If you aren’t already familiar with Jenny Slate from her stint on “Saturday Night Live,” 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. Then there are her zany, impossible-to-forget appearances on “Parks and Recreation,” as “total klepto, nympho and pyro” Mona-Lisa Saperstein, or as Jason Schwartzman’s food co-op love interest Stella in “Bored to Death,” or as the title character in JASH web series “Catherine.”
Slate’s soon to appear alongside performing partner Gabe Liedman in Gillian Robespierre’s upcoming indie “Obvious Child,” but in the meanwhile she can be seen playing Amelia Gordon in Stephen Merchant’s HBO series “Hello Ladies,” an actress who loves rubbing her success in the face of the still-struggling Jessica (Christine Woods). The pair’s professional rivalry led them to some truly uncomfortable, hilarious one-upmanship at a dinner party in this past Sunday’s installment that played like a nightmare of showbiz insecurity. Indiewire caught up with Slate by phone to talk about the episode and the many projects she has in the works, from a “Marcel the Shell” feature she and Fleischer-Camp are developing to getting hired to write the script for a big-budget Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” reboot.
So you moved from New York to Los Angeles last year?
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Yeah, it’s actually going to be two years in February.
“Hello Ladies” is about this specific slice of LA culture — I was wondering if it spoke at all to your experiences there so far.
I was certainly lucky with my husband, and I have some friends who live here, but I came with the purpose of working here. Because that was my intention, because I lived here because of my work, I found it fairly lonely and isolating that I was living here for one purpose in a place that I didn’t like very much. Until I learned that there’s definitely no way for me to live with one purpose, that’s when I learned to calm down and enjoy life here. But it was pretty isolating, and there are a lot of weird, extreme, driven people here that are different than the different kind of extreme people that are in New York; there’s a certain type of really depressing, driven, crazy person that you have to kind of block out. [laughs]
The show is about that loneliness, but it also seems to be how no one is important enough in LA, and how everyone is aware of everyone else’s level of power and celebrity.
Oh, yeah. I watched [the previous] Sunday’s episode, and the scene where Jessica comes out of the audition and Amelia’s just commented on her auditioning for a tampon commercial — there’s a shot of Jessica by herself in the hall, just looking straight out. And I think that image is a really true one, really heartbreaking and really clear. If you move here to be a performer, you’re going to feel like that a lot when you first get here, and it’s hard to not try to figure out what your level is compared to other people — everybody is asking you that almost to find out where they are.
I had to realize that kind of behavior is happening, but it’s absolutely not necessary, and I always try treat to people nicely in Los Angeles because I’ve learned to go forward and do what I like. But it is not easy — it’s like people want this weird type of commiseration… It’s a real bummer, but there’s also a totally other, great side of it, and that’s why the show is also hopeful and fun, because you feel like eventually Stuart will find someone to love, and look at how happy he is to meet Annie [Lindsey Broad] after their first date. There is another side to break into. And the sides are both very interesting in the show.
I think I personally tend to over-empathize with the embarrassment of others, so there are times when I watch the show when I want to just cover my eyes. Is that awkwardness there in the room while you’re shooting?
I feel personally horrified by the things that my character does, and in the future episodes, she gets worse. I have, number one, a personal hangup that every character I play on TV is not a good person, so it makes me upset, because I don’t think I’m this mean person. But the posturing, It makes me feel a little nauseous. The posturing really makes me feel icky, because I know that I have those tendencies in myself to try and seem invincible, or like I’m just blowing something off, or something that’s important to me really isn’t important to me.
The way that Amelia is like, “Oh, I was stuck on this Leonardo DiCaprio movie” — when of course it’s the most important thing in her life — makes me cringe on such a deep level, because on the one hand, the challenge on set is to make this character believable, but on the other hand I’m like, “Oh my god, is this is a personal joke that someone is playing on me? Where they’re like, writing down horrible things that I’ve said, and now my karma is that I have to say them on TV and burn in my own shame?”
Generally the things that make us upset, or the things that we are repelled by in other people, are the things that we know, because they could very easily come out in us. I think this show does a good — maybe too good — job with that.
I realized, watching “Hello Ladies,” that you did play a similar role on “Girls” — the “professional frenemy.”
Yeah, I know — this strange coincidence. That, to me, is almost a bit of a bummer [laughs], the archetype of the “successful woman who started in the same place as me, but she’s a little more successful than me,” or something. I think Tally Schifrin on “Girls” is genuinely just a gross person. She’s super gross — I don’t think she’s apologetic at all. She just serves as a way to reveal something in Hannah [Lena Dunham], whereas Amelia has a bit more… I think she feels like she has to be a fighter. She’s not a cool person, but she could get there, you know, she could get a slap across the face and straighten up a bit. But I do realize that they’re very similar.
I’m at this interesting point where I’m talking to a lot of different shows, and usually, as a comedian, the parts that are offered to me are these little “flavor” parts for the show. Often times, for a man, it’ll be the asshole brother or the asshole man, but for women, unfortunately a lot of times it’s “the bitch.” I would like to work as much possible because I enjoy it, so I take the time to do the best I can in a way that’s interesting for me.
It seems like you’ve got so many projects in the works, between the web series and screenplays, in addition to all the acting. How important is it for you to diversify the type of work you do, or do you just take things as they come along?
I’ve gotten past the point where I feel like I have to take everything that comes my way, for sure, which is a nice luxury — and perhaps in a year I won’t have that luxury. But it’s important to me to do a lot of different things, and it’s important for me to understand that there are some things that I don’t want to do anymore. My husband and I are working on some shorts for Disney, and those are proving to be something new and very, very fun. I like to do a lot of different things, that’s how I’ve always been. I’ve always played lots of instruments and done weird artsy shit with my parents, because my mom’s a potter and my dad’s a poet. We always had lots of stuff happening in our house, which is a nice way to live.
You’ve mentioned that you and your husband are working on a Marcel the Shell feature — can you tell me anything about it?
I can’t tell you much, but I can say that I think it’ll be very beautiful, and we’ve certainly taken our time. There are so many things that are nice about Marcel the Shell: it’s nice to have created him, it’s nice to be able to talk in his voice around my house. But what’s also really nice is that the creation of the character and the way that the short itself looked came from a real, heartfelt and personal place, and I think the way that it hit people was really personal to them. Because of that, we decided to take our time and wait until we had a story that we really liked. I mean, you’re talking expanding about a three-minute stop-animation mockumentary short into a film; there are a lot of ways that that can be ruined, and a few ways it can be good.
How was the experience of writing on a big studio project like the “Looney Tunes” script?
I’m done with it now and I’m sure it’ll be passed onto someone else. It’s a studio movie, so I’m not exactly sure how it works, but my draft is finished, at least. I really enjoyed it. I was surprised that they asked me to do it because I’ve never written a movie before, but after I put those fears away it was like, “Oh yeah, I really am kind of a cartoon at heart anyway.” It’s both challenging and completely exciting that the characters are so developed and beloved and well-known by America.
And, in a way, getting to speak that language was thrilling. It definitely shaped the way I saw other areas of comedy; I noticed that my standup changed a lot when I was writing the “Looney Tunes” movie, just the comparisons that I made. Instead of saying I was hungry, I would say, “I look like a little cartoon mouth with drool coming out.” I liked walking into that studio world — it’s not as plastic as you would think it would be, and the people are just as smart and incisive as you’d hope in handling such a precious group of characters.
In terms of standup, what have your experiences been like on the West Coast? I used to go see your comedy show Big Terrific with Gabe Liedman [now a writer on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”] in Brooklyn, and New York seems to have a lot of similar rooms where people try out new material — have you found Los Angeles to be different?
When I first got here, I thought it was really different, just because the style of performers is so different. It’s so polished, and I think that comes from the fact that a lot of people in the audience can maybe get you a job. So for a lot of reasons, that makes it, you know, is it worth it to go out there with new stuff and fuck around? That was something I had to figure out for myself. To me, it’s always worth it to screw around, work through new things and try to balance discipline with being creatively free up there. New York is just an easier place to do that for me, because that’s where I lived for so long and that’s where I came up. But I found the audience to be welcoming here, and things that were hard were only things I was putting on myself. [laughs]
It still seems like every few months someone says something obnoxious about women not being funny, or there’s an article surprised by Tina Fey being successful. Do you feel like being there where so much of the industry is based, there is more demand for female projects, or more of an understanding of a place for them in shows and televisions?
There is certainly sexism in the world, but I truly believe that any person who’s talented enough to be successful will be successful in a way that’s specific to them. Not everyone’s gonna be the star of “Two and a Half Men,” not everyone is gonna be an indie darling; there are a million ways for people to be successful. I know that this is a conversation that’s happening, but to be honest, I’m not interested in it, and I’ve never felt that it truthfully applied to me or my friends, male or female, because I’ve never been in a situation in the standup world, at least with the comedians that I know, where my gender has dictated anything. It’s never been anything but a delight; it’s always been awesome for me to be a woman in comedy and a woman in life.
I don’t think the whole “Are women funny?” is even worth it anymore. Certainly there are funny women! There are a lot of other issues that should be discussed. I would be more interested in discussing when nudity is appropriate, you know? But are women funny or not? I don’t know, are people funny? Some people are, some people suck. Who cares? [laughs] Am I funny? That’s all I’m trying to figure out.
You’re very funny.
Well, I would have to think about it. I guess I wouldn’t be myself if I thought that I was bad. I mean, I don’t play sports because I’m not good at them, and I don’t like them either.