Jenny Slate, Not So Obvious


Getting dumped, laid off, and pregnant, and scheduling your abortion for Valentine’s Day, might not seem like the beginnings of a warm-hearted romantic comedy. But, in the hands of filmmaker Gillian Robespierre and actress and comedian Jenny Slate, these tropes of sad-sack tragedy find a sweet and subversive retelling. In Obvious Child, Robespierre’s directorial debut, Slate stars as Donna, a 20something Brooklyn-based stand-up comedian (and bookseller by day) who, when onstage, riffs as freely on her dirty, day-old underwear as on lackluster sex with her boyfriend. Donna finds herself in the aforementioned situation after her day job goes out of business, her boyfriend leaves her for a friend, and a drunken, rebound, condom-less hook-up with Max (Jake Lacy), a “nice guy” working in tech, leads to an ill-timed pregnancy.

Slate, an SNL alumna, regular guest on Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, Bob’s Burgers, and The Kroll Show, creator of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” and writer and stand-up comedian, has been incredibly versatile (not to mention, hilarious) in the supporting parts and characters she’s portrayed on TV. But it’s Slate’s handling of Donna that encapsulates the breadth of her talents—candidly realizing a wholly relatable, vulnerable, wickedly funny woman struggling with the normal sort of “life issues” that crop up everyday on the road to adulthood. With supporting turns from Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, and Gabe Liedman, Obvious Child is, at its heart, a story of handling, and overcoming, those issues.

Last weekend, New York-based non-profit Rooftop Films kicked off their 2014 Summer Series with an advance screening of Obvious Child at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The series, which will run through August, spotlights independent feature length and short films at various outdoor venues throughout the city. Interview spoke with Slate before the film.

COLLEEN KELSEY: I know that this movie started off as a short film. What was the process of expanding it into a feature?

JENNY SLATE: The short was in 2009, so there was a while for the bigger decisions to be made about the character in terms of what she did for a living and who else is in her life. I think by the time we got into shooting it all felt really comfortable. Even though it was shot in 18 days, I thought about it for quite a while. It felt very natural. Gillian and I really share a sense of humor and love each other a lot. There was a lot of personal comfort. 

KELSEY: What did you relate to the most with Donna? You share some similarities in terms of working in comedy, but obviously she’s fictionalized. What’s that like?

SLATE: Donna is a city kid—as a person, she’s way more of a smartass than I am. Onstage, her heart beats with mine, for sure. I understand the voice that she’s speaking. When I talk about my own life I tend to be just as open, I guess. But, I was really excited about playing another woman. What connected me to the character, first off, was my curiosity about the experience that other women have, just being women. That sounds so general, but it really means a lot to me.

KELSEY: What I found refreshing about Obvious Child is how true to life it is and how frank it is about experiences women go through—even the banal ones. That’s a fairly rare narrative.

SLATE: Sure. You know, I think a lot of comedy, especially the comedy that I’ve done so far in my career that other people have written on TV, tends to be really cut and dry. I find all of those jobs to be really funny, but they don’t all get really vulnerable. I mean, you’re vulnerable thinking, “Well, shit, I hope I don’t suck.” But I have a softer side that I’d like to explore in my work. It doesn’t really get out in the characters I’ve played so far. I tend to play really bitchy people. I just had this notion of showing a woman who is both confident enough to go onstage and not let anything be held back, and also what it’s like for her in her private time. You don’t get to see both of those sides a lot, and I was just really hungry for it.

KELSEY: What has been your own relationship with doing stand-up?

SLATE: I’m just chatty and I’m gregarious, I think, and I can be very naturally lonely. My reaction to that is to try to make as many friends as possible and as many connections and to have a constant stream of sharing going on, hopefully both ways. So, I’ve always been very comfortable doing stand-up, but I’ve also only ever tried to do it my way. I never was like “Oh shit, I wish I had some great material that I could do at The Comedy Store,” or “I can get on the road and go to any club anywhere and do it.” When I started in the “alternative comedy scene” it was really starting to become an actual thing, so it was a very comfortable place for me to be like, “Well, actually, I think stand-up is this, and I do it this way.” I don’t feel compulsion or an urge or pressure to try to fit in, especially to a culture that seems inherently male and not very modern.

KELSEY: How do you see Donna evolving through the course of the film?

SLATE: I’ve been thinking a lot of that recently. I think what I’ve landed on is that when she makes bigger decisions, like whether or not she should tell Max, or whether or not she should even have dinner with him, or whether or not she tell him that she’s having the abortion… She knows she’s having the abortion. She says in her final monologue, “I’ll do this, and then I’ll be in my future.” She starts as a person saying, “Well this happened because that person did that to me, and they fucked with me, and now I’m spinning out.” And she ends at a place where she’s like, “Actually, every decision is just part of a greater life. And they’re all big and they’re all adult decisions because I’m an adult. And they’re all equally part of me.”