You know Natalie Morales even if you don’t immediately recognize her name. The actress/director continues to accumulate guest spots on comedies like Parks and Recreation, BoJack Horseman, and Santa Clarita Diet, while preparing to star as a bisexual bartender in NBC’s forthcoming sitcom, Abby’s—think Cheers but sort of illegal and in San Diego. (Morales herself publicly came out as queer in 2017.) Her charmingly weird delivery, versatile stare, and contagious energy brighten every scene she steals—all useful skills as she pulls off a one-woman episode and makes her TV directorial debut on HBO’s Room 104.
The Jay and Mark Duplass-created oddball genre anthology, all confined to a single hotel room, finds two Morales-centric episodes in its second season: Its eighth episode, “A Nightmare,” and its tenth, “Artificial,” which airs this week. The former stars Morales, the latter she directs.
Morales sat down with Paste to discuss her directing work, cyborgs, and the personal importance of her sitcom character, Abby.
Paste: Tell me how you got to act and direct on Room 104.
Natalie Morales: I’ve been a fan of the Duplass brothers for a long time. They’re just really great in general at what they do… I’d known them tangentially—met them through friends or whatever—but I didn’t know them very well. I auditioned for [the Duplass’s since-ended HBO show] Togetherness a while ago, too, but didn’t get the part, so I knew them from that. Mark had seen some of the stuff I’d directed and asked me to direct an episode. Then after I directed my episode they were like, “Do you want to be in one?” So I went “Uh, OK… I’ll do that, too!”
One of the most insane parts about that show is that I shot that 30-minute episode in two days.
Paste: Oh my God.
Morales: In regular TV production, that takes anywhere from five to seven days and they’re usually—at the very least—12-hour days. This was two 11-hour days. It was a breakneck, insane, crazy thing with special effects and stunts.
Paste: The last few minutes alone of “Artificial” seem like they’d take a day.
Morales: Exactly. But nope! We did that in… 20 minutes? So you know how many lines Katie [Aselton] has. That’s so much for an actor to have completely down. I’d go through and say, [joking] “Listen, it’s not me that did this to you, it’s your husband [Mark Duplass]. He wrote this episode. It’s all his fault.”
Paste: For the episode you’re in, “A Nightmare,” you probably got to use the lean amount of takes to your advantage, since the episode is like Groundhog Day.
Morales: I mean, obviously, it’s a mindfuck, both to act in and direct, because you have to keep track of, “Which Natalie is this? And where is she? And what’s the costume?” It’s not super linear, so it becomes very technically difficult. Jonah [Markowitz], who directed it, is their production designer, so I’d already worked with him very closely.
Paste: When Mark approached you, do you know what specifically he’d seen of your directorial work? One of your music videos?
Morales: A few things, I think, like my Funny or Die videos. But the thing that sparked the phone call was probably the music video/PSA I did for Andrew Bird.
Paste: What struck me was how many similarities there were between your episode and your music video for Killmama.
Morales: Oh, yeah, with the hotel room!
Paste: And how long you spend with the actors’ faces.
Morales: I love people’s faces. They’re so interesting. For this episode in particular, it was very important for you to go, “Oh, this lady’s full of shit. This lady’s just a human being.” And I wanted to get as much of Katie’s gorgeous, but very real, face as possible.
I directed three episodes of this show called Mr. Student Body President, and in one of those episodes, there was a dream sequence that was a rap music video. One of the things we did for that was we created a heart-shaped ring light that went around the lens, so when people got close to the camera, their eyes would reflect little hearts. So on this episode, I was like, “I wanna do another ring light! Everyone looks so pretty!”
Paste: Much more sinister this time.
Morales: Right, that’s why it’s the two slits this time.
Paste: You also got a great performance out of Sheaun McKinney.
Morales: Sheaun and I went to college together, we’ve been in plays together. He’s a brilliant actor. Knowing I only had two days to do this, I really wanted to trust the actors that I had.
What I really liked about this particular episode is for so long you go, “She’s full of shit” but when you think it might be real, you have a moment where you go, “OK, maybe she is a robot, but maybe she still has feelings? Fuck!” Then you’re out of it.
Paste: Some friends and I had a discussion about how much of yourself you could replace with robot parts before you stopped being human, so this was a great episode to watch right after that.
Morales: There are people that are cyborgs, right? With implants and stuff? [Editor’s note: Yes, there are.] My friend has a friend that has an implant in his head, with an antenna that sticks out, that vibrates in his skull whenever there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world. It’s such a tiny vibration that at first it’s jarring, but then it just becomes a thought in his head like any other sensor in his body. It is a VERY WEIRD THING TO DO, but people do it all the time. It’s very popular in Europe. What did you and your friends decide?
Paste: We said you can replace everything but your brain.
Morales: Even your heart could be mechanical if your brain was still yours? What if it was parts of your brain?
Paste: That’s where things get tricky. Do I just keep my brain stem and exist in the lizard part of me? If I can detect earthquakes, maybe it’s worth it.
Morales: I heard about this guy that got a Google implant, and now when you ask him a question, he thinks it and Googles it in his brain. So that’s gonna be common. Everyone’s gonna know everything. [Editor’s note: Neural implants are also a major area of interest to artificial intelligence researchers.]
Paste: And game shows will go extinct.
Morales: It’ll be so boring!
Paste: Let’s switch gears to talk Abby’s.
Morales: We literally just wrapped the last episode. You might know that Mike Schur is an executive producer. I’ll work with Mike Schur for the rest of my life if he’ll have me. He’s exactly my kind of comedy and what I wish my brain did.
[Creator] Josh Malmuth was a writer on Superstore and a playwright. [Joking] Going from playwright to writing a multicam is kind of an easy transition. We did this whole show in front of an audience, but outdoors. It’s me owning a bar in my backyard, right?
So we built a bar in the backyard of one of the houses on the Universal lot. We also had an audience back there. It was cold sometimes and we had to wait for planes to fly over, but it was incredible. It was like Shakespeare in the Park. No studio lighting. Every episode starts with a crane that goes over the city of Los Angeles, over Universal Studios, onto the audience, and finally lands on me so I can give the first lines of the show. It’s so weird and fun.
Paste: Is there pressure leading a show for one of your comedy idols?
Morales: Yes! Apart from all that, I’m the first Cuban person to lead a network sitcom since [I Love Lucy’s] Desi Arnaz, which makes me the first woman to do it. I’m also the first bisexual lead on a network. Not just me as a person, but the character is bisexual. [Editor’s note: Morales’ character, Abby, is bisexual, but Morales herself identifies as queer.] It’s a lot of things I really believe in, so as much as there’s pressure of, “Oh God, this could tank and I could be horrible,” I believe in everything so much and the people behind it that I couldn’t help but think that everything was going to be great.
Paste: That’s an awesome amount of ground to break! Were there any specific things you fought for to put into your character?
Morales: I didn’t have to because Josh was so collaborative, asking actors what we thought. I won’t go too far into this because it’s a spoiler, but there are no Cuban women named “Abby.” [Laughs] So I was like, “I have a suggestion for what her real, actual name would be, and it’s not Abigail.” And they ended up using it!
Paste: Did you watch a lot of Cheers in preparation?
Morales: I watch a lot of Cheers already. But yeah, the biggest reason I rewatched it is I wanted to know, “OK, what is Ted Danson doing behind the bar the whole time? What’s his busy work?” I was a bartender for a while, but I wanted to see how it translated to TV. I paid homage to that in the pilot episode: I’m doing all the same busy work as Ted is in the pilot episode of Cheers.
Paste: Do you also kick your leg way, way up whenever you want to talk to anyone?
Morales: No, but that’s a great idea! I forgot he did that. I still think Ted Danson should play my dad on the show.
Paste: Now that you’ve wrapped, what do you have coming up? I know you were working on a Cuba documentary.
Morales: That was something that I put on hold because of a lot of stuff that’s gone down in Cuba lately. I’m directing another music video for Holly Miranda and I’ve got another project I’m trying to get off the ground. It’s a feature based on a Buster Keaton movie.
Paste: Are you allowed to say which one?
Morales: I will say that the roles are reversed. I’d play Buster Keaton and do all my own stunts. It’s in color and there’s obviously dialogue.
Paste: That sounds incredible, but does this mean there’s no hope for your Trogdor the Burninator movie?
Morales: Oh my God! OK, so, a long time ago, I looked into seeing if those guys wanted to do something with the Strong Bad Emails and I think they’ve been approached and they don’t want to do anything.
Paste: If we’re talking about the weird edges of your career, can you tell me how you brought James Joyce’s nasty love letters to Funny or Die?
Morales: It was a late night on Reddit, which is usually never fruitful. Usually terrible. But I came across these letters from Joyce to his wife Nora. Nora’s responses were never found, but his were discovered inside a book. I was like, “These are the best things I’ve ever read,” and I started reading them at parties.
Then I said, “I need to get my famous friends in black turtlenecks and have them read these dramatically.” So I approached Funny or Die and asked them to trust me. And they did. That was the first thing I ever directed.
Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30 p.m. on HBO. Abby’s is slated to premiere in 2019 on NBC.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.