As is the case with every awards season, the back end of 2014 has been inundated with high-caliber performances: Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler; Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl; J.K. Simmons in Whiplash; Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything; Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Wild; and the list goes on.
But each year also has its breakout star: a previously unknown or little-known talent who notches out a surprising, indelible impression in his or her first major film role, dazzling critics and audiences alike. This year, that breakout star was Jenny Slate in Obvious Child.
“I didn’t anticipate what ended up happening. That’s for sure,” Slate says over the phone. “But I did always believe in the movie and think that it was wonderful, and I’m really proud of the work we did.”
Obvious Child, a refreshingly honest, bold, hilarious, insightful, and thoroughly modern romantic comedy about a twentysomething Brooklyn stand-up (Slate) dealing with the aftermath of a one-night stand — namely, an unplanned pregnancy that she chooses to terminate and her internal dilemma of whether or not to tell the guy, “Hey, I’m having your abortion?” — has been garnering rave reviews since its Sundance debut at the start of 2014. However, it wasn’t until the film’s theatrical release in June, backed by the burgeoning indie powerhouse A24 (Under the Skin, A Most Violent Year), that a wider audience was introduced to the rom-com’s newest, bracingly unconventional ingénue.
“It’s just a reality that when you make an independent film, you don’t know how many people will end up seeing it,” Slate contends. “It’s not the easiest thing even to get the movie made, and we were just so excited that we got the small amount of funding that we got [at Sundance], and we made it in 18 days, and it was just such a small-scale project with such personal goals.”
Indeed, Slate’s ascent from New York-based stand-up with a smattering of small film and television appearances to her name (plus one ill-fated season as a cast member on Saturday Night Live) to critically lauded film actress and industry darling has been swift, unexpected, and extraordinary.
“We’re delighted by what’s happened, me and Gillian and Liz,” Slate enthuses, acknowledging her Obvious Child writer/director Gillian Robespierre and co-writer/producer Elisabeth Holm. “It’s certainly been a surprise, a wonderful surprise.”
Before her pivotal turn in Obvious Child, Slate was perhaps best known for brushing up against the pop cultural radar and making a few brief yet memorable blips: playing the morally repugnant Mona-Lisa on Parks and Recreation and solipsistic memoirist Tally Schifrin on Girls; uttering the f-bomb heard ‘round the world on SNL; playing “Jenny the Page” in a series of Tonight Show skits with Jimmy Fallon; and voicing Marcel the Shell, the adorable, pint-sized sensation of three stop-motion YouTube shorts (which Slate makes with her husband, comedian Dean Fleischer-Camp), and two bestselling picture books.
But the messy, offbeat Donna Stern in Obvious Child is Slate’s first leading role, her biggest break to date, and she commands every minute of her screen time, earns every laugh, and lights up every frame with the sparkle and charm of a natural-born star.
“I’ve always wanted to be a movie actress, and to have a good role in a movie, and to have the most work to do, and to have the biggest responsibility, and to really test myself in that way,” says Slate. “And I was really aware that I was only being given this chance for a limited time, and so I was very excited, and I felt really strong during [filming].”
Obvious Child is a first for Robespierre as well; she had previously directed shorts but never a feature film. In 2009, Robespierre asked Slate to play the lead in a 20-minute short film that would end up becoming the backbone for their future full-length.
“Gillian came up with the idea for the [Obvious Child] short with her two friends, Karen Maine and Anna Bean, and they had written it,” Slate explains. “And we didn’t know each other, but we had a mutual friend who was like, ‘You guys should go to this comedy show,’ and they went, and they saw me. And at the time, the character of Donna Stern was not a comedian, so that wasn’t in the short … but anyways, they asked me to do the film, and they sent me the script, and it was really exciting and really different than anything I had seen.
“And I also hadn’t acted professionally ever; it was 2009,” she emphasizes. “So, I was like, ‘Yeah, I definitely want to do this,’ and we made the short.”
The short was well-received, racking up views on Vimeo and netting high praise from the likes of Bitch and Jezebel.
“And then Gillian met Elisabeth Holm, who is her co-writer on the [full-length] movie and the producer, and they really spent the next few years developing it into a feature, and I was working on other projects,” Slate continues. “Eventually, they got to the point where they decided that they wanted the character to be a stand-up comedian, and that’s when I stepped in a little bit in terms of helping to shape the stand-up. But in general, it’s the efforts of some really beautiful collaborators there, Gillian and Liz.”
When asked if any aspects of her personality were woven into Donna’s character, as the role was written expressly for her, Slate’s response is measured and thoughtful.
“It’s always hard to describe, for me, how much of me, or what I’m using from myself, is used in order to express somebody else’s experience,” Slate says. “But the main part of myself that I use is … I think I’m really porous.”
An early scene of Donna’s boyfriend breaking up with her in a bar bathroom comes to mind; Slate’s face looks like it’s been slapped, raw and open, her vulnerability on full display.
“I think, as a person, a lot gets in, and I don’t often file it all away in an orderly fashion,” Slate says. “It’s all just kind of … I feel pretty emotional a lot of the time,” she laughs. “I am a very live woman. And I’m not like Donna, really. I think I’m gentler than her, and I think I’m more mature. Even though my comedy and my stand-up kind of masquerades as immaturity, I think what I’m doing is actually a very thoughtful and mature thing, which is to express all of the imperfect and not-yet matured parts of myself [that] I have with me every day as I’m trying to be in the adult world.
“I think that is one of my largest connections to Donna, not really knowing like, ‘Do I want to be an adult, like a stereotypical adult, and do I even know what that is?’” Slate wonders. “All of those questions … I think a lot of people have them, and I think the movie is really relatable in that way, because even if you’re not a stand-up comedian in New York, you understand the movement that Donna either chooses to make or is forced to make in order to find a way to deal with her life. It’s not like drastic moves … there is a giant romantic gesture at the end, I think one that Donna does towards herself, which is to get up on stage and be sort of lighthearted but true about what her experience is, and then the more sort of typical romantic comedy gesture, which is Jake Lacy’s character, Max, showing up with the flowers. But in general, Donna’s process is … she’s just always unraveling, like a little bit here, a lot there, a little bit here, a lot there. And we just wanted to be true to those more natural rhythms.”
The natural rhythms extend not only to the script, which is so well-written that it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the film is entirely improvisational, but to the chemistry between the actors as well. The theme of friendship runs strong through Obvious Child, with the only I love you’s being exchanged between Donna and her best friend Nellie, played by Gaby Hoffmann.
“Gaby is really somebody to love, almost immediately,” gushes Slate. “She really is. She is a lovely woman. She has all of the right kind of boundaries and none of the bullshit, dumb boundaries that people have. She’s open. I think I’m usually game for whatever anybody wants to talk about in their downtime. I like a real conversation, and so does she.
“She and I had met a few years ago when she came and saw Gabe and I do stand-up — Gabe Liedman, who is my stand-up partner and plays Joey in the movie, he’s my best friend in life — and so I knew her a bit,” she elaborates. “But I think it’s a bit of a fantasy of mine to have a best friend roommate who is there to not really mother you but to be a woman with you. That type of platonic, female bond becomes more and more important to me as I grow older. And I’ve never had a female roommate, because I always lived with, like, a big group of friends in college, and after that I was an intense, serial monogamist and lived with a series of boyfriends because I could not be alone. So it was an easy game to play for us, and because, you know, we love each other in life.”
In the moments that Slate shares with Liedman, like the bar scene when they riff on Max being too Christian for Donna’s “menorah that lights the Christmas tree on fire,” they were able to “improvise a little bit.”
“Especially between me and Gabe, because we tend to be a bit irreverent and playful, and Gillian, I think, really wanted to use that dynamic and that energy,” says Slate. “Gillian and I had a long talk about trying to make these people seem like real people, and sometimes that talk would be me getting on the phone with her and being like, ‘Listen, when Donna’s in her apartment, I don’t want her to wear a bra. Like, I don’t think she wears a bra when she’s at home with her friends. Why would she? She doesn’t.’ Or it would be Gillian saying, ‘You know, if you guys are finding that there are more moments here that aren’t written down, please feel free to play them. Like, make sure to hit these lines, but we have wiggle room,’ and us talking about, alright, yeah, let’s do some improv here and there, but make sure to never sacrifice the character for the joke.
“That is the most important thing,” she stresses. “To me, at least in this film, a joke is not worth it … if it is something that is super, super funny, but that character would never say, because it’s inappropriate, or inappropriate for the progression of the scene. It’s just … the realness is worth way more than the comedy, and it’s what makes the comedy eventually, I think, very good.”
Donna opens the film with a stand-up routine of explicit thoughts on women’s underwear that a typical romantic comedy heroine like Meg Ryan, Kate Hudson, or Katherine Heigl would never, ever say. Luckily, Donna (and, by proxy, Slate) is not your typical rom-com lead.
“I think that the reason why Gillian, Anna, and Karen even came up with this idea,” Slate says, “was because they were looking around at romantic comedies — and we all love romantic comedies, the women and the men who made this movie, we love them and think that it’s a very fun and useful genre of film — but increasingly, the female characters were just totally perfect, totally unrelatable, without any true issues to deal with, and therefore existing in denial of what is a modern female experience. And that just becomes a bummer because if you are a romantic and lighthearted person, like me, you want to look and say like, ‘Doesn’t somebody who’s not a button-nosed blonde who runs a pastry shop, doesn’t she deserve to have romance? And even if her life is more rough and imperfect, and she’s imperfect, isn’t there still a chance for romance, for that delicious situation to happen to her?’ And I think Gillian and Anna and Karen and Liz all felt like, ‘Yeah, of course there is,’ and if we don’t see that story, then we’ll write it for ourselves.”
The Obvious Child shoot was quick — again, just 18 days — and Slate relished every moment of playing such an “important” character.
“It was for me, waking up every day knowing that one day had already passed and wanting to really, really make the most of my work in the day ahead,” she declares, adding that on such a low-budget production, “there aren’t that many people around interfering … it’s a really small crew, and people are only there if they absolutely need to be there, because you can’t afford, you know, assistants and whoever else is hanging around on a giant movie set. It was just us and a small crew; we didn’t have trailers. We didn’t have anything except for ourselves and our equipment.”
Slate wore a lot of her own clothes onscreen as well.
“Donna dresses sort of differently than I do … the big sweaters, the sort of…” — she chuckles at the memory — “…unraveling outfits that appear are really in the mind of Gillian and our costume designer Evren Catlin. But in the [stand-up] scenes, the blouses that Donna wears, those are mine. And the jeans were just the jeans of the costume designer, and I wore my own shoes. They bought me that coat, and this one yellow cardigan that I have, but for the most part, we just kind of cobbled together everything.”
“In life, I tend to dress … you know, I like miniskirts.” Slate laughs. “I like dressing in miniskirts and being a bit more outwardly sexual than Donna is. I like feeling vivacious. I like my butt and my boobs and wearing ‘em around town.”
“[But] it’s not like Donna doesn’t care about how she looks; she does,” Slate insists. “She feels insecure about the fact that her boyfriend left her for a woman who looks much more like the typical model; she feels bad about that. And she wants to be sexy … she likes clothes … she’s just dealing with much more than what the normal leading lady in a romantic comedy deals with. And I think because of that, her emotional journey is much more satisfying, because it doesn’t feel like a lie.”
Donna is a character with real problems, real struggles, and that’s not always the case in rom-coms, especially in the thin, beautiful, successful, “blonde and button-nosed” archetype that the subgenre has long favored in female leads.
“It’s always that they’re a klutz, or that they’re, like, a silly chatterbox,” Slate points out. “It’s always something silly that you could never really be mad at someone for. Whereas Donna makes a lot of mistakes, and mistakes that she’s mad at herself for, that she doesn’t really know how to get out of gracefully and that she can’t reverse. And her process is not the process of making everything perfect, but the process of acceptance, personal growth, and the inevitability, which is that, if you want to have your life, you gotta move into the future and take with you all of the weird baggage that somehow you’ve accumulated and find a way to not be completely arrested by it.”
Because of Obvious Child’s tricky subject matter, and the importance, even radicalism, of a character talking so candidly about abortion in a romantic comedy — and what’s more, actually going through with it — Slate has faced an inevitable but thankfully minute amount of vitriol. She says that many people have shared their stories with her, and that that has been “the number one surprise and joy of having this movie in my life.
“After every single Q&A that we did, a woman or a man would come up and say something like, ‘I had an abortion, or this was my experience with it, thank you for telling this story,’” reveals Slate, her voice filling up with gratitude. “They were all distinct, unique stories.
“And I think that our film rests in an important zone, and that zone is not [that of] an agenda film,” she continues. “A lot of people [have called Obvious Child] ‘an abortion rom-com,’ and that really bothered me, because I just feel like that really minimizes and categorizes the film in a strange way. What the film is saying, if anything, is that there are countless stories of whatever a modern experience is in terms of dealing with your body, whatever your gender even is. Every single person has a story, and the most important thing is just to try to tell the story in a true voice; so that within this really intense fight for our reproductive rights, we all feel confident in that our voice matters, because we are all part of the issue.”
So, what’s next for Slate? She mentions that two of the shows on which she plays a recurring character, Parks and Recreation and Kroll Show, are ending soon. She currently plays Jess on the FX comedy series Married and has a few film projects lined up for 2015, “but who knows how those will go.”
When asked about what kind of films she’d like to do next, and which actors she would most like to work with, Slate doesn’t hold back.
“I would love to do a period genre piece or a gangster movie or something suspenseful,” she says, her voice glowing with enthusiasm. Her list of dream co-stars includes Jeff Bridges, Diane Keaton, Catherine Keener, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Lawrence (“She seems really fun and chill”), and Matt Damon (“Because, c’mon, it’s Matt Damon!”).
Post-interview, Slate says she’s headed to an elementary school classroom to read her latest book, Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been, to the kids — in character, of course. It’s something that, after watching Slate play Donna with such open-hearted empathy and a vitality that practically leaps through the screen, one can easily imagine her doing.
And in the end, this much is obvious: Slate’s journey, as an actress, comedian, and genuine character for the ages, has only just begun.