There was a time in Natalie Morales’ career where she avoided wearing hoop earrings or the color red to auditions for fear she’d look “too Latina” and toned down the accent she’d developed growing up around her family of Cuban refugees in Florida.
“I think that is part of the general American immigrant experience, being acutely aware that if you present as too anything, you probably won’t get the job,” Morales (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Little Things” and “Dead To Me”) told DIRECTV in a phone interview. “It’s especially true in Hollywood when you’re first starting out. You do your best to assimilate.”
So imagine her surprise and how momentous it felt when Mark Duplass, an actor/director/writer/producer she knows socially and admires professionally, called her mid-pandemic with a project idea — which would become the just-released, charming dramedy “Language Lessons” in four short weeks — because it first required a heavy lift from someone fluent in Spanish.
Duplass (“Room 104,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Morning Show”) was not only looking for someone to play a Spanish teacher but also to be his co-writer. Morales would ultimately also take on directing duties.
“Mark called and said, ‘Hey, do you speak Spanish?’ He’d been taking Spanish lessons online and talking to his teacher a lot and thought maybe there was a movie in there somewhere,” remembered Morales whose first language is indeed Spanish. “I said of course because you don’t say no to Mark Duplass. At the time, I didn’t really register what making a mostly Spanish, bilingual film would really mean to me. I have come to realize it meant a lot because of all those times where I blended in. And because for some of my family, this would be the first time they could watch one of my movies without the Spanish track.”
Communicating in two languages or a Spanglish mishmash feels very reflective of modern American society, especially in states like Florida or California. “It’s common to hear both languages daily in a lot of places where more than one culture of people live and work. It wasn’t necessarily by design, but this movie plays differently for people who are just Spanish speakers than it does for people who only speak English and for those who are bilingual,” Morales said. “Even when there isn’t a language barrier, people are always trying to understand each other, find common ground, form relationships. It’s relatable.”
As is the premise of “Language Lessons,” which unfolds almost entirely in one-on-one Zoom-like classes and video messages, much like our own lives have since the pandemic started. Oakland-based Adam (Duplass) wakes one morning to find teacher Cariña (Morales) inhabiting his tablet from her home in Costa Rica, though audiences later find out she actually shares Morales’ Cuban roots. Adam’s husband has surprised him with 100 Spanish lessons. They hit it off immediately, but when she calls for the next lesson, Cariña finds her student in shock after the sudden death of his beloved. The moment instantly bonds them, and their connection grows quickly as the lessons continue to get more conversational and personal. Morales loves the interplay of humor, heart, and hardship.
“Life is beautiful…and tragic and funny and stupid and hard and soft and ridiculous. It’s all those things at once,” she said. “It wouldn’t be a balanced film if they weren’t all in there.”
The onscreen setting, initially a way to keep working during COVID lockdown, is a smart, intimate way to tell this story but wasn’t without its challenges. “As everyone who has had a Zoom meeting or taken classes online knows, there are always hiccups,” Morales said. “I have a dog. The internet would go out. I was supposed to be in Costa Rica but a garbage truck would come up behind me.”
She continued, “One of the bigger challenges was the computer fan being too loud. We had to figure out a way to turn off the fans to shoot and then quickly turn them back on so our laptops wouldn’t melt. There was definitely a lot to figure out. We each did our own makeup, wardrobe, set design, and lighting. That felt like the old days when I did theater, sketch, and made dumb videos with my friends.”
Sometimes, the old days where she “did all the jobs” and downplayed her heritage seem far away. After getting her big break on “CSI: Miami,” her résumé lengthened to include higher-profile projects like “Santa Clarita Diet,” “Stuber,” “Girls,” “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” and “BoJack Horseman.” But in other ways, many of the reasons she did the latter still exist. Namely, the dearth of good material for women or Latinx actors.
“How many female characters have you seen that are so clearly written by men, directed by men, and have no relationship to what women are really like or what they actually care about?” she asked. “The same goes for Latinx characters. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read that are like, ‘and then she just burst out into salsa dancing in the middle of this argument.’ And it was written by Whitey Johnson and you’re like, ‘Ask someone. Don’t just assume that’s how we are.’ You feel so misrepresented.”
Both the lack of compelling stories and the stereotypes that range from lazy to downright racist pushed Morales to pick up a pen and go behind the camera. “For so long, we’ve seen just one perspective, really. To tell stories from my perspective, that is also so many other people’s perspective, definitely was a reason why I got into this business,” she said. “This is my life. It’s not something strange or extra or even a diversity quota. It’s my experience and my people’s experience. The more diversity there is behind the camera, the richer the stories being told.”
Morales tries to remember that when picking projects to direct. “It’s important to also go outside of my particular queer Latina stories. It’s important to me to include other marginalized groups and specifically to tell stories about marginalized people that are not only about how they are marginalized. If we keep focusing on that alone, it continues to otherize us. Those stories are certainly worth telling, but there needs to be more than trauma.”
That’s why she made May’s “Plan B,” Hulu’s teen comedy about two girls forced to take a road trip to get the morning-after pill when the local pharmacist refuses to sell it to them. It also has a secondary plot about a Latina coming to terms with the fact that she likes girls.
“I don’t just want my movies to preach to the choir. I want you to be hysterically laughing and then at a certain point go, ‘Oh s—t, this is what this movie is about.’ With ‘Plan B,’ I wanted the audience to be saying, ‘These girls should not have to be on this trip at all. Why is it so hard for women to get basic healthcare in this country?’ Maybe they’d realize Planned Parenthood is important,” she explained. “It’s like sugar with your medicine.”
The road-trip romp, not “Language Lessons,” was originally supposed to be her feature-length directorial debut but production was shut down by COVID the day before shooting was supposed to begin in March 2020. Not that she’s complaining. “It’s cheesy to say, but creating Cariña, this movie, working with Mark, tapping into that part of me was all a gift.”
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