Frisky Q&A: “Obvious Child” Star Jenny Slate On Abortion, Hollywood & Feminism

If you think you don’t know who Jenny Slate is, you just haven’t attached the name to the person. She’s Mona-Lisa on “Parks and Recreation”; Tammy on “Bob’s Burgers”; a bunch of characters on “Kroll Show”; and she was on one season of “Saturday Night Live.” (You may remember her from the Doorbells And More sketch?). Lately, Slate is everywhere — literally everywhere —   as the star of a new film, “Obvious Child” which appears nationwide this month.

In “Obvious Child,” Slate plays 27-year-old Donna, who accidentally gets pregnant right after she’s been dumped and lost her job. She genuinely likes the guy who got her pregnant (played by Jake Lacy from “The Office”), but is in a bad place to bring a kid into the world. Donna wants to have an abortion and unlike many movies where a women ends a pregnancy, that choice isn’t portrayed as a scary or dangerous thing. “Obvious Child” manages to be both hilarious and heart-tugging, a testament to both director/writer Gillian Robespierre’s writing and Slate’s earnest relatability onscreen.

Jenny Slate and I chatted recently about movies depicting abortion, women in Hollywood, and feminism. Here’s our conversation, after the jump:

The Frisky: So, why were you interested in being involved with “Obvious Child”?

Jenny Slate: Well, the script was really, really good, first of all. I started working with Gillian [Robespierre, director and writer] in 2009. We met through a mutual friend. She had written the short film of “Obvious Child” and after she saw me do stand-up, she asked me to be in it. The character of Donna wasn’t a stand-up comedian at that point. In general it was really much more simple and unformed. But after we made the short, Gillian and our producer Elizabeth Holmes met each other probably a year or so after that, and they started to extend the script. Every time I’d look at a draft it would just be so thoughtful and funny. She wrote it for me, so there’s no way I would ever turn that down.

Was there any difficulty getting financing for a movie that dealt with abortion in a way that wasn’t condemnatory?

No, actually there wasn’t! It’s so weird, I think sometimes people anticipate a struggle because women’s rights are under attack and it is a giant issue. But there are also many millions of people who are progressive and who don’t find anything strange or scary about a movie where a woman has a safe, regret-free procedure. It was a very low-budget movie, but we had independent financing, private equity, we got some grants, tax credit, and we finished it off with Kickstarter. It was a patchwork job for sure, but not a difficult one to get those investors involved. I think, also, the script is really good and that’s what should matter. It’s not a shocking film in any way. I think if you haven’t seen the movie you might think it is [shocking], but it really isn’t … it’s very thoughtful and really funny.

I keep reading it described as “a movie about abortion,” but the abortion is actually such a small part in the whole story, you know?

Yeah. I really look forward to a day when a woman can have an abortion in a movie and a dynamic life around that and people are more excited about her authentic, dynamic life being depicted. If anything, labeling it that way calls attention to the fact that we still have some work to do. But that’s okay too. We’re young yet!

Has “Obvious Child” been well-received enough that you can see it opening up more doors for telling stories of this kind? You know, like after “Bridesmaids” came out, suddenly everyone was saying it proved moviegoers would see comedies with an all-women cast.   

I hope so! But I think the New York and Los Angeles entertainment industry communities [are] very progressive in general  … [T]he people that I have talked to [about projects] who are either collaborators of mine or other comedians that I know, or people who work on the other side of it — the executives, the development people — most of them are just excited that it’s a new voice and a complicated narrative and performance that goes along with it. They seem to be focusing on the things that I would hope for them to focus on, which is really lucky and really good.

Has that been your actual experience, though, that the entertainment industry has been as progressive as it seems?

In what way? Are you asking if I experience sexism?

I guess I mean that even though Hollywood may have a reputation for being liberal, I always sort of assumed that it was not as liberal as it had the reputation for because they were ultimately afraid of offending people. Like, how we read about movies getting different treatment if there is a female sex scene as opposed to a male sex scene. Stuff like that makes me feel like Hollywood really isn’t as progressive as it might look.

Right, well, I think you have two things going on at once. I think there are a community of people who are usually — at least from what I experience — pretty socially liberal. The people that I run into in Hollywood are usually on the left side of stuff, but they make entertainment for the entire country. I think the industry is very risk-averse. So even though you have people who are living lives where they’re voting on the left side of things, they also have a business to run and that can be what is disappointing. The risk-aversion has always bummed me out, and in general there’s sexism, but there’s also just creative risk-aversion. Like I think if I tried to pitch [her animation/children’s book] “Marcel the Shell” to anybody before I actually made it, nobody would’ve wanted to make that because it doesn’t make any sense in a pitch. But I guess also, I’m really bad at pitching ideas. I’m horrible at it.

It was really cool that you performed stand-up comedy in the film! Were those jokes from your real-life Jenny Slate standup set, or were those jokes you specially wrote for the film?

That stand-up in the film was stand-up that Gillian wrote based off my style. And then what happened was she wrote all this really funny stand-up and I was, like, “Gillian, this is really, really funny and I can’t wait to do it, but it’s really long!” I don’t think that’s anything you would know unless you do stand-up, with just how it times out — there’s so much to the rhythm. So we went to San Francisco on a grant from the San Francisco Film Society and we workshopped the script and I improvised a new stand-up set based on what she had written. She recorded that and then she rewrote. Then on the day of the shoot we had what she had rewritten, but we just made a beat sheet out of it so that I could still improvise. We had a mix of what she had written, things I came up with in the moment and then I threw in a couple of my stand-up jokes to make sure that the rhythm was authentic. And then for Gabe [Liedman], who plays Joey, he used his own stand-up.

You have a lot of creative outlets. What do you enjoy the most or what do you find the most fulfilling for you? Is it the stand-up, or acting, or writing?

It’s hard to choose, but the performance stuff is always my favorite because I love it. I’ve been waiting my whole life to be a performer, so I think that comes first. But I think it would be sad and feel pretty empty if I couldn’t write as well. It’s hard to choose. Mostly I just really like to keep busy and I prefer to repeat myself as little as possible. That’s kind of my goal, but you know, sometimes you do repeat yourself and it’s okay. In general, I just enjoy being busy because there are lots of times — especially when you’re starting your career — that you’re not busy and it’s really scary.

And how does your increased profile change what goes into your stand-up?

It doesn’t change at all. My stand-up will always be the same; it’s all just stories and memories. It’s an instinct that I have to share and hopefully that instinct won’t go away because it’s something that I like in myself, so I’ll be protective of it and just try not to let it change, you know?

I think I already know the answer to this question, but I want to ask anyway: do you consider yourself a feminist and why or why not?

I certainly do, because as far as I understand, a feminist is a human who seeks equality between the sexes and that’s how I feel.

I ask that to everyone who I interview and it’s always really interesting to hear the answers.

Oh really? Yeah, I mean you could talk about it forever, but I think I learned that it’s important to say “yes, I certainly am and here’s why” because even through my 20s, I think I was incorrectly taught that maybe saying that you were a feminist meant that you were against something or trying to gather stuff together just for one gender. And that didn’t please me but that’s not correct. Feminism is about equality; it’s not about segregation in any way.

And “Obvious Child” seems like such a feminist film in every way.

Yeah, I think it is, and I’m really proud of it!

Find out more about screenings of “Obvious Child” here!