The actor and filmmaker talks to Nick Chen about self-doubt, Nathan Fielder, and her new comedy Marcel The Shell
Even with his shoes on, Marcel the Shell might be the shortest movie star participating in this year’s awards season. At one-inch tall, the loquacious hermit crab shell has been an internet sensation since 2010 when he was introduced via a three-minute YouTube video titled “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”. Created by director Dean Fleischer-Camp and actor Jenny Slate for a friend’s live comedy show, the stop-motion short quickly went viral (it now has 33 million views), and a decade on has expanded into a feature-length mockumentary about grief, family, and the meaning of life. It just so happens to be about an anthropomorphic shell with a single googly eye and orange footwear.
Not that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was always a shoo-in for its awards attention. In October 2022, the Academy announced that Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped Apollo 10½ wouldn’t qualify for its Best Animated Film category; a month later, they reversed the decision, adding that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On would also be eligible. Fast-forward to 2023: Fleischer-Camp and Slate’s esoteric comedy is up for Best Animated Film at the Oscars and BAFTAs, making it this year’s Flee – as in, it’s the only one of the nominees you’ll want to watch if you’re not a parent or a child.
To voice Marcel, Slate enunciates unlike any of the comedic personas she’s portrayed in her many movies (Obvious Child, Everything Everywhere All At Once) and TV shows (Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show). Instead, the 40-year-old performer, who cowrote the script, adopts a boyish whisper that’s wistful, achingly sincere, and alludes to the vulnerability of being the wrong height for an Airbnb designed for humans.
“There will always be a little bit of who I am that finds its tendril into any character that I play,” Slate says as she sells Marcel the Shell, not by the seashore but from LA, a few days after the Oscar news. “Marcel is fully a one-to-one of what it’s like in my own interiority, and what my beliefs are in terms of how not just to survive, but how to live a good life, what I feel about the nature of change, and why it would be scary to take a risk.”
That Marcel the Shell with Shoes On could ever be doubted as animation is, really, a testament to its craft. By amalgamating a live-action backdrop with stop-motion artistry for Marcel and his talking relatives, the film – make no mistake, it’s definitely animated – adopts such a degree of reality that you almost forget that shells don’t usually dish out poetic one-liners. According to Slate, inspirations ranged from Billy the Kid to Grey Gardens. “I really like Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries because they’re honest, and just showing the people. They help one develop a real respect for people who might not usually be placed in the centre of a story in a respectful way.”
In the mockumentary plotline, a mostly off-screen human, Dean (Fleischer-Camp), moves into a house to find Marcel living with his grandmother (another shell voiced by Isabella Rossellini). The pair, at one point, were separated from their wider family when a human couple split up and divided their possessions. While the narrative sounds a little Toy Story, it’s more of an existential character study about how seashells deal with deep sadness. In fact, when Slate voiced Marcel in 2010, it was shortly after joining Saturday Night Live: she accidentally swore on live TV and was fired after one season.
“At the time, I felt really restricted [on SNL],” Slate says. “I felt so much self-doubt. It was really hard for me to perform and be funny, because I felt ashamed about what I defined as a personal failure. But living within that set of feelings was the only reason I was able to create this character. I’m very grateful for that now.”
Despite the FYC screenplay including “fuck” in its scene descriptions, Marcel the Shell himself doesn’t curse. While Slate’s stand-up can be bawdy, whether it’s in her 2019 Netflix special Stage Fright or as Donna in Obvious Child, she insists, “It’s not hard for me to not be explicit. It just doesn’t make sense for Marcel to swear. His behaviour is his. I’m not trying to make it kid-friendly or funny. I’m just trying to be true to what the character would do at the moment.”
Voicing Marcel’s brother in a cameo is Nathan Fielder, who also acted alongside Slate on Kroll Show and in Fleischer-Camp’s web series David. Although Fielder’s comedic persona is his lack of chemistry with other human beings, he and Slate have formed a minor double-act through these projects. “I love working with Nathan,” Slate says. “He’s mysterious.” Fielder, I note, doesn’t swear on Nathan for You or The Rehearsal, which seems to fit with Marcel the Shell. Slate responds, “Because extreme language exists, it doesn’t mean that extreme language needs to be paired with the most extreme moments. A lot of times, extreme moments are made more extreme by the lack of expletives, by someone just facing them rather flatly and describing them in other terms.”
‘Everything Everywhere All At Once is a massive masterpiece, and Marcel is a much smaller meditation. But I think they’re cousins. And what a beautiful pairing’ – Jenny Slate
While Slate and Fleischer-Camp cowrote a script with Nick Paley, much of Marcel’s dialogue is improvised and surrounded by naturalistic, Miyazaki-esque pauses. The comic juxtaposition is in how the exhausting stop-motion process (it would take a day to create five seconds of footage) is countered by Slate’s relaxed, off-the-cuff delivery. “It feels like I’ve got good at playing an instrument no one else can play,” she comments on the voice’s musicality. “I get a sense I’m doing something that is not only unique, but unique to me.”
A decade is a long time. If Slate has evolved over the years, has the character grown wiser? “I think I’ve changed a lot for the better,” she says. “It wasn’t easy. I still have a lot more changing to do until I’m old, and then I die… When I’m playing Marcel, I try to make my mind really quiet, and say the thing I think is the most obvious and true, without trying to please anyone or posture. I say the thing I can say because I’m Marcel, not Jenny. I’m not worried about what anyone’s going to think. And that’s why it’s a great relief. Maybe that’s why Marcel seems wise: he lays it down gently.”
At the Oscars, Slate will be part of two nominated films: she was also Debbie in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Is there a connection between these two A24 features with die-hard online fanbases? “I think they’re both films that feel, in a non-religious way, really spiritual,” Slate says. “The message of both is: there are different versions of you, depending on how you choose to live your life. It’s always going to be difficult, or even frightening, to jump into those changes. Everything Everywhere is a massive masterpiece, and Marcel is a much smaller meditation. But I think they’re cousins. And what a beautiful pairing. I’m so proud.”
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On will be released in UK and Irish cinemas on February 17