Issue 08

Natalie Morales

Natalie Morales has been working her ass off turning supporting television roles into memorable characters. Now she’s having a major movie moment, and we’re here for it

“I slapped a guy with a piece of pizza once,” Natalie Morales says nonchalantly, sitting on the kitchen counter in her skivvies at our Tidal photo shoot. She takes another bite of the memory-triggering slice in her hand before launching into a story that involves a New York pizzeria and a group of fresh-mouthed guys. It’s the kind of anecdote that puts the 32-year-old actor’s signature irreverence on full display. Kind of like the business cards she hands out, which claim specialization in animal whispering and lemonade, and list “Singer of Sentimental Ballads” and “Last of the Big Spenders” among her titles. Also included is “Occasional Big Time Movie Star,” which—after becoming a television fixture on Parks and Recreation, Trophy Wife, Girls, and The Grinder—is now more accurate than tongue-in-cheek, thanks to her role in the new Emma Stone–Steve Carrell vehicle, Battle of the Sexes.

In the film, inspired by the famed 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Morales plays Rosie Casals, King’s doubles partner and one of the “Original Nine” female players who fought for gender-pay equity in tennis, and broke off to start what would later become the Women’s Tennis Association. It’s a role Morales is supremely suited for, not only because of her uncanny resemblance to the tennis star (especially when she’s decked out in top-notch ’70s costuming) but also because of their kindred rebellious spirit. It’s one of the first things that comes up when we meet for brunch at an old-timey bowling alley’s restaurant in L.A. “Rosie didn’t grow up with a lot of money and entered this very white world, and that’s what I have done in my career for sure,” Morales, who’s Cuban, says. “My family was really poor. And the entertainment business is pretty white.” She digs in to the ricotta pancakes we’re sharing. “People talk about the leg up on education that more wealthy white people normally have. Besides the educational part, the stuff that a lot of my entertainment peers had growing up was like, they read interesting things or listened to interesting music as children. I’d never even heard of NPR till I moved out [to L.A.]. I had to catch up on so much, culture-wise.”

Morales grew up in Miami and planned on being a lawyer until a serendipitous high school drama class got her into acting. That’s also where she learned the upside of being funny. “In that class I was like, ‘Oh, I can make people laugh at me on purpose,’” she says. “Growing up, I was never popular. I was always sort of lanky and ugly, and my only way through was to be…the smartass class clown.” She had plenty of de facto training, enduring childhood insomnia by watching hours of Nick at Nite. “My favorite show as a kid was Taxi. And I watched old SNL and Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore—all these classic sitcoms. Tons of Lucy, obviously.”

This informal education helped lay the groundwork for Morales, who studied theater at Florida International University before moving to L.A. just shy of her 21st birthday. Two years later she nabbed the lead on a secret-agent-superhero sitcom called The Middleman, and has been steadily popping up on television since, in roles where the impact of her performance far outweighs her screen time, whether she’s playing off Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford’s girlfriend on Parks & Recreation, acting the foible to Malin Ackerman’s reformed party girl on Trophy Wife, or confronting self-absorbed Marnie on Girls as her ex’s new girlfriend. One thing her roles all have in common, though, is their refreshing lack of stereotype: playing a “Latina” is something she’s steered clear of. “I’m lucky that those roles—which, to be honest, are mostly written for white people—I swoop in and take them. Because a lot of times, even people who are well-intentioned write diversity in a different way than they write a ‘regular’ person. And it shouldn’t be like that,” she says. “I love that people are including more diverse characters, but I think it’s a lot more progressive when they’re not otherized.”

It makes sense that she would feel this way. Being of color in Miami, she was never made to feel “other.” In school, she says, it was the white kids who were made fun of for not being able to speak Spanish. “Because I grew up that way, I watched Full House or Mad About You, and I was like, ‘That’s me!’” she says. “They were the lead characters in their stories, and so was I.” It wasn’t until she worked as a host at a Mexican restaurant in L.A. that she experienced a rude awakening. “This woman came in with her husband, and before I could greet them she was like, ‘Ho-la, we need twooooo taaaaables,’” she says loudly. “And I was like, What are you doing? Up until that point, honestly, I had never been looked at—or at least, I never noticed that I was looked at—as skin first. I think that may be a big part of why I feel that way towards roles and TV, because I’d never felt like the side character.” Her goal to help change the television landscape highlights another similarity she shares with her Battle of the Sexes character. “Rosie had to fight really, really hard to be taken seriously and included while she was wearing dirty white sneakers, ’cause that’s all she had. And she became a tennis champion and really was a part of changing women’s sports forever,” she says. “I hope that I can be as influential in my business as she was in hers.”

Morales’s influence goes beyond her profession. She’s an outspoken activist, campaigning for gun safety, LGBTQ rights (she recently wrote an essay about identifying as queer, for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls website), and environmental issues, among others. Her Twitter feed is full of political commentary: in support of DACA, sharing donation links, RTing the likes of Kamala Harris, and always taking Trump to task. (She still finds time for levity, tweeting, for instance, “I like to think that there’s a lot of good inside me: strength, love for others, curiosity for life…but mostly it’s just farts.”)

“I really wish I could not care about politics,” she says. “I didn’t used to. I really wish I could go back to that.” But, as all of us mobilized by the actions of the Trump administration know, there is no going back. “I’m very careful about what I put out there because I want to make sure that it’s accurate, always, and I don’t necessarily want to preach to the choir. I don’t see a point in that. I would like to promote any kind of interesting discussion and change,” she says. “There’s just so much. It can be really overwhelming these days because it’s like, How do you care about your own life and your own world and also about all of these other things? How do you keep yourself sustained?”

Shortly after last year’s presidential election, she came up with a coping mechanism: She decided to make a video and invited all her friends to have a dance party. “I was like, ‘We’re not gonna talk about the election for five hours while we shoot this. We’re gonna dance and be really stupid. We’re gonna put something out into the world that is stupid and mindless and will take your mind off of whatever you’re thinking about for three minutes.’ And that’s what we did. And it was really great for the soul,” she says. “I realized that, for me, making people laugh and just creating in general is what fuels me, and then I am able to fight. That is what keeps me moving.”

Stylist Heather Rest, Hair Preston Wada, Makeup Stephanie Nicole Smith, Location The Forge