Jenny Slate Is Our Obvious Hero

2 comments

_MG_8930Photographed by Atisha Paulson.
It is hard not to immediately hug Jenny Slate, to ask for her advice on the Brooklyn dating scene, to see if we could get a beer after the interview. It is hard because of how approachable she is, and how real, relatable, and familiar her character Donna is in her new film, Obvious Child. Though Donna and Jenny are clearly not the same person — one is a successful, passionate actress married to her creative partner, and the other is, well, fictional — but every single experience Donna has in the film is utterly believable. And, it is totally conceivable that, like you, Jenny knows someone exactly like Donna. Jenny has friends like Donna, those messy Brooklyn girls who are truly clever, earnestly creative, and suffering from Girls-esque arrested development.

The other reason Jenny is so immediately likable is that she rose to prominence on her own terms. We all met her when she voiced Marcel The Shell, and we cringed when she dropped the F-bomb on SNL — and was promptly fired. But, network TV isn't for someone as expressive and genuine as Jenny Slate, who picked Obvious Child, billed as an "abortion rom-com" (which it is not), as her first starring vehicle. With the film set to be one of the most important movies of the summer, its leading lady is hard not to immediately, and irrevocably, adore.

What’s wrong with books? Every time a friend of mine says something really pretentious, I’m just like, "Go read a Dilbert and go to bed!"
"That’s really one of my proudest moments of improv, I’ve gotta say."

It’s really, really awesome. I really like it, and you just keep going.
“I watch it, too. I love it.”

I’ve actually been watching since before it was on Funny or Die.
“Right, when we just had them up on Vimeo?”

Yeah, and it’s really clear that you guys actually are besties, and that you’re cracking each other up. Like absolutely without plan.
“I know. They’re so good, and to make them was so much fun, too. We’d just get drunk at my house and do that, and talk and smoke and drink and make each other laugh. Usually, if you’d try to pitch that as a web series to, like, whatever, online people are like, ‘There’s not enough there.’ But, sometimes a relationship is good enough. You know?”

It was tightly done, and you guys are so funny.
“That’s all Dean. Dean Fleischer-Camp, my husband, he edits them. There’s a lot of garbage in there, too, that he takes out.”

Oh, that’s so fun!
“Yeah. He directs them, too!”

How many of the jokes from the movie are done organically? You have a great working relationship with Gabe Liedman [who plays your best friend in the movie], and you are a comedian.
“I mean, the script and the scene work, in terms of the non-stand-up parts, are really Gillian Robespierre’s writing, and we might wiggle around a bit in the scenes, but mostly it really ended up as scripted. I’m trying to remember. I feel like the scene where he’s like, ‘You should go and try to get with that guy,’ and Donna is like, ‘No.’ I feel like there is some improv in there, and you can kind of tell. You can see Gabe and I feeding into each other, but mostly it’s really Gillian. Then, in the stand-up parts, I lent three of my own jokes to it. Gillian wrote it based on my style, but it was really long, and so we worked together on cutting it down. I improvised a bit off of what she had written, and then she recorded that improvisation and rewrote. So, some of it was improvised in the moment, and then I would throw my own stand-up in, and some of it ended up in the film just to make sure the rhythm was authentic and correct. I think I did two, 30-minute, back-to-back sets.”

Really? Wow!
“It was a really weird task, but really fun.”

Do you do stand-up on your own anymore?
“Yeah. I do. My schedule is really different than it used to be, and so now I’d say I only do it twice a month, when I used to do it four times a week."

Do you bring observational-based humor into your stand-up?
“Yeah. I would say that’s fair. My style is really open like Donna’s, and I don’t think of it as blue, but I’m sure a lot of people do. I just think of it as being myself. I like people, and I want to be with them, so it just feels like connection and being gregarious. But, I realize there are a lot of ways you can see it. A lot of my stand-up is about my family, though, and growing up, and like having really horny, lonely teenage years.”

You don’t have any moments when your husband is crouching in the back and glowering?
“No, but I’m different than Donna for sure. I’m much more careful than her, and I’m older than her. I’ve made my mistakes, and Donna is making them.”

_MG_8884Photographed by Atisha Paulson.
The best thing about her is how real she feels and how fleshed out she feels. It’s interesting, especially given your relationship with Gabe and the fact that you’re using your own comedy. Throughout the entire movie, I had to be like, "This is not Jenny Slate. This is a character." Did you have to really erect boundaries there to be like, "This is not who I am, actually. This is elements of me, but also a fictionalized human created by Gillian"?
“Donna is fictional, and she’s really a combination. I mean, obviously, we see her through me, but she’s a combination of many different women who Gillian and I know, whose stories are all part of this one person’s story. And, I think the reason why I try to make the distinction is because this is the first time I’ve ever done a performance like this, and I’m proud of it, and it’s not just me being myself. Also, that’s not an easy thing to do! To just be yourself and be relaxed. I think if you talk to me, you realize that Donna and I share a sense of humor, but I’m just a different person altogether.”

How do you play drunk? There are a couple of moments where you’re wasted on screen. Do you get a couple drinks in you? How do you do it?
“No, we didn’t drink at all. I don’t know. I've noticed that a lot of times, it’s a placebo. I certainly noticed that when I smoked fake pot on television, that I feel a little bit stoned. I didn’t go to acting school, so I have no mumbo-jumbo to spit out, but for me it starts, like, with getting the words a little bit wrong, having a bit of a mush-mouth. I don’t know what it is, but it really feels like a placebo effect. Something natural happens.”

It was really convincing. There was this scene in the bar where you guys were drinking, and Donna was mixing alcohol, and I was like, "Oh girl, oh my gosh. Such a headache."
“I know. Sometimes it makes me nauseous when I watch how much Donna drinks. I think a lot of it for me starts with the body. There is a scene where Donna is asking if her friend can tell if someone is wearing a wig or a toupée. If you look at Donna, she’s almost lying down in her chair. She’s really lounging back, and I think that energy of the body is so low, but the energy of the scene has to be high, so it all just comes out of her face.”

What are three important tips to surviving a breakup?
“Number one, best friends. Number two, let yourself become a little bit of an animal. Drink. Smoke. Stay up late. It’s okay. Letting it kind of eat you alive for a second. Then, getting out of town. Like, take a train. Look at your reflection in the window and imagine yourself if you were a stranger looking at yourself.”

That’s a great idea. That’s very poetic. It’s literary.
“Yeah. There are so many ways to be romantic toward yourself, and you can set the standards pretty high.”

_MG_9027Photographed by Atisha Paulson.
Have you had to gird your loins, so to speak, about the topic of this movie? For instance, I wrote a review, but in the comments there was a giant discussion going on, and I just let it go on. But, it is still very much a discussion, which is surprising in our little liberal bubble. Have you had to ignore that part of the conversation?
“I don’t think it would be good to ignore any part of the conversation, but I think that it’s fine to screen out the things that are not useful. I’m not going to go on an anti-abortion blog when I know their perspective is not going to change, and that someone's behavior, and how they express themselves, is hard for me to understand. If I can’t engage in it, and it’s just going to be hurtful to me, then there is no point. But, I have had to think about how I wanted to act within the conversation and that doesn’t feel scary to me because I know where I come from, and I know what my job is. My job is to be an actress, but my personal desire is to be a useful person in society. I think that, for me, you can’t ignore the dissent, but it’s better to focus on a useful way to keep putting your voice out there. Not every style of fighting has to be done if you’re part of a fight.”

It was so refreshing that the discussion of abortion as right or wrong never really occurred, and it was just more of a thing that happens in the narrative of someone’s life. That was the ultimate feminist way of portraying this situation. It just felt really great.
“It’s sort of saying like, ‘Imagine a world where the strongest voices are our own.’ We don’t need to add a voice that doesn’t benefit us, that doesn’t have our best interest in mind. Let’s imagine a world where this person makes a very complex decision and continues to have a difficult time with it. Not because of the decision, but because there are just so many things to deal with when you make black-and-white decisions in your life. To tell other people about them, it feels like a lot. It has nothing to do with whether or not you stand behind them, but just letting other people into your business is sometimes too much.”

Which is the decision she makes.
“Yeah. For Donna, we’re saying it’s important for her to be able to talk about it with her mom, and it was eventually good for her to be able to get up on stage and talk about it, because one of the strongest parts of her nature is that she reveals herself in public. But, the part of her that grew as a woman was that she learned how to be intimate privately, too.”

Fascinating.
“Yeah. That’s what it was to me. You can take the movie a million different ways, but I think the most important thing to me is that people realize that we’re not saying like, ‘If you have an unplanned pregnancy, and your shit's not together, you must get an abortion.’ Nobody is saying that. It’s just saying there are a million different ways this story could go, and this is one way. And, we should have an interest in — and respect for — all of the different choices that a person can make.”

And, if it goes this one way, it isn’t all heartbreak and tragedy. You don’t end up in an episode of Law & Order: SVU.
“Exactly, and it’s not victory either. It’s just something more nuanced, something more meaningful, which is just the unfolding life process."

Obvious Child is out everywhere this Friday.