‘Abby’s’ Star Natalie Morales: ‘TV Hasn’t Represented Many People for a Long Time’

Natalie Morales is known for scene stealing work on television series such as “The Middleman,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Grinder” and “Santa Clarita Diet” but now she is stepping into the spotlight as the lead and titular character on new NBC sitcom “Abby’s.”

What does being the lead of a show in today’s television landscape mean to you?

I have this great opportunity that people like me haven’t traditionally had — literally never. I’m the first Cuban female lead of a network sitcom. I don’t take that lightly. But as far as the No. 1 on the call sheet thing, the responsibility I see there is to the people I work with — the crew and the cast. Everybody says the fish rots from the head down, and it’s so true. I’ve been very, very lucky to work on really great shows with really great people so I don’t necessarily have this complaint that a lot of people do, but I’ve certainly worked with people who aren’t easy. And that comes from executive producers to leads of the show. But if [executive producers] Mike Schur and Josh Malmuth are so f—ing great, then it’s passed down to me and I’m the one they see all day on set, so I have a responsibility. This has to be the safest, funnest place possible where we all can do our best work and have fun. That’s very important to me; I take having fun very seriously.

What did you do to set that tone on set?

I didn’t do much. It was easy with this group of people and the schedule lends itself to it. We hang out with each other all day. On a single-cam show you maybe see a few people one day and then maybe someone never, and it’s harder to maintain that cast unison vibe thing. But this is all day rehearsing and all day together, and we spend time at lunch together listening to people’s questions about life, and it really was like doing theater in high school again where it was like, “These are my people!”

You mention being the first Cuban actress to lead a sitcom, and your character is also the first bisexual lead in the format. To what do you attribute now being the time these strides were finally made?

There’s been a push for more diversity now, but I think the thing that people miss is it’s not just a push for diversity just for that sake; it is important to see the world around us reflected on our televisions. For better or worse, that’s what some people make their ideal. My mom was a single mom and she worked long hours and I would watch a lot of TV as a kid, and I’m sure there are a lot of people just like me. So I watched “Mad About You” and I was like, “That’s what a good marriage is.” I truly did feel that way. And for people that didn’t have any gay people in their lives, they watched “Will & Grace” and they went, “Oh people like that exist. They have lives and friends and interests I should care about.” I think the push for diversity, and I know that’s sort of a buzzword, but what’s behind it is that — is, “Let’s make the television look like the world we live in.” Why doesn’t it? And also, let’s tell these stories from the point of view of the world we live in so it’s not just only white, straight men writing and directing them. Let’s make it equal. If women are 51% of the population, why is the white man neutral storytelling? That’s not real.

Is there a sense of pressure because if you’re the only one, in some ways you represent for all?

I don’t feel that way, and I hope it won’t be the only one. I hope it just inspires more people to be like, “Yeah why not do this on TV?” Especially for TV writers, how much better stories can you get than if you have a lead character who likes men and women? It opens a whole new level of relationship. That’s good TV writing! So I hope that it will just be one of many. People may scrutinize it in a way because, as with anything, you go, “Well that doesn’t represent me so it’s not right” and I’m sure that will happen but the point is TV hasn’t represented many people for a long time, and we’re trying to expand that.

Do you think doing so in a comedy, where characters are not focused on heavy issues minute by minute, makes it easier in some ways?

I certainly like it more, and it also brings me joy. There are certain TV shows that are prestige dramas and I know have really good storylines and really good actors and I’d love to be a part of in some way…however, when I have certain precious few hours in my day I don’t know that I want to watch something that’s going to make me feel sadder or make the world seem bleaker. What I do, and what many of my friends do, is put on an episode of “Parks and Rec” and everything’s OK for half an hour when I eat my lunch. Not to say that comedy isn’t as serious or isn’t as worthy, but — and one of the reasons I love doing it is — a little happiness goes a long way.

Did you find yourself adjusting anything in “Abby’s,” performance-wise, because of the multicam format?

For me the important thing was to realize that I didn’t necessarily need an adjustment — that I was hired because of what I was already doing. So the adjustment was to not make an adjustment based on an audience being there. Because I can get real hammy — I enjoy being a ham sometimes — so an audience being there can feed that.

But sometimes that aids in the humor.

Absolutely. I’m sure Ross on “Friends” saying “Pivot” happened that way because there was an audience there, and luckily it did translate to the screens, but it doesn’t always. So you have to just be aware of that, I think.

What is the balance like on the show of traditional situational humor versus on-going threads and character-driven comedy?

Through those problems or situations of the week you get to know the characters’ backgrounds and why they would react this specific way to a specific thing. One thing that the bar has is a long list of rules, and several of those rules will come up in different episodes — who established them, why they have them, who supports them, and that will inform you of the characters.

Having completed the first season of the show, how well do you feel you know who Abby is?

I’m definitely learning more about Abby the more they write about her. Right now she’s sort of like a very sassy baby in my head. She has the history of like a 3-year-old in my head. I only know her that much, and she does have a personality, but it’s still so early. … I try to keep an open mind exactly for that reason because I don’t want to get stuck in, “No, she’s this way.” Sometimes it does work when you’re Lego-building this person and this is essential piece, so you can point out, “Oh she wouldn’t do that because she already did this” or “if we don’t do this, then this can’t happen,” but I really trust these writers and I’m excited to discover as much about her in whatever direction they want to extend. And as much as I am discovering she does feel very familiar to me.

How much did the show mine from your own life experience for the first season?

There are a lot of similarities. Josh doesn’t have experience being a Cuban woman so I can help him out in that situation. … He’s never been in several positions that I have been in, even if I wasn’t Cuban because he’s not a woman. And yes there are some stories that are partially mined from my own life, including an accident that happens with my hands. Before we started shooting I came into the writers’ room and was just like, “This is what happened when I worked at bars. This is what I imagine a daily situation at a bar would be like for a female owner. What about this experience?” And our staff is mostly female writers so it was really nice just to have that common thread running through; everybody’s experience really informs this, but I was able to say, “Here are a couple of things I know I can play because I lived them.”

“Abby’s” premieres Mar. 28 on NBC.

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