Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Grinder’s Natalie Morales on Rob Lowe and her unfortunate JNCO phase

Photo illustration: Nick Wanserski
Photo illustration: Nick Wanserski

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.


An actress who has appeared in everything from Girls to CSI: Miami to 90210, Natalie Morales currently stars as “Claire” on the criminally underrated Rob Lowe vehicle The Grinder. There, Morales is paired with Fred Savage and pitted against her former Parks And Recreation pal in a battle of vague legal knowledge and implied sexual tension that’s both wryly written and deeply meta. Just like on Parks, The Grinder gives Morales a place to simultaneously play both cool and warm, and as Claire she brings both an air of sane, speculative detachment and a welcome sense of grounded humanity to the show.

1. What’s a question you wish an interviewer would ask you?

Natalie Morales: I would say, if I’m answering honestly, that I wish that they would not ask me that question because, like, I don’t know! You’re the interviewer. Come up with a question!


The A.V. Club: The readers came up with these so this is totally not my fault.

NM: Do your job, interviewer! Don’t ask me what you’d want me to ask.

2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what animal would it be?

NM: I think it would be a hawk or some sort of flying creature, because I work at Fox, which is completely on the other side of town from where I live, and I deal with insane traffic. So I would love to be able to fly above Los Angeles and not deal with that whatsoever. And it would also look cool upon landing.


AVC: That’s a good point.

NM: Like a huge dragon-sized hawk, how awesome would that be?

AVC: You’ll have to figure out what kind of hawk, specifically, but you can do that on your own time.


NM: I don’t really know the different classifications of hawks.

AVC: You could just ask for one that looks cool.

NM: Just a cool hawk.

3. What movie have you seen the most?

NM: That’s probably a tie between a few and they’re very starkly different. Because there are just several movies that, if they’re on TV I will just have to watch them. I can’t not watch them. One of them is Alien. Another one is Clueless. And—this is not on TV as much but I watch it a lot for just interest and study—but I also really like Sherlock Jr.


AVC: Why those three?

NM: Alien is just one of those movies that I just love watching. I could watch that over and over and over. And Clueless is one where I know literally every word and every sound or grunt or sigh everyone makes in that movie. At all. I’ve just seen it so many times.


Sherlock Jr. is just a really brilliant movie, so whenever I’m in a writing slump or a directing slump and I don’t know what creative thing to do next, I watch pretty much any Buster Keaton movie, but that one specifically really speaks to me.

AVC: Do you have it on DVD? Are you watching it online?

NM: I have every Buster Keaton box set that’s ever come out. I own everything that he’s ever done on DVD.


AVC: How did you get into Buster Keaton?

NM: I got into Buster Keaton mostly because of my friend Dane, but really, one of the great things about L.A. is—Well, now it’s Cinefamily, when I first moved here it was the Silent Movie Theater, and they would do runs of silent movies. When I first moved here my friend Dane took me to see a Buster Keaton movie, and then I was like, “Okay, guess I have to see every single one that has ever come out. Because this is most inspiring thing.” I’d never connected to anything more than that. I am the soulmate of a man who died 30 years before I was born. A guy who is literally 110 years older than me is my soulmate, and I was watching him on screen. So it just really blew my mind, and that’s how I got into him.


AVC: Are you into his story too, or just his movies? Have you read books or listened to podcasts about Buster Keaton?

NM: I know a lot about him in a maybe unhealthy way. This is super-creepy and macabre but one day, I had an audition at Warner Brothers and I was there really early or they asked me to come back two hours later or something. I didn’t know what to do and I was just kind of hanging around, and I was super nervous because it was a test or something, but right across the street from Warner Brothers is the Forest Lawn Cemetery. I had read at some point he was buried there, and I was like, hey, maybe I’ll go try to find Buster Keaton’s grave. And I did. I found it. And then there were no flowers or anything, nothing there. It was like this great, unbelievable person had been forgotten. And so now any time I go to Burbank or I’m around that area I go and take flowers, which is really weird, I know. I’m completely aware that it’s very weird. But I feel like I have to, or I should… I don’t know.

AVC: That’s really nice. Who knows if his family is still around, or if he had family, who would still want to do that kind of stuff for him?


NM: I don’t know much about that. I’m not that creepy as a stalker where I’ve gotten into knowing anything about the family, but I just like to bring him flowers because, I don’t know, it makes me feel a little better.

AVC: Do you know the podcast You Must Remember This? It’s about old Hollywood?

NM: Yeah. They did a really good Buster Keaton episode.

4. What’s a stupid thing you incorrectly believed for a long time?

NM: Oh, God. This is really stupid and I don’t know why I believed it. I’m a generally smart human being. But for some reason I got it in my head, or I heard somewhere and I believed it, but I thought that the reason that the famous cowbell sketch from SNL was even funnier than just it being normally funny was that Christopher Walken was in Blue Oyster Cult. I believed that for so long. And then I don’t know who I told that was like, “No! Absolutely not.”


I don’t know why I never looked it up. It was just like, “Yeah, that’s why it’s funny.”

AVC: Maybe someone sold it to you in a really convincing way.

NM: I don’t think anyone told it to me. I don’t know why I believed that sketch was some sort of documentary. I have no idea.


5. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard about yourself that isn’t true?

NM: The most interesting thing I’ve ever heard about myself that isn’t true is that I’m an entirely different person named Natalie Morales who is on the Today Show. Because I’m constantly, constantly getting tweets from angry people about what I’ve said on the Today Show or tweets that say things like, “your legs look fantastic today,” and I’m thinking, “how do you know?” And then I remember that they’re not talking about me. Or, you know, that I’m hosting Miss Universe or something like that. That’s the most interesting thing, sharing a name with somebody that’s literally on TV every single weekday.


AVC: That’s also gross. Why do people tell her her legs look good?

NM: I get a lot of gross tweets for her. I feel kind of bad.

AVC: And then imagine the ones that she actually gets. Lucky her.

NM: I know. People have a lot to say about pantyhose on Twitter.

6. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

NM: Oh, god. When I was a kid I got really into eating Doritos with ketchup all over them, which is really strange, and I don’t like that now, but for some reason during lunch as a kid I thought that that was good. And it’s not. I don’t know why I enjoyed that, but that was a thing I ate.


AVC: They make regular ketchup potato chips, but that’s different. That’s like french fries and ketchup.

NM: They do? I just dipped Doritos in ketchup. Which is gross. Really gross.

7. What’s the first concert you ever went to?

NM: I went to go see The Cure with my friend Laura and her dad. There’s actually a really crazy story about that. On our way to see that concert, we were in the car and it was like an hour away. I think I was in sixth grade or fifth grade, something like that. We’re in this car and our windows are down and we’re driving and we’re all excited about it. And her dad’s in the driver’s seat and I’m behind him, and I think her dad’s girlfriend was in the passenger seat and Laura was behind her. And Laura and I were talking and suddenly she goes, “Wait, what’s happening to your chest?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And I looked down, and my chest was smoking. There was a fire in my cleavage. And I didn’t know what was going on. I quickly put it out, but not before I got burned right between my boobs. It was because her dad had flicked a cigarette out the window and it came back in the other window and went inside my shirt.


So, yeah. I saw The Cure and it was burned into my body for the rest of my life.

AVC: That’s a pretty goth experience. It makes sense for The Cure.

NM: Yes, it was very appropriate.

8. What’s the most interesting opportunity that you’ve gotten through your work?

AVC: For example, you could say “I got to go to the Oscars,” or “I got to make out with Timothy Olyphant,” or whatever.


NM: [Laughs.] I mean, that was an interesting one.

That’s a hard question to answer, because I feel like so much of what I do is insanely surreal, and there are times when I have to step back and go, “Wait, I get to hang out with Amy Poehler all day?” Or like, “I see Rob Lowe every single day of my life? That’s insane.” Or just, I don’t know, I’m fighting some sort of mutant fish on The Middleman. There’s really insane stuff that I’ve gotten to do. So I feel like there are too many to answer. It depends on the day. There are just so many crazy, interesting things I’ve gotten to do. I haven’t gotten to, I don’t know, present a Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s never too late. We’ll see.


AVC: I would think it would be a little weird to hang out with Rob Lowe and Fred Savage all the time.

NM: It’s great. It’s super-fun and then it becomes an everyday work thing, and then for a second you sort of zone out and go, “Wait, what? This is my life?”


AVC: You knew who they were when you were a kid, and then you’re just part of the gang.

NM: Exactly. It’s very strange.

9. What embarrassing phase did you go through?

NM: Oh, boy. A lot. I legit did the ’90s baby T-shirt and JNCO jeans look, like gigantic JNCO jeans, Baby-G watch, puka-shell choker necklace thing. That was a thing I did.


I have this picture of me wearing this tiny little Sailor Moon T-shirt and big JNCO pants. And I think I had braces. And I thought that was like the coolest possible outfit.

AVC: Do you know how big the JNCOs were?

NM: God, I wish. It was not the size of the waist but the size of the width of the cuff, which is insane. I don’t remember how big they were. They weren’t like the absurdly big ones but they were very big. I remember my grandmother being like, “Why?”


AVC: You know you can still get those, but they’re really expensive on eBay.

NM: I think it’s gotten to the point in my life where I would probably wear those again now. I think it’s cool again now. Maybe.


AVC: My brother and I always wonder how much money it would take for one of us to wear them, say, backstage at a music festival and just pretend like it was no big deal. A lot, probably.

NM: It would not take a lot for me to do that. I would one-hundred percent do that for free.


AVC: We also talk about those wide-wale corduroys where people would cut them and put patches down the side.

NM: Yeah. I never did that, but oof.

No, I had JNCOs for sure. And Airwalks.

10. Have you ever stolen anything and if so, what?

NM: No. Well, I guess technically yes. I’ve walked out of stores a few times with things that I’m holding, and then I run back and return them and the person behind the counter is always like, “Why? You could’ve just left.” It’ll be a hair thing or something small that I absentmindedly had in my hand.


I remember distinctly feeling so guilty as a child about one thing. I was somewhere with my mom. I don’t know how old I was. I was a kid, so I was like seven or something, and we were at some department store or some Bed, Bath & Beyond type place that had little bath bubble beads. You know those things? They have soap or bubble bath in them? These were like beautiful, pearly purple balls. My mom was doing something else and I was just staring at these things, and they begged to be squished. They were like a big red button. So I remember squishing one and it popped and I was so excited about it, and then I squished another one, and then by the time I realized what I was doing, that I was vandalizing property, I was like, “Oh no, what do I do?”

I just put them in my pocket. Because I somehow thought, “If it’s not here at all, they won’t know that I messed it up.” And then I felt guilty about it for years. I think I threw them out before I got home so my mom wouldn’t find out. But I was so guilty about these bath beads.


AVC: I bet that happened so much and you don’t even know.

NM: I’m sure it did. Those things beg to be popped. It’s like walking by a whole thing of bubble wrap.


AVC: And they were probably four cents a piece. But you were wracked with guilt for years.

NM: Exactly. I felt horrible about it for years.

11. Who is the most famous person you’ve ever met?

NM: Fame is—I don’t know. There is a list—I don’t know if it’s like the IMDB Starmeter, or what, but it’s like, “Who would the most amount of people freak out about if you took a poll?” Maybe that’s what’s famous?


I think the answer would be Jennifer Aniston. I was cut out of this movie that I did with her and Gerard Butler. We shot it in Atlantic City, at this casino, and I felt so bad for her because it was just like she was an animal in a zoo. Everybody that walked by was just like, crazy. It would scare me. I was like, “That’s so sad to live like that.” And she was just the nicest, coolest person in the world. I was like, “Oh my god, don’t you wish you could just put on a mustache and walk outside and no one would know who you are?” And she was like, “Yes.” And she took my advice. She’s done that.

AVC: Did you meet Jason Alexander when he was on The Grinder?

NM: I did meet him, yeah. That’s a big deal too!

AVC: Jennifer Aniston probably tops that. She does ads for water.

NM: Yeah. She’s a big deal.

I don’t know. I mean, I did a movie with Shia LaBeouf and Josh Brolin, and they’re pretty big, but I’d say Jennifer Aniston is worldwide bigger than them maybe, right? I don’t know. I don’t know what quantifies that; I just have a feeling.


Bonus 12th question from Laura Benanti: If you could be any profession other than your current one, what would it be and why?

NM: There are two professions I would enjoy if they paid any money at all, and one of them requires not being in an area where there’s a drought. And I have done these for people for free.


I love writing on a chalkboard in a restaurant, like writing the menu out. I make fonts in my spare time and I’m really into type and design, so writing a menu for somebody on a chalkboard is a dream. I always go into restaurants where there’s a bad chalkboard and I’m like, “I can totally help you out. I can make this look really good.” So that’s one really weird one. And then the other one is professional pressure washer, because that would be so delightful. Have you ever pressure-washed anything? It’s the best feeling. You’re just instantly and very powerfully erasing bad things.

AVC: There’s a bit of a common thread there. You just want things to look right, or to look their best.


NM: I just want to make things better all around.

AVC: Have you seen the documentary Sign Painters? It’s about people who paint classic looking new versions of old-seeming signs. It’s very soothing.


NM: Oh god, like 1940s—you know those doors you always see in those movies that are half glass, and whoever owns the business, their name is perfectly written in gold letters in the middle of the glass? That would be my dream.

AVC: That’s pretty much what Sign Painters is about.

NM: Oh, that sounds great. I should watch that.

AVC: And then what do you want to ask the next person?

NM: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that! “Who are you a big fan of that we wouldn’t necessarily know about?”


I just moved and I’m looking at my boxes, and this is what inspired it so maybe you can phrase it better than me. But I have always been a huge Alan Rickman fan, so much so that my friend made me or got me an Alan Rickman clock, and I just found it. It’s a clock with Alan Rickman’s face behind it. It’s absurd. I have a bunch of Alan Rickman magnets as well. And his death upset me very much, but that’s beside the point. So I was just thinking, “Who are you a big fan of that we wouldn’t necessarily immediately think of?”

AVC: I don’t know if I would’ve guessed Buster Keaton for you. Or Alan Rickman. Or typeface designers.


NM: I remember, a long time ago somebody was like, “Who was your celebrity crush as a kid?” And I was like, “Montel Williams.” I used to stay home and watch Montel every day and it was awesome.

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