When NBC’s new multi-camera sitcom Abby’s premieres tonight, Natalie Morales will officially shatter one of TV’s long-standing glass ceilings. Created by Josh Malmuth (Superstore) and executive-produced by Mike Schur, Abby’s is not just Morales’s first leading TV role. She is the first Cuban-American actress to lead a TV series, and the part has been written to reflect both Morales’s ethnic background as well as her identity as a queer woman.
Morales is already familiar to comedy fans from one of her many recurring TV roles: She currently plays a sheriff’s deputy on Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, she played the bartender who dated Aziz Ansari’s character on Parks and Recreation, and she was the lawyer who kept Rob Lowe on his toes on The Grinder. (You might even know Morales from her popular “James Joyce’s Love Letters” series on Funny or Die.) In Abby’s, she steps into the network TV spotlight as a military vet who opens a bar in her backyard, offering her neighbors a place to convene every night.
The 34-year-old actress, who grew up in Miami, moved to Los Angeles after college with her best friend Cyrina Fiallo to pursue their show business dreams together. (The dream paid off: Fiallo is now playing Abby’s ex in the show.) Vulture recently interviewed Morales at the Jane Club in Los Angeles about what it means to land a series lead role as a queer woman of color, what representation means to her, and why she wishes more Hollywood producers were like Mark and Jay Duplass.
This is your first series lead role. It also marks the first time a Cuban woman has led a broadcast TV series. Is that a little heady for you?
It does not feel real. I feel like I’m pretending right now, like I’m just in a dreamscape. It’s network television, and at this point, who knows who will watch it? But when I was a child, network TV — especially NBC on Thursday nights — that was TV. That’s where Friends was, that’s where Will & Grace was. Now I’m following Will & Grace on our show, which is bananas to me.
Seeing someone like myself on TV — a character that is Cuban-American and openly bisexual — and it’s not a big deal? When I was a kid, network TV was the barometer of normalcy. I could tell my mom, “Look, it’s on TV and it’s normal. It’s not like Skinemax.” So I find it to be a very important honor. It’s something that I can’t talk about too much or I’ll burst into tears.
You worked with Mike Schur on Parks and Recreation, but you went through an extensive audition process to land this role. In what ways did you feel you had to fight for it?
Mike obviously knew me, but it wasn’t like it was mine. I auditioned and then I tested with five other amazing actresses — people that I’m fans of, people that have done a lot of TV — so it wasn’t in the bag at all. I pushed really hard and it was not obviously for me. I don’t know any Cuban woman named Abby, although we do address that in the show.
Will she have a funky name?
[Laughs.] It’s not short for Abigail, I will say that. It’ll be familiar to the 305-ers. I tend to play a lot of characters … like on The Grinder, I was Claire. And on Trophy Wife, I was Meg. I was like, I don’t know any Cuban women named Megan! Or Claire! [Laughs.] But I’m happy that they didn’t change it to something like Rosa.
She wasn’t necessarily Latinx or bisexual when you first heard about the role, right?
No, but to [Abby’s creator Josh Malmuth’s] credit, it didn’t explicitly say “white person.” When I first heard about it, [the character] was older than me and with the name Abby. Implicitly, it’s not a person of color. But Josh now says that he wrote it with me in mind. I don’t know if that’s revisionist history. I have no idea. I tend to believe him, but I did have to audition.
Did you talk to them about making her background similar to yours? Or did the producers decide to do that?
Josh and I talked a lot about what he saw for the character and what I saw for the character. He doesn’t necessarily know what it’s like to be a Cuban woman — [laughs] — so my input was beneficial in that scenario.
We have shows that are very culturally specific like One Day at a Time, and shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine where the ethnic makeup of characters is not the focus. Do you find value in both of those kinds of representation?
For sure. There are shows that are inherently about Jewish families, Jewish culture, and Jewish stuff. There’s Fargo, which is about a very specific group of people. You can make TV shows about specificity and you can make shows about the Everyman and the Everywoman. People contain multitudes.
Luckily, I never had to play stereotypically Latina. For the longest time, roles for Latinas were a combination of either a maid, a sexy seductress, or the Nuyorican tough girl, which is also the chola girl. While those people do exist, they are not every Latina woman. It is important to tell stories about marginalized people that aren’t necessarily about how they’re marginalized. If you’re beating that over the head — while that is an important part of it — then you’re still making them other. One Day at a Time is one of my favorite shows. I think it’s brilliant and I don’t think it’s necessarily about how they’re Cuban. The stories that they tell are everyday stories between the family. Some of them have to do with being gay, or being Cuban, or whatever, but it’s about a family unit. I think it’s relatable all around, but especially to me. I watch that show and I’m like, Oh my God, is this how white people feel when they watch anything?
That’s exactly it.
I relate so much to it. It’s like, Oh yes, this is what my grandmother does. I was watching an episode the other day where they were having a party and Rita Moreno’s character is cutting up guava and cream cheese, and she’s laying it on the table, and they’re not even talking about it. I’m like, That’s so nuts! We need to reflect the population that exists watching television. The closer we get to that, the better.
About a year or so ago you came out as queer in an essay you wrote, and you explained eloquently why you were doing that. What did you get out of it?
I didn’t get anything out of it other than a sense of freedom.
That’s a lot, though.
Not everybody in my family knew, because it’s not a thing I talk about with everybody, so I sent it to my whole family before I put it out. Other than that, I’m a really private person publicly. I don’t talk about my relationships, ever. Nothing has really changed in that department, except that people I don’t know [now] know about it. I’m part of a community that I supported for so long, outwardly, as an ally, because I was just trying to maintain my own privacy. I realized I could give up this little bit of privacy if it will help one person. And that’s worth it to me.
Have you heard from people like that?
A lot of people have written me. If I had seen somebody like that on TV, someone that was out and normal and healthy, living a productive life, that would have really changed my life as a kid. I wouldn’t have thought that I was crazy or bad, you know? I would have had a lot more courage. And the people around me would have known what that looks like — people that don’t necessarily know someone who’s queer or gay, or any kind of LGBTQ plus. It’s what Will & Grace did to move the needle forward. It put a gay person in your home every day and made you feel like they’re great, they’re normal, and they’re funny. If I’m at all a familiar face to you from anything I’ve done, if you didn’t know someone who was queer before, you do now. And, for me, what queer means is … I don’t like to label myself at all, but if I have to, it would be “just not straight.”
NBC now has three strong, young, female characters who are bisexual. There’s Eleanor on The Good Place, Rosa on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Abby is the third. And for all three, it’s not the focus of their character development.
What I connect with Abby the most is a real fierce loyalty to her friends. Nothing is more important to Abby than keeping her friends safe in this place she’s created for them and for herself. It’s the most important thing to her, for reasons you’ll find out as the season progresses. I feel that way about my friends. I’m very protective of the people that I love.
You recently directed an episode of Room 104. Do you see that more in your future than acting?
It’s not the same, but it fulfills a very similar need. If I look at what I like the most in life, it all comes back to a very basic sense of problem-solving. I really like efficiency. That’s my main directive always: How do I take chaos and make it into something? I like cooking, I like writing, I like acting, I like painting, I like directing. You’re just making something out of nothing. And that’s exciting to me.
Who gave you your first opportunity in directing?
Me. You have to make your own work a lot of time in this field. In this industry and especially as a female director, you don’t get a lot of opportunities, so I just started making my own work. That being said, after seeing a lot of the stuff that I had done, Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass really trusted me with an insane episode.
The DGA makes you take a first-time TV director’s course before you direct a TV show, and it was actually super-helpful. It’s all these really seasoned TV directors teaching you what they do, down to what shoes to wear. That class is probably 15 new TV directors, and I’d say at least five of those 15 people were for Room 104. So Mark, Jay, and that entire company, they are giving opportunity. That really opens doors. More people should do that.
A lot of actors are going this route of directing episodes. Do you feel it’s essential now?
It’s only necessary if you want to. Some people just want to act, and that’s totally fine. I really enjoy every aspect of filmmaking, so I wanted to not miss out on that.
But there’s also an aspect of creating more opportunity for yourself as a woman of color in the industry, right?
Oh yeah, and for my friends. I started out directing music videos and Funny or Die videos.
Oh my God, James Joyce’s dirty love letters.
Yeah, the James Joyce! I’d just put my friends in them, you know? It’s important to rise together. I believe in my friends so much. They don’t necessarily get as many opportunities as I do all the time, so I think it’s really important to take care of each other.
I see that attitude more prevalent now in Latinx Hollywood. The community is becoming more united and supportive of each other. Why do you think we are still so invisible, even though we have the numbers?
What happens with women is they pit us against each other, right? What was so brilliant and amazing about Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that there are two Latina women on that show, which sounds like it’s a normal thing because we’re a lot of the population, but that’s never happened on any other ensemble show. Ever. Steph Beatriz told me that when she found out Melissa [Fumero] got that role, she was like, “Okay, I’m done.” Because it’s never happened before. Typically, it’s more like, “There’s one part, good luck.”
I’ve met so many friends in audition rooms where we see each other and we’re like, “Here we are again, this is open ethnicity casting.” There’s this idea that women, and especially women of color, are really competitive with each other. I think that might happen when you’re starting out and people tell you that that’s how it’s gonna be, but once you actually get out there, we’re all really supportive. The more opportunities that are created, the easier that becomes.
What do you think is harder in Hollywood right now: to be a woman, to be queer, or to be Latinx?
What about when you’re all three? I don’t necessarily think [it’s just] Hollywood; in the world it’s hard. Hollywood is very reflective of the world around us. We can’t really separate the two. Right now, there are a lot of diversity directives, but no women were nominated for directing or for any major crew parts for the Oscars. People talk about diversity and they’re trying to push it, but they’re not actually doing it. [For] some people, like the Duplass brothers, it’s not necessarily this affirmative action idea of just, like, giving people jobs just because they’re women. It’s about balancing these scales that have been tipped in one direction for so, so, so long that people on the other side have never gotten the opportunity. It’s getting better, but it’s still not where it should be.
Have you ever felt unsafe or threatened on a set, and are you seeing any major differences since the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements sprung up?
It has started to change a little bit, whether it’s out of knowledge or fear. I think some people are like, “Well, now I can’t say anything.” And I’m like, no.
I’ve heard people on sets say it’s too extreme, that people can’t even hug each other anymore.
If you’re saying that, you were just being shitty before. I don’t care if you’re not touching me out of fear. That’s fine. Just don’t touch me. I have seen a little bit of a change in the way people talk to people, but there are still some old-school people who wanna hold onto their beliefs about the world and don’t see that it’s changing.
What do you do about that?
It depends. I always like to talk to people first, but sometimes that doesn’t work or it’s not conducive to change, so then you talk to somebody else that has something to do with the show. Luckily, I haven’t had to do that. I’ve worked with really respectful people. There are a few that weren’t, and there was nothing I could do about it. But everybody has a story like that no matter what job they have. By virtue of being a woman walking around in the world, you have a story. It’s literally why it’s called #MeToo. I think it’s important to always reiterate it’s not just a Hollywood thing, because not only does that make our stories [seem] more important — which they’re not — but it also makes it feel like it’s an isolated issue, which it’s not. We’re still in a really transitional stage. Ask me in a couple years.
This interview has been edited and condensed.