Jenny Slate, 32, is used to playing characters best described as The Worst, like ditzy, self-centered publicist Pretty Liz on “Kroll Show” or Jean-Ralphio’s obnoxious twin Mona-Lisa on “Parks and Recreation.” So it’s a welcome surprise to see Slate (infamous for dropping an F-bomb during her first “Saturday Night Live”) playing an Actual Human Being in “Obvious Child.” In the new movie, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, 35, Slate stars as Donna Stern, a recently dumped, struggling stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. After the most self-destructive comedy set of her career, she has a one-night-stand that she plans to put behind her — until she discovers she’s pregnant. What follows is a relentlessly hilarious, poignant and refreshingly real romantic comedy about getting an abortion. Express sat down with Slate and Robespierre to discuss the film ahead of Friday’s release.
There’s something so natural about the film, especially the stand-up performances. Were Donna’s sets scripted?
Gillian Robespierre: It was scripted and then workshopped together. Jenny’s an amazing stand-up comedian, I am not one. I’m just a fan of comedy and also a really big fan of Jenny’s voice on stage, which is very confessional, honest and earnest. It’s a really cool style and Jenny was grateful enough to lend us that style for Donna. But Jenny and Donna are very different.
Jenny Slate: Yeah, I understand boundaries. I think that’s an important part of having a strong voice onstage: to be careful with it, to use it in the right way, and Donna doesn’t really know how to do that at the start. She’s just flooring it.
It was refreshing to see you playing a relatable, normal person.
JS: Yeah, the same from my point of view. I have never done anything like this before.
Did you fear being typecast?
JS: Yeah. I was just really, really dying to play a normal woman and I think it happens sometimes when you do comedy, that people think of you as the person who makes that face and does this voice. I’m lucky that I’ve had an array of really large characters and was able to have fun and do those, but then develop a taste and a real hunger for something natural.
Most of the notes I took while watching the film were just jokes that came out of Donna’s mouth.
GR: We wanted to make a romantic comedy with an actually funny leading lady. So many romantic comedies have the quirky lady who we do not relate to at all, who doesn’t even have any good jokes, whose life is kind of boring.
JS: She’s quirky because she, like, wears glasses or she trips. Or her dress is tucked into her pantyhose.
GR: We really wanted to bring a fantastically funny leading lady to the surface and somebody who you could not just laugh with, but also cry with and really relate to.
When Donna decides to get an abortion, there’s no stigma surrounding it. Was it important to make sure it wasn’t a negative experience?
GR: We didn’t want a scene where she’s deliberating and crying. She’s still feeling a lot of things that are not easy emotions but she’s just not ready and she knows she’s not. We wanted to show something where people in her life weren’t judging her, where she wasn’t judging herself, and also show a very safe, positive experience in the health center. That’s why we collaborated with Planned Parenthood.
It helps that the film is funny. Even the gross-out humor is smart.
JS: Thank you. We’re experts at that.
When she’s feeling very low, Donna climbs into a cardboard box, which I think we can all relate to.
JS:I was delighted when I read that box scene. I was like, “I can’t wait until we do the box!”
GR: Jenny got injured.
JS: I did, I hurt myself. When I jumped out of the box, I would slam my arms down on the side of the box and I had these really, really big bruises. They tried to cover them up because they were gross, purple bruises but you can see one of them on my arm. War wounds.