‘Battle of the Sexes’ Star Natalie Morales Is Queer, Vegetarian, Cuban, and Proud


Actress Natalie Morales is about to dive face-first into Brooklyn’s Ample Hills’ gooey butter cake ice cream when the scooper suddenly stops and tilts his head at her. “I know you from somewhere,” he says. “Master of None?” She laughs and shakes her head. “No—but another one of Aziz’s ladies on Parks and Rec,” Morales says, taking the cone from him.

Morales has a sunny personality and a willingness to open up that makes you feel like you’ve known her for years. Before this ice cream nightcap, over carrot crepes and sweet pea falafel at Olmsted down the street, it was easy to forget that I was hanging out with a bone fide star. In addition to playing sarcastic, quick-witted Lucy on Parks and Recreation, Morales had roles on ABC’s short-lived but critically acclaimed Trophy Wife and HBO’s Girls. She’s known for playing powerful women: junior FBI agent Lauren Cruz on White Collar, a lawyer who won’t fall for Rob Lowe on The Grinder, and a sheriff’s deputy on Drew Barrymore‘s show Santa Clarita Diet. Now, in her first major film appearance, she co-stars with Emma Stone in the Billie Jean King biopic, Battle of the Sexes.

Morales grew up in a tight-knit Cuban family, and her decisions have sometimes challenged them. A decade ago, she chose to move away from her home city of Miami to pursue acting full-time in LA. She’d been working a few odd jobs, like bartending and setting up Hollister window displays, but, as she booked more roles, she realized that moving was the best thing for her career.

Her family understood, but she dropped another bombshell on them when she went vegetarian in 2010. “My whole family was like, “What are you going to eat at Christmas?” All we do is eat,” she explains. “No one disowned me, but they just didn’t understand at all.”

Then, in June, Morales came out as queer in a powerful letter on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. She declines to discuss how or when she told her family but says, “My friends and family knew I was queer before I wrote that article, but a lot of older people close to me urged me not to come out. They thought it would affect my career and people would pigeonhole me into certain roles. But that was a risk that I was willing to take, because even if one kid felt understood and one adult’s mind was changed in any way, then it was worth it.”

 Emma Stone and Natalie Morales in the film Battle of the Sexes

Emma Stone and Natalie Morales in Battle of the Sexes

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox

It was, in part, her role in Battle of the Sexes that inspired Morales to come out. The biopic centers around the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but the heart of the story is King’s struggles to come out and fight for equal pay in the ‘70s. Morales plays Rosie Casals, King’s doubles tennis partner (but not romantic partner), and found that she felt hypocritical talking about the subject during press but not being fully honest about her own sexuality. “I was fighting for LGBTQ rights, yet I wasn’t actually part of a conversation because I wasn’t out publicly. I sacrificed privacy because representation matters,” she says.

Morales wants to clarify that she isn’t gay, something that was widely misreported at first. “What queer means to me is just simply that I’m not straight,” she wrote in her letter, though she prefers not to use labels at all.

Though Morales grew up in a loving, supportive home, money was always tight. “My family was really poor so I grew up having to appreciate every single thing put in front of me. It was one of those things like, you finish everything that’s on your plate,” she explains. Once she gained some success in Hollywood, she allowed herself to think about what she wanted to put in her body, which is why she finally quit eating meat. It was the first time that Morales ever let herself be choosy about what she ate. She did it slowly, one protein at a time. The most difficult one was pork, a staple in her Cuban household growing up, and she owes it all to LA traffic. On a drive back from Vegas, she was stuck next to a 16-wheeler of pigs headed to a slaughterhouse. “This one little pig stuck its head out and just stared at me for the two hours we were in traffic,” Morales recalls. “I thought about opening the thing and letting all the pigs out, but then they’d die in the desert! I wanted to save them, but I couldn’t, so I vowed to never eat pork again. I’d just imagine that pig’s face every time I ate it for the rest of my life.”

But the hardest dietary change turned out to be adding more vegetables, a category of food that was still foreign to her—even in her 20s.

“The extent of vegetables that I had was carrots smothered in butter—I had my first asparagus when I was 21,” she says. Potatoes were one of the only prominent vegetables in her grandmother’s Cuban cooking. For the most part, she’s an equal vegetable opportunist, save for one that she absolutely despises. “Beets can go f*ck themselves,” Morales states firmly. “They taste like dirt and soap.”

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Photo by Emma Fishman

Upping her vegetable intake has become easier thanks to her love affair with Sun Basket, a meal-kit company that uses sustainable, organic ingredients from local farms. A few times a month she riffs off their recipes and throw in her own experimental ingredients and techniques, mostly using it as a way to avoid going grocery shopping when she’s busy. Cooking is her main source of self care, which started when she was six years old helping her grandmother in the kitchen. “I learned everything from my Mima,” Morales says. “She was pulled out of school in second grade and became a maid when she was eight years old, so she never found any joy in cooking. Her joy was teaching me.” She mastered Cuban coffee at a young age, and learned most of the family recipes by heart before her Mima passed away five years ago.

These days, Morales cooks for herself and friends at least three times a week and calls her style: “What do I have in the house and what can I make out of it?” Some of her best dishes have involved transforming childhood favorites into new vegetarian versions. “I made ropa vieja with jackfruit instead of shredded beef for my Cuban friends recently, and it tasted so much like the real thing that it made me want to cry,” she says. “It was so wonderful. I hadn’t eaten it in twelve years.” She’s also made picadillo, a stewed ground beef dish, with Beyond Meat pea protein, and slow-cooks shredded firm tofu in barbecue sauce for her take on pulled pork. Okay, so that last one’s not Cuban, but she thinks her late Mima would appreciate it all the same.

And there are some childhood foods she doesn’t have to give up. “My stepdad sends me mangoes from my backyard tree in Miami, which my grandfather planted. It’s still my favorite thing on Earth,” she says. She used to sell mango slices from the same tree when she was a kid, on the street the way other kids sold lemonade. When kids started copying her, she told me, she’d “rough ‘em up” and convince them to join her stand instead. “I developed a mango monopoly when I was nine years old,” she says, laughing so hard that she pops a button on her nautical vintage dress. “I’m very attached to that tree—those mangoes make the best ice cream.”



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