The IMDb pages for these two alternative comedy stars are full of overlapping appearances on shows like Parks and Recreation (in which she played party girl Mona-Lisa and he played “The Douche,” one-half of a shock jock morning radio team) and HBO’s animated Animals (in which he played a pigeon and she played a snake). Then there was Kroll Show, the three-season Comedy Central sketch series in which the pair played dozens of characters, including two PR reps both named Liz on the fake reality show—ingeniously named PubLIZity.
Dating back to their time performing live at the now-defunct Rififi bar and comedy space in the East Village, Slate and Kroll have a reputation for portraying big, outlandish characters. Slate was the first to demonstrate a subtler side, and even garner some Oscar buzz, in 2014’s Obvious Child. Now she and Kroll have both brought unexpected depth to their characters in Sophie Goodhart’s feature debut My Blind Brother, which will be released in theaters and on demand this Friday, September 23.
As I enter a suite at the London Hotel in Los Angeles to interview the pair, Kroll is narrating his activity for my benefit. “Kroll worked the bar. It was only 11 a.m., but they were already deeply into their drinks,” he says, pouring himself a Perrier.
“I almost ordered a Bloody Mary, and then I was like calm down, Jen,” Slate, who’s wearing a long green dress adds as she slips off her white stilettos and curls up on the couch. “This whole outfit is a little bit fancier than anyone needs,” she says.
“Well, I just looked at myself in the mirror and was like, ‘Oh, wow, I look like a fucking Persian warlord,” says Kroll, who’s wearing a dark suit and shirt with no tie. Yes, in case you were wondering, they are almost constantly doing bits with each other.
“We’ve been friends for a really long time and I think we both have really enjoyed one another as people and as performers,” Kroll says, turning more serious for a brief second. The prospect of working with their mutual friend and fellow Parks and Rec alum Adam Scott only made the whole project more appealing.
“And it’s different from other things we’ve done so far,” Slate chimes in.
My Blind Brother started its life as a short film of the same name more than 13 years ago. The inspiration for the project came from Goodhart’s sister Alice, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when they were both in their early 20s. “The weird feeling that I was unprepared for is I realized I was having moments of being sort of jealous,” Goodhart tells me by phone from New York. “As soon as she was diagnosed and became someone living with a disability, she was forever brave.” Goodhart, on the other hand, felt she was now seen as the “flaky and indulgent” one.
The filmmaker did not intend to turn the short, which was nominated for the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2003, into a feature, but once she started exploring an idea about a woman who breaks up with her boyfriend moments before he is accidentally killed, she realized she could marry the two stories into one film. That woman eventually became Slate’s character Rose, who feels somehow responsible for her ex’s death and tries to make up for it by dating Robbie (Scott), the blind brother of Bill (Kroll), the man with whom she has a one night stand the night of the funeral.
“I really liked how my character was pretty much flailing, making a lot of wrong decisions,” Slate says of Rose. “And I like trying to make someone like that lovable still. Because I think a lot of us go through those times, where we make a lot of wrong moves and still hope that somebody can love us.”
“I didn’t set out to make a romantic comedy,” Goodhart says, as much as she loves the films of James L. Brooks and Nora Ephron. Instead, her intention was to make “something darker” about jealousy, sibling rivalry and how society treats the disabled.
In the short, Kroll’s character Bill was played by Tony Hale, just as he was about to break through as Buster Bluth in Arrested Development and long before he won multiple Emmys as Gary Walsh on Veep. According to Goodhart, both Hale and Kroll have the “everyman quality” the character requires, but Kroll brought more “anger and resentment to the fore.” Casting him opposite Slate worked so well, in Goodhart’s view, because they have the type of shorthand with each other that comes from years of friendship. “They do really, actively like each other as people, so it was extremely helpful,” she says.
“For me, I’ve been very lucky to play a lot of fun, colorful characters who are often times a little douchey,” Kroll says. (Besides “The Douche” on Parks and Rec, Kroll played a literal animated douche in Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party.) “So the idea of playing a sweet guy who’s really passive and gets walked all over was interesting.”
“He’s probably in certain ways the closest character to me as a person in that I just get walked all over,” he adds says, breaking into a faux-baby voice that makes Slate laugh. “My goal throughout the day is to try to make people feel OK. And I think Bill in the movie is like that. I think Jenny and I both really enjoy playing somewhat deplorable people, because they’re fun to play on camera. But in real life that’s not, I don’t think, how either of us are.”
Kroll will try his hand at another non-deplorable character when he appears later this year as ACLU lawyer Bernard Cohen in Loving, Jeff Nichols’ new film about the couple who challenged America’s interracial marriage ban in the Supreme Court and won. When we spoke, he was also about to fly back east to start tech rehearsals for the Broadway run of Oh, Hello, the play he wrote with fellow comedian and former SNL writer John Mulaney about two elderly New Yorkers. “It’s the most ridiculous thing in the world,” he says of the show’s latest iteration.
“There are also moments where he does really shitty things and I think all the characters do really shitty things, because people do really shitty things,” Kroll adds of My Blind Brother. “Even good people do bad things. I was excited to be more of a leading man and work on carrying the romantic part of the movie, which was fun.”
When I suggest that Adam Scott’s character probably gets away with doing the shittiest things of anyone in the film because of his blindness, Kroll is quick to jump in with, “in real life too.” He jokes, “Adam killed homeless guy and told us about it on set the next day and laughed.”
“At the cast party, he killed a lot of people who are homeowners,” Slate adds, straightfaced. “And he was like, ‘You’re never going back to your house, you’re dying tonight!’”
Kroll says Scott nailed the blind acting “right away,” aided by the fact that he wore contacts that not only made his eyes look a little cloudy, but also physically distorted his sight. “He genuinely couldn’t see very well when he was wearing them.” Kroll adds. “It’s always present, but it’s also not overdone at all.”
The film’s conceit revolves around the idea that people with disabilities are viewed as “heroes” regardless of their behavior, which helps explain why Slate’s character is so quick to embrace Robbie after rejecting Bill. “I think she sees the chance for redemption in herself,” Slate says of the decision to date a blind man who isn’t particularly nice to her. “I don’t think she sees him for who he is. I think she sees him as a chance to reboot her identity, which is a real bummer position for her to take.”
“It’s really disrespectful. And it’s from her own lack of self-respect,” Slate continues. “She feels that she’s such an odious person that she has to throw away all of her preferences and forget her past and start again. Those sort of extreme moves end up kicking us in the ass.”
Robbie’s blindness may be portrayed convincingly by Scott, but it is also played for laughs. There are a handful of scenes in the film in which Robbie drives a car while Bill gives him verbal directions to keep him from swerving into the other lane and killing everyone. At one point, Robbie walks in on Bill and Rose having sex—but doesn’t realize it because he can’t see them.
Given that they’ve been friends for so long, wasn’t it awkward for Kroll and Slate to simulate sex on screen? “We prepped the crew, I was like, I’m going to be honest with you guys, I fart whenever I do sex scenes, I get nervous farts,” Kroll jokes. “And so I had told Jenny, but I made an announcement to the crew as well.”
“Yeah, well for me, I understand how to not be in control of your body, because my chest hair grows in a lot when I’m nervous,” Slate improvs without missing a beat. “So I had a full chest muff.”
“All the chest hair that grows on Jenny when she gets nervous and my, let’s just call it, farting problem, made for a heck of a scene,” Kroll promises. “So Jenny’s in a turtleneck and I’m in a diaper,” all of which he says was fixed in post-production so you can’t tell on screen.
“And that’s what they call movie magic,” Slate says.