Rich Polk/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images


The Vital, Beautiful Creativity of Jenny Slate

With I Want You Back and beyond, Jenny Slate's artistic spirit is alive and well.

Jenny Slate has always loved rom-coms. The indelible classics, like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and her favorite, While You Were Sleeping. “I really loved those films, but I think they stopped making them, to be honest,” says the actress, writer, and comedian over a Zoom call one morning. “I think people were uncomfortable with just wanting funniness and romance, and they needed maybe what they considered to be a bit more attitude.”

Slate’s sentiments are echoed by countless think pieces from over the years declaring the death of the rom-com. Romantic comedy’s golden age, as characterized by titles like the aforementioned ‘80s and ‘90s gems, began to taper off shortly after the turn of the century, as cinematic appetites and social sensibilities began to shift. For the past decade, memorable rom-coms have been even fewer and further between. “For a while I wasn't interested in rom-coms because they felt a little bit cynical,” Slate admits. “I actually think the best thing about rom-coms is that they're really hopeful.”

Fortunately for rom-com connoisseurs who share Slate’s inclination, her new film I Want You Back is as sharp, sweet, and sincere as the best of them, with a tastefully modern sensibility. The film, out now on Amazon, follows Emma (Slate) and Peter (Charlie Day), a pair of recently dumped strangers who become friends as they conspire to win back their exes. The story is propelled by subterfuge — as so many great rom-coms are — but the film is ultimately kind-spirited towards its characters, and there is comfort in the familiarity of its rhythms. Day’s neurotic charm endearingly recalls that of Tom Hanks or Albert Brooks, meanwhile Slate effortlessly embodies all the warmth and wit of a Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, or Meg Ryan, with a vibrant open-heartedness that is singularly and unmistakably Jenny.

While you won’t see Slate’s character fake an orgasm at a deli in I Want You Back, the film features an equally arresting bit of performance. After volunteering to assist on a middle school production of Little Shop of Horrors, Emma is asked to play last-minute understudy to one of the children and perform “Suddenly Seymour” at a dress rehearsal. As she starts to sing, Emma’s incredulity dissolves, laying her heartache bare as the song crescendos to a heart-swelling catharsis. It’s an astonishing performance from Slate, whose face and voice convey a full journey in those four minutes — even in an oversized blonde wig — and whose approach mirrors Emma’s experience in that moment. “I tried to whisk away all of the doubts that I had about what it would be,” Slate says about tackling the scene. “I think the second you act like you think something might be bad or like it might be stupid, that's actually when it becomes that. Full commitment is a really good look.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Slate’s commitment to emotional integrity is a current that charges all of her work — across film, television, standup, and literature — and accounts for her general luminosity as a performer and person. “It's okay to say, ‘I'm always looking for ways to prove to myself that love can come in.’ I think it's a good exercise,” Slate says about what drew her to I Want You Back, which is her first leading role since 2019’s The Sunlit Night. “This showed up for me and I was like, ‘I would love to play a person on the road to love that everyone's rooting for. That seems so fun.’ And it was.”

Slate has played many roles over the years fitting that description. Love is familiar yet inexhaustible narrative territory for Slate, from her 2014 breakout in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, in which she plays a young woman navigating romance in the midst of an unplanned pregnancy, to her 2019 standup special-cum-documentary Stage Fright (also directed by Robespierre), where Slate reflects on her personal experiences with heartbreak. Slate’s book Little Weirds, a collection of poetic essays, also offers an intimate window into Slate’s longing for love — not just with romantic partners, but with family, nature, art, and self. She continually positions herself as someone calling love into her life and inviting witness to the vulnerability of that experience.

To witness and to love are, especially in Slate’s work, synonymous. Performance and romance are alike in that they rely on seeing and being seen; an exchange that demands mutual compassion. Perhaps that’s why Slate is drawn to both. In Little Weirds, she likens being on stage to falling in love: “On stage and everywhere else, I know that there is so much you could do to me. My vulnerability is natural and permissible and beautiful to me, and it should remind you of your responsibility to behave like a friend to me and the world.” In Stage Fright, she explains that her performance anxiety comes from knowing “I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that goes out.”

Little Weirds and Stage Fright are an autobiographical diptych of Slate’s experiences as a single person, but by the time both projects were released in Fall 2019, Slate had already found the love she was looking for. She announced her engagement to writer and artist Ben Shattuck that same fall, and a year or so later, the couple welcomed their first child: a baby girl named Ida. After postponing their wedding multiple times, the two finally got married this past New Year’s Eve. “It appears, in a way, that the last time everyone saw me, I was like, I'll be single forever!’ and then the next time they saw me, I have a husband and a baby,” she laughs. “But it was a slower thing than that.” The process was a cumulative period of self-reflection and healing — an “emotional rehabilitation,” as Slate calls it — that was necessary to manifest the next chapter of her life. “You know when in cartoons, someone will draw a door and then walk through it? That's what I feel like,” she says. “The work for me was building even the existence of a door into something else.”

“I think the second you act like you think something might be bad or like it might be stupid, that's actually when it becomes that. Full commitment is a really good look.”

Being on the other side of the door has only enriched Slate’s beliefs about love, and provides fertile ground in which they can take root and grow. “The warmth of my relationship with my husband and my daughter and my position in our family has burnt off some of my cheaper vanities and some of the persistent doubts and questions that I had about myself as an individual,” she explains. “Having a baby has allowed me to be the person that I've always wanted to be. My daughter's existence, and her ability to receive love without flinching and without questioning has become, [as] I like to call it, the torch bearer for my own behavior in the world.”

Though writing Little Weirds was a crucial catalyst for Slate, the work is ongoing. “I don't think there's any one piece of creative work that's going to solve your life. I think that's a very dangerous thing to believe for oneself,” she says. “I do [believe in] repeated returns to what you think is beautiful, what makes you feel strong, and what reconfirms, like, ‘Yes, I am this person and I like this.’ I think I've arrived where I am, where I finally feel a sense of home in my life and trust in my relationships, because of returning every day to the work of trying to grow.”

Some of the special projects Slate has in store: a return to stand-up for the first time in two years, a movie script she’s written and wants to produce (“I really hope that there is somebody imaginative enough out there who will partner with me and help me do it. That's my big, big, big dream,”) and a second book, which she intends to write over the summer — in decidedly different circumstances than the last time. “My husband built me a little cabin on the top of a rock formation near our house and now it's waiting,” she says. “Sometimes when the baby is sleeping in my arms, I don't have social media on my phone, so I'll just look for wallpaper for my Virginia Woolf-style room of one’s own.”

If that idyllic image is not enough, there’s more. This month, Slate will appear in Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once via A24, who have also acquired distribution rights to Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, the feature film of Slate’s and Dean Fleischer-Camp’s popular stop-motion shorts about an anthropomorphic seashell. Bringing the little shell to the big screen has been a long journey for Slate — who co-wrote and co-produced in addition to voicing Marcel — and her collaborators. “I have deep gratitude, because usually [a project] gets crushed in one way or another as it gets worked through the system and made into a project that can be consumed,” Slate says. “But in this case, this film was really tenderly cradled in our collective palms for seven years, with all of our producers being so thoughtful and generous. I'm so proud of it.”

Marcel’s release will be another momentous unveiling for Slate, for whom the project is so personal that “it feels like letting people sort through my memories.” But if there’s one thing we know about Slate, it’s that she won’t shy away.

“You know what they say when you're in an accident, that you're supposed to make yourself limp for impact? That's what this is like. I cannot tense or brace against the giant energy that it is to reveal oneself through your work or to reveal the new work to the world,” Slate says. “I honestly can't say what this will be like for me, because the movie is unlike any other and I made it with people who are incredibly special to me and are brilliant artists. I am really glad that I don't have a specific answer, except that I know it will be a singular moment in my life, and I will keep my eyes open for every single second that I can.”