In Battle of the Sexes, Natalie Morales plays real-life tennis star, Rosie Casals, a game-changing athlete who fought for equal pay alongside Billie Jean King. And just like her character, Morales wants to change the game she's in, too, at least when it comes to the representation of people of color or LGBT people on-screen. Whatever it is that makes an actor or character marginalized shouldn't determine their roles, Morales tells Bustle in a recent interview — but, she adds, that doesn't mean that marginalized characteristics, whether it's brownness or queerness or something else, don't still need to be represented.
"I always say that I would like to see more marginalized people in stories that are not necessarily about how they are marginalized," Morales says, sitting down in Bustle's New York office. While there's no denying the importance of recent films like Get Out and Hidden Figures addressing subjects like racism and stereotypes, for instance, Morales,who herself is a queer Latina woman, doesn't personally want for these "Othered" identities to determine her career.
And so far, it hasn't. Over the last several years, Morales has taken on a variety of must-see roles, stealing scenes in shows like Parks and Recreation and The Grinder. And now, there's September's Battle of the Sexes, in which the actor plays Rosie Casals, a tennis star among the first female players to go pro. Alongside her teammates, Casals advocated for equal pay for women in tennis, who, in the early 1960s, received a pittance compared to men. For Morales, the fact that the movie showcases Casals, who's El Salvadorian, but doesn't define her by her identity, was essential. "I oftentimes say no to [certain roles] if they’re stereotypical, because I don’t want to do them," the actor explains.
Like many people, Morales loved the recent film The Big Sick, partly because of how Kumail Nanjiani's identity as a Pakistani influenced the premise, but in a very nuanced way. "It wasn’t necessarily about how him being Pakistani affected his job or his life or the hardships that he went through," Morales explains. Still, she adds, "I would like to see a movie where there’s a Pakistani guy who’s the lead and you never talk about the fact that he’s Pakistani."
Morales isn't suggesting that Hollywood eschews celebrating marginalized people and cultures, of course. She simply wants to see more of both kinds of roles — the ones that comment upon a non-white or non-heterosexual or non-cisgender actor's Otherness, and the ones that don't. "I think we still do have some time to still talk about [marginalized identities] because we haven’t been able to for a long time in movies and TV, nobody’s really cared about our experiences," Morales explains. "But I also think we have room to be just people in movies, which is [sic] luckily the roles I’ve chosen to take and been lucky enough to have."
Unfortunately, it's not exactly easy for actors of marginalized identities to find worthy roles. Often, Morales explains, the roles offered to her are limiting. "There’s three archetypes of Latina characters," Morales says. "It’s the maid, it’s the sexy seductress, and it’s the either the Nuyorican tough girl or the California version of that. Sometimes it’s combined, sometimes there’s a sexy maid, sometimes it’s the Nuyorican seductress, but it’s always one of those three."
"And while those people do exist," she continues, "I think that if there’s not something more to that character, if that’s all they are, I don’t want to play that and I don’t think we need any more of it."
Morales is no stranger to taking a stand. In June, she published an essay for Amy Poehler's Smart Girls titled, "Natalie Morales would like you to know nothing about her, except for one thing…" in which she came out as queer and shared her story about coming to terms with her sexuality. While the actor is a private person, she felt the essay was too important not to write. "When I was a kid and when it was really hard for me, if I had had somebody that I’d seen on TV or something, somebody like on Saved by the Bell who was queer and open about it and normal and fine... I would’ve been like, ‘oh OK, I’m not a weirdo,'" Morales explains now.
Before she published her essay, the actor says that people in the film industry warned her against it. "A lot of people [were] telling me not to do it because I wouldn’t get work or I would be typecast in some way or people wouldn’t hire me," she recalls. "And I was just like, ‘well then I don’t want to work with those people.'"
Despite the challenges, Morales is working towards picking only roles that are as far from typecasting as it gets. "I’m just trying to move away from those things and keep taking those white girl roles," she says, jokingly. "[If] the script says ‘a woman walks in,' that should be any woman, and so I just keep going for roles that are not necessarily specifically about the fact that I’m a Latina woman."
It's a fine line though, of course. As Morales says, "You want to celebrate those differences as well, but you don’t want everything to be about that." So to make that balance happen, the actor is creating characters of her own; recently, Morales created a TV show with her best friend, and she also wrote a movie she plans to direct. "I want to see the day where people like me and people not like me are all the same," she says. "We’re all just people, and the stories are all different."
In movies like Battle of the Sexes and in work like her upcoming projects, everyone will get a taste of the unique roles that Morales wishes to celebrate — the ones that showcase a rich variety of human identities, while simply telling stories to which every person can relate.