Jenny Slate: Not an obvious choice for 'Obvious Child'
THE SHORTHAND description of Jenny Slate's "Obvious Child" is that it's the movies' first "abortion comedy."
It's about a single woman, played by Slate, who gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides not to carry her baby to term - going against the grain of "Juno," "Knocked Up" and (the neglected indie movie) "The Opposite of Sex."
"I really enjoyed 'Juno' and 'Knocked Up.' I really enjoyed the performances. I understand why we're compared to them, but our movie is not at all trying to call those movies out. We love those movies," said Slate, a stand-up artist and former "SNL" cast member making her first starring role in a feature film.
"But at a time when women's rights are under attack, I think it's important to say in a really clear voice, in a really thoughtful way, that there's another story to be told. We're OK with [the movies] already out there, but there's lots of ways the story can go, and everybody who has an unplanned pregnancy has a different experience."
Few of them are full-on hilarious. Which brings us to that awkward label "abortion comedy."
Slate's character, Donna Stern, is a working stand-up comedian who has funny moments with her friends (Gaby Hoffman, David Cross), parents (Richard Kind, Polly Draper) and even the young man (Jake Lacy) who gets her pregnant.
But the movie takes on a different tone when Donna has her procedure. The scene is not horrific, but neither is it funny.
"We filmed in a real Planned Parenthood office, and they were really helpful, and we wanted to show what it's really like. The people are warm and nice, but it's a medical procedure, and everything is sterilized and you're surrounded by machines and at a certain point, Donna is alone, and I think it's very important to show that," Slate said. "And I think you see she's overwhelmed. She's made up her mind, she's unwavering, but she's nervous about the procedure and it's OK to show those two tiers."
There's another emotional scene in post-op.
"The recovery room scene to me is so poignant. You see many different women in there, for different reasons. Many don't want to connect. The woman next to Donna has her head down, and doesn't want to talk. The woman on the other side of Donna looks right into her eyes, and you're not exactly sure what's going on between them, but it's pretty profound. You don't know what they know, because everybody's story is different."
Slate said the hot-button abortion issue causes most folks to overlook the most obvious thing, to an actress, about Donna - that she's an incredibly challenging character to play. She comes with a wide range of emotions, faces a daunting set of choices.
Slate's had supporting roles in movies and done vocal work for animated films, but she never expected to be offered a lead role so complex. Let alone one tailored to her by writer/director Gillian Robespierre, who knew Slate's stand-up work and wanted to model Donna on Slate's stage persona.
"I was so stunned to have someone as talented as Gillian offer me this opportunity. Especially because it's something I don't think I'd ever get around to doing myself," Slate said. She has done some of her own writing - she gave Warner Bros. a script for a planned Looney Tunes reboot and co-scripted the viral-video short film "Marcel the Shell with Shoes," on its way to being a children's book.
But Slate prefers performing. You might have seen her in recurring roles on "Parks and Recreation," "House of Lies" and "The Kroll Show," and she'll star opposite Paul Reiser in the upcoming FX series "Married."
"I'd like to write a big studio picture for myself, a throwback to the Lily Tomlin movies. But I'd have to do it with a partner. I genuinely don't like being by myself. I have a hard time paying attention," Slate said. "When I did homework as a kid, I'd have to do it in the same room as one of my sisters, because if you just shut me in a room with myself, I'm going to waste time, and part of that is a rejection of just sitting still.
"I like writing, but I like acting so much more. It feels like such a luxury to just show up and play the part. There's that sense of being the live doll, of being dressed up and moved around and disappearing into the part, and in the process finding some part of yourself you didn't know was there."
She found those untapped reserves in "Obvious Child."
"At Sundance, the movie got a really good reception. I feel like this movie will help open doors for different kinds of work for me. I also feel in general I'm ready for that work. Whether the movie is commercially successful or not, I've learned a lot as a performer. I didn't know the experience could be so full."
The timing is right, since box-office results in general have opened Hollywood eyes to the prospects of movies for and by women, especially women who can do comedy.
"I think when 'Bridesmaids' became so popular, people started getting really interested in funny women. I think people got a taste for that and wanted more of it," she said. "I go to a lot of meetings, and I know that people are looking for a good female voice. It's sort of new, and people are trying to figure it out.
"I can't worry about that, though, really. How a gigantic business like Hollywood is moving. What I worry about is my character, my performance. It's nice that people are interested in female voices, but for me, the important thing is to have an authentic voice, male or female. Louis C.K., his stand-up or his TV work. That's the sort of brilliant stuff I'd like to do."
Also, she doesn't want Hollywood to stop making blockbusters for dudes. "There's a place for movies that have simple scripts and large explosions. I like to smoke weed and watch those movies, too."