Jenny Slate brings her outrageous sense of humor to the big screen in her first feature film, Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre. In a heartfelt role written specifically for her, Slate plays Donna Stern, a struggling stand-up comedian in Brooklyn whose everyday life provides more than enough material for her ballsy brand of humor on stage. When a drunken one-night-stand after one of her worst shows ever results in something completely unexpected, she embarks on a hilarious journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Opening June 13th, the refreshing romantic comedy also stars Gaby Hoffmann, Jake Lacy, Gabe Liedman, David Cross, Richard Kind, and Polly Draper.
In an exclusive interview, Slate spoke about the genesis of the project, what appealed to her about the story, how she approached the character of Donna, why it was important to make a film that was funny and entertaining in a thoughtful way, how she and Robespierre became closer friends through the process of making the film, how she connected with her co-star Lacy, what sets the film apart from other rom coms, what she learned about herself, her upcoming role opposite Paul Reiser in the new FX comedy Married, her soon-to-be-published Marcel the Shell picture book, and her comedic inspirations. Check out the interview after the jump.
JENNY SLATE: In 2009, Gillian (Robespierre) and her two friends, Karen Maine and Anna Bean, had written the short of Obvious Child, and they came and saw me do stand-up and asked me to be in it after seeing me. And so, we made the short. It took four days and that was it. I had a wonderful time. It was actually my first professional acting experience, aside from making some commercials. And then, I started to actually get some more work as an actress just coincidentally. Around 2012, Gillian and Elisabeth (Holm), our producer, started to develop the script and expand it, and we started talking about making this movie again. They would send me drafts. I was very aware of it coming together, but not part of the writing process. In 2013, we were ready to go. We did this workshop in San Francisco where we went and workshopped the script for a day on a grant through the San Francisco Film Society. It was on that day that we also re-wrote the stand-up in the movie. Gillian had written the stand-up. It was very funny, but it was very long. We went to San Francisco. I improvised a set based off of what she’d written, and Gillian recorded it and then went home and rewrote it. That was what was in the shooting draft of the script, but on purpose I didn’t memorize it. I came in that day when we shot at 7:00 in the morning, and Gillian and I made bullet points taken from what she had written so that I could improvise on that.
What appealed to you about the story?
SLATE: Well, it was written for me so you can’t really ask for more. I share a sense of humor with Gillian, and I was really moved and excited by Donna’s story arc. It felt very modern and very normal to me at once. I wanted to get in there and do that.
How did you approach the character of Donna?
SLATE: It was important for Donna to be strong but breakable, and most importantly, lovable. I didn’t want her to be an asshole. I didn’t want her to be somebody that was a silly mess. I wanted her to be somebody who was complicated. I wanted the story to be a story about a woman who makes a clear decision and then has a complicated experience with that. I wanted her to be lovable, but not a damsel in distress.
What was the most important thing you wanted to get across on screen?
SLATE: It was important to me to be able to talk about anything at all that we wanted to be funny, and to make it funny in a thoughtful way, and to show that you can find comedy in almost any place, and to express something comedically is okay as long as you do it thoughtfully and in a way that is useful and entertaining.
SLATE: Just my nature. When I’m on stage, and when I’m comfortable or uncomfortable, I have sort of a knee-jerk reaction to try to make people laugh. It’s my version of a handshake to show that I want to make a connection and to show what I’m truly like. It’s kind of my statement like, “This is what I’m really like. I’d like you to love me.”
This is a brave and gutsy film for a first-time feature. What was it like working with Gillian? How was that experience?
SLATE: We were both doing something for the first time, because I had never had the lead in a movie before. In a way, it was like two friends becoming closer and closer throughout the process and also staring at each other for a few seconds and saying, “Is this really real? Can you believe it?!” Also, we were really depending on each other. If I didn’t do my job correctly, Gillian wouldn’t have a movie. And if she didn’t do her job correctly, I wouldn’t have a movie to be in. So yes, it was dependent in a way that was really constructive.
How was it working with Jake Lacy? You guys shared a lot of funny scenes together.
SLATE: It was exciting. I think I was pretty shy with him, or I felt shy. But when I look back on it, I was just trying to make him laugh all the time. We really connected over those laughs. He wanted to make me laugh, too. You become comfortable once you see somebody smile. At least I do. Once I know that people are kind and playful, or that they’re open to me being playful, I can relax. The chemistry comes from being relaxed.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
SLATE: It’s my fantasy of it. It really is. The film is my fantasy of a movie I’d like to be in, because it’s so dynamic. There are so many different things for me to do. I love the way they styled Donna. She doesn’t really dress like me. I think I’m cleaner honestly, and I’m much more typically feminine. I’m a working actress and I buy fancier clothes. But I like looking like Donna because she looks like a woman that I would meet and she’s imperfect.
SLATE: The comedy is pretty ballsy, and usually when comedy is and has a really clear voice, often times it’s not paired with vulnerability, but ours is. Also, a lot of times, the character’s challenges are superficial, like will she or won’t she open her stationary shop that she always wanted to open, or whatever. The problems are always adorable. Donna’s problems are real and large, but also she can master them. A lot of times what’s satisfying to me in comedy is when a woman successfully does self-care. How Donna learns to care for herself is a drawn out process and an imperfect process, but she gets there, and it’s very satisfying because you see it all.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this?
SLATE: I learned that I was able to focus. I’ve always thought of myself as somebody who is like either it’s there or it isn’t there. I really worked at this, and I focused, and I was able to replace self-doubt with focus. That was something new for me to say self-doubt is there, but it does not need to be in the front row. You can ask it to take a back seat and replace that front row seat with focus.
Were there any surprises or anything you wish you’d known on day one?
SLATE: I wish I’d known how fast it would go by. I was so in love with making this movie and really sad when it was over. I was kind of heartbroken.
Have you had a friends and family screening yet?
SLATE: We had one in Boston, but it was through maybe the Women in Comedy Festival. It was some sort of festival. My friends and my family came to that and my cousins. They were just so sweet. They’re very complimentary and very loving. I have a very effusive, loyal group of friends and a loving, proud family. I’m super lucky. I need it, too. I need a lot of love.
What do you hope an audience will take away from this film?
SLATE: I hope they’ll want to see the movie again after they see it, and feel the way I feel about my classic romantic comedy favorites like Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and Crossing Delancey, my favorite movie of all time. I hope that the story of a woman who has a safe procedure becomes a normal part of life rather than something that is new, because it’s not new in normal life. It’s just new in this genre of film.
SLATE: I’m on a new show on FX called Married that comes out July 21st. It stars Nat Faxon, Brett Gelman, Judy Greer, John Hodgman, me, and my husband is played by Paul Reiser. It’s about a bunch of people who are married or are going through divorces and about their function and dysfunction. I happen to be in a functional/dysfunctional marriage with Paul Reiser. (Laughs)
What about writing? Do you have something new you’re working on?
SLATE: I do. I have a new book out with my husband, a new Marcel the Shell picture book that will come out in November. I love writing with my husband and we write together a lot. I’ve written screenplays before, but right now I don’t have anything in the works. I’d like to. I just don’t know what yet.
Who are your comedic inspirations?
SLATE: I always loved Madeline Kahn, Carol Burnett, Ruth Gordon, Rosalind Russell, Gilda Radner, and Lily Tomlin. I also love Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s amazing. I love these women who are particular like Dianne Wiest. Nobody could be them. That’s why I like them, and that’s what I identify with and what I hope I can live off of.