Natalie Morales on ‘The Grinder,’ ‘Parks and Rec,’ and Cuba

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As a young girl growing up in the Miami area, Natalie Morales first dreamt of becoming an astronaut before shifting her attention to becoming a criminal attorney. But after not getting accepted into a magnet high school that focused that focused on law, Morales took a drama class at her local school that changed her path forever, motivating her to move to Los Angeles and become an actress.

Though she still gets to be a lawyer, except in this case she’s just playing one on TV.

Morales can currently be seen on The Grinder, playing one of the few women in television history that has zero interest in Rob Lowe’s advances. Morales also had a 12-episode arc as Lucy, Tom Haverford’s love interest on Parks and Recreation, as well as making appearances on Girls, The Newsroom, Trophy Wife, and was the lead in The Middleman, an ABC Family action-adventure show that ran for one season and still boasts a loyal fanbase. Off-camera, Morales is pursuing directing, having shot music videos, as well as currently working on a documentary on her first visit to Cuba, where her family is from.

And she’s also not afraid to tell you why your views on Cuba and the embargo being lifted are probably wrong.

You’ve been on a lot of well-reviewed shows, but plenty of actors aren’t that fortunate. As a fan of TV yourself, how do you think you’d deal with it if you were on a bad show or do you think you’ve been on any in the past?

I haven’t. My manager Vincent Nastri, who has been my guide throughout this, found me when I was very young and I had just moved here and he believed in me from the very beginning. He always saw or heard what I wanted to do, so we sort of veered things towards the direction that we wanted it to. Sometimes as an actor — most times as an actor — it’s very much beggars can’t be choosers. If you don’t have money, you have to take that job. It is what you do. Unless you want to go back to waitressing which is not fun for me anymore. I don’t wanna go back to waitressing, which I did for a very long time. We’ve made a concerted effort to sort of choose jobs and say no to things that didn’t feel right for the direction I wanted to go in and what I saw for myself. My goal is to just create content and things that I’m proud of. I want to be around people that inspire me. I want to work with people that inspire me and I want to do things that inspire me. That’s been my goal and I’ve been so lucky to be able to do that.

That being said, what’s it like to be working alongside two icons of the 80s and 90s with Rob Lowe and Fred Savage?

It’s very strange for me. I sort of have to pretend that doesn’t exist. I sort of have to fog over that time in my life where I constantly watched these people on TV. It was a lot harder to do for me when I worked with Drew Barrymore ]on Going the Distance] because I’ve always been a huge fan of Drew and I watched her the most out of anybody that I’ve worked with. It’s a little harder with some people. Especially because I didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. I didn’t even know that — I don’t know why that didn’t even register as an option for me until I was a little bit older.

Do you fan out around Rob Lowe and these other great actors who’ve been around for a while or do you try and hang in the back and act like it’s no big deal?

I try and do that as much as possible, I try to not fangirl out when I can. But Rob has amazing stories. He sort of was in this crazy time in Hollywood. He has experienced so much. I mean the guy has written I don’t know how many books about it, and he still has troves of information. I could sit by a fire and listen to Rob tell Hollywood stories. I keep trying to convince him to let me videotape me and him going around Malibu and showing me all of his old haunts, and me just asking him about Malibu. Maybe one day I’ll get him to do that with me.

And with Fred Savage, do you try and pump him for information and advice about being a director?

Yeah, definitely. That is something we talk about quite often. Directing is such an interesting thing because it’s a completely different ballgame in every genre. So music video directing is totally different than commercial directing is totally different than TV directing is totally different than film directing. You even have different agents for all of those things. Completely different way of doing it. It’s interesting to see what Fred has been able to do with that. And he’s such a hard worker. He told me stories about when he started directing and how he had to really work hard to get in there, and he asked every single person he knew if they’d give him a shot. He’s definitely helped me a lot and I’ve asked him for a lot of advice.

How would you describe the differences between Parks and Rec and The Grinder?

There’s definitely a lot of differences. I’ve worked on quite a few sets now and quite a few comedy sets, and I would compare it to when you’re a kid and you go to your different friends’ houses and their houses always have their own smell. It’s just slightly different. Parks had it’s own vibe with that group of people who were very tight knit; and also I wasn’t a regular on that show though I was on it quite a bit, I wasn’t a regular like I am on The Grinder. Same on Girls. You’re sort of stepping into an environment where this is kind of my home for the last eight months. So it’s a little different in that way but other than that, funny is funny. That’s what we try to do.

Yeah, you’ve been moving towards more and more comedy it seems, so did you do sketch, improv, standup before these shows or did you just gravitate towards comedic roles?

No, I did. I started out doing physical comedy — I did a little bit of standup in Miami which was terrible. Then when I moved out here I joined this sketch group called Sitcoms Blow. It was so fun and so great, this guy Dane Hanson was the creator of that, he’s just a visionary. So he taught me a lot. I did Groundlings for a little bit. It’s sort of a mish mash of things between improv and sketch. It’s all a cloud of comedy.

As far as behind-the-camera goes, you recently directed a music video for Holly Miranda’s song “Come On.” How did that come together?

That’s actually a really funny story. The whole record is phenomenal and that was the next song the label wanted to release as a single so I said “Please let me direct it” and I bothered her forever. Then she did let me and the label let me and they were really great about that, and then I was like “Do you have any ideas for this?” And she said “What if there was a shadow following me and then it was me and then I made out with myself?” And I said “Okay, I guess I’ll make a four minute video out of that concept.”

For your whole career you’ve been closely associated with another Natalie Morales, the one who works on the Today Show, but you hadn’t met until very recently. How was that experience?

It was really intense and weird. There was so much buildup and I had no idea it was going to happen, then suddenly I’m at this party and I look up and my very good friend Malin Akerman is talking to Natalie Morales and I sort of ran over and I was like “What’s… happening?!” And then there was a mutual threeway freakout. It was fun. It was very, very brief. I look forward to spending more time with her but it was very odd.

Did she express that she’s been having the same reactions as you to the mixup or is it mostly going your way?

No I think we both get mixed up all the time. She’s gone to my auditions before, I’ve showed up to interviews where people thought I was her and were like “Ohhh.” It definitely goes both ways. I don’t know what it’s good for, I don’t know why it’s a weird thing to have another person’s name — or two people to have the same name — it sort of reminds me of that episode of Friends where Joey has a hand twin: It’s not really good for anything but it’s interesting in some way.

You’re Cuban, and though you hadn’t even been able to travel to Cuba until recently, you have a lot of family there and are extremely aware of what’s happening there and what’s been happening there for decades. Many other Americans are only aware of the most cursory details and it seems your conversations with them about the recent news of an embargo lift led to you writing an op-ed for Flood Magazine called “Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined.” Is there anything else you want to say about that?

There’s so much that I want to say about it; I could talk to you for days about it. I think that the most important thing is that so many people just assume that they know — not only about Cuba but about any issue in the world that’s something that isn’t there, especially Americans. I hear all the time, “Well now that the embargo will be lifted, Cubans will learn about things and Americans will travel there and tell them about freedom and blah blah blah.” That’s very egocentric for America because we are the only country in the whole world that doesn’t go there. Do you think that Canadians go there, that South Americans go there, that Spanish people go there, that people from all over the world don’t already go to Cuba and have freedom? Americans already believe that lifting the embargo will make this huge change for the good of the Cuban people simply because it’s America. It will change, economically it will change, but the fact remains that it is still an oppressive dictatorship and that has not changed. I was very, very, very pleased and moved to tears with Obama’s speech over there when he called for freedom and democracy. I thought it was really moving and interesting, and I don’t know that it will make a difference, but that is still what happens there. If Cuba opens up and a bunch of stuff starts going there, the Cuban people aren’t gonna reap the benefits of that, the government will. That’s what always happens, unless things change over there. I just hope people realize that as sort of the basis and ask and read and be informed before you treat Cuba like it’s the next Cabo.

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