In the spring of 2018, Natalie Morales experienced a career first: With pilots being cast for the upcoming broadcast television series, the actor known for her wry, disarming turns on the likes of Parks And Recreation and Santa Clarita Diet was being offered roles on multiple new series. But the role she wanted most was one she’d have to audition for: The backyard bartender at the center of Abby’s, a multi-camera sitcom created by New Girl alum Josh Malmuth and produced by Parks And Rec’s Michael Schur that had the distinction of being shot outdoors. “It’s really, really, really hard to turn down an offer, especially if it’s any good,” Morales said, via phone, this January. “But the reason you get an offer is because someone’s seen you play that kind of role before.
“And I was determined not to roll my eyes at some dude again. I feel like I’ve done that portion of my career. It was very fun to eye-roll at Rob Lowe. I feel like I can do more than that.”
She shares that desire not to be boxed in with Abby, the role she eventually booked and will debut this Thursday, March 28 on NBC. The character is a former Marine, she’s bisexual, and she serves drinks to a tight-knit group of friends and neighbors who gather nightly behind the house she rents—which, in the series premiere, is news to her new landlord, Bill (Nelson Franklin). But, as Morales puts it, each of those characteristics is “just one of the things about” Abby. Speaking with The A.V. Club, Morales discussed the many facets of Abby, what it was like to shoot Abby’s outdoors, and why a show like this would’ve been “revolutionary” for her teenaged self.
The A.V. Club: Did you give Mike Schur a hard time about having to audition for this role? It seems tailor-made for you.
Natalie Morales: I didn’t really know him that well. I mean I knew him from Parks And Rec—I was a huge fan of Parks And Rec before I got on the show, so anytime I was on set, I was just geeking out. And I did not consider myself in the Mike Schur realm where I could be like, “Hey buddy, why aren’t you offering me this?” So I did it the good old-fashioned way and worked my ass off for it.
AVC: What was it about Abby’s that made you want to work that hard to get the role?
NM: At first, without even reading the script, it was Mike Schur. Not only does he make the kinds of things I want to be a part of and the things that I love, consistently and always, but also he is so great to work with. And then I read the script and the script is really good. I’ve never really seen someone like me in that role, and then I convinced myself that it needed to happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: Had you ever gone out for a multi-cam show before?
NM: I have: I was in the pilot of Are You There, Chelsea?, and then I got recast.
AVC: So how does it feel having done a full season not only in that format but as the lead character?
NM: It’s wild. I pinched myself every single day that we were doing it—and especially on show nights. It’s like doing a play, but it’s really crazy because you’re just like out there having fun with your friends and people are filming it [Laughs.] And then suddenly you’re on Thursday nights on an NBC TV show!
AVC: At what point were you told that it was going to be shooting outdoors?
NM: From the very beginning. That was the plan.
AVC: Were you excited by that prospect, or were you nervous about it?
NM: We were all a little bit of both. We were all like, “How is this going to work?” But also, “how fun to try this?” I feel like everybody was like, “Well, if it doesn’t work, we’ll move it inside—but we should try at least.” And I’m really glad we did because it really brought this very fun energy to the show. And also it’s something that’s never been done before. And I enjoy doing things that have never been done before.
AVC: How would you describe that energy?
AVC: Even though what you will see on television is not live—it’s edited and it’s like any other TV show in that sense—it feels really live. It has the feeling of like when you Saturday Night Live, and you watch the camera sweep by the audience. I’ve never really seen a multi-cam do that. So you sort of feel like you’re right there with us when you watch it. That’s how the audience felt, I think. We were all doing this new thing together.
AVC: As the production of that first season went along, what kind of adjustments had to be made for environmental noise? I’ve heard there were a few planes that flew overhead on shoot days.
NM: I think we didn’t really make a ton of adjustments—if something was really loud we would pause because you wouldn’t be able to [the dialogue]. But overall the idea was to embrace all of that: embrace the outside-ness of it. That’s the whole point. We wanted it to feel different. Why do it outside? if you’re going to make it feel like it’s inside?
AVC: Abby is a military veteran—she was a Marine—how did that detail inform your performance?
NM: I think like anything else about Abby, it’s just one of the things about her. I do think it’s interesting—the concept of someone who doesn’t like authority having been in the military comes up, [Laughs.] because that seems like it would be contradictory. So I liked the idea of exploring that.
AVC: She seems like she’s the type of person whose shaped her life to be exactly how she wants it, as a reaction to her life experiences. There’s a specific set of rules for the bar. She’s very private. Do you feel like we get to see her opening up a little bit as the show goes on?
NM: Oh, definitely. We all do what we have to do in our lives to survive. And sometimes that survival isn’t because of your external circumstances. Sometimes that survival is because of how you grew up or what your life was like and how your experiences feeling safe were. We all have to protect ourselves in whatever way we can formulate. It’s a hard thing to navigate through life. We all have these walls and barriers that are just our internal self trying to protect ourselves. I think you do find out why Abby is the way she is. And I think you get to understand that and maybe relate to it, even.
AVC: Among the episodes that NBC has screened for critics, there’s one where Abby tells Bill that she’s bisexual, and to his mortification, his reaction is “congratulations.” How similar do you feel this was to your experience of publishing the Smart Girls essay where you wrote “I don’t like labeling myself, or anyone else, but if it’s easier for you to understand me, what I’m saying is that I’m queer”? Were there similar, well-intentioned but off-the-mark expressions of congratulations and back-patting?
NM: I didn’t experience that in a cringey way, I experienced that more in a supportive way. Although some people read the title of the article and not the rest of it, and that was obvious [Laughs.] because they would congratulate me on things that weren’t true. They were like, “You’re gay. I didn’t know you were gay!” And I was like, “Did you read this?” That was interesting. The whole thing is about how I wouldn’t describe myself as gay. It was definitely a test of clickbait.
But for the most part, it was really wonderful and I felt very, very supported by my peers and by people I didn’t even know. It was nice to hear from people all over all over the world who responded to it in different ways, and most of it was really positive. The whole goal was to let someone out there that may have been in my shoes as a kid—or even as an adult—who felt like they were weird or different that there was someone else out there like them who was living a healthy, happy life and that it was normal and people still love them. If I have made anybody feel a little less alone than I did when I was a teenager, then that was the whole point.
AVC: Do you feel like the same can be said about Abby’s?
NM: Absolutely. I grew up in sort of a bubble: I was in Miami, where everybody was exactly like me and it was like a Cuban family everywhere I looked, and my parents were really protective and really conservative. I think I looked to network television as the barometer of normalcy. And I was always like, “Well, look, that’s on TV. That’s normal, right?” It’s not Skinemax, it’s not HBO. [Laughs.] It’s not anything daring. That’s just a regular person. And so if I would’ve seen Abby on network TV as a very normal, healthy bisexual woman who isn’t traumatized by her bisexuality in a way that harms her life and the people around her, and it’s just one of the many things about her, that would have been absolutely revolutionary for me.
AVC: Is there anything you can say about the part you’ll be playing in the animated Harley Quinn series for DC Universe?
NM: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say yet. I don’t know what the moratorium on that is. But I’m excited to be a part of it! It’s the same people that I worked with on Powerless who are amazing. From what I saw of the cartoon, it’s so awesome and new and different and totally, totally Harley Quinn.
AVC: Considering that your breakout role was in the TV adaptation of The Middleman, is it important to you to stay plugged into that genre world as your career progresses?
NM: It feels important to me to stay plugged in to that in that I love sci-fi and I love stories like that because there’s no rules to them, and it’s so fun and I love that world. It’s important to me because I like it. I like comics, I like stories that are based around comics, and I hope that I get to do it forever. Especially when it’s both comedic and sci-fi. That’s kind of the dream.