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Natalie Morales

Natalie Morales sits down with 1883 to discuss seizing new opportunities, the interplay between her roles on both sides of the camera, and more.

It’s fair to say Natalie Morales has an enviable resume: in addition to the two feature films under her directorial belt, she’s been a near-constant presence on TV for over a decade – think of any hit comedy show of late and there’s a high likelihood she acted in it, from Parks and Rec to Netflix’s Dead To Me to HBO’s Girls. Now, with credits in the upcoming, Jennifer-Lawrence-starring No Hard Feelings and season 3 of Apple TV’s The Morning Show, it is clear that Morales is just constantly levelling-up.

With a distinct lack of pretensions, Morales is good-humoured and self-aware (which speaks to her longevity in the comedy sphere). She has remained intentional as she has moved through the industry with grace and grit, showing effusive respect to the heroes she’s worked with while seeking out compelling writing to breathe her own life into. On-screen, Morales’ characters have been wry and sarcastic, but in real-life conversation she is notably open, leaning in with unfettered warmth as she passionately describes the mechanisms of her work. Thoughtful and engaged, Morales emanates a type of sincerity seldom found among accomplished artists.

Morales sits down with 1883 to discuss seizing new opportunities, the interplay between her roles on both sides of the camera, the conviction of her artistic credo, lionizing marginalized voices, disconnecting from toxic online discourse, and defining her success.

 

No Hard Feelings – a raunchy comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence – has had people buzzing with anticipation since its trailer dropped earlier this year. I think this excitement is perhaps in part to the movie marking the return of a fond type of studio comedy that has a shamelessly goofy sensibility, dare I say a little nostalgic to the mid-to-late 00s Judd Apatow era of sex comedies! But, distinctly, this is a female-driven story and the aforementioned features were markedly bro-ey, defined by their cis phallic humour. So, what did you personally find refreshing when you got the script? Would you say the film is modernized by a certain self-awareness?

I don’t know if it was intentional because it was written by two dudes! [both laugh]. But I think what you just called out was one of the main things – you know when I think about movies like this, I think about Wedding Crashers, and these big R-rated comedies, that – you’re right – always surrounded men, and the women were just the wives in the background that are like “Why haven’t you called me?! I’m waiting for you! You’re not showing up on time! Why do you have a black eye when you show up to our wedding?” you know? [both laugh] It’s always that, and this is very different. I’m very glad you pointed that out, you’re the first to point that out. I think there are not that many movies like this – there of course are some – but there are not that many. And I think also, Jennifer Lawrence, I don’t think she’d ever done a comedy quite like this – I think she’s done comedic things, but nothing quite like this. So I was excited to see that and hopefully, other people are excited to see that as well!

 

Definitely, yeah! So you play Jennifer’s friend and colleague in the movie. I’m curious if you try to consciously shift the tones between different projects. From my observer’s perspective, it seems that switching to this feel-good, R-rated jaunt after coming off the devastating (but beautiful!) Dead To Me was necessary catharsis [laughs] What informed your decision-making when taking on this role?

That’s an interesting question! I shot this at the same time as I shot The Morning Show, which is two completely different tones. So I was shooting them literally at the same: one, one day, and one the other day. And … yes it is a conscious shift but I guess I don’t think about it anymore because it’s a bit innate to just being an actor; to be able to make those switches fairly quickly and think about it, but it is different – the set experience is different [in terms of] “What’s the funniest thing I can say here?” and talking to the writers about that, versus “How dramatic can this scene get?” and sometimes it’s both, sometimes there are funny parts in dramatic shows like The Morning Show, so I kind of always try to find where my character is grounded. I do it for any character, in anything I’m in, even if it’s a heightened comedy, I try to make it as realistic as possible because I think that just makes it funnier or more real or whatever it needs to be.

 

 

No Hard Feelings’ director Gene Stupnitsky – whose recent credits include this year’s runaway hit documentary-comedy Jury Duty and 2019’s Good Boys, which many considered a sort of pre-teen, middle-school answer to Superbad. I think there is a throughline in his projects of a silly and provocative exterior belying an interior of real heart and wholesomeness. What was your experience working with Gene like? Did you have a particular reaction to the emotional vibe of the script when you first read it?

Gene and I have known each other for a while. He was an executive producer on a show I did called Trophy Wife and so that tone is very near and dear to me because of Trophy Wife, which is one of my favourite shows – I don’t know if it’s available where you are but it’s still playing here, I think it’s on Hulu so it might be like Disney Star over there. It only went for one season – I don’t know why, it had an incredible cast! It was Malin Åkerman, Bradley Whitford, Michaela Watkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Bailee Madison, Ryan Lee and me, and I was the luckiest person alive. We had so much fun on that show, and it has that, what you just described, this sort of bigger, wacky exterior – where it’s a show about a guy who marries his third wife, and she’s this much younger woman – but what the show really is, it’s about this found family of all his other ex-wives and her best friend and their kids … and so it was familiar to me, I knew that tone. And it’s almost like being a part of a family where you can joke about anything because you all know and love each other at the end of the day – it lets you go far because you know you’re gonna have that heart at the end of it.

 

Now, I’d say, hearteningly, it looks like the film industry at large is slowly but surely climbing out of the quagmire brought on by the pandemic, and with that, we are seeing the return of big, fun summer movies getting the theatrical releases that they, and audiences, deserve. I think No Hard Feelings is set to strike the perfect chord as a solid summer feature, with its vibrant injection of riotous gags. Was there a good-feeling sense on set that you were making something special, that had a warmth that would translate well to the times?

I mean, I hope that happens in almost everything I do, you know! [both laugh]. I think that feeling is something that I’m always going for. Not to say I only make stuff to please other people or audiences, because I feel like when you are chasing that, it doesn’t pan out well. But there’s an instinct there of what makes you feel good and what makes the people around you feel good … and I think that there is a cultural vibe that exists where it shifts moment to moment, and it kind of just feels right, and yes, I think this movie had a lot of that in it where we were just like “hey let’s try and go as far as we can with this and see what happens!”

 

Shifting gears now to discuss television and your role in the upcoming third season of The Morning Show — Having watched the first couple of seasons I’d say it is quite a unique beast: its storylines channel real, very recent world-changing events, but it also delivers zany 180 plot twists. I’m dying to know what your feelings were going in, joining such a colourful, established and Emmy-winning show.

I was so excited. I, too, have watched the first two seasons and my friend Mark Duplass is on it, who I adore, although I will say I never had any scenes with him so we never actually got to work together on this, which is a first for us [laughs] – we somehow find each other in everything! But I think I was just excited to be a part of a great show that was already on the air that I loved. There have been a few shows like that for me, like Parks and Rec, which was one of my favourite shows before I was on it, so it was very exciting to get to be on it and see the sets – you know being at NBA is so weird, and the offices … just walking around being like “I’ve seen this on TV before! This is crazy!” [laughs] – but then on top of that, it’s getting to work with Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, who are such inspirations in this industry, not only to me but to everybody. And I got to work with Greta Lee a lot who I knew a little bit before but we got closer on this. The exciting thing for me, besides getting to be on this well-written, interesting show was getting to work with these people that I’m a fan of and getting to be in the room alongside them, watching them work, and you know… I have lines with Jennifer Anniston! [both laugh] That’s just wild; it’s very exciting for me.

 

Your character is Kate Danton, a close figure from Stella’s past. Are you able to tell us anything more about Kate? About what her arrival maybe means for the network? [laughs]

No. [Laughs] They won’t let me say anything about it! I just started to sweat a little bit earlier when I said I had acted with Jennifer Anniston cause I was like “oh no I think I revealed too much!” [Both laugh] Yeah they won’t let me say anything about it!

 

 

Now I’d also love to talk about your directing! I want to note for the benefit of readers, for the record, that in 2022 you won Filmmaker on the Rise Award at the Hollywood Critics Association Film Awards – so major congratulations on that! You have spoken previously about the all-consuming nature of directing: the sleepless nights and the undivided attention it demands, from pre-production through to the editing process. But despite all that, it doesn’t kill the drive to make more. I’d love to know what you find the most rewarding aspect of directing to be.

Well, luckily I’m in the very, very lucky position that I also can make a living acting which I also love – and writing, which I also love! So I am extremely fortunate in that I am not directing anything that I don’t love because I think if I had to direct something I wasn’t really into – especially a feature, that takes up at least 3 years of your life and undivided attention – it would not be as fun for me because it does take that amount of time, and if you don’t love the project that you’re doing, it would be difficult for me to be able put in that amount of energy. Mostly because I have ADHD and I can’t focus on things that I don’t love!

 

Ah, same here! [both laugh]

[laughs] It’s very hard for me to care about anything I’m not super passionate about! But also I think this business is really good for people like us because you can hyperfocus on something for a bit and see it through to the end. I just love directing and I think I like them all equally in different ways. I think all the things I do are different, but if I had to boil it down: it’s all problem-solving: acting is making a person out of words on a page; writing is putting words on a page based on an idea; and directing is making something feel real on a screen, based on these other things that people got you. There’s a bit more to directing in that you have to kind of be able to have a vision and be able to communicate it clearly and effectively to many, many people and also lead a team. There’s a managerial aspect to it while maintaining a clear vision of an entire thing – like you’re the only person with the whole thing in your brain, as opposed to just one aspect of it, right, and that is a huge challenge but one that I love.

I think there are two kinds of actors and they’re both really valuable in their sense because the first kind is the kind that is only concentrated on their character, they don’t see anything outside of that; they don’t concentrate on the rest of the movie, they don’t care about the rest of the story, it’s just their character – and that is very valuable for certain characters and certain roles. And then some actors can see the whole thing and them as part of a whole and are a bit more malleable in how they are doing it because they have the whole thing in their head and I’ve always been that second kind of actor. So I’ve always been thinking with a directorial mind anyway when it came to acting and so it was a pretty natural transition. I’m also a very curious person, so from my first days on set I was watching what other people were doing, I would stay on set and never go back to my trailer. I would watch what the camera department was doing, watch what the grips were doing, watch what the director was doing, I just wanted to learn about it so it was a pretty natural transition.

 

It sounds like you glean a lot from acting that you can then channel into your directing in a fruitful, symbiotic way, and enable you to connect all the dots.

Definitely! And vice-versa, you know being an actor helps me as a director and being a director helps me as an actor.

 

Your sensitive and hilarious directorial debut feature Plan B scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes – which is no mean feat! I’m curious, at this stage in your career, what your relationship with reviews is like. Where do you derive your sense of fulfilment and satisfaction at the end of a project? And when helming the entire project in the director’s seat is there extra sensitivity as it’s your baby? How do you navigate that?

For sure, I think that, especially for women and especially a queer Latina woman, we don’t get that many opportunities and so I think that it feels as though everything rides on the success of the last thing that you did. And if that wasn’t there I think I would be less aware of what people thought about the things that I did because I’m of course a human being who does not come from an extremely wealthy family and so I need to work to make a living and I’d like to continue working [laughs] and so I’m aware of that, right, but if we took that element out of it I think, honestly, so many of the things that I have loved, that have deeply influenced me, that I know to my core are good, were not reviewed well, were not critically acclaimed. And many people who I respect are critics, I’m not saying I’m a person who doesn’t respect critics, and I do think, you know, I think there’s the bitter saying of “those who can’t do, critique” right? [Both laugh].

But I think it is an art on its own and I think there are different kinds of critics and different kinds of people who review television and film. Some people truly love it, who almost philosophically break it down in a way for other people, and there’s the art of that, right? And then there are the people who just like shit on something, and that’s different. Those are the people who are like, “my opinion is the only opinion and if I didn’t like it and I didn’t get it, and it wasn’t made for me, then it must not be good”. So I think there is a difference and I think you can tell what those things are. I certainly haven’t been well reviewed in everything that I’ve done, but I also think that the barometer for me is: at the end of the day if I think it’s good and honestly if my best friend Serena thinks it’s good [both laugh] and my closest people if they all think it’s good and funny – and they don’t lie to me! And I don’t lie to myself about my stuff, I can be very practical about things and I can go hmm that was not good, that wasn’t right. If I like it, that’s the ultimate thing for me because I kind of know that it’ll find its way to the people I want it to find its way to.

It doesn’t need to have mass success or critical success – that, all to be said with: I’d still like a job to come afterwards [both laugh] so I hope that, in that way, it’s well reviewed. But yeah, I try not to read comments or reviews on anything, unless they’re good! If they’re good please send them my way! [both laugh] But I try not to seek them out, lest I be heartbroken. It is always a bit sad when someone doesn’t get what you’re doing – I don’t love being misunderstood. I’d rather someone get it and not like it than they don’t get it and I think more often than not, the latter happens, but you know, you can’t control how people feel, not everyone’s gonna like something and that’s okay.

 

 

It sounds like you’ve got a healthy approach down. I feel like from too much time spent on Twitter etc you’ll always find takes that just flatten any nuance from a piece – you know, you’re describing that difference between critics who contextualize, dig deeper, and unpack versus faceless online commentators who give knee-jerk reactions – so it’s just not worth your time!

Yes! That’s why I quit Twitter last year! Because I was just like this is getting …sad [both laugh] I was on it for so long but it was just not healthy – I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone!

 

So from directing Ted Danson in Mr Mayor, to working with Mel Brooks in History of the World Part II, you seem to stay near comedy legends! Are there any key comic names on your professional bucket list you still hope to one day work with?

Oh, that’s a good question, I’ve worked with so many of them, to be honest. I think I would love to be in a Wes Anderson movie – hopefully, he starts casting more brown people [laughs]. I mean Bazz Luhrmann isn’t known for his comedy but he is very funny, he is so good, he is one of my favourite directors, I love all his projects so I would love to work with him. I have worked with so many of the people I dreamt of working with. I mean I’ve worked with David Wayne, I’ve worked with Tina Fey, I’ve worked with Amy Poehler, I’ve worked with so many people that are, to me, comedy legends. I didn’t work directly with Mel Brooks but I got to be on his show which made my life. History of the World Part I was such an influential thing for me, I remember watching it in high school and being like “this is the best thing I’ve ever seen” and the fact I got to be in the second one, blows my mind. Oh, and I should say I also got to work with Judd Apatow! That’s another giant comedy legend I got to work with who’s amazing, you know. Sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt you I was just like I can’t leave him out!

 

So while I can’t wait to get to know your new characters in The Morning Show and No Hard Feelings that we’ve discussed today, I still hold dear all the ones you’ve charmed audiences with throughout your career. Being a part of so many zeitgeist shows, I wonder what character resonated with you the most?

That’s a really good question, there are a few! I think Abby was close to me because it was something that, I mean, it was a dream of mine to be on a Thursday night NBC show, it was, huge, you know, and getting to play the titular role was the most responsibility I’d ever had on TV and I got to work with Mike Schur who’s another giant comedy legend, who created Parks and Rec and was a producer on this – it was my dream to work with him in that capacity, where I got to pitch in some ideas and we got to talk about what this character might be.

“Abby” as you might note from the name is not written necessarily for a Latina, but we made it that, so I got to contribute that part of myself to the story. I don’t know that she is the closest to me in personality but it’s certainly a character that most recently I feel very close to. I feel like she could’ve got a better shot! [both laugh] I wanted more for her but there’s so many like that. I think that one just broke my heart the most when it was cancelled – I’ve been on a lot of cancelled shows, but that one was especially heartbreaking for me. But I feel close to all of them; there’s also my character Cariño in Language Lessons, that was a movie I wrote and co-directed – I feel very close to that character because I created it, and it’s named after a friend of mine who died in Covid – and so I feel extra connected to these characters in a way … but kind of all of them! I don’t know, it’s such a dream to be able to do this for a living that I feel very lucky to just be in the background of anything, honestly.

 

No Hard Feelings is in theatres now. 

 

Interview Lucy Fitzgerald

Photography Catie Laffoon

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