Photo credit: Eric Ray Davidson
Witty and wonderful actress Jenny Slate has had one hell of a year. From her breakout leading performance in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and her recurring brilliance on Kroll Show to releasing Marcel the Shell: the Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been and her myriad television and film roles, Slate has proved to be a singular talent whose intelligence and commitment to satisfying work makes us anxious and thrilled see where the next year will take her. With Kroll Show’s series finale airing tonight, we’re pleased to share a preview of our forthcoming feature on Slate in the upcoming Spring issue of the newly relaunched BlackBook Magazine.
Thinking about the trajectory of your career, did this year feel distinctly different for you, or has it felt like this has been building up for a while now?
I think it’s interesting how quickly the internet speeds up our familiarity with people or makes us feel like they’re around for a long time, because when I think about it, I only started working professionally in 2009. That’s when I first got my first job and I think of myself as having a full lifetime of wanting to be an actress, and so for me, for me it feels like I’ve been around forever because I’ve been alive I’ve been with myself, and I’ve had a very singular goal which was to be an actress, I never really went through a time when I thought I would do something else, I always wanted this. But I think because I had the strange moment of getting cast on SNL and having a bummer media explosion right then and being in the public eye that felt like I hadn’t done anything good to deserve it, that felt rather scary and negative for the most part because it centered around a mistake.
I think this year, being in the public eye because of something that I did on purpose and something that included both a refinement of my skill set as an actor and really working as an actress in that way and also a project that means a lot to me in terms of social statements and how women are portrayed to be in the media in the public eye in such a positive way, meant twice as much to me as if it had just happened and nothing else had ever happened to me. I feel like in a short amount of time in like three or five years I’ve gone through all the stages of a career.
So I’m able to really, really enjoy it because I realize it could have been something else or it could have not happened at all. For me it was really, really positive.
Do you have to shift gears as an actress when going from one project to another to be able to explore different sides of yourself as a performer?
I actually don’t find that there are different parts of myself or that they’re compartmentalized in that way. As a person, one of my challenges, and also my strengths, is that I stick out in a way that can make me feel self-conscious. But also my strength is that I love people, and I want to be my whole self and my unique self while being part of a traditional group so that I can be that unique self when I’m by myself and doing standup, but I still want to be part of the group so that I can express to people: This is me and these are the things that I think are odd or unique or the things I want to celebrate but I’m not sure if I should, do you agree?
Doing something like Obvious Child or Kroll Show, they’re very different but similar because I have personal relationships with the people I work with in those settings, so I’m the same because my heart is fully turned on. I love Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holmes and they’re two of my best friends and I feel very happy when I’m working with them. I feel that the task is really clear, and the task is usually for me to calm down and focus up when I was making Obvious Child. Then with Kroll Show, I’ve known Nick for almost ten years now and at some points in my life he’s been a real mentor to me. I would definitely credit him as the person who brought my confidence back after I got fired from SNL because he was the only person within the comedy community who hired me for the pilot of his show.
When I’m doing that show, I’m much more wild because that’s what it takes. Then when I make Marcel I notice that the relationship with my husband turns from being a romantic one into a professional one. So it’s a lot of discussion and a lot of him telling me to pay attention, but I like those moments because, whereas in my personal relationship with Dean I would not call myself obedient to him in any way, when we are a director and a voice actor or two writers, I’m much more respectful of him than when I’m like in the kitchen and just like get out of here, you’re making a mess.
How do you feel when people say that now is the time for women in film and TV? Looking further than gender, what gets you excited about the future of comedy?
When people say now is the time for women in comedy, I find it really offensive because who decides that? Women have been here all along just as the men have been. That to me is just a really shortsighted and strange thing because it implies that the time might be over. We’re still saying it because it’s a conversation like a shotgun hit, we’re just blowing that drug into each other’s mouth.
For me, the conversation has really moved on into how there are a lot of comedians out there now and writers who are taking the risk to speak in a more honest voice and still realize that they can he heightened. There is a way to express an honest human experience while using a heightened voice and still being an exaggeration of yourself rather than, like, Larry the Cable guy school of gimmick and comedy that doesn’t run deep and isn’t necessarily socially progressive in any way. I’m not saying that if you’re out there performing for the public you necessarily have to have any sort of a job other than to entertain people, that’s what our job is, to entertain people, but I do think you have an obligation to not do damage. I think we all do no matter if we’re putting out the artichokes in the grocery store or reading the news, you have an obligation to not do damage to society.
I didn’t have a cell phone for most of my education or my college career, and when I started doing comedy there wasn’t YouTube or I didn’t know how to use it, it a was very new. The younger comedians now, the people that are even three or four years younger than me, they had all of that. While the internet can often be a garbage bin, it can also offer opportunity to be really revealing and really honest and pretend that everybody and nobody is looking. It’s created some asshole monsters, but it’s also created some really confident performers who know themselves really, really well, and that’s what I like to celebrate regardless of gender.
Do you find that you’re able to be your unqiue self and most natural when collaborating with those close to you?
I think of my work as being as personal a relationship as when you fall in love, it feels like that to me. It feels very personal, and it’s not just about being able to perform; for me, it’s a general quality of life. I’ve worked on some things where I tried my hardest during the day and I can say, today on set I did my best. But if I don’t like the people I’m working with, I go home with like a nauseous, bummed out feeling, and sometimes that’s just what has to happen. It’s a luxury to work with people that are nice and that you can have really close connected relationships with. I know that as a performer that’s something I need and something I look for.
Going forward, I find myself being like, maybe I won’t do that if I feel that the people making the project are dicks, like I just don’t want to do it. I don’t think that there’s any part that’s good enough or important enough that I would have to sacrifice my emotional well being. It’s not that I have to like a best friend on every job but I will certainly do my best to not be manipulated or treated like shit, that’s not the path that I see for myself.
With Kroll Show coming to a close, how has your experience been working with Nick and what do you find gives it that special mix of complexity and ridiculous hilarity.
Season one of Kroll Show was very fast-paced and traditional in its form. The show is untraditional, but I don’t always know how it ends up there because I’m very much within the process. I’m not super aware of the form, and Dan and Bill who direct and edit really shape the show and make it very special and very avant-garde. Nick as a performer is so wonderful in many ways, but what’s so fantastic about him is that he’s in character on set and often times, not in a douchey way. He and I aren’t breaking those characters very often.
At lunch we are ourselves, but when we’re Liz and Liz, he’s at lunch in a dress and big fake boobs but no wig and fake eyelashes and those big beautiful lips with lipstick. He’s so crazy looking as that character. I’m a small woman, he’s a man, and his back looks so broad in that dress and there’s chest and armpit hair coming up. It’s so funny. I’ve never felt like more of a human woman than when I’m standing next to Nick wearing a dress.
This season we’ve really come to know these characters, and this show has come to know its avant-garde nature and let that flag fly a bit. I’m glad for it because, to me, Kroll Show is this true stroke of genius and is taking things that we see on reality television and taking things that people consider to be the garbage of TV, and I do consider reality TV to be the garbage of programming, and turning it into something new and more useful. Like, I don’t know if Nick sees it this way and I haven’t talked to him about it, but to me, it’s taking garbage and making an actual useful statement out of it. These are personality types that we’re seeing over and over again, this is how they’re hurtful to society, this is how they’re delightful to us, and it’s a bit more deliberate.
So after this insane year, what comes next for you?
I find myself being both really, really eager to work in film, but also being picky. It’s really scary to feel like that because I remember very acutely a time that I was a barista and a nanny and I didn’t have a job. I feel that greedy hunger and I’m trying to sit with it and pick the next movie that’s really going to be satisfying. Sometimes I’m like, oh maybe I’m being too precious, but sometimes stuff just isn’t good. Sometimes you think something’s going to be good and then it isn’t, which is fine but I do think, more than ever, I realize that there are lots of really uninteresting parts for women and I’m just not interested in playing the nice but plain girlfriend who gets a joke here and there but mostly has her hand on her hip and is rolling her eyes because her husband wants to smoke pot or whatever. I just don’t know that person, I don’t like that person, and I don’t want to play that person.
Do you want to write more and craft those roles for yourself?
What I like for myself, is to be a good enough actress and a successful enough actress that the people who write the good parts think of me when they want to make those movies, I like that challenge. I like to be an actress, that’s what I like the most, and right now I would like to be implanted in other people’s work, that’s the connection I want. I don’t want it to have to be a part that I create for myself, I would like to live in a world where lots of people are creating great parts for women and I’m just kind of like a bird that lands in different nests. That to me sounds like a dream.
I have a bit of a wild heart and a strange short attention span, and one of the challenges of acting, for me, is paying attention and focusing and being obedient to a director. So it’s nice to have a person you respect, like Gillian Robespierre or my husband, telling me what to do and to feel that interchange of being submissive but under that person’s direction and showing your strengths within their system that they create. I love that and love that connection.