Smack dab in the middle of the coldest, snowiest, and shoutiest Sundance Film Festival in recent memory—we’re all still defrosting and raspy-voiced from protesting down Main Street in Park City’s satellite Women’s March—actress Jenny Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre are huddled in a lounge to discuss their triumphant reunion after their breakout partnership with 2014’s Obvious Child.
They’re gabbing excitedly following the first screening of their second film together, Landline, when a massive glass filled to the brim with brown liquid arrives. Before I can ask, Slate, chipper and unapologetic, interrupts: “Kevin, this is whiskey, because I’m trying to be myself right now.”
She takes a sip and laughs, not knowing how unexpectedly profound her throwaway joke would end up being.
That becomes apparent over two conversations six months apart, during which time Slate co-starred in her first major studio picture, saw the hit animated film she voiced a villainous sheep for score an Oscar win, finalized her divorce, and publicly dated then publicly broke up with Captain America himself, Chris Evans—plus, because of all that, had her identity scrutinized like never before by the media.
In many ways, that’s why she’s relieved in this full-circle moment, about to release another film with Robespierre three years after Obvious Child, which launched this whole ride in the first place.
She’s also, as always, insistent on finding the humor in it all.
“It doesn’t take too much for me to look like some sort of Elaine Benes, that’s for sure,” Slate says when we talk on the phone a week before Landline’s release this Friday.
The film takes place in the ’90s and is bathed in the glorious nostalgia of CD Discmans, pay phones, and the kind of fashion that makes the bulk of us cringe to remember, but that Slate somehow looks magically right dressed in.
“I mean that brown velvet thong bodysuit paired with pink Fruit of the Loom drugstore underpants wasn’t exactly my sexiest look yet onscreen,” she says. “But I took a look in the mirror and thought it looked pretty authentic.”
Authentic is coincidentally one of the first words that come to mind when people think of the 35-year-old actress.
It’s part of a careful blend of self-deprecation and empowerment she’s been honing since she created with her ex-husband the animated character Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a tiny seashell who waxes about his small-scale life with grand sincerity and an irresistible blend of Borscht Belt one-liners and casual confidence: “Guess what I wear as a hat? Lentil”; “One time I nibbled on a piece of cheese and my cholesterol went to 900.”
With both Obvious Child and now Landline, she’s discovered ways in which a film about women and their relationships can be both inherently political and extremely personal. As she processes the changes in her life this past year, she’s also coming to terms with how to discuss those things publicly with the candor she’s known for, while her growing profile might tempt her to keep her private life private.
Therapy With Jenny
Landline follows the story of two sisters, Slate’s Dana and Abby Quinn’s Ali, processing the dissolution of their parents’ marriage in different, sometimes destructive ways. In Dana’s case, she begins cheating on her doting fiancé, at one point wondering with heartbreaking, relatable panic, “Is there some other person I’m supposed to be?”
“Long-term relationships are the goal for many people, and they are a wonderful thing,” Slate says, when I ask about her connection to Dana’s relationship-induced existential crisis. “But they also require constant action and a constant curiosity and question-asking.”
Talking to Slate, even in the environment of an actor-on-a-press-tour interview, can feel like a therapy session. She speaks wisely, and always from a place of her own experience and what she’s learned from it.
In this case, she is speaking as a woman whose three-year marriage to editor-director Dean Fleischer-Camp, her collaborator on Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, ended in 2016. Then, too, there’s her very public courtship with Chris Evans that ended after 10 months in February.
“Sometimes there’s the sense that if you committed to someone for life, you’ve sold them on an idea of your identity and your main work is going to be preserving that identity so that you don’t give them a false deal,” she says.
“That is really counter to what the human experience often is, and it’s counter to the feeling of growth that we all need to enjoy our lives and not start to feel stifled,” she continues. “I’m very tuned in to the ways I’m allowed to change and grow, and I try to keep people in my life who will allow me to grow with them.”
Slate, of course, isn’t slighting Fleischer-Camp or Evans in that statement. She’s been outspoken about the ways in which her relationships with both were largely healthy, beautiful things. It actually turns out that when Slate and I first sat down over that whiskey at the Sundance Film Festival, her divorce from Fleischer-Camp had just gone through.
In hindsight, that timing makes our discussion of Dana’s infidelity and how she feels about it all the more poignant: “For Dana to say, ‘I’m begging you to love me again. Please don’t define me by that stone I threw, but please understand why I threw it…’ You can ask that, and someone can say no and then you have to deal with the pain. But it’s worth it.”
The Superhero and the Mouse
No one describes Slate’s life more colorfully than Slate herself.
When I once asked her what her dreams are, she gave a response better than I could have imagined: “I hope that the restaurant I go to will have buffalo chicken fingers. 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.”
And here she is describing the unusual/adorable dynamic between herself and Evans to New York magazine earlier this year: “We used to talk about what kinds of animals we were. Chris said it’s like I’m a chick riding on a St. Bernard’s head. We’re an odd match.”
Slate constantly describes herself as different versions of a “mouse,” maybe because of her slight frame, her high-pitched speaking voice, or her penchant for coziness. The mouse and the superhero met during a chemistry read for the spring drama Gifted, in which they played romantic counterparts.
Slate was processing her divorce at the time. But Evan’s Marvel-minted enthusiasm, though initially exhausting, won her over because of its purity and lack of pretension.
The shock that reverberated in the media when they became a couple may well have started with Slate herself, who told New York she didn’t think she was Evans’ type; he had previously dated Minka Kelly and Jessica Biel: “Eventually, when it was like, Oh, you have these feelings for me?, I was looking around like, Is this a prank? I mean, I understand why I think I’m beautiful, but if you’ve had a certain lifestyle and I’m a very, very different type of person—I don’t want to be an experiment.”
Their relationship soon become tabloid candy, the way it does when a superhero finds a new girlfriend, especially one people who think in convention and stereotypes might deem surprising. Their Instagrams posts together became blog content in their own right, and their relationship the subject of think pieces.
Slate, who had relished her certain amount of very specific fame, suddenly saw her relationship and eventual breakup fire her out a cannon to whole new, sometimes uncomfortable levels.
She’s someone who has always talked openly about all facets of her life, including her love life, to anyone who asked about it thoughtfully. (Hence the lovely New York magazine piece.) It’s rare candor in the world of tight-lipped celebrities, but it’s something she’s also found herself having to reconcile and reconsider as her fame and career take off.
“I think that I will become a sad person if I adopt a worldview that revolves around humans as predators,” she says. “But I do think that the adjustment that I have made is that I should be able to decide how to show people my experience, and that it’s up to me to say my own name and my own feelings.”
She hopes her identity will be tied to her work and her experience, and not to a man who may or may not be famous, whom she may or may not be dating—though she’ll never stop talking about how her experience in matters of the heart is an integral part of being an ever-growing, ever-changing person.
“I’m really fascinated by the heart, and that it is breakable,” she says. “And I’m really fascinated by the way that identity can shift. And I am, in general, pretty thoughtful and fascinated by resilience. You can’t really explore those things if you cross out insecurity, if you guard against vulnerability.”
Her ticker-tape of sage-ness takes a rare pause for quiet contemplation. And then: “Every day is a new way to take a risk. If you try to deny that, I think you become a weird and sort of repressed person. That seems really boring and sort of sick to me.”