This month, former Saturday Night Live cast member and New York Times best-selling children’s book author Jenny Slate stars in her first film, Obvious Child, a Sundance sensation written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. Slate plays Donna Stern, a just-dumped Brooklynite who has a one-night stand following an abominable stand-up set. This leads to an unplanned pregnancy and a matter-of-fact abortion (according to a blurb on the film’s poster, Obvious Child is, “The most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made,” although Slate would argue that the film isn’t “abortion-themed” at all). Today Slate spoke with Nerve by phone.
The reviews have been great. What’s surprised you the most about how people are responding to the film?
Just in general it’s really exciting that it’s gotten the amount of attention it’s gotten just because, you know, we made it for really little money and in 18 days and I loved making the movie, but you never know. Even when you love something so much, you think it’s great, you’re really not ever sure it will reach an audience because that’s just the way that the entire film world works. So that’s been amazing. And then usually after a screening, there are different people — male or female — that come up to us and tell us their own stories. It makes me feel really good.
Do you know whether Gillian Robespierre’s idea for Obvious Child began with Donna herself or the premise of having an abortion in a feature film?
I don’t think either one. I think Gillian decided to make this movie — to make the short film in 2009, which is when it all started — just because she and her friends really love romantic comedies but they found increasingly that they could not recognize the women in the movies at all, and that they didn’t seem like ladies that they would know. And there’s part of that genre where it is heightened and it is very romantic, and the person that is the main character isn’t supposed to be necessarily someone you would meet on the street, but I think they felt that it had come so far from that, and that the experience really didn’t seem like a modern female experience at all. And they just wanted to see a story that they related to but also one that still had all of the kind of typical satisfactions of a romantic comedy.
Have you gotten any criticism of the film? If so, what’s the biggest criticism been?
I haven’t myself. People are very, very nice to me and very inquisitive, but I also don’t visit any anti-abortion websites or read any anti-abortion publications, or look for it. I don’t look for the criticism or the praise. The people that get in touch with me through Twitter, because Twitter’s the only way to get at me, I feel like they’re positive. And I think that’s because in general, there are a lot of people who want to see a change not just in the way that women’s rights and female reproductive rights and human sexuality is being dealt with in our country, but I think also just in comedy people are pumped up about new voices. I think that’s where we tend to connect.
I have a friend who had a child after a one-night stand. When we were talking about the film, she brought up the fact that no one on camera says to your character, “Donna, this is a really big decision. Make sure you think this through.”
I don’t think anybody needs to tell Donna that. I think her decision’s really clear, and she’s good to go. I mean I didn’t write it, but I think that I can safely say from Gillian that she wanted to show a story where a woman made a clear decision and where voices that are typically doubtful — like, “Should you or should you not?” — those type of voices weren’t as important to her as Donna’s own voice. And she wanted to create a situation that’s just about one woman. So I think that’s why. This isn’t a movie that’s saying, This is the way that all unplanned pregnancies go down, and this is what you should do. And this is the way the story should always play out. I think Donna made a lot of mistakes, but her choice to have the abortion is really clear and there’s no reason to act like it’s unclear or unsupported when that’s not what her life is. It’s one person’s story, and that’s what interests us: one voice. And hopefully the film encourages other people to speak in their own voices or at least just be interested in those voices.
During production, did you guys feel the weight of Obvious Child being an important movie, or was it friends hanging out making something low-budget?
It was really fun. I mean it was important to me because I haven’t starred in a movie before. So selfishly, there was a part of me that was really excited because I had more work to do than I’ve ever had to do, and there was a lot riding on it. And that was something that I felt like, “I’m ready, I’m old enough, I’m far enough into my career that I can actually do this work,” but I’m doing this for the first time. Also, I really love Gillian and Elisabeth Holm, our producer, and then Jake [Lacy] and Gabe Liedman is my best friend, and Gaby Hoffman is a great friend of mine and I think it was all so small that it felt really intimate and really fun. It was definitely my most favorite piece of work I’ve done so far. Maybe besides Marcel the Shell.
Describe your character on the new FX series Married, which premieres next month.
My character’s name is Jess and she is married to a character played by Paul Reiser. She’s in her early 30s and she’s married to someone her dad’s age, and she really needs to be tamed. She’s someone who’s really adventuresome and sensual but that is just getting really old. And she’s getting older, and it’s just not that scene any more and she’s dealing with those insecurities of not knowing exactly who she is when she’s not a fun party girl. I think the show is really funny and also really dark, and I’ve never gone to that side before, so I like it. I mean it’s also a really peppy show —it’s not depressing.