Jenny Slate isn’t exactly a newcomer, but she’s entered that period of her career where people are recognizing her on the street — even if they can’t quite put their finger on where they’ve seen her before. But it’s hard to blame them, because Slate is everywhere these days.
“It’s a bunch of Marcel the Shell and Mona-Lisa [Saperstein],” Slate said when IndieWire recently asked her what roles she’s most often recognized for. “I find that in New York, and especially in Brooklyn, it’s a lot of ‘Obvious Child’ people, which is really nice. A lot of people think that I’m one of the women from ‘Broad City’ — and I’m just not.”
And sometimes it just gets weird. “I also just get confused with people from their Jewish summer camp or synagogue,” she said, and laughed. “They’re always like ‘I don’t know how to place you!’”
That Slate would look familiar to the masses isn’t surprising, considering the large body of work she’s cobbled together over the years. Perhaps best known for her infamous foul-mouthed slip on her first episode of “Saturday Night Live” back in 2009, Slate has gone on to appear in both film and television offerings, like her standout role in “Parks and Recreation” as the delightfully dim Mona-Lisa Saperstein or her breakout performance as a comedian who gets knocked up in Sundance premiere “Obvious Child.”
A Not So Obvious Career
Slate’s seemingly workaholic pattern of popping up just about everywhere has continued well into 2016. The actress has a busy rest of the year ahead, thanks to roles in upcoming films like Marc Webb’s post-“Spider-Man” feature “Gifted” (she plays a kind teacher), Brian Shoaf’s “Aardvark” (alongside Zachary Quinto in the titular role) and Gerard Barrett’s fact-based “Brain on Fire” (where she plays a pal of lead Chloe Moretz).
That’s not to mention impending wide releases for festival favorites “Joshy” and “My Blind Brother,” which are also on the docket.
But while audiences might have to wait to actually see her in those films, Slate’s charms are on full display in this week’s new release, “The Secret Life of Pets.” The actress plays a lovestruck pup named Gidget in the animated offering, which follows her dog neighbor Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), who sets out on an unexpected adventure when he and his new “brother” Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet) are separated from their human mom and canine pals. The film is a funny, frisky team effort — but Slate stands out as the chirpy Gidget, who uses her ingenuity and can-do spirit to save the day.
This is hardly Slate’s first time at the voiceover rodeo. She pops up regularly on “Bob’s Burgers,” recently contributed her talents to this year’s smash hit “Zootopia” and had a major breakout with her own “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” – and it’s one that she promises will appeal to a large audience.
“It sounds so cheesy, but it really is for everyone. This is a fully realized piece of comedy. It’s really funny,” she said.
That’s not just lip service, either. Despite a packed schedule over the years, Slate said that the premiere of “Secret Life” marked a big step forward for her: It was the first of her film premieres that she can share with her whole family.
The animated offering also points to the kind of work Slate wants to do in general: character-focused projects that allow her to explore new emotions and situations, all guided by a carefully built framework.
“I think it’s so fun when the character is so established within that,” Slate said. “That’s the kind of work I hope to be doing.”
“A Three-Headed Thing!”
Slate’s next big role puts her back into familiar territory with some trusted collaborators. The just-wrapped “Landline” reunites Slate with her “Obvious Child” director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre and writer Elisabeth Holm for another story about complicated women that’s not afraid to be both very funny and very serious — just like their first feature together, a so-called “abortion comedy” that debuted at Sundance in 2014. That they’re working on a film that happens to be about a family filled with women seems particularly serendipitous.
“It’s personally pretty satisfying to me because Gillian is the age of my older sister and Liz is the age of my younger sister,” Slate said. “The actual placement of it in this triangle of women feels natural to me.”
The film is set in 1995 and follows three female members of the Jacobs family (Slate, Edie Falco and newbie Abby Quinn) as they grapple with different relationships issues, plenty of which are rooted in sexual complications.
“I don’t like the word dramedy, because I don’t think it’s a dark comedy, but I’d say it’s a really emotional comedy about a family,” she said. “You watch these three women at different points in their lives and what relationships they have. It’s just an examination of that: What partnerships you can have, what sexual things you’re willing to do, how do you identify being loved? In family situations, there’s really deep and intricate life situations that are exposed.”
Setting the film in the nineties – an era dominated by communication that couldn’t take place online or through a text message – provides some clues as to how Holm and Robespierre’s script will tackle such big issues.
“It was a time when people had to be face to face in order to get someone done. There absolutely can’t be a scene in our movie where someone finds out about something through text,” Slate explained. “All the things are revealed because the family lives in a community environment. Nobody really uses technology in a personal space.”
Slate is also excited about the sartorial possibilities the era has to offer, if only for the chance for a little revisionist history to her own experiences back in the nineties.
“I was a teenager in ’95, so I didn’t dress like a woman then,” she said. “I was really small. I remember wishing I wasn’t wearing Gap Kids.”
But “Landline” seems to be going for wardrobe veracity in a big way, and Slate promises that the film won’t offer up a shiny, hip version of a mostly tragic era in young fashion.
“If you go into a Forever 21 or a mainstream store [these days], you see the nineties are back in a stylized way. When we really started to dress ourselves for the movie, I realized ‘hold on, there’s a ton of stuff from the nineties we’ve totally left behind.’ Sexy women were wearing these crazy, unflattering jeans,” she said.
There’s a silver lining to that look, though. “To my delight, I looked a lot like Elaine Benes in some of the outfits,” Slate said.
Slate is hopeful that the film is just one more entry in a long string of Slate-Robespierre-Holm hits.
“The three of us work like one animal looking out into the world, like a three-headed… not a beast, but a three-headed thing!” she explained. “I like the mixture of the three of us. I think we all add something.”
Finding Her Own Skill Set
Slate is, however, hesitant to give “Obvious Child” too much credit for changing her career.
“I think if you go into your work going ‘I need to announce something to everyone,’ you’re kind of fucking yourself,” she said. “Using creative expression as a means to a professional end makes me curl up a bit.”
But she doesn’t deny the impact the Sundance favorite had on her trajectory, not only because it allowed audiences to see her work in a different light, but because it made her more aware of her own skill set.
“I hadn’t done work like that before and I didn’t know if I could play a more real side of things, if I could do drama and still do comedy at the same time, if I had a more integrated skill set,” she said. “I realized I had more things I could do, and I stand by the performance. I think it’s helped me be thought of for other projects where otherwise people wouldn’t have been aware of me in that way.”
Her packed upcoming slate speaks to that kind of recognition, but the actress is eager for still more. Slate, who considers herself a “very active person,” would like to do something physically rigorous, maybe something that would allow her to punch something on screen. But that’s just a self-professed “basic” idea in a sea of them. For Slate, the ultimate goal is something a bit bigger.
“I’m always looking to switch it up,” she said. “That’s all I want. I want to be entertaining and not be bored, or boring.”
If there’s one thing anyone can recognize about Jenny Slate, it’s that she’s far from boring.
“The Secret Life Of Pets” is in theaters this Friday, July 8. “Landline” is expected sometime in 2017.