If you aren’t already familiar with Jenny Slate from her brief stint on
“Saturday Night Live” (she’s the one who made headlines for saying the f-word during her first live taping of the show), you probably know her as the voice behind the
title character in “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,”
the stop-motion short she made with her husband Dean Fleischer-Camp
that became a viral smash and screened at the 2011 Sundance Film
Festival. She has also appeared on TV in “Parks and Recreation” and “Girls.”
In Gillian Robespierre’s comedy “Obvious Child” (based on an original 20-minute short also starring Slate), which was acquired by A24 shortly following its Sundance world premiere earlier this year, Slate
proves she can carry a project solo. Slate shines playing Donna, a Brooklyn-based comedian and lovable hot mess
who decides to have an abortion after getting impregnated by a guy she met at a bar.
Indiewire sat down with Slate in New York the morning after a special screening of the comedy.
You sat in on last night’s screening. A lot of actors can’t stand watching themselves. I’m guessing you’re not one of them.
Usually I don’t like watching myself because you know, a lot of my acting is done on TV and either I’m playing a character who is like crazy looking and is just crazy, and I’ve done it and I don’t need to watch it. I enjoyed just doing it. Or I’m like apparently playing a normal person and they just put so much makeup on me that I like can’t stand to look at myself. I think I look better when I don’t have a lot of makeup on. Or I feel better about myself when I look like myself. I like watching our movie because except for the wine-stained teeth, I mostly look like myself.
A lot of people going into this will no doubt draw parallels between your own life and that of Donna’s. How similar are you to her?
I’m not that similar to Donna, but our senses of humor and our performance style are obviously pretty much fused. I think that was a choice that I made. It’s sort of like how I do standup is like how I run or eat. It’s just how I do it. I can’t do it another way. And Gillian met me because she saw me do standup and Gillian decided to make Donna be a standup character after just giving in to what I do. I didn’t want to change it. But, yeah Donna is a bit of a smart ass and I don’t have that instinct at all. I don’t like to make jokes that are deadpan. I often don’t pick up on sarcasm and it usually hurts my feelings. I’m pretty sensitive. And also my background, I’m from Massachusetts. My parents are still together. They are both artists. I think I’m more gentle than Donna. I think she’s more confident than I am and I think that I wouldn’t let myself crash and burn the way Donna does.
What about her did you relate to?
It’s not hard to relate to Donna because I understand the urge to share everything on stage and to perform and have everyone look at you. I have that, of course. So I understand performers for the most part. I understand the peaks and valleys of her vulnerability and strength. Even though they don’t necessarily mimic my own, I get them. And the writing is very clear. It’s all there. The choices were very clear that I needed to make. It’s easy for shit to get in. I’m one of those people who watches the TV and my face changes while the things on TV change.
How long have you been doing standup?
Since I was 22. And I’m 32 now.
Have you encountered a lot of people like Donna over the course of your ten years in the business?
No. I haven’t. I’m sure that the only person I’ve ever met that is like Donna is me, but it’s hard because I’m different than her. I’m just more controlled. But the way that we do standup is the same. Just different subject matter. My standup is about the body and about horniness and sex and growing up. And I just know where my limits are. My appetites are a bit more refined than hers is.
As a standup comic, what was it like doing standup comedy as a character in a film? I imagine the experience must have been bizarre.
It’s very awkward. It’s weird because when I’m acting I never feel ‘this is disingenuous.’ You know I’m saying something that I don’t mean. I know it’s acting. I understand the task and I understand the work of performance. But because standup is something I do mostly for myself and something that I hope is genuine and that I’m aware that it’s a performance, but I’m also showing everyone ‘I’m Jenny, it’s my nature to be performative. I’m trying to figure out a way to do it so that it’s not masturbatory and so that I’m working something out and you’re getting something. And hopefully if it works out between us that exchange is made.’ That’s how I feel about it.
This is different because, you know, there are distinct differences between Donna and I. And one of them is that she is just blasting, full out, without realizing that there could be different levels, there could be a trickle, it doesn’t always have to be a full fucking blast in everyone’s face. Which is something I learned early on because I don’t, I don’t wanna be selfish. I am a middle child and I am already aware of calling too much attention to myself. Donna’s an only child. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know at all. She’s totally surprised when her boyfriend is like, ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ She’s like, ‘Are you mad at me about last night?’ She has no idea that what she did is wrong because she was so delighted and it was so natural so how could it be wrong? But, I think I had to tell myself, ‘You’re not you, this isn’t yours, it’s your style. Do your job.’ And still try to have that energy of earnestness and that excitement to share–because we didn’t want the standup to seem fake. I didn’t memorize what we had. Gillian and I had bullet points and I would improvise and there were some lines that I knew she wanted, that she had written. So I would do those or she would call out to me. And I wouldn’t break my flow, but I would get it. Kind of the way someone gives you the light, you give them a little wink.
“Obvious Child” marks a major leap for you. Were you confident that you could carry a feature film?
I don’t think I thought of it that way. But, there’s something in me from when I was a little girl that was like, ‘I’m an actress, and I want to be a movie actress.’ And that desire has only gotten larger and become a bit more reachable as I grew into a woman’s body. I’ve always wanted to be a movie actress and in love. I really wanted to have a woman’s body. Boobs! I love that. And just to be able to be in a partnership. But I didn’t think, ‘Would I carry this film?’ And also, you shoot in pieces. I really tend to think about the day in front of me. Nothing more than that. I’ve learned my lesson through other jobs that it’s not great to try and see things all at once if you haven’t experienced it yet.
What jobs are you referring to specifically?
I guess I sort of felt this way on “SNL.” Just like, ‘What would it be like in the end?’ And it’s just like why do you think about it that way? You’re gonna miss every day. Why would you try and hold a whole year on your shoulders when all you’re supposed to be doing is holding a day on your hand? It just doesn’t make any sense, for me. Some people can really do that. I’m just trying to be an actress and get hired, and the best way for me to do that is to do it a day at a time. And treat myself as delicately as I would treat a younger version of myself. But feed myself more alcohol.
I’m just so hungry for it I didn’t feel any pressure at all. Like when you’re starving and there’s a giant meal in front of you, you’re never like, ‘Am I gonna finish all of this or will there be enough?’ That’s how I feel about small plate restaurants, even though you can order as much as you want as long as you could pay for it. There will never be enough for me. And that’s how I feel. And that’s how I felt like when it was over. I was like, ‘Fuck, it’s over. Shit.’ I’m very aware that I was lucky to get this job and that I don’t know how it all came together, but it did.
What and/or who do you attribute your sense of humor to?
I guess I must have found out along the way that people would love the parts of myself that some people say you’re not supposed to talk about. Maybe, knowing that people will love you for an honest expression of something that is usually kept hush hush. I’m focused on that rather than being like, ‘I hope people will love me for who I know or what I look like.’ Maybe that’s why I do it. I do it in my own stand up too. I love to talk about my body and what it does. And it is mortifying sometimes.
I have a new bit that I’ve been speaking about because I’m fascinated. It’s like smelling your own farts and stuff. I’m just fascinated about my own body and the weird shit that it does. I have a story—they’re not bits—they’re all stories about how I was driving to pick up Gabe the other morning and I thought I had to fart and I ended up pooping my pants just a tiny bit in my car. I was too lazy and I was like, ‘Ugh, do I go home or do I just fucking deal with this? Take off my underpants and hope my pants are okay.’ Both of my parents are artists and they were very food co-opy, very like, ‘We have steamed rice, basmati rice and broccoli for dinner again.’ It sucked. And I just wanted Doritos and soda. And we never got taken to a McDonalds. And as an adult I always joke that I’m pretty sure if I smell fast food I will just pass away because I haven’t been exposed to it. And the closest thing was a McDonalds and I went in there and was like, ‘May I please order a coffee?’ I had no idea how to interact with the McDonalds employees, and then just went into the bathroom and dumped out my hanky thong and was like, ‘Ugh this underwear costs 20 dollars,’ and then wrapped it up and saved it.
That to me is like, I’m just myself and some people don’t like it. Of course. And that’s their right. But they don’t have to come and see me. And also most of my shows are free. So that is on them. If they don’t like it they can leave.
About not liking you… Have you encountered any negative reactions to the film on the festival circuit? From pro-life folk and the like.
No. Not yet. I think anyone would admit that there is still usually laughter in the harder and darker times in our lives. I think that’s in human nature and it’s usually appreciated. Just because there is laughter in our movie in a time when the character is going through a larger life decision, laughter doesn’t mean disrespect. It can often mean relief. It can often mean an acknowledgment that bad times can pass. And that a lot of things happen at once. And I think our film–it’s thoughtful and we treat a subject that is hush hush with a firm hand. But not a rough hand and not a limp hand. It’s like we treat it like something that is normal. And in normal life, people have friends that have abortions. People have abortions themselves. And it’s not a giant plot point. It’s different for everybody. And I think because there is that respect there, people see the love and get that more than anything else.