Most people will know Jenny Slate for her smaller character roles on shows like “Kroll Show” or “Parks and Recreation.” Or perhaps even as the cast member who accidentally dropped an F-bomb during her very first SNL appearance a few years back. But after many years of guest roles and live performances, the very funny and very talented Slate is ready for the spotlight and it shows in her upcoming film “Obvious Child.” In our sit down conversation at the SXSW festival in Austin, Jenny and I talk about tackling the tough subject of abortion head on, using comedy as a way to heal, and what her ultimate dream project would be.
Since this is one of the first films where you’re really in the lead, I wanted to start by asking about what the process was like of making the movie and taking it to Sundance and getting distribution and everything.
The script was being worked on for a while and I was lucky enough to be consulted and be involved with it, so I felt very close to the script once we got started. In terms of carrying the film and being the lead actress, that just was such a dream. It is really nice to be able to go to work every day and to be needed and to have a character you can plug into so consistently. I think there are different reasons why people want to be movie stars or have the main role and I came out of the shoot itself, which was 18 days, being like, Yeah, the reason why I want to do this, now I know more than ever, is because I love the consistent of being active on such a high level and that your work needs to be done and needs to be good. A lot of the jobs I have, I’m the guest star in. I like the work that I do, but somebody else could have done it. I like this because I felt like the job was mine and nobody could have done it the way that I did it. That’s how much I got to dig into it. Other people could have done a great job, but I made it my own. Finding distribution and getting into festivals was more Gillian (Robespierre) the director and Liz our producers job. I tried not to think about it. Whether or not it would get into places. I didn’t see the cut or do ADR where I saw the film. I felt like when we wrapped, that was enough for me. It was such a good experience that I reminded myself that what is important to me is the experience and not what the experience leads to, because why would you do that? Why would you take away from it? I tried to think about it casually, but once we got to Sundance it really hit me that other people will see this now. Something that was so private and so precious. It’s really nice when people see it.
Your character in the film is a stand up comedian. How close is her material to yours in your stand up career?
The style is the same. I’m very personal. I’m sort of an oversharer. But the stand up itself is Donna’s. It’s about her life. Gillian had written some and then had points she wanted me to hit on and I improvised off of her points and the scripts. So in that way it is my style because that’s the only way I know how to do stand up. I was concerned with the stand up not seeming real, so I was very happy to lend my style to it. The subject matter itself isn’t really like my stand up because I don’t talk about relationships. I don’t have anything really funny to say about my relationships with my husband. I try to keep my marriage out of it because it’s too special, but I love to tell stories about my childhood because it’s a way to get to know people and for them to get to know me.
One thing I found interesting about the movie was that your character makes her decision to get an abortion and any back and forth she has is off camera. She makes a decision and she goes through with it. Was that intentional, to show her making a decision and sticking with it?
Well, that was her experience. We didn’t take any parts out. For Donna, she’s not ready to be a mother. It’s not right for her. It was a mistake that she got pregnant and she’s going to have the abortion. She jokes about it. Like “maybe I should start my beautiful life with him.” She knows she shouldn’t. She’s clear on that and a lot of women…that’s not the issue that they have. It’s the logistics. It’s the pressures of society. What I would be most concerned with if I was going through this experience is that when the opportunity presents itself to have or not have a child, you have a lot of different lives and life options that are suddenly laid out in front of you. Just because you decide not to do them doesn’t mean you’re not affected by that choice. I think because womens rights are being so limited by some people, there’s the feeling that we have to be very, very, very fierce and not let anything bother us in terms of the decisions we make about our bodies. But it is okay to let things bother us. That’s our right, to have a full human experience. And that’s what Donna has as well. There are tears; they are just about a lot of different things. Not just about a baby or no baby.
There’s a scene in the film where Donna folds this experience into her stand up and the first thing I thought of was (comedian) Tig Nataro doing an entire stand up set about her breast cancer diagnosis. I was wondering if you pulled any influence from that and also are you the kind of person who looks at humor as a cathartic experience for sad or dark things.
This was written before Tig did her show. Tig’s a friend of mine and I was really, really moved by her performance but this was before that. It’s kind of a strange coincidence. But I like the comparison because I like what she did. I do think of humor as a way to become more agile in situations that are more stiff. I tend to be in a constant state of catharsis. (laughs) I’m not very repressed. When I want something to go out, it just goes out. I’m sensitive and I cry a lot and I laugh a lot and I’m loud and sometimes really quiet. It’s all happening. So mostly doing stand up is the same delight that a child has when they have a hair brush and they are standing in front of a fireplace singing a song for their family. It’s just delight. I think I use stand up as a way to be the most happy. I really like people to look at me. (laughs) I really have a “look at me!” thing. So it’s an appropriate way to do that because it’s annoying in life to be like that all the time.
So the relationship between Donna and Max seems like it shouldn’t work. It’s unexpected. What was it like playing that and what were your thoughts when you saw that in the script?
I love it. I love imagining her being like, “Your friends are so nice, but so weird. Why are you at a sports bar on the upper west side?” I like that they have different worlds and that what they have in common is the way that they communicate. They have a connection immediately. I like that they are both smart people. I think that’s often the basis of a good relationship, even if you have different lifestyles. Both people are interested in how the other person is intelligent. I think their relationship works and I love an odd couple. I was delighted by it. I was really glad that wasn’t just like a hot hipster. He’s like a hunky jock wearing khaki’s. I think that’s perfect.
You’ve mentioned that this is a very interesting time for this movie to come out given the political issues and women’s rights. Do you feel any sort of responsibility for telling this side of the story or this point of view? Do you feel like you’re doing a service?
Well…you know, we’ve said that the film is not an agenda movie. It’s not an “abortion movie.” But I think that all women and all humans have the responsibility to make sure we have equal rights. So yeah, I feel that responsibility very greatly. I’m happy to be involved in a project that depicts a safe procedure. And honestly as a woman, I’m just happy to be involved in a movie that depicts this type of female character in general. You know, very multi-dimensional, very human, very smart, flawed in non-stereotypical ways. There’s a lot of responsibility if you’re somebody that’s creative, because it does matter what you put out into the world. It does. I think that. And I think that the more I can create things that can encourage people to stand up for their rights and to treat each other well and to have self respect, I think that’s something I can be something satisfied with.
After you’ve had this experience of taking the lead role and going to work and having everything on your shoulders…Is that something that you are going to keep doing more of? You’re so great in your small roles on “Kroll Show” or “Parks and Recreation.” Which direction would you like to head?
I’d like to do it all, honestly. I’d really like to work every single day of my life because it also means that I get to be playful and creative. I get bored really easily and lonely very easily so I like to be on sets. I always knew even as a kid that I would belong and be happy. Right now I’m filming a series that’s on FX, and that’s my first regular role. So I guess in my dream world I get to be on my series and go back and pop into “Parks and Rec” and “Kroll Show” and “House of Lies” and “Bob’s Burgers” when I can. And make like, 2-3 really good movies a year. That’s what I would like.
And continue to do stand up?
And continue to do stand up. And I was saying to my mom this morning that I would really like to be on a shampoo commercial where my hair is really beautiful or a commercial where I wash my face and someone thinks of me as a woman with clean hair and a clean face.
“Obvious Child” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.