The Obvious Star

The Casual Genius of Jenny Slate: ‘Marcel the Shell,’ ‘Obvious Child,’ and the Ghost of ‘SNL’

How do you make everyone forget about cursing on ‘SNL’? You stun critics in a hit indie film. And you charm them with the return of a talking seashell.

Jessica Chou/Redux

“I spend so much time hoping things for myself,” Jenny Slate tells me, near the end of an interview that covers everything from her time on Saturday Night Live, her quietly explosive performance in the indie “abortion comedyObvious Child, and a teeny-tiny talking conch shell with a googly eye and jazzy pink sneakers (who may just have changed her life).

“I hope that the restaurant I go to will have buffalo chicken fingers,” she continues. “I hope that one day I can work with Matt Damon. I have big and little dreams and they’re all equally important to me. A life without buffalo chicken fingers, I don’t know if I would want that life. Even if it meant I got to work with Matt Damon. Everything has its worth.”

As the most prolific, exciting, and game-changing year of her career draws to a close, it’s becoming ever-more clear that Slate might soon find her hopes fulfilled. She might actually get to have her Damon-cake and eat her buffalo chicken fingers, too.

The occasion of our conversation is the upcoming release of the follow-up to her New York Times best-selling children’s book Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. The next adventure from her precocious creation, The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been, recounts a dramatic day in the life of our thimble-size hero, who we first met in 2010 when Slate and her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, put together a stop-motion video introducing the tiny seashell character.

The earnestness of the clip, which finds Marcel the Shell waxing about his small-scale life with grand sincerity—“Guess what I wear as a hat? Lentil;” “One time I nibbled on a piece of cheese and my cholesterol went to 900”—helped it go instantly viral, with upwards of 23.5 million viewers cooing at Marcel’s irresistible blend of Borscht Belt one-liners and casual confidence.

Much has happened since Marcel and his dog on a leash (actually a hair tied to a piece of lint that he drags around) walked into Slate’s life three years ago: scene-stealing arcs on Parks and Recreation and House of Lies, a starring role on the FX comedy Married, and a transcendent performance in Obvious Child that’s gotten Slate marked as a darkhorse Oscar contender. And in a strange way, Marcel, with all of his stuttering, sly gregariousness, and optimism, may have actually made all of this possible.

“At the time I was just trying to be free and creative, because I felt like that was something that was being drained from my life and I didn’t like that,” Slate says about conceiving her shell. “I wanted to find a way to address it without it being a huge fight or a statement. I wanted to somehow plug into it with gentleness and love, because those are things I feel comfortable with. I don’t always feel comfortable being outwardly aggressive.”

She doesn’t mention it explicitly—because it’s already mentioned exhaustively when Slate’s career is brought into conversation—but the period of her life she’s referring to is just after she was fired from Saturday Night Live.

Slate spent exactly one season, from 2009 to 2010, in Studio 8H. On her first episode live from New York, she accidentally said the f-word. Despite performing in a respectable amount of sketches for a SNL freshman throughout the season, her contract was not renewed.

That August, she and Camp co-wrote the first Marcel the Shell video.

We begin talking about the directness and casual sweetness that belies Marcel’s remarkable self-assured nature, despite living in a world that could, quite literally, make him feel small.

“I think it comes from me during that time when I was trying to figure out how to speak that feeling,” she says. “How you say that you like yourself when you also feel small? Reconciling those two, of course they can exist at once. You don’t have to be in the brightest, shiniest state of being an individual to feel like you’re exceptional.”

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Slate found Marcel’s voice, and by extension her own, thanks to the quiet privacy with which he was conceived in with her husband. And when Marcel gives his charming quotes, which double as unintentional life affirmations (“Sometimes people say my head is too big for my body and then I say compared to what?”), it’s in the intimate confidence of the person who is conducting his fictional interview.

“It’s momentary expression,” Slate says. “It’s not a parade of self-confidence. Sometimes I think kids and adults forget that’s enough.”

That struggle is a big part of her character’s journey in Obvious Child, too.

Bracingly honest, unexpectedly touching, and gloriously matter-of-fact, Obvious Child was released in June, a teeny-tiny indie that garnered big-scale attention thanks to its frank handling of a delicate issue and Slate’s star-is-born performance as its lead.

Unable to manage a suffocating amount of self-loathing after getting dumped, Donna (Slate’s character) has a one night stand, from which she gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. In the time period between the decision and her scheduled procedure, the father of the baby charms her with all the hipster swooning of a romantic comedy set in Brooklyn. Donna has to convince herself that she’s deserving of his love, even while deciding not to keep their child.

The dexterity with which Slate danced between Donna’s quirky, pixie-like comedic tendencies and the complexities of the film’s grounded, tenderer dramatic moments earned the actress raves. In turn Slate did a lot of press leading up to its release.

Scan the profiles and interviews, though, and you’ll see the same talking points hit upon, time after time. There’s its reductive and not-all-that accurate branding of Obvious Child as an “abortion comedy.” (“It has an abortion in it, but it’s not an abortion movie,” Slate says. “I just think of it as a modern romcom.”) There’s her stepping out into a leading role. There’s her firing from SNL.

So instead, we begin discussing things she wished she had been asked about, that she feels were glossed over and reporters checked their boxes while she was on the film’s press marathon.

“We put a great amount of thought into the look of Donna, a woman you wanted to believe was in the real world and was both a mess and kind of catch” she says. “For me, it was really special to be able to look that way—to be able to wear no makeup and not have reality show curling-ironed and hair-sprayed hair, which is what I’m normally given.”

But she takes another beat before talking about how surprised she was by the number of times she was asked the same questions, the answers to which could be found easily by Googling, when everyone was given the opportunity to ask something new and different about a rich and complicated film.

“I became very weary of the amount of times I was asked about Saturday Night Live in the exact same way,” she says. “And I get why people ask about it but I don’t understand why they ask about it in the same way.”

By the time the press tour had neared the end with an appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, “I was like, ‘I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I’ve said everything I could say,’” she says. “And it really embarrasses me to be on four different TV shows, two cartoons, have this movie, and be a New York Times best-selling author and continually have to talk about one time I said a swear.”

It’s abundantly clear that Slate doesn’t begrudge the fascination over the episode, or wish that she could bury that period of her life into the recesses of her memory. But there’s also confusion as to why the dialogue hasn’t progressed beyond that, even as her career has.

“What if Seth Meyers had been tuning in? Or Amy Poehler? Or Kristin Wiig?” she says. “Any of those people who I love and respect and want to work with again, and they heard me talking about this like I was victim or that it was the most important thing that ever happened to me, when I have done all this other stuff?”

Other aspects of the Obvious Child press onslaught were more than welcome by her, specifically the opportunity to become an accidental activist for issues she believes in.

“When we went to on the road, right before we were about to do it I said to [director] Gillian Robespierre, ‘I know how I feel. I know how I feel about fighting for my rights as a human and my reproductive rights and I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do with my body. But I’m not an expert on abortion, and I’m afraid that I’m going to say something stupid. But I feel more than ever that I want to talk about this,’” Slate remembers. “And she was like, ‘I think it’s cool to be an activist in your way.’”

That’s the value of the film, she thinks, and part of why it became so well-received.

“There should be imagination and flexibility and openness, and maybe even a little bit of humor in the discussion,” she says.” Because we have to create an environment that’s a little bit hospitable. If it’s just two camps standing on opposite sides of the field hurling arrows at each other, I don’t understand how that will lead to progress. Even if I’m a part of a group of silly, fun people who go in the middle of that field and just sit down and start to talk, I’d want to be in that group.”

Thanks to the reception to Obvious Child—and not to mention the impressive roster of TV series she is currently starring in—Slate is also finding herself as part of another group, of “actresses,” perhaps instead of, as she puts it, “a floating comedian who pops in and out of shows.”

“It’s nice to feel like I’m on the road to being an American movie actress,” Slate says. “But whatever the road is it does feel new, and it does feel good, and it feels like I made it for myself with people I know and love.”