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After a career of supporting roles on Parks and Recreation, The Grinder and Santa Clarita Diet, Natalie Morales is finally taking center stage on Abby’s, and is breaking down stereotypes in the process.
On the new NBC show — executive producer Mike Schur’s latest contribution to the network’s comedy lineup — Morales plays the title role of Abby, a bisexual Afghanistan veteran who runs an unlicensed bar from her San Diego backyard. In toplining the show, Morales becomes the first Cuban star of an American network TV comedy since Desi Arnaz was on I Love Lucy in the 1950s. She also plays the first openly bisexual lead character of a network comedy in the series, created by Superstore and New Girl veteran Josh Malmuth.
The actress is a first generation Cuban-American, as her entire family fled Cuba as refugees before she was born. It’s a full-circle story for Morales, who remembers religiously watching NBC’s Thursday-night lineup every week growing up and knows how much of an impact Latinx representation, particularly on network TV, can have.
“Not only does putting someone like me on television show you what refugees can do in a country like this, and how we make up America, but it also reflects so much of the population that exists out there,” Morales tells The Hollywood Reporter.
After working for more than 10 years in the industry, Morales has experienced her share of casting challenges, namely facing the “three Latina women stereotypes of the seductress, the maid, and the Nuyorican tough girl or the Chola tough girl.”
“Not to say that those people don’t exist in the world, but the characters that have portrayed those people are oversaturated. There are way too many stories,” Morales says. “It’s a disproportionate depiction of the Latin population when those are the only three Latin people you see on television all the time. It’s really disheartening when those are the only roles available to you.”
She says that progress has been made in recent years, specifically citing that two Latinas — Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz — are part of the central cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (also executive produced by Schur). But she believes there is still an overwhelming focus on the stories of white men. In her own career, Morales has gone out for (and landed) multiple roles that were originally written for white women.
“In The Grinder, my name was Claire, and I don’t know any Cuban women named Claire. In Trophy Wife, my character’s name was Meg and originally the character was written as Malin Akerman’s sister, which obviously I can’t play unless I played some type of adopted or stepsister, so they changed it to be her best friend,” Morales says. “I’m really thankful to be able to work with people who go, ‘Oh, this is the right person for this character; let me just reconfigure this a bit.’”
She jokes that in taking on roles as a Latina, “I haven’t been like, ‘Oh, now that I got this part you have to write a scene where I’m salsa dancing.’ I don’t change it in any way.” The actress hopes to see more colorblind casting and simply choosing the best actor for the role, regardless of race, she says, as Hollywood continues its push for diversity and inclusion.
In Abby’s, which also stars Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin and Jessica Chaffin, Morales’ character is an openly bisexual woman, but says her sexuality doesn’t define her whole identity. That was especially important to the actress, who came out as queer in a 2017 post on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls website.
“It is hard, I think, for people to wrap their heads around doing shows or stories around marginalized people that aren’t only about how they are marginalized,” Morales says, noting that was one of the things that drew her to the new show. “It’s like, OK, we’ve seen the horrible lives [LGBTQ people] have led, we’ve seen that they all get killed off. Let’s show them living normal lives. That would be great.”
Much like the representation for Latinas, Morales acknowledges the big step being taken with an LGBTQ character serving as the lead on a network show, improving visibility for bisexuals in particular, who have been less represented than the gay community in Hollywood. As a queer woman herself, Morales says she wants to see LGBTQ actors break out of typecast roles and be able to play any character, regardless of sexual orientation.
“I would love to see trans actors play women and men, not just trans women and men, and I would love to see more gay people play straight people,” she says. “People get very up in arms about a non-trans person playing a trans person, but that’s just because trans actors don’t have the same opportunities. And the same goes for gay actors and LGBTQ characters, so if we get to play everything, then everyone gets to play everything.”
Aside from its glass ceiling-breaking take on sexuality and race, Abby’s also makes history as the first multi-cam comedy shot entirely outdoors. That meant expecting the unexpected during filming and embracing the moments of blowing wind, chirping birds or even when a wandering raccoon ended up in a shot. Having an outdoor live studio audience also required a bit more work than usual to keep energized on late-night shoots in Los Angeles.
“It did get cold sometimes, so we gave out audience blankets and soup and hot chocolate,” Morales says. “It was a fun thing to share with people.”
Abby’s premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC.
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