With side roles on shows like “Parks and Recreation,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Kroll Show” and “House of Lies,” Jenny Slate has the comedian thing down pat, but with her newest film and first starring role, the “SNL” ex-pat comes front and center, showing off a sensitive side to the quirky, squeaky, and intelligently crude Slate we already know and love in “Obvious Child.”
College Times spoke with Slate and Gillian Robespierre, “Obvious Child” director and comedian, about their refreshing take on the romantic comedy. (Hint: It involves abortion.)
College Times: Jenny, you play the character of Donna very convincingly. How closely do you actually relate to her?
Slate: I have a similar sense of humor and I relate to being vulnerable at times while still having that sense of humor, but we are different. But yeah, we definitely relate to each other with that sense of humor, which is good. I think that’s good.
I think Donna’s uncertainty about life is something a lot of 20-somethings experience. Is that something you’ve both felt personally?
Robespierre: Yes. [Laughs] I think in your 20’s there a lot of funky terrain, and with a lot of romantic comedies, the late-20’s heroine, she’s someone who doesn’t have her shit together but still lives in a giant loft and wears fancy footwear. And that’s not something that either of us can relate to or what is authentic or what it’s really, really like, so we created Donna.
The idea of the tortured comedian is one we see a lot in pop culture in shows like “Louie” and “Maron,” and in a different way, in this film, too. Do you find that the comedians you come across in real life are these same sorts of tragic characters?
Robespierre: Well, I think when we were writing Donna as a comedian, we didn’t want to make it a movie about a tortured comedian. It’s really about a woman going through these moments in her life, big or small. The job of her being a comedian was sort of a secondary job because it’s just a great arena to have this character sort of vomit out all of her emotions and feelings in such a confident way that she couldn’t do off stage. So it was mostly just sort of a veil for us [to portray the character]. It’s not really a movie about a comedian, I don’t think.
Slate: No, no I don’t either. And I don’t find that a lot of the comedians I know are tortured in the stereotypical way. I feel like that’s really interesting, so people want to play that character and look for it, but I think the fact [is]that comedy and tragedy go hand in hand. You know, there’s a synergy between them.
Going on that, the film is sort of equal parts tragedy and comedy, and Jenny, you flow between them pretty seamlessly. Did you train for that, or was it something that came naturally?
Slate: Yeah, I mean, I’d say the movie is equally funny and poignant, rather than tragedy, and I’d definitely avoid using that word because people use it a lot when referring to unexpected pregnancy, and Donna, she doesn’t suffer any tragedy at all. For me, I didn’t train at all, and I didn’t go to theater school or anything, but I have experience acting and as a young kid I always tried to do it. But I felt pretty closely connected to the character and with the script. I got into it pretty easily. The same things I used for the comedy [scenes], I also used for the sensitive scenes, because I think comedy also comes from being sensitive.
I would say that the best part of this film is that the writing seems so organic. Were any of Donna’s lines improved or was it mostly scripted?
Slate: The movie is mostly scripted, but Gillian is a wonderful director for many reasons, but one of them is that she’s not precious with what she’s written and she’s open minded. So you have many moments that if we felt like something wasn’t exactly how we wanted it to be, we would adjust. It was a really collaborative process, but no, it’s not an improvised movie. It’s Gillian’s script. We did a little bit of improvising off of something that Gillian wrote, so yes, there’s improvising in the stand-up bits.