We know Jenny Slate from her brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live” where she accidentally let the F-word slip out of her mouth, but she has since left an impression on us with “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and on a number of episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” But in Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” Slate ends up giving one of the best breakout performances of 2014 that will stay with you long after the movie has ended. As comedian Donna Stern, we watch as her life hits rock bottom after she gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in rapid succession. Then after a one-night stand with a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), she finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion and it all leads up to the best/worst Valentine’s Day that she’s ever had.
I was very excited to meet Slate when she arrived for a roundtable interview at “Obvious Child’s” press day which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. I told her that I came out of the movie wanting to hug her character, and she replied that was great and that that was the way we were supposed to feel (couldn’t agree more). This movie is advertised as being the first “abortion comedy” ever, but that’s far too simplistic a description. To me, it was about how Donna learns how to empower herself and trust people again after having her heart broken, and Slate felt the same way.
“It’s not representative of what the film actually does or how it unfolds,” Slate said of the abortion issue. “I guess, trying to look on the positive side, if people think that’s all that it is when they go and see the film, they will be delighted to see how complex and thoughtful it is and funny.”
“If you think about it as just the story of one woman trying to understand the process of going from passive to active and trying to understand how to make choices you’d think, ‘Well why would I try to shy away from that?’ That’s a human story and I should just tell it,” Slate continued.
“Obvious Child” derives its title from the song of the same name by Paul Simon which comes from his highly acclaimed album “The Rhythm of the Saints.” The discussion about the song led Slate to talk about when she used to ride the subway while she was a college student living in New York. She reminisced about how, when the train went through a tunnel, the window across from her would become a mirror, and this usually happened when she had some headphones on.
“I remember sophomore year of college I would listen to, on repeat, the ‘Amelie’ soundtrack and just imagine myself as a woman in a movie that was about a woman,” Slate said. “It’s pretty interesting that I got to do it. I think a lot of people connected music that way. It makes them feel like they’re in a movie.”
In the movie, Slate’s character is a comedian who does a stand-up act at a club in Brooklyn that has tons of graffiti all over the walls. The way that Slate performs the stand-up act, you can’t help but think that all her material was improvised, but Slate made it clear that those scenes were the result of her collaboration with Robespierre.
“Gillian wrote this stand up based off of the style that I perform in; sort of loose storytelling, very instant with the audience, a conversation that’s evolving and not clubby or anything like that,” Slate said. “She wrote it, we cut it down, we did some workshopping where I improvised a set based off of what she had written, and she recorded that, rewrote it, and then on the day of the shoot the shooting draft of the film had that stand up set that we turned into bullet points so that I was not memorized and that it could be natural. You would have the feel of Donna feeling it out, and we talked about it and then I went up and went through these subjects that Gillian had set out and some of them are exact lines of her writing and some of them are lines that came up during it, and she would also call out to me during the shooting and be like, ‘You know, circle back to talking about dirty underwear or whatever.’ And then I would go back and, during that time of walking backwards, new material would come in.”
“I think if somebody says to me that it’s okay to work and it’s okay to be loose then I go with that,” Slate continued. “It’s in my nature to be playful and it’s my nature to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the rules, and that’s something I often just have to deal with and work through. You can’t improvise on every job, and you should be good enough at acting that you can say your lines. But for Gillian to say, ‘You can be a little looser,’ and for her to be comfortable enough in what she had written to be flexible was an amazing testament to her. We are just a good pair.”
One actress who was brought up with much excitement during this roundtable interview was Gaby Hoffman who plays Donna’s roommate Nellie. Hoffman is best known for playing Kevin Costner’s daughter in “Field of Dreams” and for playing Maizy Russell in “Uncle Buck.” The interesting thing is that Slate and Hoffman actually look a lot alike to where you want to see them play sisters in a movie together. As it turns out, Hoffman’s career proved to have a major effect on Slate’s.
“I have always wanted to be an actress since I was young and can’t remember anything else,” Slate said. “It was my ultimate desire, and she was my age and acting when I was growing up. I used to think I looked like her and was just like, ‘Oh I wanna be like that girl.’ And when I got to meet her in my adulthood, I was like totally blown away in general just because I was such a huge fan. After getting past that, the real ultimate moment of just like being totally floored was discovering her personality. She’s very wise, really open and just like really no nonsense. She’s very fearless and I think she sets the bar really high for performance, and I felt that in a good way. I wanted to impress her, and I just think she’s the closest you can get to like a goddess. She’s got that real mythical vibe.”
Now many people may look at Slate as though she is just playing herself in this movie, but that is the kind of unfair assumption we tend to make about actors in general. We may think we know an actor from reading up about them in magazines or seeing them on any one of the countless talk shows on television, but while Slate is a stand-up comedian like Donna, she was quick to point out the differences between herself and her character. Most importantly, she does not expound endlessly on her personal life like Donna does.
“I don’t do it,” Slate said. “It just never seems right to me, but I’m not Donna. I know my boundaries and I think, although my standup is about like being horny and diarrhea and things like that, I still feel like it’s paired with really nice manners. I think the cornerstone of having nice manners is to have an equal exchange. Someone says ‘how are you’ and I say ‘fine how are you,’ and Donna does not understand boundaries and limits at the beginning of the film. For me, I get it. My relationships are precious and I don’t talk about my husband on stage unless it’s something flattering. But even if it was something flattering that was going to embarrass him, I wouldn’t do it because there’s just too much to talk about.”
Seriously, Jenny Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” is one of the best and most moving I have seen in 2014, and it’s a must see even for those who, like me, are not big fans of romantic comedies. Regardless of how you feel about the Valentine’s Day Donna ends up having, it’s a lot better than the one Slate told us about from her past.
“I had a really bad Valentine’s Day one year because I had a really sh--ty boyfriend who forgot that it was Valentine’s Day, and he gave me his digital camera in a sock. Wow, thanks! Such a bummer, the worst present ever. That’s like a present that a baby would give to somebody. I never wanted a digital camera in general. I don’t care, I don’t like technology. I just wanted some f--king chocolate. Look around you! There’s hearts everywhere! F--king get it right! Dammit! My husband is so good at Valentine’s Day. He rules at it. No socks.”