Had I had a TV show Thursday nights on NBC with a bisexual lead played by an out person who's not straight and it's all normal? That would have been life-changing, it would have been so huge. So I was like, Fuck it, it's worth losing that little bit of privacy if it in any way makes a positive difference to a single person's life."
The response to her letter was immediate and overwhelmingly positive; Morales said, "Thankfully, people are like, 'Oh shit, this is my exact same story. I had the same story in high school.' I've gotten a lot of responses from parents who were like, 'I didn't know how to talk to my kids about this, thank you.' So it made me feel good. And," she smiled, "I never need to talk about my dating life ever again."
There is a part in The Little Prince where the narrator, the pilot, is explaining what kind of planet his friend, the eponymous prince, comes from. He notes that few grown-ups ever care about "essential matters"; if you tell a grown-up that you have made a new friend, they ask silly questions like: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" The pilot explains, "Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him." Instead, the pilot thinks, grown-ups should ask truly important questions, things like, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?"
Natalie Morales knows what's essential in a person; this is why she is so capable of portraying other people with such honesty and clarity, this is why people think they know her, even if they've only seen her for a few minutes on TV. Morales knows that it doesn't matter how old she is, how much she weighs, how much money she makes, what the name is of this or that person that she dates. She knows that, instead, it's important to convey the sound of a person's voice (hers is low and husky and always sounds like she's ready to break into a laugh); the kind of games she likes to play (for her recent birthday party, she hosted friends at her house and held an ad hoc talent show; "My cousin learned how to play the piano, and played the theme from Jurassic Park, and it was so great!"); and whether or not she collects butterflies.
This is why Natalie Morales will walk into a bar, and the old paradigm of whose stories are important to tell will shift; because Natalie Morales isn't just walking into a bar, she's getting behind it, she's telling the stories, and we're all listening, knowing that what she says will be important, will be essential.
Photos: Lindsey Byrnes
Hair and Makeup: Tammy Yi
Stylist: Kimmy Erin
Location: The Jane Club