Director Gillian Robespierre has been known to call her Obvious Child leading lady Jenny Slate her “muse.” It’s flattering, Slate admits, but it’s rather misleading. “Maybe she thinks I’m her muse, but she’s my guide,” Slate tells me over the phone. “I feel like she really teaches me.” In fact, Slate credits Landline, her latest movie with Robespierre, with helping her get through a divorce by making her feel less alone. Now she’s hoping it will do the same for other women.
In Landline, in select theaters, Slate plays Dana, who, upon discovering her dad is having an affair, starts to look at herself and her relationship with her sister, her mom, and fiancé differently. When filming began, Slate was on her own journey of self-discovery. She had just ended her four-year marriage to Dean Fleischer-Camp, and despite it being an amicable one, she tells me that it felt like “a disillusion of a belief system.”
It wasn’t easy going to work every day during this time, she says. But, she explains, “playing a woman who’s questioning this system within her partnership actually felt kind of soothing to me — to realize that I’m experiencing my own particular thing but I’m not the first person who’s gone through it.”
That “I’m not the first person to deal with this” feeling is what many felt after watching Slate in Obvious Child, an honest movie about abortion that celebrated a woman’s right to choose. Through her performance in that film, Slate endeared herself to audiences who felt like they didn’t just discover a favorite new actor, but a lifelong friend who understands their problems, is fun to hang out with, and has a serious knack for poop humor.
And what anyone who speaks with Slate for more than five minutes learns is that, onstage and off, she fearlessly and sincerely spills out the contents of her heart without seeming to want much in return. “I’m naturally inclined toward intimacy," Slate explains, matter-of-fact. "And I’m naturally inclined towards emotional risk taking."
You see this in the characters she plays, who, like her, aren't afraid to feel it all. But Slate took an extra risk with Dana, who in her quest for self-love has an affair. It’s the kind of mistake that typically makes a female character “unlikable,” but Slate makes it relatable, instead. She never turns Dana into a villain or a victim, but frames her simply as a woman who made a decision that she admittedly regrets.
“I want to show a woman who makes typical mistakes and I want to make sure that we show that she makes these mistakes, not because she’s quote unquote ‘bad’ or because she’s quote unquote ‘needy’ or insecure or having a nervous breakdown in italics,” Slate explains. The actor doesn't excuse her character's behavior, but she won't make excuses for her trying to take control of her sexuality, either.
Women don’t often get to see female characters who, as Slate says, are written “completely free of a traditional and boring and over-sexualized male gaze." “It’s become so normalized in our society,” she says of women being defined by their male relationships. “It is such an oversimplification and it’s just in general a really boring bummer." One can imagine that this is something Slate likely learned firsthand after dating Chris Evans last year, seeing their names linked together in every headline.
In part, though, this is why Slate says she has made it her mission to pick roles where women stand on their own. She may not be able to control what the tabloids say about her, but she sure can control her career. So when she looks at a project, she first makes sure first that it “isn’t degrading to anyone, which doesn’t mean that it’s not doubtful or even sometimes a little bit rough,” she explains, “but that it doesn’t stereotype or over simplify anyone, including myself.” It may not always be good for her bottom line, but it is good for her soul, and for Slate, that's always the most important thing.
And she hopes that her work offers comfort to people when they need it most. “I think it’s sort of a dangerous thing to say, ‘I mean something to people’ because that’s so much less important than what you mean to yourself,” Slate says. But, "I hope I can make people laugh and smile," she adds, "and I can be a friend.” One that will always be there to share a bit of advice, a hilarious fart joke, or a knowing smile saying that everything's gonna be all right.