The day before actress and director Natalie Morales started shooting her very first feature film, the teen comedy Plan B, in March 2020, the production shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But waiting in the wings for her was actor and director Mark Duplass.
“I was very sorry that happened, but I was also an opportunist,” Duplass told Remezcla during a recent interview. “I knew she would have some time off.”
Morales and Duplass knew each other from different social circles. She also directed a pair of episodes of the HBO series Room 104 that Duplass had co-written. However, he wasn’t on set when she was behind the camera.
“I had always wanted to work with him, so getting to work on Room 104 was a huge opportunity and [a] dream for me,” Morales told Remezcla. “But we had never really spent a lot of time together.”
That changed when Morales and Duplass put their heads together to co-write Language Lessons, a dramedy that plays out exclusively on a video chat platform – mainly in Spanish. In the film, which Morales also directs, she plays Cariño, a Costa Rica-based Spanish teacher, who is hired to give her new student, Adam (Duplass), virtual Spanish lessons.
When Adam’s husband dies tragically, he turns to Cariño for support, and the two start to build a virtual friendship with one another. However, Cariño starts to think their student-teacher relationship is becoming too personal. Much like some of his earlier films that he has written, Duplass wanted to make Language Lessons with a minimal script and rely on a lot of improvisation. As “crazy as the pitch sounded,” he had a good feeling that Morales would get on board. She did.
“We knew where we wanted scenes to go, and we knew specific emotional beats we wanted to hit, but we also wanted to keep it fresh and alive and for it not to feel fake,” Morales said. “I’m really not used to improvising dramatic scenes, so that was a fun challenge for me.”
Duplass said Morales has a “specific set of skills that make her well suited” for a movie like Language Lessons. Performing a scene while at the same time writing it in your head can become conflictive for some actors, but Morales understood the assignment well.
“There are great actors who show up on set [and] know their lines so well that they can…just get lost in that role,” he said. “What we’re doing here is quite different. You are maintaining a part of your brain and keeping it alive to write the entire time. Natalie got it.”
As challenging as that aspect might’ve been for Morales, Duplass was in the same boat. However, he also had to perform his role in a language he didn’t speak growing up. He started studying Spanish in high school and continued in college and was actually taking online Spanish lessons when he was inspired to make a film about that experience.
“Spanish is definitely something I’ve had around,” Duplass said. “I got a great piece of advice from my older brother when I was starting Spanish in high school. He said, ‘Pay attention to this. You can learn this and carry it with you in life. F—k geometry.”
Although Morales is fluent in Spanish, she has never really been given the opportunity in Hollywood to speak the language before. She considers Language Lessons very special to her for a couple of reasons.
“Spanish is my first language [but], unfortunately…I did feel at a certain point in my life and career that I kind of had to suppress that side of me to succeed in this business,” she explained. “So, it was nice to go back and embrace that and make it the center of what I was doing.”
Morales is also thrilled that this is the first time some of her family members who don’t speak English will watch one of her movies without using the Spanish-language audio track to translate it for them.
“For them to be able to watch a movie and really connect with it because it’s in their language really means a lot to me,” she said. “It’s very special to me to make something that not only my family can get but also my extended community in a way I don’t think I’ve ever done for them and myself. It’s not something I realized would happen for me – that I would feel this way in my heart.”
Language Lessons opens at limited theaters on September 10.