Arriving on the dot for coffee and a chat in Los Feliz, 32-year-old actress, stand-up comedian, writer and one-woman multimedia phenomenon Jenny Slate lines up for her caffeine in an elegant cream-colored summer dress accented with bright flowers. She crouches to ruffle the head of a friendly dog before settling in to talk about her breakout movie role this year in the Sundance indie "Obvious Child."
Slate's character, Donna Stern, is an under-employed Brooklyn stand-up whose one-night stand with an unexpectedly nice guy leads to an unexpected pregnancy, and she decides to get an abortion. The film, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, is tough stuff with unexpectedly funny moments — or funny stuff that gets tough.
Slate is also busy with regular TV appearances — "Parks and Recreation," "Bob's Burgers," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" — as well as her bestselling books and madly popular YouTube videos made in collaboration with her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, that star Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a talking snail-shell with tiny shoes and a huge heart.
Is "Obvious Child" a comedy or a drama about a very funny young woman?
I think it's a comedy ... but I think that we've come to expect very little from our comedies in terms of how much they should remind us that we have beating hearts. I think if I were just playing Donna as sort of a normal, stereotypical lead in a romantic comedy, I would feel uncomfortable because I would feel that eventually all of my little squiggles and doodads and dents would show.
There's a lot of "Obvious Child" where you have to work in, or with, silence. What was that like as someone coming from stand-up, which is such a verbal form of performance?
It was all a fun challenge, especially because I've waited so long just to have a part that has some dimension to it. But as a stand-up comedian, silence is the thing that you're the most afraid of — that's not what the art form is. But I don't identify as a stand-up comedian. I started doing it in the hopes someone would see me and say, "This feels like an actress with some gusto." I really wanted those challenges; it was delightful, and it required a lot of focus.
A lot of new comedy is based on irony or meanness, but "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" is, while occasionally melancholy, a thing of joy and sincerity. Where does that come from?
I think we became exhausted by comedy that was all about saying "Awwwwwwk-ward!" or comedy that is rough without having a heart. I know that I'm motivated to do comedy out of both self-love and self-doubt ... and I was interested in comedy that reflects a fuller human experience without being pathetic or sappy. And how hard it is, sometimes, to accept sincerity. And especially after working at "Saturday Night Live," I just wanted to assert that there's not one way to be truthful, and there's not one way to relay that the experience of being in our world is both exciting and really heartbreaking sometimes. It's all in the presentation.
Have you been approached at screenings by audience members who want to share their take on Donna and her choice?
What is interesting to me is the people who are mid- to late 20s who come up to me, men and women, saying, "I was really into Donna, and she makes a bunch of mistakes — but she's not hideous." She's not a pariah. She's a rumpled delight.
And perfect people are boring.