Latina Actresses Stephanie Beatriz and Natalie Morales Are the Future

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As we look for change happening in Hollywood, it’s time to shout out the brilliance of actresses Natalie Morales (the fascinating Sheriff Anne Garcia on Santa Clarita Diet) and Stephanie Beatriz (the badass Detective Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Both are fierce out Latinas on hit TV series, and their characters speak to TV’s evolution as well. Both actresses portray law enforcement officers (authority figures, formerly known as “The Man”), and their female cop characters haven’t been forced to sport ridiculously high heels and skirts in what once was a common Hollywood atttempt to seemingly keep women in uniform from looking like lesbians. Even as their characters have come out queer on-screen, Morales and Beatriz have been allowed to remain neither overly masculinized nor uber-feminized. In other words, they aren’t overcompensating, they’re just themselves — and that’s a welcome relief. Even better, that empowered ethos follows both women in real life.

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Fuerte Femme
From The Grinder to BoJack Horseman and Santa Clarita Diet, Natalie Morales is taking over Hollywood one hit at a time and doing it on her own terms.

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

There’s a giant, many-tentacled, multi-eyed monster standing between Wendy Watson and a square-jawed Golden Era comic book hero called The Middleman. As he marvels at Watson’s snarky, cynical, and rather unperturbed manner, TV fans watching the first episode of The Middleman fell for the actress playing Watson: Natalie Morales. Creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s short-lived ABC Family series became a cult classic (and Comic-Con hit) thanks to the smart, rapid-fire dialogue and energetic characters, but its biggest accomplishment was introducing the world to Morales.

The 2008 series wasn’t Morales’s first TV role (she guest-starred on 2006’s CSI: Miami as Anya, the survivor of a serial killer and the little sister of Latina DNA expert Natalia Boa Vista). But The Middleman introduced Hollywood to the Cuban-American actress, and casting directors took note. Many of Morales’s best roles since have had an element of the actress’s off-screen spirit: unflappable, intelligent, and delightfully deadpan — without being spiritless.

In 2010, she lit up the first season of USA’s White Collar as Lauren Cruz, a junior FBI agent (and was ironically canned only when the show brought back another actress of color, Marsha Thomason, as though two on-screen was one too many). Two days later, NBC’s Parks and Recreation called with a new job: Lucy, the girlfriend of Aziz Ansari’s character Tom Haverford and a bartender at The Snakehole Lounge.

A few films and recurring roles on several more TV series followed (The Newsroom, Trophy Wife, Girls, Are You There, Chelsea?) until she became Claire on Fox’s hit comedy The Grinder. Playing the acerbic and often perturbed attorney (and educated foil to Rob Lowe’s lead) netted Morales an even wider fan base and follow-up spots on Powerless, Imaginary Mary, Grace and Frankie, and now recurring roles on two of the funniest Netflix series.

Her character came out as asexual last year on BoJack Horseman, where she voices the light pink axolotl Yolanda Buenaventura (season 5 should premiere this summer). And the most promising: a return to Santa Clarita Diet as Sheriff Anne Garcia, whose lust for her missing partner’s wife (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis), we are told, will not go unfulfilled this season. Playing off a cast that includes Drew Barrymore and two of her former Grinder costars, Morales has uniquely queer chemistry with Ellis, so fans are eager to see the two go down the rabbit hole together.

It became even more interesting last summer when Morales came out as queer in an essay on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls site. For the very private woman who lies to Lyft drivers about her occupation and considers Kardashian-level fame to be more of a “shitty side effect” of Hollywood than something she’d ever dream of, coming out was still important — for the impact it could have on young people to see an out queer Latina on TV and know that she survived coming out to her Catholic parents, that she’s happy and healthy and loved, that they’re not alone, and that there’s nothing wrong or weird with being queer.

Now that she’s a household name, Natalie Morales is also something else: a celebrated role model. Morales is an outspoken queer Latina, and much like her contemporary — Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, who came out as bisexual via Twitter (and whose TV character Detective Rosa Diaz came out bi at the end of last year) — Morales is helping change the face of Hollywood.

They’re both disrupting the natural order, one that has prioritized casting white actors in Latino roles (hello, Scarface) and developing men’s characters while leaving women’s one-dimensional. And they’ve done it while being out as queer and bisexual, respectively, while on hit TV shows.

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Like a thousand geeks before me, I first fell in love with your work when you were Wendy Watson in The Middleman.
Really? Not a thousand. Maybe four.

What did you learn on the set of The Middleman that helped your career?
Oh, God, everything … not only the people that I met — but the work ethic from that show. It was a pretty low budget and I was in every scene. The way Javi [Javier Grillo-Marxuach], the creator, writes is super jargony, gigantic words. I’d have to memorize — every day — 10 pages of full-blown monologues that were all weirdo words. I’d have to say them super fast. We’d do 16-hour days, so I would get home, and I was like, “OK, do I shower or do I sleep?” I had to really choose. I showered. Just putting that out there. Well, sometimes I slept.

Quite a first job.
After that, I was like, I can do anything. I was so happy to get the opportunity to do [The Middleman] because it was the first time I had ever seen a Latina character be portrayed as a Latina, but also as just a person. It was a part of her culture, but it wasn’t her defining characteristic. It wasn’t what the story was about, and that really opened a lot of doors for me. That show was very monumental for me.

Did you have a moment in between The Middleman, Parks and Rec, and The Grinder where you thought, This is it. I’ve made it?
No. I don’t think anyone ever does. That being said, after The Middleman I was like, “OK, I can die happy.” Because I’ve already, at this point, achieved everything I ever dreamed of. I’m on a TV show and I’m acting and I’m doing something really cool. Everything after this is a bonus. However, I’m still hungry. I still want to see what else I can do and explore different things.

That takes some pressure off.
As an actor … you’re [always] like, “This is the last time I’ll ever work.” I’m pretty good with money, so I was hoarding it away, because I just never knew. That’s what all actors have to do, because you might work one time in a year. I think around last year is the first time I was like, “It’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out.” People seem to like what I do, and I’ve made friends. Directing and writing helps. I don’t feel so dependent on other people. I can make my own work.

Your Middleman costar, Matt Keeslar, wrote a really great essay about how he hadn’t worked in a year and decided to go to college instead.
I know. I think Matt also had a family that depended on him. I think that’s why a lot of us in creative professions — writers, artists, painters, actors — sort of put that off. You go, “I don’t want anybody to depend on me, because I don’t know if I can feed myself tomorrow.” We push it toward later in life. I really respect people who have children and who have people depending on them, and can do this, because it’s very scary. When I first moved [to Los Angeles], I lived in an apartment with three other roommates. There were roaches in the kitchen. I’m not going to put a kid through that.

Are you thinking about family now?
I’ve always thought about family — and I certainly have family. I have the family that I was born with and the family that I chose. For a lot of people, there’s a biological clock that starts ticking. I don’t think I have that. I don’t know that I need children. If it all works out and if it happens, great. But I don’t just need that at the moment.

I love the flirtation with Dan’s wife on Santa Clarita Diet. Will that develop?
I don’t know that I can tell you a lot. A lot happens with [Mary Elizabeth Ellis] this season, so it’ll be interesting to see. It definitely develops, that relationship. [My character] Anne is exactly who she is, and that is a very specific person. It’s a really fun show to be a part of. I think this next season really takes a huge swing from what happened last season … [this] season really blows it out of the water.

On BoJack Horseman, Todd came out as asexual—a huge thing for ace fans — and then your character, Yolanda Buenaventura, asked him out and came out asexual too. Is there a responsibility in portraying asexual characters?
That’s a tough question to answer, because by taking any kind of responsibility, I’m assuming, what? That I have to portray an ace* character in a certain way? Ace people are all sorts of different people and manage their asexuality and use it and define it in completely different ways. It’s just a person.

That could be the same said for an LGBT character too, or a Latina one.
Absolutely. Playing a unique person who happens to be ace or happens to be Latina … I don’t think that I would want to take any responsibility in making it a certain way. I think that everybody defines their sexuality in a different way, and some people get angry about how “That’s not asexual. This is what it is.” But they forget that different people have different experiences, and maybe that character has a different experience than you do. The whole point is to not fit yourself into a box.

Are directors starting to cast characters who just happen to be Latina in roles?
It’s interesting. I see both things. In my career, luckily, I’ve really tried to stay away from stereotypical Latina roles, and luckily I can. I can afford to, and I don’t knock anybody who would take them, because it’s a job. I think the three most stereotypical Latina characters that you always see are the maid, the sexy seductress, and the Nuyorican** or chola girl. Sometimes they’re combined. And those people do exist. There are maids. There are sexy seductresses. There are cholas. But if that’s all there is about their character, it’s just a stereotype we’ve seen before. I’d rather play the role that was written for probably a white person, because people just think of that as a neutral person. My experience as a Latina is maybe slightly different than a white girl’s experience as far as my background, but my ability to be a lawyer or a superhero or anything else is the same. In my career, I’ve really tried to gear it that way, so that it is not dependent on my last name. However, every time I book a role — with the exception of Wendy Watson — every time I book a role that’s written as white, they always change my last name to a Latino last name after I book it.

Do they have to explain your Latinness?
Yeah, which always bothers me. You could have a white father. There’s a million reasons. They want you to have a last name that makes sense, I guess. But then I also see, with the intention of diversity, roles that are written for Asian people or Latino people that are written differently. It’s like, don’t write it differently. Please include marginalized people in your stories, and don’t always necessarily make it about how they are marginalized.

That’s probably tough when you have super white writers’ rooms.
Exactly. It’s a lot easier when the writers’ rooms are more diverse. It’s a lot easier when there are women in the room. It’s even easier when there are people with all sorts of different backgrounds, who are like, “No, you don’t need to talk differently just because you’re Latina or black or whatever.”

I love your coming-out essay. I loved how you framed it, and one of the things that you said is that you’re trying to keep what you do and its shitty side effects separate. Does that get harder as you get more known?
Yeah, I think so. I always have to figure out a new way to navigate it. I’m really private. [I] don’t think my life is anybody’s business, and I’d like to keep it my own, but it was important to me, specifically in that coming-out story, because it’s sharing so much of my life. I was always a massive supporter of LGBTQA rights and I was always an outsider, or perceived as an outsider. I was like, I can continue to do this and still be a supporter and still be an ally, and not publicly reveal that I’m actually part of this community. Or I can maybe help one person at least if I use this part of my job to make them feel more understood, or at least that someone has been there before. So I decided to do that.

One part of your story really resonated with me. When you talk about the private giddiness and the public shame, and how difficult thas was on you and your ex-girlfriend. How long before you could call yourself queer?
I think I started calling myself different things at different times of my life, and queer, for me, ended up being the easiest way to not define it, the easiest way to be like, “It’s a blanket statement on purpose. I don’t want you to narrow it down, because it’s not narrow for me.” I don’t want to be put in a box. For me, “queer” just means not straight. That’s all it means to me.

You don’t have to define yourself more.
The word “bisexual” to me, and the actual prefix to me, specifically to me, delineates two sexes, not more than that. “Bi-” means two, to me, and I wanted to include other people in that, because I am attracted to trans people. I am attracted to nonbinary people. I am attracted to people who are gender-fluid and who define themselves differently, so I just wanted to throw a bigger thing out there, and I got a lot of flack for that, because people were like, “I’m bisexual and my girlfriend’s transgender, and I think you’re being unfair.” And I was like, “No, I specifically said this is how I define it.” Maybe I’m pansexual. Maybe you define me that way. Great. But people were very like, “You need to educate yourself. You’re wrong. You’re confused.” I got that a lot. For me to come out and for you to tell me “You’re confused” is crazy!

Did you feel embraced at the same time?
I did get a lot of acceptance, and a lot of people wrote me privately and told me that I helped, and that my situation sounded familiar, and that’s all I could ask for. That’s part of the whole I can die happy now, because there’s nothing really pinning me down, weighing me down anymore.

Were you already out to friends?
Everybody in my life knew. Not some of my family, which was another thing.

Did you then have to go explain “queer” to your lovely Latino Catholic family?
Oh, yeah, very, very Catholic — [they] still don’t get it but are very accepting and very loving. My family was really wonderful about it. But as you can imagine, I moved out here when I was 20 and lived my life. [When] something publicly comes out or if I ever date anybody, [my] family reads stuff. It does become a little bit of an explaining thing. But yeah, everybody knew before that.

Your mom had gay male friends, but you’ve said you felt like being a lesbian wouldn’t have been OK in your world.
I think women in general are used to a lot of double standards. It was just another one. It was a more hurtful one, I think, because all the other double standards, I could fight against. I could be like, “No, that’s not me. I can do this. I can do that.” But when that particular one is a feeling coming from those closest to you. ...  In Cuban culture specifically, gay men are not loved by their fathers, but they are loved by women. As a gay man, especially in older Cuba, you could get a job as a hairdresser … and everybody sort of accepted you, and you were OK, and the women around you loved you. But there was no place for lesbian women, not a single place where they could be safe, so you had to be really private or really, really fucking tough. That’s what I grew up knowing. I think a lot of cultures are like that, not only Latino cultures, but elsewhere. I think it’s always a double standard for women.

You said, “I don’t want you to know who I’m dating. I just want you to know it could be anybody.”
I probably won’t ever talk about who I’m dating or my dating life. I just don’t see why that should be public.

Did you ever worry if being out would impact your career?
I did think about it, but then I thought if somebody doesn’t want to work with me because of this, then I don’t want to work with them. And if I think that the good that this might do is worth whatever consequences — I’ll have to figure that out and fight through that.

We can’t have a conversation about women in Hollywood without talking about #MeToo. What do you make of it?
That’s a hard question, because it’s so big. It’s a universe. It’s our whole lives. It’s how we have lived up to this point being turned on its head and going, “Wait, what?” Like, “I don’t have to live like this? This isn’t normal?”

I’ve actually felt guilty because these younger women are speaking out about stuff we thought we just had to put up with.
But you did, because if you spoke out about it, either your career would be threatened or no one would care. That is literally what happened. It was different. It was so commonplace that I forgot things that happened to me until it all started coming up, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that huge director did slap me on the ass on set in front of everybody, and no one did anything.” It’s a thing you deal with and you move past. I didn’t think about how that was affecting me or my career or my life or how much harder I had to work to just be in the same playing field.

What’s your hope for 2018?
Oh. God, what’s not my hope? My hope is that [there’s] good that has come from all of the anxiety of this past year. [One] of the good things … is people that were never politically active before are now invested in politics, because they want to change stuff. That’s a good thing. People are talking more. That’s a good thing. There’s a saying, “Don’t bring up politics or religion at the dinner table.” Maybe we fucking should? Maybe if we’d been having these uncomfortable discussions, we would grow together and understand each other. I hope we keep moving in that direction. I hope 2017 is the cocoon to 2018’s butterfly. That’s what I hope.

* Ace is the moniker many asexual individuals prefer. ** A New York Puerto Rican.

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Mighty Mujer
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s ball-busting Detective Rosa Diaz — and Stephanie Beatriz, the actress who plays her — are fearlessly changing the way we see Latinas, bisexuals, and survivors.

By Desirée Guerrero

Stephanie Beatriz sounds nothing like Detective Rosa Diaz — the tough, no-nonsense, jeans-and-leather-jacket-wearing character she’s played for five seasons on Fox’s progressive, award-winning hit cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Beatriz’s naturally warm and light speaking voice is miles from Detective Diaz’s deep, humorless, deadpan style of talking.

“I do have a weirdly strange range of voices,” Beatriz admits with a laugh, a skill she has utilized in various voice acting roles (including on the queer-friendly kids’ cartoon, Danger & Eggs).

Despite the vocal differences between them, the actress and her character have more in common than not. For one thing, both have come out recently. In possibly the shortest-ever coming-out statement, Beatriz responded to a tweet by fellow actress Aubrey Plaza (who announced in July 2016, “I fall in love with girls and guys. I can’t help it”) with a simple,“Yup.”

However brief, it was the first time Beatriz had publicly acknowledged her bisexuality. In a wonderful twist of art imitating life, Detective Rosa Diaz followed suit, coming out as bi on the show’s 99th episode.

“I had been out to people that I am friends with,” says Beatriz of her own journey. “But I hadn’t really had that discussion with my parents yet.”

Born in Argentina, Beatriz moved to the United States with her family when she was 2 years old. They also brought their cultural and religious values with them.

“I think in the Latin-American community, bisexuality is still a very misunderstood thing,” Beatriz explains, saying it wasn’t easy for her Catholic-raised mother at first, but ultimately she embraced Beatriz with unconditional love.

As we talk, I am struck by the many similarities Beatriz and I share: We’re both bi Latinas, we both have a deep love and respect for Dolly Parton, and we’re both crushing hard on Kate McKinnon.

“In Ghostbusters … she’s on fire in that movie!” Beatriz exclaims. “She’s just like, exuding her own brand of sensuality and sex and, like, badassery all at once. Yeah, she’s dreamy.”

Any potential relationship between the two actresses will have to remain fantasy, however, as Beatriz is happily engaged to social media guru Brad Hoss. After Hoss’s October proposal, Instagram filled with photos of Beatriz at Disneyland, showing off her handmade rose-gold pear morganite engaement ring (made from ethically sourced stones, because, Beatriz told reporters, it was important to have a ring that matched her values).

Her TV character, Detective Diaz, hasn’t been as lucky in love, after her last relationship fizzled. In previous interviews, Beatriz had suggested Rosa should date women, so she was delighted when Brooklyn Nine-Nine writers called a special meeting last year to discuss Rosa’s sexuality and how it should be handled on the show. Beatriz, who identifies as bisexual and queer, says she felt strongly that Rosa should identify similarly and that it was an important part of the character’s development. After five seasons, other characters were moving on with their lives, getting married, starting families — but not Rosa.

“I think Rosa sees that that’s what she wants too.”

Beatriz says she couldn’t be more proud of the way the writers handled the topic and took her input to heart. When Rosa comes out to her friends and coworkers, “it doesn’t change the way that they see her, and it doesn’t change the way that they act toward her,” which Beatriz says are often our biggest fears about coming out.

But, the actress adds, she was happy the writers also didn’t shy away from addressing the difficulties of coming out to traditional, religious parents — a situation that does not get resolved within one episode, but rather remains an ongoing issue in Rosa’s life.

“At this particular point in history we’re in, it is important to have those voices whose stories [are] their own,” says Beatriz, who gets emotional when recalling when she first read an early draft of the coming-out episode with one of the show’s writers, Carly Hallam.

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“I saw on the page, ‘Mom and Dad, I need to tell you something. I’m bisexual.’ The words were there on the page and … if I had seen something like that when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have felt as strange or alone or weird or, in some cases, for me … perverted,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. “I felt like there was something wrong with me, and I felt like I wanted to scratch off my own skin when I felt those urges and feelings. And there it was in a script that I was going to help bring to life. It was an incredible moment for me.”

And now the versatile performer has brought her talents to perhaps an even meatier role — that of a sexual assault survivor. In The Light of the Moon, a film written, directed, and produced by women, which premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin (and won a coveted SXSW Film Festival Audience Award for narrative feature), Beatriz plays Bonnie — a successful young Latina architect and savvy New Yorker.

Part of what drew her to the role, besides the predominantly female cast and crew, was the fact that while the lead character was described as a Latina in the script, Beatriz found Bonnie was “a fully fleshed-out character.” She was happily surprised, Beatriz says, because roles written specifically for Latinas are often quick, stereotypical, or limiting.

Rather than focusing on the sexual assault itself, the film (written and directed by Jessica M. Thompson) focuses on the aftermath of the horrific event and “the effect that that has on someone’s self-esteem, and their sense of self-worth, and sense of who they are in the world … it just tears [them] down, systematically destructs them from the inside out,” Beatriz says. It’s a film that is both timeless and yet as timely as ever in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

The actress says she had been unwittingly preparing for the role over the past several years, during which time a close friend was affected by sexual assault and Beatriz witnessed the way it impacted her friend’s life. But, Beatriz says, she ended up shying away from reading a lot of survivors’ stories for good reason.

“I wanted to come at it with a sort of a clean slate. In Bonnie’s mind, this is something that she would never imagine happening to her, because she’s smart, she’s strong, she’s got a great career.”

That’s an experience that reads true for survivors who didn’t think they were at risk. Beatriz explains, “Sometimes we get in a bubble of a world of ‘I’m safe.’ Because — maybe I’m well-educated, or maybe I’m safe because I live in a good neighborhood … unfortunately, we are living in a rape culture, in which none of us really are safe.” Sexual assault can happen to anyone.

Beatriz, who was also an executive producer on The Light of the Moon, says she is extremely proud and grateful to be playing not only very strong Latina characters, but quirky and odd types of Latinas. In the past these roles were often very one-dimensional: she jokes about stumbling on shows like the ’80s sitcom I Married Dora — about a rich white man marrying his Hispanic maid — and being excited, because at least it had a Latina lead!

Fortunately, modern roles are far more multifaceted, much like Beatriz herself — an intelligent, Dolly Parton-loving, queer woman with ferocious wit, and a talent for weird voices. Latinas are just as diverse as any other group of people, and Beatriz says representing that complexity in film and on TV is key.

Aside from her two envelope-pushing roles as Bonnie and Rosa, the actress has starred in You’re Not You (opposite Hilary Swank and Josh Duhamel), in Netflix’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, and in Ice Age: Collision Course.

This year, fans won’t want to miss Beatriz in the heartwarming, hilarious, and whimsical female buddy movie Half Magic, now in theaters. The film, written and directed by Heather Graham, doesn’t shy away from the topic of empowered female sexuality.

“It’s really cute, it’s really sweet, and a little bit raunchy,” Beatriz says. Sounds like our kind of movie.

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