Obvious Child made waves at Sundance with its boundary-pushing set up—a romantic comedy about abortion? How outré!—and birthed a breakout turn by comedian and actress Jenny Slate, playing a Brooklyn stand-up comic whose arrested-development existence is threatened by a surprise pregnancy. Even as she was filming the indie romantic comedy with writer-director Gillian Robespierre on a tight 18-day shoot, the onetime Saturday Night Live cast member felt the impact the project was making on her life and career: “I called my parents and said, ‘I’ve finally grown into what I’ve always hoped I could do, and I’m doing something I couldn’t have done a few years ago—but I’m really doing it, and it’s really mine.’ ”
Films like this take a rare peek into the psyche of the comedian, particularly as your character’s personal life bleeds out onto the stage. What have you learned about yourself from doing stand-up?
Shyness and vulnerability are things I’ve always felt, but I’ve also felt a need to be seen—and those are really hard things to reconcile. I started my career as a stand-up comedian because I didn’t want to do the cattle call auditions. What scared me the most was that I’d be going into these rooms and nobody would know who I was. I wanted to show people what my real voice was before I started to play characters. I wear onstage what I would wear on a date because I want to love all these people and I want them to fall in love with me. That’s a really weird and vulnerable position to put yourself in, but it’s also really joyful and exciting, and it feels like romance. But I think I do comedy, like a lot of comedians, because I’m shy and I want to get past that so that I don’t have to be alone.
How much of your own stand-up experience parallels that of your character, Donna Stern?
I have many more boundaries. I write thank you notes! Donna’s more rough around the edges. She has a Diane Keaton flair, which comes from Gillian; I wear mini-skirts and turtlenecks onstage like a 1970s teen spy. A lot of times when funny women are onscreen they’re funny and they’re brassy and No one’s going to stop them! I feel that everything might stop me, so I have to be thoughtful about how to get through. Being boundary-less with strangers is natural to Donna, but it’s not natural for her to try and pull from strength. I like that we see her as an imperfect and vulnerable person who’s experiencing many things about herself at once, because we erase the stereotype of what a female leading lady in a romantic comedy needs to be. We make the small suggestion that you can expect more from your comedy.
It’s bold to combine comedy and abortion so pointedly in a logline, but the fact that the film isn’t just about Donna’s choice, but her evolution as a person, seems even more daring.
I don’t think of our movie as an abortion movie, and I don’t like when people say that—because what is that? Usually in a movie when a woman has an abortion it’s either a victory or a tragedy, and that’s the story. There can’t possibly be just two options when one in three American women have had an abortion in their lifetimes. Lots of people have this procedure. We thought, why is there not a more flexible way of telling this story? But we didn’t want to make an agenda movie. We’re not trying to shock people, we’re trying to open up a dialogue.
You came from the comedy world doing everything from stand-up to SNL, but this film demanded a new kind of performance from you. Was the dramatic muscle one you’ve always wanted to flex?
Since I can remember truly wanting this at five years old, my dream was to be an American film actress. The actresses I loved, who really affected me, were Ruth Gordon and Rosalind Russell, and Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner and Carol Burnett. Even though they could be incredibly funny in such a unique and specific way, they were compelled to do more than that, and could do more than that. I identified with that drive and complexity. Comedy is the thing I jumped to first because I like to make people smile and laugh. It’s the first dance that I do, of the many dances I would like to do. I always felt I could do something dramatic and I’m glad for it because now different projects are coming my way. I feel like at least I’ve shown I could do more than I’ve done before, and that seems like a good career goal.
Obvious Child raised your profile, not just as a performer but as a creative; you’re also writing new projects for yourself now. How has the experience impacted your focus on projects and career paths going forward?
I love performing the most out of all of the things that I do, but it’s important to me to be known as somebody whose brain works in many ways. I wrote a Looney Tunes movie for Warner Bros. a few years ago and I really liked that, but I’ve realized I don’t really want to write something that’s not meant for me to be in. I’ve only just begun. And if I’m going to create a character, I would be a ninny not to create something for myself.
Jenny Slate photographed by J.R. Mankoff