Jenny Slate Makes a Lasting Impression on us in ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Jenny Slate

We all know Jenny Slate from her brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” and she has since left an impression on us with “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and on episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” But in Gillian Robespierre’sObvious Child,” Slate gives one of the best breakout performances of 2014 which will stay with you long after the movie has ended. As comedian Donna Stern, we watch as her life hits rock bottom after she gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in rapid succession. Then after a one-night stand with a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), she finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion, and it all leads up to the best/worst Valentine’s Day she’s ever had.

Obvious Child movie poster

I was very excited to meet Slate when she arrived for a roundtable interview at the “Obvious Child” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. I told her I came out of the movie wanting to hug her character, and she replied that was great and exactly the way we were supposed to feel (I couldn’t agree more). The movie is advertised as being the first “abortion comedy” ever, but that’s far too simplistic a description. To me, it was about how Donna learns how to empower herself and trust people again after having her heart broken, and Slate felt the same way.

Jenny Slate: It’s not representative of what the film actually does or how it unfolds. I guess, trying to look on the positive side, if people think that’s all that it is when they go and see the film, they will be delighted to see how complex and thoughtful it is and funny. If you think about it as just the story of one woman trying to understand the process of going from passive to active and trying to understand how to make choices you’d think, well why would I try to shy away from that? That’s a human story and I should just tell it.

“Obvious Child” derives its title from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. The discussion about the song led Slate to talk about when she used to ride the subway while she was a college student living in New York. She reminisced about how, when the train went through a tunnel, the window across from her would become a mirror, and this usually happened when she had headphones on.

JS: I remember sophomore year of college I would listen to, on repeat, the “Amelie” soundtrack and just imagine myself as a woman in a movie that was about a woman. It’s pretty interesting that I got to do it. I think a lot of people connected music that way. It makes them feel like they’re in a movie.

In the movie, Slate’s character is a comedian who does a stand-up act at a club in Brooklyn. The way Slate performs Donna’s act, you can’t help but think all her material was improvised, but Slate made it clear those scenes were the result of her collaboration with Robespierre.

JS: Gillian wrote this stand up based off of the style that I perform in; sort of loose storytelling, very instant with the audience, a conversation that’s evolving and not clubby or anything like that. She wrote it, we cut it down, we did some workshopping where I improvised a set based off of what she had written, and she recorded that, rewrote it, and then on the day of the shoot the shooting draft of the film had that stand-up set that we turned into bullet points so that I was not memorized and that it could be natural. You would have the feel of Donna feeling it out, and we talked about it and then I went up and went through these subjects that Gillian had set out and some of them are exact lines of her writing and some of them are lines that came up during it, and she would also call out to me during the shooting and be like, you know, circle back to talking about dirty underwear or whatever. And then I would go back and, during that time of walking backwards, new material would come in. I think if somebody says to me that it’s okay to work and it’s okay to be loose then I go with that. It’s in my nature to be playful and it’s my nature to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the rules, and that’s something I often just have to deal with and work through. You can’t improvise on every job, and you should be good enough at acting that you can say your lines. But for Gillian to say you can be a little looser and for her to be comfortable enough in what she had written to be flexible was an amazing testament to her. We are just a good pair.

One actress who was brought up with much excitement during this interview was Gaby Hoffman who plays Donna’s roommate, Nellie. Hoffman is best known for playing Kevin Costner’s daughter in “Field of Dreams” and for playing Maizy Russell in “Uncle Buck.” The interesting thing is that Slate and Hoffman actually look a lot alike to where you want to see them play sisters in a movie together. As it turns out, Hoffman’s career proved to have a major effect on Slate’s.

JS: I have always wanted to be an actress since I was young and can’t remember anything else. It was my ultimate desire, and she was my age and acting when I was growing up. I used to think I looked like her and was just like, oh I want to be like that girl. And when I got to meet her in my adulthood, I was like totally blown away in general just because I was such a huge fan. After getting past that, the real ultimate moment of just like being totally floored was discovering her personality. She’s very wise, really open and just like really no nonsense. She’s very fearless and I think she sets the bar really high for performance, and I felt that in a good way. I wanted to impress her, and I just think she’s the closest you can get to like a goddess. She’s got that real mythical vibe.

Now many people may say Slate is just playing herself in this movie, but this is the kind of unfair assumption we tend to make about actors in general. We may think we know an actor from reading about them in magazines or seeing them on the countless talk shows on television, but while Slate is a stand-up comedian like Donna, she was quick to point out the differences between herself and her character. Most importantly, she does not expound endlessly on her personal life like Donna does.

JS: I don’t do it. It just never seems right to me, but I’m not Donna. I know my boundaries and I think, although my standup is about like being horny and diarrhea and things like that, I still feel like it’s paired with really nice manners. I think the cornerstone of having nice manners is to have an equal exchange. Someone says how are you, and I say fine how are you, and Donna does not understand boundaries and limits at the beginning of the film. For me, I get it. My relationships are precious and I don’t talk about my husband on stage unless it’s something flattering. But even if it was something flattering that was going to embarrass him, I wouldn’t do it because there’s just too much to talk about.

Seriously, Jenny Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” is one of the best and most moving I saw in 2014, and it’s a must see even for those who, like me, are not fans of romantic comedies. Regardless of how you feel about the Valentine’s Day Donna ends up having, it’s a lot better than the one Slate told us about from her past.

JS: I had a really bad Valentine’s Day one year because I had a really shitty boyfriend who forgot that it was Valentine’s Day, and he gave me his digital camera in a sock. Wow, thanks! Such a bummer, the worst present ever. That’s like a present that a baby would give to somebody. I never wanted a digital camera in general. I don’t care, I don’t like technology. I just wanted some fucking chocolate. Look around you! There’s hearts everywhere! Fucking get it right! Dammit! My husband is so good at Valentine’s Day. He rules at it. No socks.

Gillian Robespierre Sets the Record Straight about ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Gillian on set

Obvious Child” marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it is one of the most assured directorial debuts I have seen in some time. It tells the story of aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a star making performance) whose life has just hit rock bottom. As the movie starts, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job, and then finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Suffice to say, this is not the best of times for her. But at the same time, what happens from there results in one of the best romantic comedies you could ever hope to see.

Obvious Child movie poster

Now since Donna decides to get an abortion, “Obvious Child” has been labeled by many as the first ever “abortion comedy.” But while Robespierre is glad this has given her movie far more attention than she ever expected, she does not share this point of view. During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, she made this very clear.

Gillian Robespierre: That’s not why we made this movie, to be called an abortion comedy, because we don’t think it is. I don’t think abortions are funny or hilarious, and I think that shorthand leads to believe we’ve been flippant or glib with the topic. We wanted to accomplish a couple of things with making this movie, and one was making a romantic comedy that was very entertaining, had a lot of romance, had a really funny leading lady, and had somebody who was recognizable onscreen who felt like she could be you or your sister or your best friend. And her parents were recognizable and her best friends were recognizable in a genre that sometimes doesn’t seem relatable. That’s what we wanted to do and really wanted to show. And we wanted to take some stigma away from abortion at the same time and show a procedure that was not full of regret and shame. Donna doesn’t put it on herself and her friends and the characters around her don’t put it on her either. That’s simply all we wanted to accomplish.

Indeed, the movie is really about how Donna picks herself up from her depressed state, comes to empower herself, and eventually learns to trust other people again after getting her heart shattered. This allows Robespierre to find humor in the more serious moments, and at the same time she succeeds in keeping things both human and intimate. These days it seems incredibly difficult to make a movie with such down to earth characters, but she pulls this off with what seems like relative ease.

GR: I think when we talk sometimes even in one sentence, offstage or on stage in a movie or in real life, sometimes we write comedy and tragedy in one beat. I think we’re just trying to take that sort of natural tone that we have and put it on the screen and cut out all the fat that movies and romantic comedies have and have the tone just be very realistic. Donna is a naturally funny character so in one beat she’ll be saying something very self-deprecating, and in the next second she’ll be saying something very sweet and heartfelt. I think that’s just how we interact with each other. To me, it’s just a realistic portrayal of how modern people speak to each other.

When it came to the movie’s title, Robespierre admitted it came from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. She explained why she chose it.

GR: I don’t think Donna is a child or an obvious child. I think Donna is somebody who’s not ready for what the late 20’s is giving her, and she thought she would be someplace else,” Robespierre said. “She didn’t know that the late 20’s is just as hard as her early 20’s, and she’s just trying to figure out how to be confident in where her voice is on and offstage. She’s just trying to figure out how to take over this passivity that seems to be a running narrative in her life, and I think she’s mature and thoughtful, and I think she’s doing something that needs to be done.

The fact Robespierre chose the title of a Paul Simon song for her movie made me wonder if the lyrics played a big part in her decision.

GR: I’m a rhythm girl. I do know the lyrics to the song, I’ve read the liner notes, and I think that determines the feel of the song. It’s not just like drum and bass, it’s obviously Paul Simon’s beautiful poetry that he’s written. But I just liked it for nostalgic reasons and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I listened to that song a lot when I was little in my car looking out the window, making up my little movie ideas; ‘Oh look at that tree, I feel like I’m in a movie.’

Of course, with this movie being a comedy, you come out of it wondering how many of its scenes were improvised instead of scripted. When you have a strong comedic talent heading your cast, we are quick to believe the director had no choice but to let their main star rewrite the screenplay themselves. But to hear Robespierre say it, the job of a director is to work with people instead of for them.

GR: I think filmmaking makes me really excited about being a filmmaker, and wanting to do this in the first place is that you get the chance to collaborate with a lot of smart, creative, intelligent actors, cinematographers, and editors. Every step of the way is collaboration, and what Jenny and I found in each other was a tone of how we like to speak with one another, and a comfortability of where our parameters are. I was very comfortable with letting Jenny go because she knows Donna just as well as I do, and we were really on the same page. So if a word didn’t feel true and if a sentence would have been funnier this way, I was very malleable. I have an ego, but it’s a different kind of ego.

“Obvious Child” started off as a short film Robespierre made, and it made me wonder about the differences between making a short as opposed to a feature length movie. Her immediate response was time and money as she never had enough of either, but she did go into more detail about what she had to deal with this time around.

GR: We had a crew of 30 people which was very new for me. The short was just four or five people all from film school. This was a real movie set where my producer Elizabeth (Holm) and I worked really hard to hire a crew. We were a boss and paid thirty people, and there’s something really exciting about that and really scary about that. To be somebody’s employer comes with, I think, a lot of heaviness and respect for the people who work for you and who were coming in every day and bringing in so much of themselves to their roles whether it’s Jenny coming in every day focused, but also the crafty person and the DP and the gaffer. Everybody was full-fucking focused.

Still, with “Obvious Child” dealing with the divisive issue of abortion, people can’t help but think pro-life supporters have been giving the filmmakers and actors a lot of grief. Robespierre responded she hasn’t personally received any feedback from any pro-life groups, and she again reiterated her movie is not an abortion comedy. In my opinion, I liked how it dealt with abortion in an intelligent and refreshing manner. Movies like “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both which I loved, sidestep abortion in favor of dealing with unplanned pregnancies in another way. But in this post Roe vs. Wade world, it’s surprising we haven’t had more movies like “Obvious Child.” But while it may seem like a revolutionary movie, Robespierre made it clear she wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel.

GR: There’s room for other storytellers out there. I think just because one movie is tackling unplanned pregnancy that ends in childbirth, that’s a real narrative and that’s a story that happens. We’re tackling it in a different way but also making it a comedy using a genre that we love which is the romantic comedy. I was just watching “Knocked Up” last night, it was on TBS, and I laughed my head off.

“Obvious Child” was, in my opinion, one of the ten best movies of 2014. While Jenny Slate is getting the praise she deserves for her performance, the movie’s success is really thanks to Gillian Robespierre whose work here bodes well for the great future she has ahead of her. In a sea of independent films which constantly get lost in the shuffle of all the superhero blockbusters being unleashed on us, it’s great to see a movie like this get the attention it deserves.

Image, poster and featurette courtesy of A24.