sundance 2019

Getting Deep With Jenny Slate at Sundance

Jenny Slate. Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

Approximately four minutes after I walk into Jenny Slate’s Park City hotel suite, we are both weeping. Our tears are likely a result of two things: the fact that we both have altitude sickness and feel like absolute shit, and the fact that talking to the radically self-aware, empathetic Slate feels like going to therapy, in the best possible way.

Slate is at Sundance to premiere the The Sunlit Night, which she stars in and produced, and which filmed in Norway during the portion of the year when the sun never goes down. She plays Frances, an artist who temporarily flees New York to focus on painting, and ends up developing sincere, surprising relationships with a young man visiting the top of the world to bury his father (Alex Sharp), a viking reenactor (Zach Galifianakis), the stark Norwegian landscape, and a goat. Though I walk into Slate’s room with a list full of questions, I end up ignoring them completely, thanks to her instant warmth and openness. Instead, the two of us get into a long, winding conversation about Slate’s year — she says she’s changed profoundly over the course of it — the innate vulnerability of making art, moving past anxiety, and learning to stop apologizing for being a “demanding woman.”

I’m sorry you’re feeling shitty!
Jenny Slate: It’s fine. There’s always something to harvest from it, you know? I can’t separate the way that I feel this morning from a general sense of, Wow, I really have been coming here for a long time, and how am I — am I reaching my goals? [Laughs.] You know how sometimes when you don’t feel well, you suddenly start to assess things in kind of a more urgent way? That’s how I feel this morning.

Honestly, same.
It’s like, What was I like as a 28-year-old when I came here? Would I have weathered it better? Or am I, like, a sad hag? [Laughs.]

What were you like here when you were 28? Were you out partying more?
I mean, I’ve never been a crazy party gal. I was more of a neutral pothead. Like a pothead, but not a “Ooh, I’m so cool, I smoke weed” pothead. I just smoked weed constantly and didn’t really think about it. And I liked drinking with friends. But I never had a debaucherous life. Like, if I barf, it’s always good-natured. Just a bubbly, happy drunk. I’m never a crying drunk. But in the last couple of years, I feel like drinking has served more of a dark purpose. Like, Oh, I wanna drink when I’m stressed. I wake up even after a couple drinks and have weird guilt that’s attached to nothing.

Yeah, that’s a real “in your 30s” thing.
Yeah, I’m beginning to feel like I may stop drinking altogether because it gives me anxiety. And I’m so aware of, in my 20s, really having kind of a chemical anxiety. Or an anxiety that is situational because it’s like, Oh God, I’m not doing the job I want to do, and who am I, and am building my adulthood correctly? And all of that.

This is too real.
Yeah, but it’s so right! And then it went away for me. Of course I get worried and stuff, but in the past year, I’ve really noticed — I talk about it a lot because I’m super happy about it — I’m not anxious.

What do you think changed for you?
I think I stopped asking for other people to fill in the ridges of loneliness that I have inside of me. I think I really stopped looking for outward validation, for people to fix me. I was like, If you really want this to be fixed, it’s probably gonna be you alone. Which is so scary. And it doesn’t mean [the anxiety] doesn’t come back in flashes. Especially being here, representing a film that took four years to make, and that I started to make before I got divorced. I met Rebecca Dinerstein [the author of The Sunlit Night novel and the film’s screenwriter] when I was still married to my [now] ex-husband. And she and I have been through some major shit. In a way, this experience is a culminating experience, but it’s also just one stop along the road.

How have those life events changed your interpretation of or relationship to this story over the course of those four years?
Well, my personal life — except that it includes Rebecca — has kind of nothing to do with this. Those parts — my being married, going through other relationships — aren’t connected to this film. And that’s why this film is so important. Because every time we’d scout for this film, we’d go to Arctic Norway. There’s nobody there but me and my two dear friends, Rebecca and Michael Clark, our producer. And that’s that. Every time we would go to the Arctic, I’d be like, Whoa, I recognize nothing here except for myself. Which is pretty illuminating.

Because you think, When was the last time I saw myself as a courageous, bright person? Where the environment was there not to lay a cultural mantle over me, and make me into a person who’s culturally significant in one way or another — like, I’m this actress, or Marcel the Shell, or the girl from Obvious Child. When was the last time I entered a space for my work, and it was only the natural world? When was the last time I saw myself, mainly a city dweller, as a person who is here to work in the natural world — and to play a woman who is here not really with any purpose, except for just not to completely fade away?

Okay, well now I’m crying.
Isn’t that so major? I feel that way, too. I’m moved by it, too. It’s so hard to make movies. But I have a habit of getting way too real way too quickly.

I love it. Not into small talk.
I can’t do small talk. There is a part of me that’s like, I really hope people do interview me constantly, because how else would I tell them the truth about what I do? This is how I feel about my work — it makes me weep. I think about this woman Rebecca, whom I met in a fucking park. She’s the most tender woman. And she wrote this book that isn’t like any other book you’ll read. As much as I want everyone to see our movie, I really hope everyone reads the book. This is a book by a woman who decided, for no reason except to follow her instincts, to go to the top of the world by herself. Which is not something women are encouraged to do — to leave, to go high up. That’s something we celebrate men for. Selfish men.

Right, there are all these movies about men risking death in the wild.
All those dudes hiking Everest? Free soloing? I guess. But I challenge you to be a gentle, hyperintelligent, hypersensitive woman who goes to the Arctic and writes a book of poems and then writes a novel. And not some guy who goes to the top of a mountain sponsored by Patagonia, and he’s like, “I did it!” And we congratulate him for those three words? [Laughs.] I mean, there’s no reason to compare Becky to dudes who climb mountains; they’re not the same. I just feel so incredibly proud of this woman. Becky is so precise, but she also is so openhearted. She just knocks my socks off. I want to be around her. So this is a long way to answer your question, but in the last four years, she’s taken on my entire emotional life and been so supportive of me. By the time we got to the archipelago of islands in the far north, making this work was so different than everything else we’d been doing together. Being here at Sundance is so different than anything else we’ve done together.

I want people to see our movie because it’s offering a lot at once. It’s not a traditional narrative. There’s a lot to access that I think fits well into mainstream stories, but — the other night, the film was described as polyphonic. This is gonna sound … it’s just me experiencing the truth. When we live in a world that’s been built by males, and are encouraged to create narratives that, whether we know it or not, perpetuate a misogynist agenda — which is like, “Be singular! Show strength! Make it easy for us to understand how victory or failure works so we can avoid failure, get ourselves into victory or as close as possible to it, and let that be that.” Our film is not about that. It’s a bunch of weirdos at the top of the planet doing a bunch of different things at once. I’d encourage people to take that in.

One of Becky’s favorite words is various. The word various is soothing and also demands a lot from you. If you want to know Becky, or me, you have to understand us both as demanding women. We want to be sensitive, vulnerable, and collect small wooden animals. And we want to demand that you’re truthful with us. And take you to task. And drag all the people that we love to some sort of center where there’s a standard for how we treat each other as a community. This film is about lonely people creating a space for themselves.

It sounds like what you were just talking about — about how you learned to be lonely this year.
Yeah. I’ve just written a book, and I was reading some of it to a person who’s really dear to me, whom I’ve shared a lot with. The response even then was, “Wow, this is a lot about loneliness.” I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will always be a ribbon of loneliness running through who I am. But that’s why I want to do comedy, and why I want to connect with people. You can use that ribbon to be a part of a finer tapestry, or you can choke yourself out with it! Your choice! [Laughs.] But I’m not gonna get rid of it. But do I want to live as a depressed person who’s afraid of other people and bummed out by the makeup of my personhood? No. So I’ll find a way.

Where does this self-awareness come from? Are you in therapy?
Yeah, I’m in therapy! Durrr! [Laughs.]

I’m just impressed by how well you know yourself.
I do, I know myself, but almost in the way that if you, for some reason, are so psycho that you choose to own a tiger, you know that animal. But you’re always a little bit like, This thing is going to kill me, eventually. But I’m also afraid of myself. Because I know that just in the way that I can lift myself up, I can throw myself down hard. I’m 36! More than anything, I want to feel good about myself. I’m so furious at the times when I decide to — you know what I do all the time? I really over-apologize. I think a lot of women do.

Definitely, I do, too.
When I do that, I look down on myself more. I see myself as a kind of shit-eater. Every time I apologize, I realize I’m unconsciously entwined in the misogynist vine. I want to reach my hand down my own throat and pull out the root. I feel like I’m choking on it. It makes me feel pissed off. Being at Sundance is so vulnerable. You’re putting your film out there. I primarily make my work for myself. Marcel the Shell, the book I just wrote, saved my life.

How so?
It was a way for me to navigate the turbulence of my inner world, and not get lost in it. But to tell myself, Okay, I’m standing in my inner world. It’s frightening in here. I’m holding a grenade. I’m gonna throw it as far as I can into the distance, and just follow the light of the explosion. This toss, this act of tossing into the future, is so that I can get out. I crafted a book of pieces that aren’t personal essays or poems, but somewhere in between — like, diary entries that end up being infused with magical realism. It was a way for me to see a darker time as something that had deep-toned blooms. Like standing in the dark and realizing you’re in a garden.

When is it out?
Next November.

What’s it called?
I can’t say yet. I’m excited. Every piece of work I’m doing, I do with people I love. When I come here to Sundance with this beautiful film, what I want more than anything is to be able to offer it as a gift, because there is so much that you can take from it. Have you ever seen Truffaut’s Small Change?

Yeah, in college.
It’s a lot of vignettes about kids in a town. It’s really accessible. You can find yourself, your sadness, your own happiness in each one of these children’s completely innocent experiences. Stylistically, our film is nothing like Truffaut. [Laughs.] But you can find yourself in the gorgeous time lapses that show how the sun never sets. For me, I look at that and I’m reminded of something incessant and insistent in me. A light that won’t go down. That won’t go out.

I see that and I’m like, “Ooh!” And it’s not because I was there. I see all of these people that are trying to have a life in a random, undiscovered space. And I want other people to see that. Because I also think of our current world, even though we’re all so deeply entrenched in it and in the habit of saying who we are. Through social media, we’re like, “I’m this. I’m exactly this. This is what I look like. These are my friends. This is what I look like when I laugh — somebody caught me in a candid! I’m putting my hand over my face!” We’re so used to packaging everything, making everything material. This is a film about people who are in one moment.

Wow. Listening to this, I feel both sick and happy.
I feel both super sick and super happy. [Laughs loudly.] That’s my duality. That’s my state of mind.

Just two Jewish girls with altitude sickness.
[Laughs.] Really! I think you’re catching me at a pretty typical moment that I have. I remember waking up in my 20s and not being depressed, and not having this second part, which is like, No. I’m gonna find the light today. I’m going to assume everybody I meet is a real person. I’m just not gonna be sorry about the fact that I’ve arrived here in a new day. This second part is what I’ve developed in my 30s. Why would we sit here and not talk?

Is it hard for you, ever, to open up to a stranger in this sort of situation?
No, I just do it. But I do talk and I get scared. Because I’m very aware that, for some reason or another — what do they call it when it’s the older version of something? The beta version? I’m aware of the internet. I’m on it, but I still interact with people as if we only have a town square. I forget how far things will get. So it’s not like I’m careless, but I almost choose to live in a world where I don’t remember that clickbait is a thing. Because that’s what I want. Obviously the internet is real and dictates what’s up, and allows people to be seen. But it used to be that you had to do some work!

There it is again. I sound like an old lady. But I really don’t give a shit. I’ve become a hard-ass about it, about seeing something that isn’t from a process of thoughtfulness and hard work. I’m afraid we’re going to lose that.

I get like this about my little sister watching, like, YouTube stars who don’t actually do anything.
I don’t even know what that is! I don’t know what that is. And I won’t learn. Maybe for my own safety I should learn? You know, I just watched the Fyre Fest documentary. And I was like, What are Instagram influencers? What is that? And then Ja Rule is yelling at a model to get in the water. This is a nightmare.

It’s very bleak.
It genuinely feels scary. I wonder a little bit about who let those women go to that island. It feels really unsafe to me. That documentary reminded me of that story about the cruise ship that lost its power and the diarrhea was leaking through the ceiling, and everyone was eating onion sandwiches. I don’t give a shit about how it looks on Instagram — are you or are you not in a place where you can see other people’s diarrhea? [Laughs.] If you can smell shit here, you’re not in paradise. It doesn’t matter how good you look in your high-waisted bikini. You’re in hell. The idea of Ja Rule yelling at a woman to get in the water … and then she’s like, “No.” She’s not having it. And I remember being like, I want to go there, hold that woman’s hand, and take her away. I was so mad.

Sorry, I got us off topic.

No, this is great. I’m scrapping all of my questions.
And I know Vulture is on the internet. When I’m interviewed — I was saying to my friends Mae and Jane, who are both actresses, and these are two women who have shored me up. We kind of keep each other safe. We were talking a few summers ago at my parents’ beach house, and I was talking about overspeaking in interviews. I don’t feel that I’m overspeaking [in the moment], but then I say something, and [later realize] I shouldn’t have. I just see such a disconnect. And I know how easily something clicks into me to want to please people. I just try and sort it out, and I haven’t really done it yet. I was saying to Mae and Jane, “I don’t know why I feel like I need to show the inside of my anus to every single person that interviews me.” They don’t need to know that much!

I’ve gotten a lot better at not talking about my personal life, but talking about my feelings. In a world where I do see so many people presenting their feelings as wares in a marketplace that I don’t understand … I just want to be a normal, live person. Because I really have always felt — and I think this is why I do stand-up — that if you present yourself as somebody who could be broken, because you are alive, that you activate empathy in people. I’d rather constantly prove that to myself than be someone who doesn’t speak. More than anything, [what] the Trump administration is hoping for — and your run-of-the-mill misogynist — is that I don’t talk at all.

This makes me think about your last Vulture profile, where you talked a lot about your relationship with Chris Evans. Did that feel like overspeaking to you later? Because I loved that piece.
I looked at it, and I was like, I’m really not protecting myself at all. From thinking about how other people are going to think about what I say. Which is weird, because in conversation, I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I don’t make people upset. Because then, when people interview me, it’s like I’m talking to a therapist.

Well, I feel like I’m talking to a therapist.
[Laughs.] But I don’t regret anything. I had a lovely day with Jada [Yuan], but I did look at it and was like, Oh! Okay. I should make a few decisions about how to do this. But also at that time, I was a real live wire in a way that I’m not now. The past year-and-a-half for me has been about emerging as a woman who completely has her hands — not just on the wheel, but on a wand, and some weird magic-dust pouch. I feel like I gathered all my stuff. I gathered myself to myself. I’m just different.

Do people in your life notice the shift?
I think some notice the difference, because they see me making much better decisions for myself. [My close friends] see a high volume of what upsets me in small ways. I think The Sunlit Night was like the A.D. [to my] B.C. Making this movie, I stepped off that set and stepped into a completely new world. While I was in Norway, I weirdly got addicted to cigarettes. So many cigarettes. Which is not my style.

I came back, stopped smoking cigarettes completely, have maybe had two since July. Completely stopped smoking weed. And really started to live my life in a different way. I am a way more contained person. I’m just not stressing the small stuff at all. And I want the right things. I look at my own interactions with the people that I love, and I’m proud of how I behave, for the first time in a few years.

Thank you for this actual, cry-inducing therapy session.
I actually cried. You really made my day. I guess I opened a valve. It’s all right. It’s fine. It’s not embarrassing. I’m not embarrassed of that. I’d say it went great.

Getting Deep With Jenny Slate at Sundance