The actor and comedian talks new 90s nostalgia dramedy Landline, honing her own form of resistance, and how technology has changed relationships forever
It’s impossible to speak to Jenny Slate for more than four seconds and not want to be her best friend. Any article about the actress and comedian you will ever read, including this one, will stray into gushing about her charisma, her candidness, her astute insight. There’s a reason; she somehow manages to form an instant, genuine bond with people she’ll only know for half an hour of her life. Within moments of speaking she was joking that she wanted the interview to “be fucked” so we could both be fired and “have nothing to do but get a condo together in the Bahamas and talk about how we failed”. She has a skill for making you feel immediately at ease – as if you’re on the phone to your closest friend on earth and that it would be appropriate and not at all unprofessional to spill your deepest, darkest secrets. You probably could. Jenny would understand. She is endlessly honest and sweet, and it’s both the key to her charm and something that has gotten her in trouble.
Recently, after sections from a stunningly honest profile on Vulture about Slate went viral, she told Marie Claire that she was trying to be a little less candid, at least about her relationship and consequent breakup with Chris Evans. We avoided treading that ground, but she still appeared as open and honest as she ever has; when I confessed that I was calling during a work party, she responded with a confession of her own that she was hungover from drinking one Cosmopolitan for a joke the night before, joking that “in my 20s I could manoeuvre my way through a hangover, but now my hangovers make me just really, truly want to die”. For every topic, even the potentially impending nuclear war, she has a positive spin without glossing over the truth. She sees every setback as an opportunity to grow and resist.
Which, incidentally, is kind of how Jenny Slate’s career as we know it began. She appeared on Saturday Night Live for the 2009/2010 season, but accidentally said “fucking” in her debut sketch. Her contract was not renewed. It was a setback, but a fuck up that any of us could see ourselves making. It also wasn’t a particularly long setback – in 2010 Slate co-wrote and voiced Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a short film about an anthropomorphic seashell. Marcel garnered huge viral success, and Slate went on to have voice roles in other animated films and shows including Zootopia, Adventure Time, and Despicable Me 3. She’s appeared in TV shows like Girls and Parks and Recreation, in smaller but memorable roles. Most notable in the impressive filmography she’s built since 2010 is 2014’s Obvious Child, a comedy about a young comic (Slate) who has an abortion. Obvious Child tackled abortion in a new, groundbreaking light; it managed to be funny and not portray abortion as a devastating, life-altering decision, but something that sometimes just has to happen. The film was well-received; winning several awards and endearing yet more audiences to Slate’s particular brand of self-effacing, incisive comedy.
Now Slate has teamed up again with the team behind Obvious Child, director Gillian Robespierre and writer Elisabeth Holm, for Landline; a comedy about three generations of women in a family living in Manhattan who are brought together by the father’s affair. It’s set in 1995, and consequently serves as an examination of all the ways the Internet has fundamentally changed our relationships and the way we communicate. Slate, having grown up in a time pre-Internet, famously avoids it as much as she humanly can and doesn’t even have a computer in the house. As with all things, she somehow manages to be critical about the Internet’s impact on our lives without looking down on those of us (me) who do use it obsessively. Perhaps as a result of her computer-free life Slate spends most of her (very limited) free time reading, and is evidently fiercely intelligent; she speaks and thinks at an incredible rate, bouncing between topics and speaking about all of them at length, offering humour, wisdom, and positive solutions at every turn.
Jenny Slate: The movie takes place in 1995 and it’s about a family living in Manhattan. I play a woman named Dana Jacobs who is engaged to her college sweetheart. Just as she is sort of getting to a point where she is questioning whether or not her life is on autopilot and whether or not she’s still living the life that she wants, her younger sister – who she doesn’t really get along with – finds out that their father is having an affair. For the beginning of the movie she’s really at odds with her younger sister, she’s kind of a brat and her sister feels that Dana is a dork and a square. Through the examination of her father’s misdeeds they actually become close. It’s really funny and very sweet. I honestly think there’s a little more crying in it than there is laughing. I know that it still does the comedy, but it’s pretty touching.
I think most people – men and women – can relate to what seems like a shameful moment in it. That moment when you know your partner is a good person, if you’re lucky, but you’re wondering if you need to grow and if they’ll be able to do that with you. It’s really stressful, because it’s not their fault, they’re not doing anything wrong. If I’m bored with myself, does it mean that I’m bored with them as well? And that’s a very painful and scary thing to navigate but usually the right partner will help you see it through and the partnership can stay coherent. The second thing is that odd moment that you have in your adulthood when you realise that your parents are actually people and that they’re not just parents but that they’re really just as vulnerable as you are even though they’ve been through more life and that life is really a series of unfolding situations in which you be vulnerable and try to grow.
“It's weird now that privacy isn’t just a human right, but because of the Internet it’s something that we have to cling to and lock down. We are constantly afraid that our privacy will be violated”
HOW THE INTERNET HAS CHANGED EVERYTHING
Jenny Slate: I was a teenager in the 90s. We had a computer but we didn’t have the Internet, not yet. I think although I anticipated that I would have an adulthood that would be inherently more modern than the one that my parents had, I never anticipated one where the tech revolution would have become such an expansive and many-splendored and also incredibly dangerous thing that would change my world and the behaviours within it. So I look back on the 90s as a really innocent time, maybe the same way that people who live in the countryside look back on the time when there weren’t cars and things were so much more undisturbed and we were all a little less disturbed, too.
I was saying to my friends at dinner last night that I really feel like we’re all just starting to realise that the Internet and smartphones and the way in which we communicate with each other are really starting to blur the lines between privacy and accessibility. It’s completely redefined what those things mean. It’s weird now that privacy isn’t just a human right, but because of the Internet it’s something that we have to cling to and lock down. We are constantly afraid that our privacy will be violated. Privacy used to be about your own personal business and you and your home and the rules were normal. It was like, ‘don’t tell anyone anything that you don’t want them to know and when you go in your house and don’t want people to see what you do just close the blinds and you’ll probably be fine’.
Now it’s like, everything you say to somebody that you love – a lot of that is over text. We’re also in constant contact. If your partner is at work and you miss them and you text them and you’re like, ‘I love you so much I can’t wait to like, get in bed with you tonight’ or whatever, anybody can see that. It’s very odd. With the right people who are going to bust down your security walls, anybody can see your most private expressions. That was never the case, not when I was growing up.
ON THE SAD, BEAUTIFUL REALITY OF BEING A WOMAN
Jenny Slate: It’s sad to be a woman if you believe that nothing can change, and by the way, there are so many people that feel that way because support is denied to them. As a person in my life, not just around my reproductive rights or my rights as a woman, but that in general if I am offered support I do better. I see more options for myself and I’m a freer thinker. I think that there are so many systems in place under patriarchy where men are offered that wonderful privilege of being able to extend themselves, where women are discouraged. The discouragement happens in large, obvious ways and it also happens in really nuanced ways that I think are more consistent and arguably more insidious.
I know for me that even though I grew up with feminist artist parents but there are ways in which living in this world I assumed that there were limits that I had to obey. I think it can be so sad to be a woman in general and realise how hard the world has kind of tried to silence us for so long, but then there’s the other side of it which is that you can really joyfully say ‘I just don’t believe in that anymore’. You can talk and talk and be loud and be beautiful in that way and suddenly other people will start to talk as well, you know? It’s like a real thing to make sure that the silence doesn’t get to protect itself and prolong itself.
“There are so many systems in place under patriarchy where men are offered that wonderful privilege of being able to extend themselves, where women are discouraged. The discouragement happens in large, obvious ways and it also happens in really nuanced ways that I think are more consistent and arguably more insidious”
HOW TECHNOLOGY IS AFFECTING U.S. POLITICS
Jenny Slate: It is such a terrifying time and I keep asking my parents and my grandmother, ‘Is this how you felt during Nixon? Is this how you felt during World War II?’ and it’s vaguely the same, you know. They’ll be like, ‘yeah, it’s kind of like that’, but the way in which we can have access to our president’s immature and rather psychotic emotional state constantly because he’s just tweeting from his big golden bed at 5:45 in the morning having a manic episode. I just feel like I shouldn’t have to see that. Having exposure to that is something that really is a new thing in these times. I think it is going to and already is creating a deep cultural trauma and it’s going to take a long time to get over this. I think we will and we can and I look forward to being a part of whatever regeneration and resilience we need to have, but this is just really, really devastating.
WOMEN CAN SUCCEED WITHOUT MEN
Jenny Slate: It (women supporting each other) feels like a beautiful secret, in a way. Then you start to be like, ‘why should this be a fucking secret? Why should this be a secret?’ the ways in which men prolong their culture is not a secret. Why should our shit be a secret? Mostly because we don’t want it to be ruined because we’re still under attack. But there will be a time when things that feel like secrets will become normal and that time is beginning. It is. I do think that.
I’m so irritated with this idea of men as gatekeepers and that we should thank them for allowing us access when it’s like, well, a system of patriarchy constructed the system that says I can’t come in in the first place. The system that says I’m not allowed to come in was set up by the people that are now smiling and opening the door. I guess my feeling about that is that I’m like, ‘why is there a door here in general? Get out of my way, I’m trying to move forward! I never thought about you. I’m not thinking about you and what you’re doing to help me. I am doing all of this by myself in spite of you, is actually what’s going on’.
TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY AS THE LAST GASP OF THE PATRIARCHY
Jenny Slate: My best friend was saying to me the other day that there’s so much wrong in the United States right now, obviously. It is a terrifying mess. But one of the things that she clearly identified is that of course our president, and I am really reluctant to call him that, our resident misogynist psychopath is better, but what we are watching from him and from his odd and powerless lackeys like people like Paul Ryan is just the last flailing gasp of the patriarchy as it is.
I’m sure they will do some damage before they all just sink down into their own weird personal hell, but I do think that it’s a real death wail coming out of Washington D.C. and in our society. It’s like, people are just gripping so hard to the system that they don’t want to fail or let go of but that system is keeping both men and women in a place of real degradation. It’s primarily the women but it’s also the men. Patriarchy doesn’t really serve anyone but the few at the top, and even those people are just so severely emotionally handicapped.
You’d think that if somebody was going to say that they’re going to employ a nuclear weapon, they would at least be able to put together a sentence that sounds like it’s past a fifth grade level. I was driving my car and listening to NPR which is our National Public Radio, and I heard the sound bite of Trump saying ‘they will be met with fire and fury and frankly, power!’ and I was like, is this a note that’s being passed from one fourth grader to another? That is the worst sentence structure. It’s reused, bloated rhetoric. Can’t you at least come off as somebody who is remotely intelligent? I just feel like I’m listening to someone fart in a bathtub. It’s like, horrible. I just can’t believe that this is the announcement to the fact that this guy is going to char the earth.
“My art is not more or less important than my activism, but it all goes together. I am not going to be able to compromise on anything. If I can’t be an artist I can’t live a full life, but if I can’t have all of my rights, then I don’t have a full life either”
ART IS A POWERFUL MODE OF RESISTANCE
Jenny Slate: We act like these are unprecedented events, but they’re part of a long cycle of repetition and a long cycle of evil organising and reorganising itself. I’m looking around and I feel the most powerless when I think that something new is happening and it’s worse than ever before. It makes me feel that there’s nothing to look to to model my resistance after, but I actually think that we can take so much from the heroes that came before us and from the ways in which women, especially women have used their voices. I am also right now reading a lot of Audrey Lorde and Virginia Woolf and trying to find a balance between art and activism because that’s the way that I feel strong in my daily life. When I feel like it’s all integrated.
Landline, this movie, premiered at the Sundance Festival this year and it was a really tricky exercise for me because it was the inauguration of Donald Trump which was devastating and repulsive, but it was also a time for women to take to the streets and march and we did a women’s march at Sundance and we also premiered our film which is a film about three generations of women. I remember thinking ‘this is difficult, this is really difficult for me, but this is what my life has to be now’, which is that my art is not more or less important than my activism but that it all goes together. I am not going to be able to compromise on anything. If I can’t be an artist I can’t live a full life, but if I can’t have all of my rights, then I don’t have a full life either. My task is to be strong enough to do all of my joyful things and all of my work to make sure that I can live in this world as a whole person, you know?