The opening part of features like this is where you share some detail about how down-to-earth and grounded an actor is. But there’s nothing particularly easy to share, in that respect, with Natalie Morales. I spent an hour with her, talking about her work, her life, her passions and her love of classic Internet memes. And she was just, you know, cool.
For proof, just look at her business card:
But I’ll get back to that. It was a breezy, pleasant spring afternoon, so when Morales and I sat down, we left the door to her trailer open. She was on her lunch break, on the set of “The Grinder,” and I’d come to the Fox lot in Century City to walk around the fake law offices where Claire the lawyer works with brothers Stewart (Fred Savage) and Dean (Rob Lowe), but more importantly to sit down with an actor who’s been quietly killing it for years.
If you’re any sort of TV fan, you’ve seen Morales in something. In 2008, she landed her first major role as the star of ABC Family’s “The Middleman,” a sci-fi comedy with high nerd cred and a loyal cult following, and she’s worked consistently ever since, with roles ranging from Meg, Malin Akerman’s best friend on ABC’s “Trophy Wife,” to guest star roles on “Girls” and “The Newsroom.” Now, she plays Claire, a lawyer at Stewart’s firm and one of the show’s most sensible characters.
Morales doesn’t seem like a tomboy, but she’s also not a girly-girl. She’s proud of her heritage, but she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by it. She joined Instagram recently, but she did so to blatantly take advantage of the free stuff culture associated with it. She might call herself a giant nerd, but she doesn’t think being a nerd is particularly uncool. In short, she gives every impression of being completely and utterly herself, which is the coolest thing a person can be these days.
“The Grinder” is a show that’s rich with talent, thanks to Lowe, Savage, Mary Elizabeth Ellis and guest stars like Maya Rudolph and Timothy Olyphant. But while Morales is sometimes limited in terms of screen time, there’s no denying her calm, sensible energy often leads to some of the show’s funniest jokes.
And in comparison to “The Middleman,” it’s a lot easier. “I was very, very lucky to have that be my first role,” Morales said. “Not only because [creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach] was such a benevolent showrunner and always cared about me and treated me really well… But the schedule on that show was bananas. We’d do 10 to 12 pages a day — 12 pages of insane monologues about aliens and words that don’t actually exist. On that show, I was in every scene, pretty much. I was the snarky fast-talker, so I had so much to say. So it was like boot camp for Snarky Latina Actress.”
And with a laugh, she admitted that this training came in handy. “Instantly, every pilot that I auditioned for after that was, like, in my wheelhouse.”
“The Middleman” wasn’t originally pitched with a Latina lead. Instead, Morales said that was something ABC Family requested Grillo-Marxuach add. “And he was just like, ‘Okay, but as long as she’s cast as that, [and] it’s not a Latina superhero. It’s just a superhero who happens to be Latina.’ Which is also another reason to be super thankful, because that’s everything that I’ve wanted to do.”
But the question of how to be herself without getting typecast was an issue that weighed on her from the very beginning of her career. While Morales is her real name, for a brief period of time she did consider a stage name because she “didn’t want to be pigeonholed by having a Latin last name. I was like, it’s enough that I look a certain way, but then, if I have my last name, I’m just always gonna get only these roles.”
She laughed when remembering what exactly that stage name would have been: Natalie Moriarty. “It would’ve been great. I should’ve kept it,” she said. “It would’ve been awesome, and I’m kicking myself now because there’s also another Natalie Morales on ‘The Today Show,’ and at the time when I picked it, Sherlock Holmes was not having a big resurgence like it is now. Just a badass name. I should’ve totally stayed with it.”
Morales has worked consistently since “The Middleman,” in both guest star and recurring roles. And while ethnicity has played a role in the parts she’s gotten, she hasn’t gotten typecast as the Snarky Latina. “It just happens to be every role that I’ve done, luckily, has just been a girl who happens to be of an ethnicity, but is more importantly just ‘The Girl’ or a person,” she said.
In fact, most of the roles she’s gotten weren’t written as Latina, including “The Grinder.” “I’ve never, ever met a Latina named Claire,” she laughed. “It seems like a very non-Latina name.”
She ascribes this to luck, but that’s underselling her unique talents. When she auditioned for the role of Aziz Ansari’s “Parks and Recreation” love interest, she did an impression of Ansari. (Words can’t capture it, but it’s really dead on.) And when she met Aaron Sorkin before getting hired for “The Newsroom,” she gave him a business card. A business card, inspired by Wile E. Coyote:
Technically, it’s more of a 1920’s calling card, with a Looney Tunes touch. (Her Twitter handle is on the back.) “I was like, ‘Oh no! I spelled extraordinary wrong! And then I gave it to Aaron Sorkin! What a huge mistake!’ So I don’t know if that card got me hired or not, but I did give it to Aaron Sorkin. Which is a bold move, I guess.”
Right now, Morales is waiting to hear about the possibility of “The Grinder” Season 2, about which she’s optimistic: “I have a feeling, but I always have a feeling. And I’m always wrong. So we’ll see. We believe in it.” And over the break, she’s looking forward to her other pursuits.
Recently, this included writing a feature script based on Buster Keaton, a music video she directed for singer/songwriter Holly Miranda and a documentary about Cuba, which she visited a few years ago with her mother, who hadn’t been back in 50 years. “The thing about documentaries is you never know when to stop doing it, so I could either end it now and have it be a very short documentary short, or I could add more to it,” she said. “That’s kind of what I’m deciding, is whether I book-end it. If I concentrate on what’s happening now, or if I go back again and book-end it. I don’t know yet.”
There’s also her Instagram account, to which she’s taken a unique approach. “I’m a very private person for the most part, and I don’t want to share a picture of my personal everyday life with the whole world,” she said. “And I was looking at people’s celebrity Instagram accounts, and it’s all just a way to plug things and to show things that they’ve gotten for free. And I was just like, ‘Well, why not just blatantly do that and get free stuff?'”
Hence the Instagram account @nataliemoraleslovesfreestuff, where Morales posts photos and reviews the stuff she’s sent by various people and companies. “I try to be kind of selective about what I do. I usually like supporting mostly small businesses and small people,” she said.
It’s a funny idea that’s led to some cute posts, but the philosophy behind it reflects Morales’ complicated relationship with the realities of Hollywood living. “I used to think that it was like you were trying to create a persona if you had a stage name. And then after doing it now, I’m like, no, it’s a business,” she said. “That’s what you’re doing. It’s not necessarily pretending to be somebody that you’re not, it’s smart thinking in a lot of cases. Norma Jean doesn’t sound as good as Marilyn.”
That said, it’s not Natalie Moriarty who’s currently starring on “The Grinder.” “That’s why I was afraid of having a stage name in the first place, because I didn’t want to appear as if I was trying to be something other than what I was, which is just a person who enjoyed acting,” she said.
Well, acting, and no shortage of other things. “This sounds very, very cheesy, [but] I like to create things. I like to make things. The thing that fascinates me the most is having nothing and making something out of it. So cooking is great, writing songs is something I love to do, and painting and anything that has to do with–” she laughed “–assembling nothing into something is something I really love.”
Near the end of our conversation — a little after we talked about what a badass Leia was in the original “Star Wars,” and she brought up the fact that she’d love to make a Trogdor the Burninator movie — I asked her if she considered herself to be a nerd. “I don’t know what that term is anymore. It feels sort of weird to claim that now, but I like a lot of things. I like a lot of obscure things in a passionate way. So, I’m like a huge nerd, if you wanna describe it that way,” she said. “I feel like now, that’s not uncool anymore. It used to be uncool to be interested in anything. Like, to be cool was to not care. And now, that’s not really that cool anymore.”
Like I said: Natalie Morales is the coolest.
“The Grinder” airs Tuesdays at 9:30pm on Fox.