If the pandemic had a silver lining for Natalie Morales, she had to spend part of a summer lockdown in Los Angeles to film Language Lessons, an inexpensive, character-based film that she co-wrote and starred in with Mark Duplass, one of her filmmaking heroes.
While this dream project was being created, Morales learned that she could resume work on another dream project: the hackneyed teenage road trip comedy “Plan B” which she was preparing to shoot until it was postponed due to coronavirus concerns Start filming in the fall.
These films are the first two Morales, better known as an actress, directed as a feature film, and they couldn’t be less similar. “Plan B,” released by Hulu on Friday, follows the violent mishaps of two high school friends (Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles) in search of emergency contraception.
Language Lessons, a selection from the Berlin Film Festival and the SXSW Film Festival, which will be released later this year, documents the friendship between a Spanish teacher (Morales) and her student (Duplass) who bond during the online class.
Morales also recognizes and embraces the differences between the films. “These are the strangest two films a person can do at the same time,” she said in a recent interview. “I’ve never been one to enjoy being held in any way. I think it’s good that people see both sides of me pretty much right away. “
It is not a completely unknown quantity. As a performer, 36-year-old Morales has had a steady career as a supporter of roles in television sitcoms (“Parks and Recreation”, “Dead to Me”) and feature films (“The Little Things”).
But as she progressed in Hollywood, Morales longed to have more control over her material and tell stories that mattered to her. And if these two very different projects each have something to say about the kind of artist she wants to be, then so be it.
“My life, like my art style, is always high and low,” she said. “It’s always absurd and full of hearts.”
Morales, a Cuban refugee daughter who grew up in Miami, had some brief breakthroughs early in her acting career. She starred in ABC Family’s “The Middleman,” an imaginative science fiction adventure that lasted only one season in 2008, and appeared in the US White Collar procedure, although she then unexpectedly fell out of the crime drama saw its first season cut off in 2010.
Even before these formative experiences, Morales said she saw directing as the most efficient way to get the kind of work she wanted to do.
“My friends and I weren’t cast or seen for the things that I knew we could do and that we knew we wanted to do,” she said. “Either that or the things we wanted to do didn’t exist, so I wanted to do them.”
Landing starring didn’t necessarily solve Morales’ problems either. Two years ago she starred in Abby’s, a 2019 NBC comedy about a woman who runs her own backyard bar.
Although Morales said she was enjoying the enthusiastic support of the show’s creative team, she felt that during a period of executive sales, NBC lost interest and did not endorse the series.
“You can go up to get ad sales and you can advertise your diversity,” she said. ‘Check Out Our Bisexual Cuban Tour! ‘And then put it aside and don’t promote it. Put your money where your mouth is. If you don’t give it a chance to grow, what are you actually supporting? “
Over the years, Morales has directed and sketched comedy performances, music videos, and a Funny or Die Web series in which actors read from a series of relentlessly dirty love letters James Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. (She herself read from a program in which the author of “Ulysses” affectionately describes his spouse’s flatulence.)
But sometimes Morales found that her identity as an actor prevented others from seeing her as a director, and parted ways with a talent agency that she said would not set them up for meetings with her directing department. “I thought I was trying to give you some money – why wouldn’t you?” She said. “You didn’t support us.”
She got a pivotal opportunity when she was invited to direct an episode of Room 104, the HBO anthology series created by sibling authors Jay and Mark Duplass.
Mark Duplass said he and Morales had become friendly over the years but rarely found time to work together. “We see the world similarly,” he said. “We see it in all its darkness and still smile. But we have busy lives – I am married and have children. She does 95 million projects a year. “
Morales recalled her directorial assignment, an episode Duplass wrote for his wife Katie Aselton about a woman who claims to be an artificially intelligent robot: “I came to the first production meeting with all these ideas. And Mark said: “You know, you only have two days to shoot this?” I said, “I know.” He knew I knew what I was doing. Or at least that I had a plan. “
Duplass said Morales “did it of course” and she returned to direct another episode for the show’s final season in 2020.
Some degree of disagreement in their collaboration is natural and nothing to worry about, added Duplass. “She’s very wayward, I’m very wayward and we look at each other and we have a smile on our faces,” he said. “It never gets hot. At some point one of us feels like, oh yes, you’re probably right. “
When Morales had the opportunity to face the producers of “Plan B”, she pursued the project with a similar tenacity.
Although this film is very much in the tradition of coming-of-age comedies like “Superbad” and “Booksmart,” Morales said that the script for “Plan B,” written by Joshua Levy and Prathi Srinivasan, had some distinctive elements, which highlighted to her.
“The main characters are two immigrant daughters, two non-white people, and that is revolutionary in itself,” she said. And unlike other teenage romps where their protagonists strive for popularity, for the right party or for a parent’s car, Morales said, “The search in this film is health care – accessible health care.”
Filming of “Plan B” was supposed to start in March last year, but was stopped by the pandemic. While Morales was waiting for an initial two-week delay that stretched over months, Duplass contacted her.
“He texted me and said, ‘Do you speak Spanish?'” Recalled Morales. “I was like, yeah?”
That was the electronic seed that became “Language Lessons,” her film about the evolving boundaries of friendship between an online tutor and her student. Presented as a series of video conversations between their characters, the film provided Morales and Duplass with an inexpensive means of creative expression that fit right into the production restrictions imposed at this stage of the pandemic.
While Morales was completing post-production for “Language Lessons”, “Plan B” received the go-ahead for filming and placed her in a challenging position as a first-time director with engagements on two projects.
“She didn’t collapse at all,” said Duplass. “She’s very good at setting limits. She’ll tell you, “Mark, you don’t have to email me about this now because I’m staging a scene and we have to do it tomorrow.” That’s part of what I love about her. “
Her “Plan B” stars said Morales was never valuable to her newcomer directing status, which helped allay her own concerns about wearing a movie for the first time.
“If you fly past the seat of your pants, Natalie is the perfect guide to guiding you through this situation,” said Verma, who plays Sunny, a tight-lacing high school student whose sexual experience at a party requires the film’s journey .
“It was kind of a boot camp for me to be in front of the camera,” said Verma. “Should I watch myself on the monitor or do I pull a Johnny Depp and watch nothing that I am doing? She was there for all the stupid questions. “
Victoria Moroles, who plays Sunny’s best friend Lupe, said the director let her and Verma know that she would stimulate their experimentation and make sure even her wildest scenes don’t get unsafe off the rails.
“At the beginning of the film, she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m your guardian angel,'” Moroles recalled. “That’s how I felt during the whole thing. Behind the monitor was someone I could trust and who would allow me to take risks. This is important.”
Morales isn’t sure if audiences will see her next in an acting role or a directing gig, but she is writing a script with her friend and fellow actress Cyrina Fiallo.
Meanwhile, she said she could travel to New York to see a digital billboard for “Plan B” in Times Square. Or she sees the film at a personal screening in Burbank and listens to the reaction of the audience to some of its gross scenes. “I just want to be in a movie theater and hear people go, ‘Ahhhhhhh!'” She said.
She also welcomed the very satisfying idea of not having a follow-up order at all.
“I’m going to lie in my bed for a while and just do nothing,” said Morales. “I can’t wait to be alone. I can’t wait for nobody to need me. “