From Obvious Child to Marcel the Shell, actress Jenny Slate consistently creates comedy that smart women want to watch. Here, the rebellious free spirit talks about her best friend, her butthole, and beating the odds.
Jenny Slate is immediately disarming. Although she’s right on time for our interview, she rushes into Little Dom’s—a favorite restaurant in her L.A. neighborhood—like a big-haired whirlwind. Before sitting down, she blurts out, “I’m sorry, but I really feel like I should go pee and change my tampon before we get started,” and then she’s off to take care of business.</>
Speaking plainly about her body is actually something of a personal mission for the 33-year-old actress. “I would like to be changing the vernacular about our bodies and sex,” Slate says later over spinach with hot sauce. (“I’ll eat anything with Frank’s on it” she says.) “I want to show people that these topics aren’t off limits.”
With her starring role in the 2014 film Obvious Child, Slate didn’t just break taboos, she totally blew up existing notions about what romantic comedies could be. In the critically acclaimed indie flick, Slate plays a stand-up comic in her late 20s who has an abortion after hook-up sex with a stranger results in a pregnancy. Obvious Child was a game changer that proved Slate could easily carry a feature film. But she hadn’t exactly been taking it easy since her one-season tenure on Saturday Night Live ended in 2010. Shortly after leaving the show, a gig she says “didn’t feel right” anyway, Slate and her now-husband, writer/director Dean Fleischer-Camp, created the surprisingly precious Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a stop motion animated short film that has garnered over 25 million YouTube views, spawned two sequels, and inspired two best-selling children’s books. She’s also created an impressive repertoire of hilarious recurring TV roles, including insane publicist Liz B. on Kroll Show, spoiled brat Mona-Lisa on Parks and Recreation, bad influence Tammy on Bob’s Burgers, obnoxious Sarah on House of Lies, and wild child Jess on FX’s Married (currently in its second season).
Although she is effortlessly funny, Slate’s mutant comedic power is really in her unabashed honesty rather than in her joke telling. “I think my fear about myself is that I get lonely and really want to connect with people, but that I can be too much for people,” she confides. For the record, she’s not—unless you’re uncomfortable with awesomeness.
A prime example of her hilarious, unbridled candor arises when she starts describing a frivolous, hormone-induced argument she’d had with her husband earlier that morning. “My period is a disaster every time. I get angry, I get really sad, I get really constipated and bloated and my boobs kill. My cramps even hurt my butthole,” she says. “This morning, I was in a raging argument with my husband. I was just like, ‘Ahhh!,’” she roars. Slate admits she was “all over the place,” illustrating her point by waving her arms and shaking her halo of wavy hair. “He was just like, ‘I truly don’t understand what this fight is about. You’re all over the road,” she says, touching her heart and bulging her eyes to convey Fleischer-Camp’s sincere confusion. Slate credits her busy work schedule and tons of travel for keeping blowups like these in perspective. “I’m leaving on Monday,” she says. “I’m going to be gone for a month and a half. The good thing about going out of town is that it takes away my pride a bit so I can be like, ‘Hey! Why are we having this fight?’”
“Women and men who are saying that they’re not feminists, often times, they’re just not informed about what that means. Feminism, at its core, is about equality.”
Slate’s family embraced her dramatic side early on. “I’m the stereotypical middle child,” says this second of three sisters from suburban Milton, MA. “I’m the ‘Let’s put on a play’ asshole, but my parents never made me feel bad about it.” The daughter of a ceramicist mother and a poet father who put his creative dreams aside to support his family, only to later be published in The New Yorker, Slate says her family recognized and fostered her talent from a very early age. “I feel like I’ve been an actress forever,” she says. “I remember being very young and taking a bath at my grandparents’ house, and my grandfather was like, ‘Do you know who [early film actress] Sarah Bernhardt is? That’s who you are.’” Her parents also saw glimpses of film legends in their precocious daughter. “My parents showed me Judy Garland and said, ‘You’re like this too,’” Slate recalls, “‘this can be an outlet for you.’”
Romper: American Apparel
And a useful outlet it was. Despite being class president and valedictorian in high school, Slate felt very angsty in her teen years. “I wasn’t popular or unpopular. I was just there,” she says of her experience at the prestigious Milton Academy. “It always bothered me to not be in any group, and in a Y2K-era Holden Caulfield kinda way, I just thought a lot of people were phony. I felt very unsure of myself in high school. I felt like people didn’t really get my personality. I felt a lot of inner rage about the whole high school thing.” Slate did, however, bond with the kids at her performing arts summer camp, which she attended for eight summers. But it was at Columbia University, Slate says, where she finally felt free—thanks in no small part to starting her period at age 17. “It was like, ‘I’m going to college and I finally have a woman’s body!” she recalls, adding that waiting to “become a woman” was the focus of much of her teen years.
At Columbia, Slate began doing improv and met her best friend and frequent collaborator, comedian Gabe Liedman. After graduating with a degree in literature in 2004, Slate became a fixture in New York’s underground comedy scene, performing as a duo with Liedman, whose praises Slate can’t sing loudly enough. “Gabe’s really guided me through my adult life,” she says. “He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met and he was the first person who truly appreciated me for who I was. If Gabe did not truly express that I was worth a look, I wouldn’t have had so much joy in my initial foray into performing.” Her work with Liedman lead to a 2009 solo show, Jenny Slate: Dead Millionaire, which lead to her successful SNL audition.
“I’d rather be broke and moving back in with my parents than having to work with somebody who is telling me how sexy I am when it has nothing to do with the scene.”
Slate’s career has definitely picked up steam since she relocated to Los Angeles from New York after SNL. Although it was a tough adjustment at first, “This is where you want to be if you’re building an acting career,” says Slate. Things got easier when she and her husband moved to the east side neighborhood of Los Feliz after stints in Venice and Hollywood, and Liedman made the move out west. “The elements of L.A. living that are more Hollywood aren’t really in my life,” says Slate. “I see Gabe, I go to work, I go to yoga. I live a very small life here.”
“I feel fucking great,” Slate says with enough passion that I actually believe her. Now, after a string of successes, Slate is finding that sweet career spot between desperation and complacency. “I feel super fresh and I feel very ready,” she says. “But I don’t feel desperate anymore—whereas in my 20s, I felt totally desperate. Like, ‘Will anyone listen to me? Will anyone see me? Will I ever be loved? Will I ever be sexually in control?’”
Shoes: Topshop; Jewelry: Melinda Maria
Some of those personal fears were quieted when Slate met Fleischer-Camp eight years ago. Like most other good things in her life, her bestie Liedman’s fingerprints are all over this life event too. “He really pushed me toward Dean,” says Slate. “I just never thought…I felt like he was very good looking, and at the time, I was like, ‘Hot guys from Williamsburg are not into me.’”
Feeling more secure in her career has made it possible for Slate to make decisions that aren’t based in fear. In that spirit, she’s decided to step away from her FX show Married. “I really liked performing with that cast,” she says. “It’s scary having a job that has a good cast, but where I feel like I’m not doing my best job or some aspects aren’t working for me. It just wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing. If you’re lucky enough to walk away from a show like that, then it’s good to be able to step away.”
“I’m the ‘Let’s put on a play’ asshole, but my parents never made me feel bad about it.”
Slate says the older she gets, the more aware she becomes of how being a feminist informs the projects she chooses. “Just in the last year, I have been very aware of the way sexual harassment and gender inequality in my workplace are really there,” she says. “As a younger woman, I might say, ‘Oh this is unfair, but I can take a joke. I can handle it.’ But now, in choosing jobs, I’m more aware than ever that I should not work with people who make me question my emotional or physical safety. I’d rather be broke and moving back in with my parents than having to work with somebody who is telling me how sexy I am when it has nothing to do with the scene.”
Slate is also not amused by the trend among young actresses to not identify as feminists. “I think it’s really sad,” she says. “It makes me feel a lot of rage when people say they’re not feminists, especially when they seem to be saying that in an effort not to upset or scare men. It perpetuates this idea that we are a male-driven world, and that essentially the male opinion and go-ahead are all that truly matter. That’s just incorrect. I feel that it’s not worth my time to try to appease people who are uncomfortable with me being equal to them. That seems like garbage, so I don’t care.” She also fears that too many people have had their opinion of feminism shaped by commentary from pundits like Rush Limbaugh and by out-of-context photos of bra burnings. “I think even I thought of it that way when I didn’t know better—when there wasn’t anyone to tell me I was a feminist,” she says. “Women and men who are saying that they’re not feminists, often times, they’re just not informed about what that means. Feminism, at its core, is about equality.”
Jumpsuit: Chloé; Shoes: Jimmy Choo
Next up, Slate will star in Sophie Goodhart’s romantic comedy My Blind Brother, a film that puts her in the middle of a Nick Kroll and Adam Scott love triangle. But she is particularly excited to discuss her recently wrapped pilot for FX, which reunited her with Obvious Child filmmakers Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm. “It’s just a pilot so maybe no one will ever see it,” she says, “but I have really high hopes.” The show at its heart is “about female partnerships and how much we need them—even if we have family and strong male partnerships. If you’re heterosexual or even if you’re in a lesbian partnership, it’s really about the intimacy in female friend partnerships,” explains Slate. So it’s fitting that she fell into “friend love” on set with her costar Ari Graynor. “People use that phrase a lot, but when I met her, I really, really liked her, and I wanted to call her later that evening after we had dinner,” explains Slate. “I was like, ‘This is how I used to act when I was 18 and I liked a guy!’ I told her, ‘I have these feelings for you that are the feelings I had with other people that I was hoping to really have a relationship with.’” Much to Slate’s relief, Graynor “felt the same way.”
For Slate, another great thing about the pilot is finally being cast as a woman her own age. “There are a lot of shows about women in their early-and-mid 20s trying to figure it out and being wild,” she says. “That’s wonderful, but I think for more small-minded people, they start to think of that as the ‘authentic woman’—the woman with no boundaries, who will pee in front of other women—and it just becomes over-simplified. That’s just not enough. I’m not that woman anymore. Gillian and Liz aren’t that woman. We’re all older now. What about the examination of a woman who is in her early 30s who is having some success and starting to understand what she wants out of a partnership romantically and sexually? Is a woman who suddenly has a little bit more power not worth a look? Is she somehow passed over or done? I am a 33-year-old woman. I am married and have a nice momentum in my career and I find that I am faced with more questions than ever before. I just approach them differently, with new wisdom.”
“I feel that it’s not worth my time to try to appease people who are uncomfortable with me being equal to them. That seems like garbage, so I don’t care.”
In addition to the new movie and pilot, Slate and Fleischer-Camp are hoping to release a Marcel the Shell feature film within the next two years. “We’ve written an entire treatment,” reveals Slate. “We’ve waited a long time and have passed up a lot of offers that wouldn’t give us creative freedom. Of all the things that Dean and I have done together, it’s the one thing—we just don’t want anyone else to touch it. I think it will be poignant in the same way that The Lego Movie was,” she says. “For me, The Lego Movie was so emotionally intelligent because it truly captured the energy of what it’s like to play—the emotions of play. It worked for both adults and kids. In that way, our movie will not feel cheap, it’ll have a narrative.” She also says the Marcel feature will stay true to the shorts’ documentary style, and focus on Marcel’s quest to find a family, because although the lovable Internet personality has millions of fans, he is keenly aware that he has “an audience, not a community.”
Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
Slate, who voices Marcel, can relate. “That feeling is a main drive for me,” she says. “It’s why so many performers get lost.” She hopes to examine this idea further through another project with her husband, an expanded version of their 2011 Vimeo short, Self Esteem: Jenny Slate. “We want to examine the question, ‘Why am I a performer?’ and show how I work through my fears of people not wanting me around,” she says. “The reason I get on stage is because I want to be seen and I want constant confirmation that I can get up there as my absolute self and people will be like ‘yes,’ rather than ‘no.’ I feel the genuine risk in that, and then I feel the pure joy of being accepted.”
That she truly has been accepted, both by Hollywood and by pop-culture consumers in general, is something Slate is still coming to terms with, but slowly learning to embrace. “I constantly think about it,” she says. “It’s always a surprise to me that I have some kind of success. It seems totally right to me that I can work and that I’m not just in a cattle call of auditions. But at the same time, I’m like, ‘What are the chances?’”
Article by Sabrina Ford
Photographed by Emily Shur
Stylist: Jessica Paster / Hair: Nikki Providence / Makeup: Kirin Bhatty for NARS / Nails: Maya Apple using Chanel for Nailing Hollywood