Jenny Slate on ‘Obvious Child’ and Not Being a Pussy
“I got to know what it feels like to feel a little bit of rejection and to have to not be a pussy and pick yourself back up,” Jenny Slate says when the subject of her brief time appearing on ‘Saturday Night Live‘ is brought up. It’s interesting to listen to Slate talk about her experience on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but not for the reasons that might be expected. To her, it was just a seven-month snippet of her life that she doesn’t think about much anymore, which is a lot different than how we think of that seven months on ‘SNL’ — which, until now, were the most high-profile of her career.
Then came ‘Obvious Child.’
In ‘Obvious Child,’ Slate plays Donna — a New York City stand-up comedian who, after a drunken one-night-stand, is faced with the decision of having an abortion or having a child during a time in her life when she’s really not prepared for one. It’s not a secret that Donna goes ahead with the abortion — ‘Obvious Child’ has garnered the nickname “The Abortion Comedy,” even though that actual decision is not treated as a laughing matter — and we watch as Donna works out her complicated emotions, which usually takes place in front of an audience at one of her comedy shows. Directed by first-timer Gillian Robespierre, Slate’s performance is a true breakout role for someone who, before this film, was best known to most people (outside of her devoted fan-base) as the person who said “fuck” on ‘SNL.’
When I met with Slate, she’s sitting alone in a giant conference room in the basement of a Soho hotel, a room that is pretty much devoid of anything except for two chairs. Slate certainly isn’t “on message” during this interview and speaks from the heart, which makes what’s she’s saying extremely appealing. And her face is constantly full of emotions; even though, as I find out, she’s battling a cold.
Jenny Slate: Come sit down in my little room!
It would be great if this is actually what your apartment looked like.
I know. I have a cold, sorry.
I have one, too. I’m glad you said that because I’d feel guilty if I gave you mine.
Oh, no. I feel like I got mine on an airplane. I also hugged like 50 people at our screening in Chicago and I’m like somebody here didn’t wash their hands.
It’s a good thing the people want to hug you.
I love it. I love to hug.
Were they for the movie, or just hugs in general?
It was at the movie.
That’s better than being shunned.
Yeah, no, I welcome the hugs.
You wouldn’t catch a cold from a shun, though. People who make bad movies don’t get colds.
You’re not really known for your dramatic work. Was that something you were seeking out?
Yeah. I think so. I think from a really early age, I just wanted to be an actress. And I ended up doing comedy because it was the thing that kind of like came out of my nature the most easily. But, I’ve always wanted to do as many different kinds of performances — whatever I could. But, I just didn’t have the chance to yet. So, I was very eager to do this.
How does wanting to be an actress lead you to doing shows at UCB?
Well, I’m not a UCB person.
You did shows there, I mean.
I did my one-woman show there.
Right, you weren’t in the troupe.
I mean, it’s a fun crowd. I love the UCB people, but I was never formally– weirdly, they have me on their website as in their company and I think once you do a one woman show there, they’ll let you do that, which is great. It’s nice that they’re so accepting, but I didn’t come up through their classes and there are so many people that have that I would hate to be a faker [laughs]. I always thought a little bit that I should have done that, but I just didn’t. I don’t know, I ended up just doing standup.
Once you make ‘SNL,’ I don’t think you have to worry about being a faker as far as sketch comedy is concerned.
Oh, you never know, there are many different ways you could call yourself an impostor.
Did you worry about taking this role that people would accept you? The film hits some controversial issues.
No, I didn’t worry about it at all. I just wanted it. You know? When you want something so bad — at least when I really, really want something — I just want it. It’s like hunger. I just want it.
So you were confident before it premiered at Sundance that people would like it?
Well, I hadn’t seen the movie until right before Sundance.
It’s not good for me to see things while they’re being edited. I can be highly critical, so I try to stay away. And then once it was done … and I watched it and Gillian [Robespierre] and Liz [Holm], the producer, said that they couldn’t tell if I liked it or not because I cried through the entire thing.
I wouldn’t know how to react to that, either.
I was really moved. I cried through the entire thing.
So it was a good cry.
Yeah, I was like finally in a movie. And I loved it and I thought it was good and this was the first time I had really seen myself representing an actual woman — a real woman that I might meet.
But your comedy has that.
Yes. Yes, my comedy does. But I don’t watch my comedy.
I don’t know.
You just made a face.
I just like to do it. Yeah, I don’t watch it. But I also never have to record it like they did, so I have no way to watch it anyway.
A lot of actors can be like that, too.
I don’t normally watch my work.
Is it difficult to critique yourself?
Yes. I’m usually a fairly harsh critic. It depends, I tend to really not watch my work because I just feel uncomfortable and I can be highly critical. I never knew that. When I imagined myself being an actress, one of the perks was watching myself on TV. And I’ll watch it with my family and we’ll all see me! And once I started to be on TV, I realized just like doing the work and I feel a little embarrassed — or it doesn’t look like I thought it looked. But I do watch the ‘Kroll Show,’ because I just have so much fun and I know it comes from a place of being happy.
So you don’t watch yourself on ‘Parks and Recreation’?
I sometimes do. It depends on how confident I feel.
You have always come across to me as confident.
How lacking in confidence do you get sometimes?
Well, I think I have a pretty stable sense of self-love. And maybe it’s not about confidence, but it’s about trying to have a pretty keen awareness of what’s useful to me. And it’s not useful to me to beat myself up. I would say I’ve watched all of the ‘Parks and Recreation,’ but I definitely have not watched all of ‘House of Lies’ or ‘Hello Ladies.’ It’s harder for me to watch things where I look more like a normal person. Because usually I’m not styled the way I would style myself and then I don’t like it — so, it’s like true vanity, I guess.
I’m not sure that’s vanity.
It’s very weird. It’s hard to describe it.
I think you’d sound abnormal if you said “I love watching myself.”
Yeah [laughs]. It’s different for each project, but I love watching our movie. I’m really proud of it and I like Donna. And I’m not Donna. But, I like Donna. I like looking at her and watching what she says. Yeah, her story moves me, even though I know it by heart.
You mentioned your standup background, is it tough to join ‘SNL’ with a standup background versus a sketch comedy background?
I don’t know — the people from the Groundlings seemed pretty prepared. They’re so good at character work.
You had some good characters.
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s so hard to say. It was so quick for me on ‘SNL,’ it’s not something I consider to be like one of the big spaces in my career.
That makes sense.
It was like seven months out of ten years of performance.
Which ended four years ago.
Yeah. So it’s kind of like, “eh.”
But being on that show, even for a short amount of time, can be such a defining thing for anyone. Ben Stiller was on for just a few episodes and he’s still mentioned alongside that show. It is something that will stick with you.
Yeah. But I think it sticks with people.
Right. It sticks with me, but not you. It’s in the zeitgeist.
Of course. Yes, yes. It’s totally there.
You will always be an ‘SNL’ alumna.
Right. And I’m proud to be. But, yeah, there’s a lot of mystery around ‘SNL’ and what it’s like to be inside. A lot of that is totally warranted; it’s a very unique place. But I can only speak to my experiences and I think maybe it was harder for me because the characters that I wanted to do, I don’t know — maybe the characters were not the right fit.
I think success on ‘SNL’ has a lot to do with the cast you’re on with.
Yeah, I don’t know that they needed me there. They had everything they needed with everyone else. I don’t know. But, I feel lucky that I was there because I would have always wondered. But I’m so lucky that I’m not there. I want to be an actress. And I’ve always wanted to be an actress. So, I got that out of my system. And I got to know what it feels like to feel a little bit of rejection and to have to not be a pussy and pick yourself back up and to still try to be a happy person. And I think I got that done. I’ve got the best of both worlds. I’m not saying I felt that way at the time, but I feel that way now.
Do you look at it as a positive experience?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think Lorne [Michaels] did a good thing by setting me free. You know, rather than keeping me there and trying to fit me in somewhere where I didn’t fit in. I think it was an act of benevolence.
It shows in this movie, because you do seem more comfortable here than you did on ‘SNL.’
Yeah. I feel comfortable doing everything I did in that movie.
If you were uncomfortable, it wouldn’t have been as good of a movie.
[Laughing] That’s true.
Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.