Interview: Natalie Morales Describes Her “Weird and Serendipitous” Journey to Battle of the Sexes

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After hearing Team Billie Jean and Team Bobby at the Battle of the Sexes press conference this weekend, I had the chance to sit down with one of the film’s stars, Natalie Morales, one-on-one.

You probably already know Morales from her work as Wendy Watson in the genre cult classic, The Middleman, or from her work on shows like The Grinder or Parks and Recreation. Now, you can see her in Fox Searchlight’s Battle of the Sexes as Rosie Casals, a Grand Slam tennis champion in her own right, as well as Billie Jean King’s friend, competitor, and doubles partner.

As one of the Original Nine players to leave the USLTA in protest of a gendered pay gap and strike out on their own to create their own tennis tour, Casals was instrumental in paving the way for a generation of female athletes. It’s a role that Morales couldn’t resist.

On what drew Morales to this project:

“The amazing thing about it was that I read the story, and I loved it, obviously. Being one of the only characters of color in the entire movie was important to me, and Rosie was really important to the entire story.”

On serendipity: 

“When I auditioned, I was working on The Grinder, and I wasn’t gonna be able to make the audition, and I was really, really bummed about it.

“I was like Can we please just see if we can make the audition as late as possible? Because I really want to do it, but I’m at work all day, and we’re on location, and we never go on location, and I don’t even know where this is! Finally, they were able to make the audition for 6pm, and I was like Perfect! And I told my work, If you’re able to get me out early, that would be so great. And they all worked really hard to get me out early. They got me out at 1pm, and it turned out to be in the same building that we were shooting in. We were in the lobby doing all the courtroom scenes, and the audition was upstairs. I was like, That’s weird and serendipitous!

On Casals, and how she sees herself in the former tennis pro: 

“[Casals] grew up pretty poor. She’s of El Salvadorean descent, and tennis is not a poor sport. If I’m not mistaken, someone in her family was her coach for her whole life, and she would go to the tennis courts and be in not-perfect whites, and she was brown, you know? She didn’t fit in, everybody was real white. And so, she fought really, really hard to be included. She had to work…I mean, if women have to work twice as hard then, as you know, women of color have to work even more, especially in a sport like that.

“I just thought, I come from a similar background. My family was really poor, and I have a single mom, and my mom worked really hard to get me any opportunity, so I sort of relate to being the poor kid, and having to struggle and try to fit into anything while not having the supplies or the advantage that a lot of other people do. Like, if you have better sneakers in tennis, it kinda makes a huge difference. You’re gonna be better if your feet don’t hurt, and if your racket is better, and Rosie didn’t have that. Rosie had to work real hard. So it was really amazing to get to play her.”

On what she hopes audiences take away from the film: 

“A fire lit under their ass, I think? At least, I do. Not only is Billie Jean’s story inspiring, but I was at a panel with her the other day, and she said something really amazing where she was like, There’s no such thing as an ‘influencer,’ someone who’s an ‘influencer.’ She was like, You’re all influencers. Every single person is an influencer. If you can talk to a person, you’re an influencer. You have the power to change things, no matter who you are.

“And I was like, that’s really true! I can talk to one person and change things for the better. And while it’s daunting that things haven’t changed much in forty-five years, and equality is still not…equal, it’s sort of inspiring as well, and it reinvigorates me and re-commits me to continuing to fight for those rights.”

Battle of the Sexes opens tomorrow. 

(image: Fox Searchlight)

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Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.