Natalie Morales On Her NBC Show 'Abby's' And Latina And Queer Representation In a new TV show, Morales runs a very, very local watering hole. In an interview, she discusses her character's sexuality and her path as a Latina in Hollywood.
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Behind The Bar With Natalie Morales, The Abby Of NBC Sitcom 'Abby's'

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Behind The Bar With Natalie Morales, The Abby Of NBC Sitcom 'Abby's'

Behind The Bar With Natalie Morales, The Abby Of NBC Sitcom 'Abby's'

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

"Abby's" is a new comedy on NBC. It stars Natalie Morales, who plays Abby, a bar owner in San Diego. The bar is a real neighborhood joint. She runs it out of her backyard. But don't tell her landlord.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABBY'S")

NELSON FRANKLIN: (As Bill) Is this a bar in my aunt's backyard?

NATALIE MORALES: (As Abby) What?

(LAUGHTER)

MORALES: (As Abby) No. No, these are all just my friends.

CHRISTOPHER CHEN: (As Michael) Could I get a beer, please?

MORALES: (As Abby) Sure, man. Here you go.

CHEN: (As Michael) It's three bucks, right?

MORALES: (As Abby) Whoa. Whoa there, friend. Why are you giving me money?

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the latest sitcom from the producers behind fan favorites such as "Parks and Rec" (ph), "The Good Place" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Abby is Morales' first lead role in a broadcast series, making her the first Cuban-American with the title role of a network comedy on NBC. Natalie Morales joins me now from our studios at NPR West.

Welcome.

MORALES: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm Cuban. You're Cuban.

MORALES: Ooh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

MORALES: Woohoo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So hermana, congratulations.

MORALES: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about your character, Abby. I mean, she's a former Marine. She used to be in charge. And this bar is kind of her sanctuary.

MORALES: Yeah. She's this loyal, tough, fun and sly woman, who is very, very protective of her friends and the home that she's built for them at this bar that happens to be in the backyard of her house because this way, she can have control over everything that happens, except for the fact that she doesn't actually own the place. And her landlord has just died, and her nephew has inherited the place. So that becomes a bit of a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And "Abby's" is being compared to another legendary show that's set in a bar. Of course, we're talking about "Cheers." Do you welcome that comparison?

MORALES: Absolutely. Who wouldn't want to be in the same conversation as Cheers, which is, like, the best show of all time? However, I have to confess, as much as I look like Ted Danson...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

MORALES: We don't really have...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Spitting image - it's true.

MORALES: Yeah. We are - we're a very different show. I mean, the setting is a bar but, you know, not in a basement in Boston. This is outdoors in San Diego. And obviously, all the characters are completely different. So yeah, it is a different show (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

MORALES: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maybe what it has in common is that there is drinking.

MORALES: Yes, there is...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there are people (laughter).

MORALES: ...Drinking. Correct. Yes, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So was this character always conceived as Latina?

MORALES: No. I mean, I don't know any other Cuban women named Abby, do you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No.

MORALES: Yeah (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't, actually.

MORALES: Yeah. We do address that in one of the episodes. And I think you'll enjoy hearing what Abby's real name is. And it's not Abigail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you are also notably playing a bisexual character. And you identify as queer in real life. Are you trying to balance representing those two communities? I mean, I guess we're always asking about representation when you are the first doing something. But is it something that you think about?

MORALES: I think I separate the idea of representation on television with, like, me personally representing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

MORALES: If I'm representing anything, it's the idea that I can be whoever I am in public, right? And I think it is a huge, huge deal to have a lead character of a television show be bisexual on the show - and especially the fact that the show isn't about that. It is - her sexuality is just a part of her, like it is a part of all of us. And I think that that's really amazing. I mean, I - it's important, to me, to tell stories about marginalized people that aren't necessarily always about how they are marginalized. But it's just as important to show, like, a bisexual woman who's, like, thriving and happy and living her life and has friends who love her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You came out in 2017. And you wrote and published a piece on Amy Poehler's website Smart Girls. And you wrote this. (Reading) I don't like labeling myself or anyone else. But if it's easier for you to understand me, I'm queer. What queer means to me is just simply that I'm not straight. That's all. It's not scary, even though that word used to be really, really scary to me.

So I guess because you are now going to be launched into the limelight, I just want to dig into a little bit about why that was scary to you.

MORALES: Oh. I mean, I think it's scary for most people unless you're, you know, lucky to grow up in a really sort of progressive environment. But...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you grew up in South Florida (laughter).

MORALES: I did. I grew up in Miami to a small Cuban family. And they, you know - I grew up in a religious household. I went to Catholic school - and that it was wrong. And, you know, you were going to hell and - you know, not that the people around me and not that my family didn't mean well. It's also what they were taught. So it was really, really difficult and really scary. And I also say in that piece that I wrote that I'm a really private person. And I don't want anybody knowing anything about me. But something shifted. And I think it was - at the time when I wrote that, I was about to start promoting a film I was in called "Battle Of The Sexes," which is about Billie Jean King. And it felt disingenuous to me to not also be like, hey, I'm...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is my experience.

MORALES: Yes. This is my experience. I'm part of you. And if this story helps at least one kid out there or one parent or one person feel a little bit understood or help them understand someone else, then it's worth it because I didn't have that at all. And if there was a bisexual character on television when I was a kid, that would have helped me too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I also want to get your take on Latinos in TV right now.

MORALES: Mmm hmm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "One Day At A Time" was recently canceled from Netflix, which hurt my heart. And that was also a blow to many in the Latino community. We still see a consistent lack of representation across Hollywood. What's been your experience sort of breaking into the industry? I mean, do you feel like things are changing?

MORALES: It's a little bit better now. The conversation has sort of been - like, the door has been kicked open for that conversation to happen. When I first moved here, I had blonde hair. And everybody was like, you have to dye your hair brown. There are no Latinas with blonde hair. And I was like...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, really?

MORALES: Dude, Argentina exists. They're like blond and blue-eyed. What's wrong with you? And also, like, Latina women don't go to the salon and get highlights. What? What?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

MORALES: So yeah. I was...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We invented highlights.

MORALES: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

MORALES: I was definitely...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's not true. But I'm just saying.

MORALES: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We do highlights.

MORALES: Yeah. Basically, we did. We've paid enough money...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

MORALES: ...To have it - to claim that title. Basically, yes, I was put in a box where I was not really getting anywhere because I don't really fit into the mold of what I had seen as a stereotypical Latina character on television. It was always one of three characters or a combination of the three. It was always, like, a maid or a sexy seductress or the, like, Nuyorican/chola girl, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

MORALES: So I wasn't really getting very far. And I remember this moment where I just chopped off all my hair, like, screw it. I'm just going to be me. And it'll be fine. And then I booked this great show called the "Middleman" that was created by a Puerto Rican writer named Javier Grillo-Marxuach who cast me in it and was like, OK. She's half Cuban, and that's not the thing about her. It's just - happens to be that because his experience as a Latino was the same, you know? So I've been lucky enough to be able to take roles that are just all sorts of people and not one of those three things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Natalie Morales plays the title role of the new comedy "Abby's" on NBC.

Thank you so much.

MORALES: Thank you for having me.

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