Most pillows are just pillows, but for Jenny Slate, the floral-print puffs arrayed on her pristine white linen couch in her freshly rented apartment in L.A.’s Silver Lake are metaphors. For a bright future. For a new life. For freedom. The Obvious Child star and her bichon frise, Reggie, just moved into this sunny one-bedroom in February, and every time she looks at those pillows, she gets so excited because she remembers how she’d bought them while still married to editor-director Dean Fleischer-Camp, her husband for three years, but had to stow them away because she realized it felt like they were living in a box of tampons. Now she and Reggie don’t have to run their decorating decisions by anyone. “I’ve never lived on my own, because I really did go from one relationship to another my whole life, so I’ve never had a chance to go really girlie,” she says. “And I had my ex-husband over last night and he was like, ‘These flower pillows look great. But they’re just for you.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah! That’s right!’ I love them so much. I just love them for what they represent, which is that all my choices are for me.” She turns around. “I’m gonna pee really quick.”
The bathroom door doesn’t quite close — she’d warned me of this. “You can snoop around if you want,” she shouts. “It’s just a little mouse house. It’s fucking perfect for me.”
I have been in her presence for about two minutes. The first thing she did was offer to loan me a T-shirt because I mentioned I was hot. Slate used to do a stand-up routine about how her mom refused to sew her name into her shirt in elementary school, “because she was like, ‘You’re too friendly, and some stranger would just be like, Jenny! Come into the van!’ ”
There’s an obvious person missing so far from this tale of pillows versus patriarchy, but she’s not hiding anything; we just haven’t gotten to it yet. “When I moved in here, I’d been through my divorce and a breakup,” she says, returning from the bathroom and referring to the ten or so months she spent dating Chris Evans, best known as Captain America, and her much more famous co-star in Gifted, an upcoming film about a family struggling with a young girl’s genius affinity for math. The internet went wild over their apples-and-oranges compatibility: a brash Jewish comedienne beloved for oversharing about her bodily functions on talk shows and voicing Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a tiny stop-motion conch with a single eye and feet who talks about being so small he can hang-glide on a Dorito, in a series of YouTube shorts she made with Fleischer-Camp — and a world-famous Marvel superhero, who also happens to be a Massachusetts momma’s boy with one of the most insanely ripped bodies on the planet. “We used to talk about what kinds of animals we were,” says Slate. “Chris said it’s like I’m a chick riding on a St. Bernard’s head. We’re an odd match.”
Paparazzi tried to snap them, bloggers scrutinized their Instagrams, tabloids obsessively covered their one appearance together on a red carpet. Slate didn’t read the coverage, but it was extremely kind, with most articles praising Slate for taking a chance on Evans, or noting that his coolness factor had jumped several notches because of his proximity to her. Maybe this crazy thing could work out! There was something beautiful, in a year marked by division, to think of these two opposites finding common ground. He was 35; she was 34. They’d grown up half an hour from each other. They were both outspoken liberals. They’d said really adorable things about each other on Anna Faris’s podcast.
And then, a few weeks before I met Slate, news broke that it was over. In her life, though, she’d already spent several months dealing with that loss and having to find a place to live, crashing with friends in Venice Beach in January. “I watched You’ve Got Mail so many times, it was unbelievable,” she says. Was she weeping most of the time? “Yeah, I did it right.” Eventually, she found this new apartment and purged everything she owned except for a few clothes she loves, books, precious objects, and a velvet chair once belonging to her great-grandmother. “I was like, ‘You need all new things. You are a working woman. Maybe this is an indulgence, but just start over,’ ” she says. “It’s like, Fuck.”
In January, Jenny told us about how she’d begun listening to Alanis Morisette’s seminal work, Jagged Little Pill, on repeat to help give herself that similar fight:
The other night, she tells me, she was sitting at a bar by herself, reading a book about the Holocaust, and finally sent an SOS text to her friend Mae Whitman (NBC’s Parenthood). “I was just like, ‘Can you please help me? I’m so lonely.’ And she came and we got shitbombed, and I woke up the next morning and saw my headphones on my neighbor’s yard. I have no idea how they ended up there.”
As Slate gives me the tour of her place, Reggie trails her every move. “He’s like a little soul mirror of me. We’re a lot the same,” she says. How so? “Needing closeness. Despair when left alone. But also he’s very excited to misbehave when left alone. So he doesn’t know what he wants.”
Ever since she was a pip-squeak at Camp Tapawingo in Sweden, Maine, Slate has known what she wanted to be: an actress, like Amy Irving or Gilda Radner or Madeline Kahn. That or “Jewish Felicity,” taking over Manhattan, like in the TV show. In the aughts, she came up in the alternative-stand-up-comedy scene in New York, where she garnered attention for a one-woman show as different characters eulogizing an eccentric millionaire, got cast on Saturday Night Live, and was fired one season in after accidentally cursing on-air in her first sketch. That ego blow hurt a little less when she made the awards-circuit rounds for Obvious Child, a low-budget romantic comedy about two people navigating an abortion after a one-night stand, and she’s built a devoted fan base through her outrageous characters on the Kroll Show and Parks and Recreation, not to mention her great voice work with Marcel, Bob’s Burgers, The Secret Life of Pets (as an anxious Pomeranian), and Zootopia (as a villainous sheep). In 2012, she relocated from Brooklyn to L.A. Her relationship with Evans is easily the most Hollywood thing she’s ever done.
She shows me a photo of her aura on her fridge, taken in New York’s Chinatown. There’s a thick concentration of “productive energy,” which is good, since she has a lot of work coming up, and a giant cloud of worry and overthinking, which seems to be dissipating. By the sink are pot holders she made as a kid on a little loom and a drawing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that Fleischer-Camp brought her as a housewarming gift. “We’re good friends. That’s why we got divorced,” says Slate. “If we didn’t get divorced, we wouldn’t be able to be friends and we wouldn’t be able to do our work. We had just grown apart, and we love each other. It wasn’t easy, but not bad.” She pauses. “No, it was bad. But not essentially bad.”
Her mother, a ceramicist, and father, a lauded poet, are still married; she wrote a book about her childhood home in Massachusetts with her dad this year. Her younger sister, Stacey, a mental-health counselor in Brooklyn, had come over on the previous weekend and helped her put up pictures. (Her elder sister, Abby, is a nurse-practitioner in Massachusetts, and Slate is convinced her middle-child need for attention is what nudged her toward showbiz.) Covering the top of her dresser are snapshots she hasn’t figured out what to do with, such as the one of her in a revealing tank top at Columbia University, where she went from high-school valedictorian to pothead almost instantly. “This is me when I was a slutty virgin,” she explains. “A virgin but trying to act like I knew what was going on.”
Somewhere beneath a pile of half-read books is her bedside table. She hates computers so much she doesn’t keep one in the house, and she often turns to books when scrolling through Twitter on her phone stresses her out, which it always does. Current favorites include The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Emma, a children’s book with Barbara Cooney illustrations that she bought on Etsy and loves so much she put it on display so she could see it when she wakes up. “It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”
The instinct other young actresses have to keep every interesting thing about themselves under wraps — or the toughness that female comics often give off — wouldn’t be very useful in Slate’s case. Her brand, if you can call it that, is built on vulnerability, whether she’s revealing her innermost insecurities through an animated shell or telling Seth Meyers on TV that she was so stoned in college she accidentally signed up for an astronomy class thinking she’d learn about astrology. Not to mention that she and Evans met while playing love interests in a movie that is now coming out and that she needs to promote. That’s hard to get around.
“I don’t mind talking about him at all. He’s a lovely person,” she says. “I don’t know. It feels like such a huge thing. Last year was a giant, big year for my heart. I’ve never, ever thought to keep anything private because that’s not really what I’m like, and now I’m learning those things, and they’re weird, kind of demented lessons to learn.”
She didn’t set out to have a tabloid-fodder romance. She’d fought hard for her part in Gifted, as a teacher who falls for Evans’s character, a working-class guy trying to give his prodigy niece (Mckenna Grace) a normal childhood. Slate’s part is not huge, but it’s a big studio picture. It got her in the room with director Marc Webb and Fox Searchlight. She liked the script, but more than that, “I was just like, ‘I want viability as an American film actress. I want to find my own seat at the main dinner table, because I want to do this forever, and I want to show that it doesn’t always have to be a bikini model opposite Captain America.’ ”
Evans and Slate met at her chemistry read — the audition in which it’s determined whether two romantic leads play well together — and they instantly got along. “I remember him saying to me, ‘You’re going to be one of my closest friends.’ I was just like, ‘Man, I fucking hope this isn’t a lie, because I’m going to be devastated if this guy isn’t my friend.’ ” The first time they went out to dinner, as co-workers getting to know each other, she remembers insisting they split the bill over Evans’s strenuous objections. “If you take away my preferences, you take away my freedom,” she says she told him. “Then I was like, Oh, man, is this dude going to be like, ‘Ugh, this bra-burner.’ Instead, he was like, ‘Tell me more.’ ” They drew from that friendship for their flirting on film, but the time when they jump into bed together in the movie felt as awkward as you hear all love scenes do. “It’s one of those scenes where you bust through a door making out. I’ve never done that in my life,” says Slate. “I remember apologizing to him after. I’m pretty sure I kneed him in the balls.”
Slate was in a weird space at the time. Her marriage was dissolving, and she was working only two or three days a week, and spending her days off wandering around Savannah’s many parks and doing yoga and writing that book, About the House, with her dad. (Which, incidentally, the publisher gave away free with any donation to any charity.) Every weekend, Evans would organize a game night for the cast and crew — usually something called “running charades,” which sounds like high-speed pantomime — that she begrudgingly went to, even though all she wanted to do was hang out on the porch and drink beer and smoke cigarettes. “At first I was like, ‘What a fucking nightmare,’ ” she says. “Chris is a different speed than me — I think he really did just jump out of a plane for an interview. And so when he was like, ‘Game nights,’ I was like, ‘This is annoying. This guy’s like a sports guy. He’s the kid that likes P.E.’ ” But finally his enthusiasm won her over. “I first really liked Chris as a person because he is so unpretentious,” she says. “He is a straight-up 35-year-old man who wants to play games. That’s it. I was like, ‘I’d better not discount this, because this is purity.’ ” It also helped that she’s so competitive she constantly won.
As they got to know each other, she learned he’s still close with people from his childhood, and his best friend is a woman. “What’s the same about us is not just that we’re from Massachusetts, which was such a delight, but Chris is truly one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, to the point where sometimes I would look at him and it would kind of break my heart,” she says. “He’s really vulnerable, and he’s really straightforward. He’s like primary colors. He has beautiful, big, strong emotions, and he’s really sure of them. It’s just wonderful to be around. His heart is probably golden-colored, if you could paint it.”
They didn’t fall for each other on set. “To be quite honest, I didn’t think I was his type,” she says. (Evans has dated Jessica Biel and Minka Kelly). “Eventually, when it was like, Oh, you have these feelings for me?, I was looking around like, Is this a prank? I mean, I understand why I think I’m beautiful, but if you’ve had a certain lifestyle and I’m a very, very different type of person — I don’t want to be an experiment.” Evans never made her feel that way, but it was hard to get past how so many people seemed to feel some ownership of him and view her as an interloper. “If you are a woman who really cares about her freedom, her rights, her sense of being an individual, it is confusing to go out with one of the most objectified people in the entire world,” she says. Especially when she’s aware that in Hollywood, she says, “I’m considered some sort of alternative option, even though I know I’m a majorly vibrant sexual being.” And especially when random ladies would come up to her at CVS, “being like, ‘Oh my God, is that Chris Evans? He’s so hot!’ You’re like, ‘How dare you? That’s my boyfriend. But yes, he’s so hot.’ ”
Every time Slate mentions Evans, it keeps coming back to the same thing: As much as they loved being with one another, she says, “we’re really, really different,” with different social circles and different lifestyles. Slate comes from a DIY comedy scene, and most of her friends are fellow comics and gay guys. “Chris is a very, very famous person,” she says. “For him to go to a restaurant is totally different than for me to go. I sit in my window and I say ‘Hi’ to people on the street. I have more freedom because I’m not Captain America. I’m mostly a cartoon.” She kept waiting for everything to feel normal, but it never did. “This is what I needed to do to feel normal. To be alone.”
That meant day-to-day they mostly stayed home, “which was really nice,” she says. But it was also one of the most anxious years of her life. She fretted over the “psychos” on the internet who turned her relationship with Evans into a pissing contest with Fleischer-Camp. And she struggled seeing the person she was in love with deal with the side-effects of fame. “The stress that I saw him be put under, I’ve never seen that before, and he handled that really gracefully,” she says. What she wasn’t taking into account was that he’s used to it. “He’s not stressed,” she says. “I was the person that was stressed.”
She’s also aware in hindsight that she hadn’t processed her separation before she got together with Evans. It wasn’t as scandalous as tabloid reports made it sound — as with any long-term relationship that splinters, they’d been on the rocks long before it was official. But, she says, “When Chris and I started dating, my husband and I had only been separated for a couple of months.” The divorce actually went through while she was at the Sundance Film Festival, after she and Evans broke up. “Even though we had an amicable divorce, I think that’s still something that you need to mourn. When you get separated from somebody that you actually care about, it is the destruction of a belief system. That is really, really sad.” Throughout all of it, the divorce, the new love, she says, “I just didn’t have the tools. And I didn’t think very hard about that, to be honest. I wanted to step into the light. Chris is a sunny, loving, really fun person, and I didn’t really understand why I should be prudent.”
Are she and Evans on good terms? “We’re not on bad terms, but we haven’t really seen each other, spoken a lot,” she says. “I think it’s probably best. I’d love to be his friend one day, but we threw down pretty hard. No regrets, though. Ever.”
Slate introduces me to the mascots of her new home, two cute mice figurines in jaunty outfits who look like they’re off to travel the world. “The way I feel now is I’ve stepped out of the woods and I’m a forest animal and I’m standing on the lawn,” she says. “And if anybody tried to approach me right now, they’re seeing a creature that’s just trying to figure out what the lawn is like. All I’m thinking about is the lawn. I’m not thinking about whether or not they are going to be a fun person to be on the lawn with, because I am just trying to be on the lawn.” And what or where is this lawn? “It’s just where I am,” she says. “I like the lawn. It’s filled with air, freedom, sunlight, and I’m alone.”
Slate wants to step out in the sunlight now, with a walk around the Silver Lake Reservoir. She bids good-bye to Reggie and turns on the TV to keep him company. “I watch Twin Peaks, but Reggie watches Frasier,” she says. That morning, while Slate was walking him, a woman got out of her car and stopped in her tracks. “She was like, ‘Oh, are you Jenny Slate?’ And I said, ‘I am.’ And she said something nice to me and I said, ‘Thank you so much. I need a lot of encouragement,’ which is usually what I say because it’s true.”
Dating Evans actually, weirdly, spurred her to double down on her career, because, she says, “I don’t want people to ask me more about my love life because of him than they ask me about my work,” and in order to ensure that, she’d have to produce a lot of work. She does stand-up in small clubs whenever possible and had two films at Sundance this January, just as the paperwork for her divorce came through: The Polka King, the true story of a polka-world Ponzi scheme, opposite Jack Black; and Landline, a story of two Jewish-Italian sisters and their parents having life and love crises in ’90s New York City, with Obvious Child creators Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm (out July 21). Soon she’ll be heading to Vancouver for a road-trip movie with Evan Rachel Wood, Alison Pill, and Cynthia Erivo, which is also Wood’s directorial debut. She and Fleischer-Camp are also at work on a feature-length Marcel the Shell movie, which she says will be “a character portrait much like Billy the Kid or Grey Gardens.”
Today, she’s leaning in to International Women’s Day by wearing a sundress covered in red roses and made by a company, Day Space Night, that’s run by women. She even canceled her one meeting with a man, an appearance on Snoop Dogg’s podcast, so she could have an entirely penis-free day. And she’s planning on ending the day by going with her girlfriends to a 90-minute seminar on fertility and reproductive rights.
A vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood, Slate credits Obvious Child not just for allowing her to prove she’s a legitimate actress, but also for turning her into a women’s rights activist. Back when she signed on, she says, “I still felt embarrassed of the word feminist.” Then one day discussing a costume fitting with co-star Gaby Hoffmann, Slate jokingly apologized for showing up with “crazy bush,” she says. “And Gaby did not take it as a joke. She was really serious and she looked at me and she was like, ‘I didn’t know we were supposed to apologize for that.’ I was like, Oh, I’m being a fool. I need to learn this shit right now.”
And now that she’s got a financial cushion from Zootopia and Secret Life of Pets, she can act on what she’s learned and say “no” more often. Specifically, she’s drawing the line at any movie that, she says, “makes it okay to laugh about things like women’s bodies after birth, like when women who’ve just had babies are referring to their vaginas as all ruined. I think it’s really rude for someone to disparage a vagina in the female body after it’s just fucking created and exploded a baby into our world. It makes me furious and I will not change my opinion on that.”
Also a no-go are any roles she’s offered that “seem like a weird stereotype version of me. Like Quirky Best Friend: ‘She doesn’t have a filter! She talks about poop!’ ” She thinks it’s worth it to hold out for roles with nuance, that will allow her to lean into humor and tragedy equally, and get to the heart of the human condition. In the meantime, she has plenty of personal-growth goals. She wants to learn Norwegian this summer. She wants to spend time with her family on Martha’s Vineyard. And she wants to find a farm she can help on so she can be around animals.
Eventually, she’ll try dating again, too. “I am inclined toward partnership,” she says. “I’m like a mallard, definitely looking for my other duck. But I’ve been in love in very strong ways enough times now that there are just some compromises maybe I won’t make.” He has to know who Gloria Steinem is, for one thing. She’s thinking maybe a scientist with a sense of humor. But definitely someone who’s sure enough in who he is to accept that she’s had a past without him. “Whoever is the next person is going to have to respect that I had a husband who I loved and this boyfriend who I loved so much, and I don’t want to have to act like they weren’t important.”
We’re back at the apartment and Slate is overjoyed that Reggie hasn’t peed on anything. Speaking of pasts, she’ll also soon be hitting the press tour for Gifted with Evans. “I feel pretty relaxed about it right now,” she says, sounding not entirely convincing. “That’s because I know Chris and he’s a very nice man. And we’ve gone into our separate lives. But that doesn’t also mean that I’m going to sleep well the night before, you know?”
First, she’s taking her parents to Cabo San Lucas to celebrate her 35th birthday. I suddenly have a horror flashback to a similar trip to Cabo I took years ago and warn her not to drink the water or brush her teeth with it, or to have ice or eat anything raw, or maybe to eat anything at all.
“Oh God,” she says, laughing, “having raging diarrhea is just a real on-brand nightmare for me.”
She thinks for a second. “But, you know, it would be such an icebreaker. If I showed up with, like, a spray tan and a blowout, he’d be like, ‘What happened to Jenny?’ But if I was able to say, ‘Aw, man, I have diarrhea,’ he’d be like, ‘It’s you. I remember you.’ ”
*This article appears in the March 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.