'Obvious Child' star Jenny Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre on bodily surprises

The actress and filmmaker talk about the buzzworthy comedy--a hit at Sundance and a hilarious, lovable movie that should be a breakout turn for Slate.

Among the many great things about “Obvious Child” is the fact that it should finally stop anyone from lazily referring to star Jenny Slate as the person who dropped an F-bomb on her first episode of her only year on “SNL.” Yeah, that happened. Five years ago.

Since then, Slate has made a sensation of her Web and book series, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” and been a hilarious contributor to “Kroll Show” and “Parks and Recreation.” The 32-year-old actress says she’d be perfectly fine with “Obvious Child,” opening Friday, becoming her signature role.

“I would love that! I welcome it,” she says at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel while in town with the film’s 35-year-old writer-director Gillian Robespierre, who also made the 2009 short film of the same name, also starring Slate. “That would be really nice, but now when there are pieces in the press or interest about my career, it is because of our movie, so that’s enough for me anyway. ... I don’t know. I guess if people need to say a big splashy thing [about “SNL”] to get more people’s attention about something that will essentially be about our movie, I’m fine.”

She’s thoughtful and clear-headed and a delight (and says she does the Marcel the Shell voice at home all the time, and is still planning a feature film for the tiny, talking Internet smash). In “Obvious Child,” Donna (Slate) struggles to maintain such clarity after getting dumped, fired and pregnant following a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy of “The Office”). She’s not unsure about the baby—she knows she wants an abortion. But the film, the best of 17 I saw at Sundance 2014, finds honesty and a lot of laughs as Donna, a standup comedian, figures out what to say to Max, her parents and anyone else about this unexpected situation.

Have you spent much time in Chicago before? Do you have anything you’d like to do if you had more time here?
Jenny Slate: I would like to be in the movie “The Fugitive.” Isn’t that in Chicago?

It is. Who would you want to be in “The Fugitive?”
JS: The fugitive!
GR: The one-armed man!
JS: Oh! Wow. I would like to be Dr. Richard Kimble. The fugitive.

I’m imagining what your audition would have been like at the time. You were not really old enough for the part.
JS: No. I saw that movie at my first coed sleepover. It was in sixth grade.
GR: You had a coed sleepover?
JS: It was at this girl’s house, but all the kids from the class were invited. There were like 5 million parents there.

Jenny, with “Obvious Child” I think you might be the first actor in movie history to impersonate her character’s brain and butthole in the same film. How special is it to have that honor?
JS: [Laughs.] Wow, that is such a good way to put it! Yeah, that’s a task perfectly suited to me. But Gillian did write this movie for me, so, yeah. She asked me to bring it, and I brought it.
GR: “Here, [be] Donna’s butthole.”

Well, you found a way to make fart humor funny again. I read someone was trying to call it “guy humor.” It’s appalling to me that something that everyone does could be seen as specific to one gender.
GR: And if you don’t do it, you’ll die.

Is that true?
GR: Sometimes it feels like that to me! [Laughs.] I think you’ll die if you don’t fart.
JS: I don’t know that that’s medically a fact.
GR: It is!
JS: I like that. I want that to be on “Dr. Oz.” A whole episode where he’s like, “Today on ‘Dr. Oz,’ if you don’t fart, you’re going to die.” And then it’s just like a whole thing on how to fart. It’s like, “You can squeak ‘em out.” [makes noise] “You can let it rip.” [makes noise] It’s all ladies farting. What was the question?

I wonder how many people watch that show and say, “OK, I have to do it to stay alive, but how do I do it?”
JS: [Laughs.] Yeah, farting is for anybody who has a body. There’s always something that you can do with any subject that makes it overdone, mainstream in a way that you’re like, “I’ve just seen that too much.” You can take the curiosity out of something. For me I think the reason why the body is a constant source for humor is that it is constantly surprising, and that’s really funny. It’s a little interesting in there.

Do you think there’s any humor that is more gender-specific?
JS: I don’t know. I guess there are subjects that people would relate to more. If I got up there and started talking about my penis, people would be like, “You don’t have one. That’s not your subject to talk about.” But I could go up there and talk about penises in general.
GR: A penis.
JS: I know a bunch of stuff about those.
GR: A few peniis.
JS: Certainly there’s always different audiences for things, but anybody can talk about anything and make it funny, as long as they’re funny. And original.

Which is a worse term that you feel is more overused or has a more negative implication to it: “chick flick” or “girl power”?
JS: Ugh. I don’t like “girl power.”
GR: Oh, I was going to go “chick flick.”
JS: “Girl power” reminds me of—
GR: Spice Girls!
JS: Sort of. It reminds me of something packaged, and I feel like it’s condescending.
GR: Or like K-Mart would sell socks that say, “Girl power!”

Really?
GR: I don’t know. They should, and they should give me money.
JS: I’m a woman. I’m not a girl. I mean, I am a girl. But.

If it was “Woman power,” would you like that better?
JS: No. I just think it’s unnecessary.
GR: Anything with “power” is weird. I think “White power.” Bad stuff like that.
JS: It’s not great. You pair it together, and it seems like the thing that is paired with the power didn’t have the power before. Why can’t you say “powerful women”?

That is much better.
JS: [Laughs]
GR: I like that. Put that on a sock.

Jenny, you talked about learning on the job and that you didn’t have the skill set for this movie a few years ago. Tell me something you learned doing this role and a moment when you shot a scene and either felt like you nailed it or in advance felt two percent worried that you couldn’t do it.
JS: I think I learned on the job to be more trusting of quiet and stillness and silence. I did start as a stand-up comedian, and in general I’m a person that is looking for an immediate reaction and connection to people in my nature, my personality type. I haven’t done work before where the scenes are more still or quiet, and I had to learn to get used to that. And I guess the scene that I learned the most in, there’s a scene when Donna’s in the Planned Parenthood and she’s talking about what the abortion will be—how much it will cost, when she can do it and all that—and we tried it a few times, and one time the first time I did it, I cried the whole time. And that wasn’t right for that scene. Donna shouldn’t be crying at the beginning. Have you ever been to the dentist and you brush your teeth before you go because you don’t want them to think that you’re gross?

Of course.
JS: She’s on her best behavior. She finds the glasses, and she doesn’t want to have to correct the doctor on how her name is said wrong. But I learned through Gill’s direction about levels, that even though I can get there as an actress, in this role at least, and emote, that it’s not just an on or off button. I learned how to do it with more specificity through that scene.

Gillian, did you find that Jenny’s relative lack of experience was a positive in the way you worked together? And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
JS: No, it’s true.
GR: I didn’t see her as a person or an actor who had a lack of experience. She’s been on many TV shows and had a range of beautiful characters that she’s created through “SNL” and “Parks and Rec” and all those shows. I think we worked really hard to find Donna’s voice with the short and then taking a really careful time to create the feature. And I wasn’t nervous, not one day. I was excited and surprised by many moments while we were filming. One moment that I love was when Donna’s doing the abortion stand-up. It was all on the page, but then Jenny would take it and make it her own using Donna’s voice. She wove this great—I was going to say quilt--
JS: [Laughs]
GR: But comedic quilt that took us from laughing really hard to being quiet and excited and sad for Donna when she said, “I’m looking into my future and [I’m] hopeful,” and it was amazing to watch that happen live. Watching her find that footing as an actress was pretty incredible.
JS: You have nothing to lose, you know? Nothing to lose, and only everything to gain. We were both doing something new. My first really lead role; it’s Gill’s first feature film. We were both just really ready to do it.
GR: Because it was our firsts, I feel like we weren’t scared at all. Because we didn’t know what was happening. [Laughs] We were just instinctually going for it. And our instincts were correct, but we also worked hard to get those instincts. If that makes any sense.

You’ve said this isn’t an abortion-related agenda movie. People will latch onto that topic though. What’s something you think women should get to legislate about men’s bodies as a way of showing that men shouldn’t be legislating women’s bodies?
JS: I would rather not go there. I would rather just say, “Everybody should be able to do with their bodies what is right and safe for them.” There’s nothing in me that’s like—
GR: “Take out their eyes!” [Laughs.]
JS: “You want me to talk about my birth control? You tell me when you get a vasectomy!” I don’t want to know about anybody’s body. I want to know what to do with mine, when it’s right for me. And I think that is a normal mindset.
GR: And have access to go do it in a safe way. Whether it’s a breast exam or a pap smear or an abortion it’s really no one’s business, except to make sure it’s done safely.

Well said. How would you each compare your own stress level at 27 to Donna’s at 27?
GR: Whoa.
JS: Mine was higher. She is stressed for sure, but I had anxiety at that age. That’s a tough time, the late 20s. You’re misinformed. Nobody has told you that your 20s are actually just a secret adolescence Part 2. You get to 27, and a lot of people, especially if you’re in a creative field, you’re just like, “I think I’m actually just learning who I am. And I have so much more to go. And now I’m tired also. And anxious.”
GR: “I have to pay rent.”
JS: “And [I’m] hungry! And desperate. I want to get going. How do I get going?” Donna, you don’t actually see her being, “How do I start my career?” She’s actually kind of relaxed, on my standards. But I’m a control freak.
GR: Yeah, I’m glad to not be in my 20s anymore. And I think Donna’s going to be a wonderful talent when she’s in her 30s. That’s when she’s going to hit her stride.

Why do you think people aren’t aware of that, that the 20s aren’t as stable as you expect them to be?
GR: You have to go through it. No one can tell you.
JS: Yeah! It’s weird. I wonder if it’s changed a little bit because when people get married and have families now is slightly pushed later into life. I don’t know. I can tell you my late 20s hit me like a ton of bricks. I did not get it. I did not see it coming. At all. I did not know that I would feel the way that I felt. In astrology, if you believe in that stuff, which I don’t know if I do, that’s like your Saturn return. It’s your big thing.

Is that bad?
GR: I don’t know what that means.
JS: I think it’s when on your natal chart, all the planets realign to the spot where they were when you were born. It’s basically like you’re being born again. It’s your shedding of your old self and starting into a new life. That can be really painful. It’s kind of like a transformation through fire. I’ve been set on fire a lot.
GR: I’m freaking out right now!
JS: I don’t even believe in this stuff, I just heard about it. And I just spew facts out.

I’m sure that will make everyone feel better as they go through this.
GR: “That burning feeling you have is just your 20s.”
JS: [Laughs] “You know when you’re 27 and your butthole is on fire? In astrology, that means that you’re ill. It means that you’re sick. That Uranus is circling your butthole. [Laughs]”

Plus:
Slate on drunken stand-up: “I’ve done a lot of drunken stand-up. Never like Donna. I’ve never bombed drunk. I don’t do that. When I lived in New York, [I did] a lot of whisky-powered stand-up. I guess it was just part of the culture, part of the scene for me. Everyone’s like, ‘You had a drinking problem.’ [Laughs] I didn’t. A lot of times if you go on later in the show, you’re sitting there drinking. I tend to really view my audience as friends or potential friends. It’s just like having a conversation. I’m not a drunk that reveals more than I would have if I were sober.”
The only audition Slate ever walked out on, even though she was broke: “They just lined a bunch of girls up and it was for a toilet cleaning product, and each girl had an imaginary toilet seat, and the ad was going to be that the toilet is so clean that a girl would lick it. And they were like, ‘But keep your eyes on the camera and be happy while you lick your imaginary toilet seat.’ So basically it was totally fellatio substitute. Really messed up. And I was just like, ‘Yeah, I can’t do this. I positively can’t do it.’ I mean, it’s kind of a low bar to set. ‘I’m not going to lick this toilet seat for you.’ [Laughs]”
The ideal client for Slate’s character to take on during her “PubLizity” sketch on “Kroll Show”: “I think it’s always good when they take on someone who doesn’t get who they are or what they do. So it would probably be good for them to take on Neil deGrasse Tyson or someone who just has no idea and would never care. Or Garrison Keillor. Yeah. He would Garrison Keel-over. Thank, you, good night! [Laughs]”

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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