Film & TV

Jenny Slate On Her Career-Making Film ‘Obvious Child’

Film & TV

Jenny Slate On Her Career-Making Film ‘Obvious Child’

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A few years ago, after a brief stint on SNL, Jenny Slate’s comedic successes began unfolding one at a time, bit by golden bit. Some bits were sweet, like Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, which she co-created with her husband Dean Fleischer-Camp; others were bingeable, like hers and Gabe Liedman’s Bestie x Bestie shorts; or recurring, like her weekly stand-up set at Big Terrific in Brooklyn (she still has a stand-up show with Liedman at UCB in LA). Each piece was complete, easily savored on its own, and left fans with an insatiable appetite for all things Slate. When she moved from New York to LA, the parts came in quick succession, with a slew of hilarious characters on Parks and RecreationHouse of LiesHello Ladies, and Kroll Show. All of it has led up to Obvious Child, Slate’s first leading role in film, which marks a turning point in her career: not only is the movie funny from start to finish, it’s a warm and sincere story with a touching lead performance by Slate.

Obvious Child is also an honest illumination of a woman’s experience with abortion. Slate plays comedian Donna Stern, who finds herself dumped, fired, a little lost, and definitely pregnant after a one night stand. Amidst all the uncertainty in her life, an abortion is the most certain. Obvious Child isn’t about a woman struggling with her ‘options’ or decision or whether or not fetuses have fingernails. The abortion is fact, and that fact is explored in the complex emotions and lack of open dialogue that surround the experience.

It should be noted that the movie’s plot does succeed, in part, due to its Brooklyn setting, with its clanking radiators, mason-jar wine glasses, and accessible Planned Parenthoods. That doesn’t, however, make Donna’s experiences any less relatable. Obvious Child does a superb job of depicting the stepsrealization, a decision, a wait, the daywithout claiming to be being representational. Directed by debut filmmaker Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child illuminates so many other truths besides abortion—money struggles, mother-daughter relationships, and how friends can be stand-ins for family. We recently caught up with Slate to discuss the choices she makes in her own standup, the political position of Obvious Child, and her decisive sense of her self, as woman and actress.

Donna’s standup is quite similar to yours. Were the opening jokes improvised or scripted? Did you collaborate with Gillian?
It’s definitely the same style that I do, because I don’t know how to do stand up in another way. The same goes for how I kiss or how I dance—it’s just how I do it. There’s some stuff that Donna does on stage, and things she talks about [that I don’t do]. I don’t talk about my husband or my [former] romantic relationships, mostly because I don’t have the appetite for it. There isn’t anything there that seems funny to me.

Gillian wrote stand up for Donna thinking about my style. That stand-up was very funny but also really long. We were lucky enough to get an in-kind grant from the San Francisco film society. We went to San Francisco – it was me, Gillian, [producer] Elizabeth Holm, Gabe Liedman, who plays Joey, and Gaby Hoffmann—and I got up in front of them and improvised a stand-up set based on what Gillian had written. She recorded that and went home and re-wrote based on it. On the day of the shoot, I hadn’t really memorized it because I wanted it to seem natural. We sort of had bullet points, and Gillian and I had talked through those bullet points a lot, like how you would quiz yourself for a debate or a spelling bee. I went up in front of the extras and I did a set based on Gillian’s writing. Some of the lines were exact and some were more in the moment. It was really the most collaborative creative process I think I’ve ever had. Even during the stand up she would yell out for me to go back to something. It was a really active endeavor.

It’s interesting that you bring up where yours and Donna’s comedy differ. Comedy for her is so personal and confessional.
She’s sort of passive in using her nature. Her nature is to perform and be really open. She does it but she doesn’t really think about the limits. And in the end I think she’s learned that she is going to possess her nature whether or not she likes it, and that it can be useful to her. She always gets up on stage and talks about her life so why not do it? And right now her life is that she’s going to have an abortion. She uses comedy just to become more of herself. Each person who goes onstage, they use their real life in a way that is useful to them. Some people do comedy and it’smuch more of a profession than expression. For some, it’s both equally. For me, it’s more of an expression and less of a profession. I think of it as something I do for fun. It’s something I do to connect with people, and to remind myself that I am part of society, because I can be a little bit anxious and stay in my house. I use it to get over a reluctance I feel, or a shyness that might remain from rougher adolescent years. And I understand when to stop because I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone I love. That’s not useful to me. I use comedy to connect and hopefully not to dominate.

Do you think Obvious Child is necessarily a feminist or political movie, by virtue of its subject matter?
Gillian and Liz and I are not trying to hide that we’re feminists. We’re very proud to be feminists. Because I am one, I hope that everything I do is inherently a feminist action. But our film is not an agenda, it’s not an abortion movie, it’s a romantic comedy about one woman. And that’s how we see it. We see it as an expression of one woman out of many, and hopefully a voice that people want to hear, and haven’t heard yet.

And it’s even stronger in a way by the fact that it isn’t an agenda-based movie.
Yeah. There’s that scene where Donna, Nellie, and Joey are all sitting around and Donna is joking, “oh, maybe we should start our beautiful life together”, and they have all a different take on what Donna should do in terms of telling Max. Nellie says “it’s none of his business”, Joey says “he seems nice, maybe he’d want to know”; Donna is unsure. We’re not trying to say that there’s [one universal experience], but we wanted to show that it’s complicated. Everyone is going to have a distinct experience. This is one of them.

How was it acting opposite Gabe Liedman?
It was so much fun! We were both kind of nervous because we both haven’t done like normal acting together. We were giggling to each other the whole time, like “we’re in a movie!” We saw the movie together for the first time, and during the middle of it he leaned over and said “I can’t believe this!” and he gave me a little kiss on the shoulder. It was so sweet, we were both crying! I think it was very touching and very important for both of us.

Is it difficult to move between a role like Donna and your roles on Kroll Show and Parks and Rec?
I always come to work as the same person with the same skill set, I just use some of those things more, or put some of them away. It doesn’t feel difficult, but that’s also because I’m really eager to work, and I’m usually pretty focused, luckily, for the amount of weed that I’ve smoked in my life.

What was it like returning to NY to film Obvious Child?
It was kind of funny, I moved to LA thinking, There are no more jobs in New York, I gotta get out of here and move to LA so I can work. But the first movie that I got was in NY. I was thrilled to go back and play a native New Yorker. My favorite movie of all time is Crossing Delancey and it’s about a Jewish woman in her late 20s /early 30s who was just trying to figure out what she wants out of her life. It was one of the movies that as a little girl really reinforced that I wanted to be an actress; that I wanted to play all different sorts of women. This was kind of a fulfillment of that dream to me. At least the start of the fulfillment.

The feature was originally a short. Was there a lot of change in your approach to the narrative, moving from the short to the feature?
I think so. I think a lot of time had past–four years–and I really learned a lot about why I like to work, and what is satisfying to me and what isn’t. And I had the opportunity to hone my skills,so I think I was just a better performer by the time I arrived on set. But also the character of Donna had just been more developed, we had more time.

In a recent interview, you said that, as a kid, you couldn’t wait to become a woman, not because you wanted to change, allow you to have all the opportunities to do what you wanted to do.
That’s one of my delights in my adulthood, is being able to have the same tastes that I had when I was a kid, but to have really fulfilled those desires. I was brought up around a lot of interesting, smart, stylish women. One of my grandmothers was born in Cuba, raised in France, and has a crazy accent and a big red hairdo, and the other one dresses like Nancy Reagan and has beautiful manners and is really just a lovely fancy lady. My mom is an artist who was like, covered in clay. I just saw so many women, and a lot of them looked like they had really grown to understand what they had wanted, and they were living it out. I had always wanted to be a grown up actress, and I knew what that meant for me, and my tastes have not changed.