Jenny Slate is having a hell of a year. The perennial guest star – stints on Bored to Death, Parks and Recreation & House of Lies – has finally found her own lead role on TV. “It’s really nice to have an actual home” Slate confides, “I like my other [shows] a lot but I like having a real place where everyone knows me. I’m a family gal.” I’m on the set of the new FX relationship comedy Married in mid May about two or so months before the show is set to premiere this week and a month before Slate’s own indie feature Obvious Child will become a surprise critical and commercial success.
On the day of my visit, Slate seems infectiously eager to chat in-between takes about her character Jess, best friend to protagonist Russ (Nat Faxon). Married follows a trio of friends (Faxon, Slate & Brett Gelman) as they experience the highs and lows of (you probably already guessed it) married life. The personal subject matter of the show naturally lends itself to more intimate questions with the talent, Slate (herself recently married) confiding what she drew from her own personal life for the character. In addition, Slate discussed her confusion with always being typecast as ‘the bitch’ and the restrictions she felt on Network TV. For the full interview, hit the jump.
JENNY SLATE: My character’s name is Jess. She’s Russ’s (Nat Faxon) best friend from high school. She’s married to Paul Reiser whose character’s name is Shep. She’s a woman who has a lot of daddy issues, which is why her husband is fatherly in terms of their age difference. She jokes that she thought she married him for his money but it turns out that she actually really is attracted to him and loves him. That’s the area she’s in a lot. Maybe I am shitty. Maybe I am a lost cause and a mess. She thinks everybody expects her to be that way but then there’s another part of her that’s really vivacious and wants to do better. And she struggles with those extremes.
What drew you to this role in particular?
SLATE: I’ve been playing a lot of bitchy characters on TV, which honestly really confounds me. I don’t think honestly that’s my vibe in life. [Sometimes those roles] can often be very acidic and really one-dimensional. This is a character that has a harder edge but it’s mostly because she has a lot of dents and hurt. I just felt like I could fill that space really well and I haven’t done that before.
It sounds like it’s more of a challenge for you too…
SLATE: Oh yeah. This show is a huge challenge because I think I’m a very naturally gregarious and optimistic person and my character just isn’t that way. It’s hard to tamp down myself and still have the same amount of energy and put it into her sharpness and the way that she’s relentless and ready to fight. It’s hard for me not to feel sad for her sometimes. Our show isn’t really sad, it’s funny but it’s dark and I don’t often watch a lot of dark stuff.
SLATE: Nothing really feels awkward because it’s all really exciting. I don’t know if this will be in there but there was an argument Shep and Jess have where she wants him to do something and he doesn’t want to do it and she feels that if he doesn’t do it, he’s really going to mess with their marriage. He insults her and bosses her a bit and she says to him ‘You’re not my dad.’ It’s a little bit awkward. I think Paul’s response was like ‘Well — there’s a lot we could say about that.” In general even though we have some darker subject matter, everybody feels very comfortable to find [their] way through. There aren’t many ‘scaredy-cats’ — which is good.
What is the balance between improvisation and staying with the script on the show?
SLATE: It’s a scripted show. It’s not an improvised show but Andrew makes a lot changes in a scene if they don’t fit. We’re all part of that process which is another reason why if I were to pick a show to be a regular on this would be the one. TV can be fairly rigid. I’ve done enough Network TV to know that it’s fun but if I have to go somewhere every day maybe it’s not the most satisfying [job]. If I have the luxury of making a choice, this is the choice I would make.
Were you approached to do any other full time roles on TV? Was there anything else you were looking to do? Or was this something you were searching for?
SLATE: Well – I moved here two years ago and I did [a couple] network pilots [for] CBS & ABC. If those had gone [to series] that would have been my regular job. I really like working. I can’t think of a job I didn’t like. I was in an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, which is not my idea of folk art; but I really enjoyed making it and everyone was really nice. I always wanted to be an actress, but I think eventually I would have gotten tired of doing [network pilots]. The first one was a three camera at CBS and I realized I actually feel nervous when I have to hit a particular mark. I feel nervous when the script is set in stone and I feel nervous when I feel the script is written for mass consumption because I don’t see myself that way. I would like to entertain the most people that I can, but it didn’t feel right. The next one was at ABC and I really liked my cast but I also felt very observed. There are so many notes and I felt restricted. When pilot season was over, I went to New York and I made a little indie film. The experience of making that pilot & having those restrictions and then making this small movie and really having no restrictions, I came back and said to my agents that I didn’t want to do pilot season again and didn’t care to do that kind of work for at least this year. Cable TV is so fertile and there’s so much programming there that’s so good right now. I feel like that’s where all the risks are being taken, where all the good writers are going. I feel a lot of life in me and a lot of creative energy and I think it’s better suited somewhere it can run free.
SLATE: Not a lot. I knew Jess is a character that makes a lot of problems for herself but I didn’t know what those problems would be and I also didn’t know what her pleasures would be. When I talked to Andrew, he had a general idea so I was very pleased with his description. That was enough for me. I’m fine with being presented something to do. I like that challenge.
This seems like a very personal show. Was there anything you brought as an idea that could be explored or delved into from your own married life?
SLATE: I’ve become very interested in the ways things can change even with someone you’ve known for many years and you’ve committed to for life. How drastic can you damage things in the way you speak to someone? You can say something in a lot of different ways and if you make a careless choice, you can really ruin things and it can take awhile for them to repair. In the time when you haven’t started to repair, when they’re ruined, that is a time in a marriage that feels really dark. If you’re in a good marriage, you have the sense that it won’t be forever but I think for Shep and Jess sometimes it seems like it will be dark forever. We had one episode where it was written that Jess did something really bad and both Paul and I were like ‘I really don’t think that should happen.’ it really hurt us to read it and they ended up changing it. I think I even feel delicate about a television show marriage.
Given that you didn’t know the arc of your character, how has your approach to the character changed over these ten episodes?
SLATE: When we started I thought of [Jess] as someone who wasn’t that insightful or aware of her problems or her issues or her complexities and as I started to play her more often it just became impossible to think of her that way. I think everyone knows ‘that person’ who has no filter and parties a lot and seems a bit untamed. But I began to think of her not as untamed but as somebody who’s been hit with a lot of debris from other people. I started to see the shield and the really sensitive person beneath.
What has been your favorite episode to shoot of season one?
SLATE: I really like my scenes with Paul [Reiser]. I’m not actually sure what number episode it is but it’s the one where his character briefly starts to go back to work. I wish I knew what episode that was… I think it’s 105 or so. Maybe midway through. He and I really get into it. You really get to see our relationship and those scenes really unfold. They were a lot more than I expected them to be.
What’s it like working with Paul Reiser?
SLATE: When Andrew told me that they were talking to Paul to be [my] husband, I was like ‘Oh My God’. I was really nervous because I had watched him on TV growing up. He really stands out as an American comedian. He equals television to me. I was just like ‘Oh God — what if he thinks I’m a total amateur. We’re different generations. I’m a stand up comedian. What if he doesn’t think I’m funny?’ He’s just such a big famous comedian. But in fact he’s a really nice man who just seems like a friend that I know. I don’t think about our age difference. And I don’t find myself thinking about Mad About You, which is a show that I watch a lot. He’s a really good actor and very quick on his feet. I really like improvising with him. I feel like I trust him a lot. I feel like he’s taken a nice amount of time to get to know me and make me a friend and is very supportive. I feel very lucky. I like it. I do think I favor my scenes with him. It’s really special. I feel proud.
Married premieres this Thursday at 10PM on FX.