Jenny Slate talks Obvious Child, Marcel the Shell, and romantic comedies

The highly anticipated Sundance-darling Obvious Child (and this week's Critics' Pick) hits local theaters today. It's already sparked dialogue about Hollywood, women onscreen, and abortion. The film follows twenty-something comedian Donna, who rebounds after a breakup, ending up with a hookup that turns out to be a little more than she'd bargained for.

We chatted with the film's breakout star, Jenny Slate, about her television work, becoming a mollusk-shaped YouTube sensation, and what the incredible Obvious Child means for her and audiences.

See also:
Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre explains the inspiration behind her abortion-themed romantic comedy

Obvious Child started as a 20-minute short film in 2009, and later became what's in theaters today. While Slate did star in the original version of the film, she stepped away from the project for a while after she started to work in television. Her collaborator Gillian Robespierre worked on revisions and expanding the piece, and she'd send the new scripts to Slate and get her opinion.

"In the short, [Donna] didn't have a job," Slate says. "We didn't see her family, and all of those pieces really gradually fell into place almost at a very comfortable pace. So it was like making a friend and getting to know someone over a few years. Luckily, I had that time to get to know her slowly, and have her voice develop in my head."

While audiences will see Donna do plenty of standup in the film, Slate and Robespierre have distilled the onstage comedy to only the very best material.

"The film is mostly scripted," Slate explains. "The standup scenes are the result of a collaborative process between me and Gillian where she watched me do standup, and then wrote standup for me. Then we pared down and revised that standup. And I did some improvising, and she guided that improv."

Slate and Robespierre have worked to imbue Donna with genuine qualities. The character is funny, self-deprecating, and she accepts that things aren't always going to be pretty. "Those are qualities I'd like to see in the lead of a romantic comedy," Slate says.

Getting into Donna's head meant more than just nailing her standup timing and spouting of some great one-liners ("Just out doing some light stalking...").

"I tried to focus not just on Donna being funny," says Slate. "I think I cared more about making her seem like a person that you could love, rather than a person that could entertain you. I think that by starting with the more human connection that it helped for the comedy to hit home as well."

Plenty of folks have quipped that Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about abortion, but it feels like it's something more than just a rom-com. (During the preview screening we went to, the crowd would bust out belly laughing one minute, and during the next they'd be dabbing their eyes in the fastest emotional turnarounds we've seen.) Here's what Slate's ideal description of Obvious Child would look like:

"I don't think we should ignore the fact that Donna has an abortion," Slate warns. "I think we're very clear and upfront that it's not like a will-she-won't-she situation -- she always wants to have the abortion -- but I would describe it as, you know, structurally a classic romantic comedy with a more modern point of view and more modern character types."

There's a real honesty in the script and in Slate's performance that balances between hilarity and seriousness, all without the material becoming politicized. Slate thinks that part of the reason Obvious Child has been so successful is "the fact that the film is not trying to cram anything down anyone's throat."

"The message is that it's complicated to be a human," Slate says. "I think any person can relate to that. I think that the film is respectful enough towards its audience to say, 'Hey, you can handle a little bit more than you've been given, and we wanna talk about it.' It's upfront and there are no gimmicks to the movie. It's not tricky or gruff or grim at all, it's just sweet, straightforward, and really funny. And I think people just appreciate that the movie was made in earnest."

Indeed, since its premiere at Sundance, Obvious Child has won plenty of critical praise and audience hype for its fresh look on life as a twenty-something woman these days. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious indie home run, but Slate wasn't necessarily prepared for the overwhelmingly positive reception it has received. "I guess I hoped that people would enjoy it," Slate says. "But it is a really overwhelming response, I've gotta say. I think when you make an independent film, you never know who will see it or if it will be seen. It's just a really volatile climate out there. The warm reception that it's gotten, I feel like I keep pinching myself."

In Obvious Child, Donna is a huge departure from brash, bold characters Slate has played, like Mona Lisa Saperstein on Parks & Rec, Liz on The Kroll Show's "Publizity," or stoner Stella on Bored to Death. And while Slate has enjoyed those roles ("My favorite "Publizity" moment is when Liz and Liz get into a giant fight about Liz G. losing Denise"), you might see her branching out in the future.

"I think playing Donna gave me a real taste for playing women who are complicated," says Slate. "I would like to just continue down that path of women who -- if you're going to play them correctly -- you need to focus, and you need to figure out which angles you really want to hit. That was my most exciting work, and I'd like to keep doing that again."

However, Slate's more than acquainted with the fickleness of the entertainment industry. "But I'm an actress and I'll take the jobs that I can get," she adds.

Continue for more about Slate's work beyond Obvious Child...


In 2010, Slate and her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, created the pint-sized internet sensation Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Haven't heard of it? Let us acquaint you with the one-eyed squeaky shell whose two videos have garnered over 30 million views. In the videos, Marcel tells an off-camera interviewer about his life. "Guess what I use as a hat?" Marcel asks before answering his own question: "A lentil!"

This November, Slate and Fleischer-Camp will release their second Marcel the Shell book, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: The Most Surprised I've Ever Been. "It's about surprises," says Slate. "Marcel gets a big surprise in the book. It's really beautiful. I'm really excited for everyone to see it. I loved our first book so much, and I'm really proud of it. The second book is just... I don't know. I don't want to say that it's better than the first, but it's just as good and a little bit different."

Slate reveals that Marcel the Shell's success has given her the opportunity to do more than infectiously cute, viral videos on the internet. "I always wanted to be a children's book author," Slate says. "So it's really a delight."

Marcel might also make it beyond the realm of YouTube and onto the silver screen. "Eventually we would like to make a feature film that has songs in it, because Marcel likes to sing," Slate says with a laugh. But for now, Marcel lovers will have to stick to their computers when the third video in the series (the last one debuted in 2011) hits the web soon.

Fans of Slate will recall that she's also a Saturday Night Live alum, having been a part of the cast for one season in 2009 (and she dropped and f-bomb on her first episode). Would she ever consider going back to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a hosting gig? "Oh, I don't know," she says with a laugh. "I can't even think about that."

Instead, Slate is ready to move on and see where her talents will take her. Slate's work on Obvious Child has opened new doors, but it also helped her discover a part of herself. "Every day I'm trying to go through that one day," Slate explains. "The film made me a lot more confident. I did a lot of things in this movie that I've never done before, and I didn't know if I could do them. You know, that allows me to walk through a door if it's opened for me. If they're coming for me with new jobs, I'm ready."

Continue for a mini-spoiler about what Slate thinks about the ending of Obvious Child.


Slate's not sure where her next role will take her, but she's got a pretty good idea of what happens to Donna during the film's purposefully ambiguous ending. Robespierre gave her own two cents on what she thinks of at the end of Obvious Child, too.

"I'm super romantic," Slate admits. "So I always imagine that Donna and Max, you know, kind of start dating. I feel like Donna doesn't want to be a movie star. She doesn't even want to be an actress -- she just wants to be a comedian. I feel like she's on a path where if things go well for her, she keeps performing and maybe she writes a funny book or gets a radio show, you know. Something like that, but all local. I imagine her staying in New York and becoming a New York lifer."