Jenny Slate Wants to Know What You’re Thinking About Her Face

The actor and comedian on aging in Hollywood, her recurring nightmare, and the origins of her sweet sense of humor

A portrait of the actor and comedian Jenny Slate
Christopher Anderson / Magnum

Jenny Slate tends to attract the same kinds of adjectives again and again: relatable, quirky, authentic. It’s the kind of fondly diminutive language so often applied to women in the public eye who talk a lot about their feelings and make jokes about body hair and gastrointestinal issues. But Slate’s emotional openness is clearly more than a shtick. Her work takes on themes that might seem like surprising fodder for comedy—loneliness, kindness, loss. “I do feel very vulnerable and very fragile,” she told me. “It’s just who I am.”

She started out doing stand-up and then got cast on Saturday Night Live in 2009, where she made headlines after accidentally cursing on air. She was fired after one season because, she’s said, she and the show simply “didn’t click.” It was in the weird, uneasy period of her life after SNL that she first came up with Marcel the Shell. She and her then-boyfriend, Dean Fleischer Camp, were packed into a hotel room with a group of friends during a trip, and she started channeling her discomfort into a tiny, crackly voice. She named this creation Marcel; Fleischer Camp assigned him a shell for a body, a single eyeball, and a pair of plastic doll shoes. (One discarded prototype, Slate told me, involved a miniature boom box instead of a shell.) She and Fleischer Camp ended up making a trio of stop-motion animated short films about Marcel, and the shell became a YouTube sensation.

More than a decade later, Slate and Fleischer Camp have been married and divorced, Slate is remarried and mother to a 2-year-old daughter, and Marcel is the star of the Oscar-nominated feature Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. A mockumentary-style portrait of the relationship between Marcel, his grandmother, and a filmmaker played by Fleischer Camp, Marcel is both sweetly funny and a moving depiction of grief. It’s one of two films Slate worked on that are nominated for Oscars this year; she also plays a tacky laundromat customer in Everything Everywhere All at Once. I spoke with Slate about the genesis of Marcel, the pressures built into the “relatable” label, and the way motherhood has shaped her work.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Laura Bennett: Your first Marcel the Shell video short was released in 2010. Why do you think Marcel has aged so well as a viral star?

Jenny Slate: I think he—much like me, because a lot of him is born from my psyche—is doing something to people where he’s implicitly asking them to relate and not be destructive.

Dean Fleischer Camp created the way Marcel looks. I think part of the appeal is what a little weirdo that guy is, but that he speaks so flatly, as if it’s completely normal for him to be interviewed. It’s magnetic to watch someone who is clearly so “other” act as if they aren’t “other” at all.

Bennett: Marcel talks about his feelings in such a plain, sweetly declarative way. As ridiculous as this thought experiment might seem, I found myself wondering how his tenderness and guileless sentimentality might land if he were a female talking shell with shoes on. I know you’ve given a lot of thought to female vulnerability and the public navigation of feelings as a woman in this business. Why did you decide to make Marcel a boy?

Slate: You know, he just came out that way. My grandmother’s brother was named Marcel, and that name was floating around in my mind a bit. But female cuteness is just—we put so much fragility on it. There was one review in The New York Times that said—and I’m paraphrasing, but—“Marcel’s voice is really annoying.” I just thought, What a brutal thing, to call attention to me as a woman in this way. And if this character were a girl, this review would be even worse.

Bennett: When you were first starting out in comedy, where would you have imagined yourself 10, 20 years down the line? Was there some particular hole in the comedy landscape you hoped to fill?

Slate: When I started my stand-up career, there were five years before I was ever granted any on-screen work. I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live, but I wasn’t driving at it in any way. It was a similar feeling to when I was 15 years old and in love with Leonardo DiCaprio: “Of course I’m in love with him, but certainly I’ll never meet him or, you know, touch him.”

At the time, I really wanted to be on an HBO show, to have a part where you could say swears and wear your underpants and maybe do sexy things. I did not have any aims to be on that—what was that show about all the dorks? The Big Bang Theory.

Bennett: I once read an interview where you memorably said, “[In Hollywood,] I’m considered some sort of alternative option, even though I know I’m a majorly vibrant sexual being.”

Slate: I think things are changing a lot now. But when I was starting out in 2007, 2008, 2009, I didn’t see a lot of leading ladies that looked like they were a half-Sephardic, half-Ashkenazi Jew. And if I saw that, they were playing a funny person, or they were playing a lawyer.

Bennett: Did your role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, originally credited as “Big Nose,” give you pause at all for that reason?

Slate: No, because the film’s co-director Daniel Kwan explained to me right away that in the Chinese community, calling someone a “Big Nose” can be sort of a general insult, and I honestly didn’t care.

When I think about my appearance now, I think about it in the context of—I’m about to be 41. I don’t get any, like, Botox or fillers or anything. Sometimes I go into a new job and I’m like, Are these people disgusted by the natural life progression that is on my face?

Bennett: I’ve seen your “brand,” if you will, described as a “radical kind of honesty.” Is “radical honesty” something that has felt important to you as a performer from the beginning?

Slate: It was something that I did out of instinct, like an emergency reflex. You’re onstage, what are you going to do? I didn’t see myself, especially as someone who was very dorky in school, as someone who would be asked to join a performance because of her beauty. When I was a teenager, the hot people in the movies I watched were, like, Tara Reid and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I wasn’t seeing anything that I related to, and I felt rejected by that. I also really wanted to be alluring, and I wanted attention. I wanted to be marked as sexual. I also had a lot of internalized misogyny. My reaction to all of that was to talk about what was happening for me, even if I was only saying it to a seven-person audience—to make myself the headline, and what was happening to my body the news.

Bennett: Perhaps because of that candor, you sometimes get described as your fans’ “imaginary best friend.” It’s a very specific phenomenon, the actress as imaginary best friend. Someone like Jennifer Lawrence plays that cultural role too, if in a slightly different way. What goes through your head when you read a headline like that?

Slate: The way I am with my actual best friend—it’s like being in love with someone. And obviously I can’t be everyone’s best friend, because I don’t have the time.

Bennett: That is very practical. What sort of pressure does it put on you to have a world of people with that particular kind of parasocial attachment to you?

Slate: You know, there’s a part at the very end of the Marcel movie that I improvised—the monologue where he says, “I truly enjoy the sound of myself connected to everything.” I like being connected to people. I need to be connected to everything. But I also need space. I find that particularly challenging these days, when, no matter what I do, I feel like I’m falling short with my daughter. It really hurts me to not be with her all day long. And I think it’s very dissonant to be positioned as somebody who’s, like—well, what if she gets older and she’s resentful of the times when I haven’t been able to be there? And people are like, Oh, I love your mom. She must be so fun to be around. And what my daughter thinks of is the person who is exhausted—when I come home from a long day, and I don’t feel interesting, and I feel flat. I just think it’s dangerous for everyone to act like you’re always 100 percent available.

Bennett: Are there certain words that get recurringly used to describe you that frustrate you?

Slate: One thing that I find troublesome is that there has been this over-branding of “vulnerability” or “authenticity.” Unfortunately, I do feel very vulnerable and very fragile. I’m not trying to milk those things; it’s just who I am. And I don’t like how words like authentic suggest a link between me and a narcissist on Instagram writing a way-too-long post about their life. I feel like “authenticity” and “vulnerability” have mud-slid their way into narcissism.

Bennett: You’ve said you first started doing the Marcel the Shell voice while you were crammed in a hotel room with a bunch of friends and feeling claustrophobic.

Slate: That’s right. I was joking around and working with a set of feelings I had at the time. After SNL, I wondered if I would ever be able to do comedy again. I wondered if people would think I was a loser after this.

Bennett: Was there a moment when you realized those fears were unfounded?

Slate: I actually don’t think I’ve ever felt that.

Bennett: Do you ever have nightmares about Lorne Michaels?

Slate: I have a recurring dream where I, at this point in my career, have been offered to be a cast member again on SNL, and I’ve said yes. And I get there and I’m like, Why did you do this? You’re not good at this community. I didn’t like having to chase writers down in the hall. I felt humiliated and stressed out by that. I just really want to work with kindness. I think kindness can be so funny.

Bennett: You’ve talked about wanting to write a studio comedy for yourself that’s outside the mode of women “acting like the guys,” which was culturally dominant for a long time. What’s the Jenny Slate studio comedy, in your imagination?

Slate: I want to make a movie where I play twins, and the twins are two halves of my psyche. One is a happy, optimistic fool, a big lovebug. The other is strict, afraid to let loose, so tightly wound that she is about to explode. She needs somebody to spring her loose.

Bennett: Your work has dealt a lot with loneliness. It’s the central theme of Marcel; it’s a frequent subject of your book Little Weirds and of your Netflix special. You’ve been open about your divorce and the high-profile breakup that followed. How does it feel different to make creative work now that you’re married and a mom to a 2-year-old?

By Jenny Slate

Slate: My daughter is proof of unconditional love. I’ve never felt that before, ever. But now I almost feel like there’s less for me to push against. In my work, it’s always felt like I’m pushing against loneliness, pushing against not feeling accepted, pushing against feeling like I’m not the one. Now I have this daughter and it’s like, I am the one. I’m the center of love. In some ways, it makes it hard to do my creative work, because everything I have to say feels so sappy.

Bennett: What would you say is the funniest part of motherhood?

Slate: I think it’s really funny when my daughter finds out how to do jokes. The other day, she took a baby doll and sat on it. It made me laugh so hard. Of course, it’s also funny to hear a baby fart into their diaper, that sort of muffled sound. A baby farting into a clean, dry diaper—one of the sweetest, funniest sounds.

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