Natalie Morales Is Carving Out Her Own Place in TV History With 'Abby's' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Natalie Morales is front and center in NBC's new bar comedy, Abby's.
The 34-year-old actress has made quite a career out of playing memorable, quirky (often supporting) roles in film and TV, from her time as a bartender on Parks and Recreation, a law associate in Rob Lowe's The Grinder and a spy sidekick in The Middleman, to roles in big-screen successes like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Battle of the Sexes. In Abby's though, Morales gets top billing and it's been a long time coming. Not only is the actress reuniting with Parks and Rec mastermind Mike Schur, she is the first Cuban American lead in a network comedy since I Love Lucy's Desi Arnaz, a feat that comes a stunning five decades later.
Filmed almost entirely outdoors in front of a live audience, the half-hour series from Schur and Superstore writer Josh Malmuth revolves around the titular Abby's, a makeshift, unlicensed San Diego backyard bar owned by Abby (Morales), an openly bisexual ex-Marine, who, in true Cheers fashion, knows everybody's name. A popular hangout for neighborhood regulars, the bar is meant to be a safe haven for friends and strangersto air out their problems, however significant or granular they may be, and, hopefully, provide some humor along the way. Part of the series-long conflict rests on the illegality of Abby's, as a stranger named Bill (Nelson Franklin) turns up at the bar seeking to shut it down.
When the script for Abby's made its way to Morales, it was a no-brainer -- she wasn't auditioning to be the best friend or the person with the quippy zinger. "I fought hard for it," Morales tells ET. "When I heard that Mike was doing a pilot, I was like, 'I need to audition for that immediately. I need to be on that in any capacity I could be on it.' And so I did. I read the pilot and I loved what Josh Malmuth had wrote. Knowing that Mike was going to be involved, I knew it would be good because everything that man touches is good."
Ahead of Abby's premiere on Thursday, Morales -- who, in 2017, publicly shared that she identifies as queer -- opens up about having her own place in TV history, what she hopes the show will acccomplish in regards to conversations about sexuality among Latinx communities and the spontaneity of filming almost exclusively outside.
ET: What did you connect with when you first read Abby's?
Natalie Morales: I was a bartender. It's mostly a terrible, awful job in that you're tired, it's long hours and people treat you badly. But what's great about it is the camaraderie you have with the people that you work with. You look across the busy floor of a restaurant and see your friend and they'll grab the drinks for that table for you, and you'll give them that thing, and it's a great work environment -- or at least, it can be. That is something that Abby's had inherently that I really liked. It's a comedy from Mike Schur, which is unbeatable for me.
Abby, as a character, what I related to the most was how ferociously protective she is of her friends and her friends' happiness. This bar where her friends hang out, it's the world to her and she will fight to the end for it. This is everybody's home, this is everybody's end-of-the-day hangout, and it's important to her to maintain that. It's important to her to keep her friends happy and keep her friends safe, and she will protect them to the end. That was something that I personally related to, because I am like that with my friends and the people I love. I enjoyed bringing that to the character.
It's established early on that Abby is a lot of things: She is Cuban American, she is a former Marine, bisexual and a proud business owner -- though her business isn't exactly a legal one. Speaking more specifically to Abby's bisexuality, was that always a part of who the character was?
I think Josh always wanted that to happen and we were trying to figure [it out]. He was so collaborative and amazing with me and with everybody else, trying to figure out the best way to do that, and I think they really did a good job. That's why it's not in the pilot, because we didn't want it to be the biggest thing in the world. It's just a thing everybody knows about her and a thing that will come up. You'll see we don't make a big deal about it, because it's normal. And it should be. All of her friends know it. It's just one of the many things about her, as it is about any of us. I think anybody's sexuality or how they relate is just one of the many, many things in your life. I'm sure at some moments in your life, it can be a bigger deal than others, but she's also a veteran. She's also Cuban, she's also a million other things. I like the idea that one thing alone didn't define her, no matter what that thing is.
Because Abby is not a straight white man, have you found that the comedy of certain situations is interpreted or told in a different way?
That's the way that it's been for some reason because it's all we've depicted -- a straight white male dude is the standard, it's the average character, it's the neutral character. Anything other than that is different. It's in every story we tell: A guy walks into a bar... The guy you're picturing is a straight white guy, and it's in all our heads. It's how we've always told stories. Anything other than that is different for some reason, and we're trying to make that normal because it is normal. We want to reflect the population around us.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility in representing the LGBTQ community since you have such a valuable platform?
I don't feel a sense of responsibility because I don't think that any one person represents a whole group of people, no matter what I am. I do feel a sense of pride that I get to put a character like this on TV, but I don't feel the responsibility of carrying the weight of a whole group of people, whether that be women or Latino women or Latino queer women because this is too big of a spectrum to represent anybody. I don't think white dudes feel the responsibility of representing every other white dude, you know?
You're making a little bit of history yourself in that you're the first Cuban American lead in a network sitcom in decades. Is that mind-boggling for you to wrap your head around?
Huge. It is a huge, weird thing. I'm the first Cuban lead of a network sitcom since [I Love Lucy's] Desi Arnaz, which was obviously in black and white. That's how long it was. And growing up, it was rare [to see that on TV], which is strange, considering Cuban people are probably one of the most entertaining people you'll meet. I think that's a generalization, but it's an accurate one. (Laughs.) It is really crazy. I feel really proud to do that and I'm really, really happy about it.
Talking openly about sexuality in some Latin cultures is still rare. Could this show, in some circuitous way, possibly introduce or start that conversation within the community?
It's a very astute observation. I don't think it's across the board, but a lot of Latin cultures are very religious. Traditionally, religion and being gay don't really mix well. It's culturally, not generally, a very openly talked about thing because it's converging right now. I think it is a good thing to put it out there and to normalize. When I was a kid, had I seen a person that looked like me that was playing a character that wasn't straight on network television on Thursday night, it would've blown my mind because it would've been like, "Oh, that's on NBC so it must be normal. It must be fine." Especially if the character isn't being killed off or persecuted because she's bisexual. It's a huge deal. It's an example of a normal, healthy life, and I think that's a big step for all Latino communities.
It's rare to have a network comedy set almost entirely outside, with a live audience experiencing it all. Did that add to the spontaneity of it?
They've never done a multi-cam show that's filmed entirely outside. That's a new thing. We don't shoot it live, but it does have that same feeling as Saturday Night Live when you have the audience [there], and you're like, "Oh, what's gonna happen? Everybody's in this together." That was fun for us and for the audience. When you come see the show, it's just the bar set and you really feel like you're there. You're part of the bar with us. We're on the side of this mountain at Universal Studios at the end of [Desperate Housewives'] Wisteria Lane in the backyard of one of the houses. It's really exciting and everybody is just in this weird adventure together. I imagine it's like seeing some outdoor theater. Most actors love having an audience because it keeps it lively and you have something to feed off of. Who doesn't like making people laugh if you're an actor? It's a fun environment, and it wasn't scary. It was really exciting and really mind-boggling. Every night that I was doing it, I was pinching myself.
What kind of hijinks will we see Abby and the crew get into this season?
We'll definitely meet some people's exes. We'll definitely see how Abby keeps this illegal bar running in her neighborhood and how Bill infiltrates this group of people.
Abby's also relies on the chemistry Abby has with her bar patrons. (Neil Flynn, Jessica Chaffin, Leonard Ouzts and Kimia Behpoornia play regulars.) Was the connection between all of you instantaneous?
It comes across onscreen because it was totally the case. When you do a show like this, you rehearse all week and then you have a show night. You're with each other all the time and we really had fun. I think that togetherness and community that you see onscreen is a real thing. We're not acting that. Before every show night, we would go out and have this routine where we'd all slap each other on the back and tell each other, "I got your back," and we really did. That was what it was like on set and you really feel that. That's what we were trying to put out there.
Is the series finale going to be Abby's finally becoming a legitimate bar? Is that the end goal?
No, I don't think Abby's ever wants to be a legitimate bar. (Laughs.) Abby only wants cool people in there. She'd have to let everyone in if it was a legitimate bar.
On a lighter note, how many times a day do you get mistaken for NBC newswoman Natalie Morales?
I get a lot of her tweets. It is really funny. Sometimes I will show up for interviews and they're like, "Oh, I'm not prepared for you at all. I'm prepared for the other Natalie Morales," and I was like, "Okay." I hope that, at some point, that'll correct itself in some way. I wonder if it happens to Michelle Williams from Destiny's Child and the actress Michelle Williams. (Laughs.)
Abby's premieres Thursday, March 28 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.