Jenny Slate knows how to go for it with her characters. She gained attention for her strong supporting character work like the iconic Mona-Lisa Saperstein, Jean-Ralphio’s chaotic twin sister on Parks and Recreation. With Mona-Lisa’s catchphrases like “Money, Please” and bursting out into song, Slate’s delivery has found a new life as a TikTok trend, years after the show’s run. Her versatile character work extends into voice-over on popular shows like Big Mouth and Bob’s Burgers.
The real magic is seeing Jenny Slate at the center of a story. She exudes a certain honest vulnerability that underpins her quirky sensibility that people know and love. Whether it’s her own words on the page of her memoir Little Weirds or playing a 20-something dealing with a surprise pregnancy in Obvious Child, Slate’s unique voice is her greatest strength in comedy.
In the sweet new romcom, I Want You Back, the actress plays Emma, a 30-something who lives with college-aged roommates and is perpetually stuck in life. After getting dumped by her longtime boyfriend, she meets Peter (Charlie Day), a man who gets dumped by his girlfriend on the same day. Their meeting in the stairwell seems kismet, but it’s not love at first sight for these two. They team up as each other’s support/wing person and cook up a scheme to get their exes back. Throughout her journey of dealing with heartbreak, Emma slowly finds her purpose and, with it, her person.
Slate’s authenticity is on full display, making Emma relatable as a 30-something who doesn’t have it all figured out. “I used to be like, I want to take away Jenny and jump into a character,” said Slate. “Now I want a bit of myself to remain in everything that I do. I want to play to my strengths, and that’s why I enjoyed making our movie.”
Jenny Slate spoke to AwardsRadar about being vulnerable, her new chapter as a mom, and I Want You Back.
Niki Cruz: You have a knack for balancing vulnerability with humor — where does that come from?
Jenny Slate: It comes from how I am [laughs] I don’t want to be crying all the time. I also don’t want to be manic trying to please everyone, or throwing myself into the fire all the time, so I have to find a balance. It’s my responsibility to enjoy my strengths but make sure they don’t take over the conversation or take over a room. I am really sensitive, and I think my experience in my own life is the best when my sensitivity is allowed to exist because I perceive more specifically.
NC: So having that in mind, is that the thing that drives you towards projects as an actress?
JS: It’s always a combination. Who I’m going to be working with is important. At this point, I have no need to do a script if the people on board seem to be unkind or inconsiderate — I really don’t have time for that, especially now after having my daughter. I don’t want to step out of what is a harmonious and fulfilling home life into something that doesn’t exist on an equal plane of satisfaction. So there’s a social element of it, but it depends. I guess as I change, what I’ll be able to do will change as well. I feel really strong right now but not gritty. We made this ten weeks after having my daughter, and I just wanted to prove to myself that I could be the bearer of some delight for people and be light on my feet and funny because having a baby during the pandemic is decidedly not funny.
NC: I Want You Back is at times a laugh out loud comedy, but also as someone who is in their mid 30s, I greatly appreciated this film and its message. We don’t see many stories about people in their 30s going through life, wanting more for themselves, and trying to figure out what that looks like.
JS: For sure. I think a lot of romantic comedies are like, “I’m 27, what now?” and that makes sense. By the way “what now?” is not a question that’s going to go away, I think. It’s important, and it’s always here, but there’s always a different answer. The feeling of being in your 30s, certain things should’ve fallen into place, and they’re just not there, or maybe you’re not interested in them, or they’re not the right fit — that can be really nerve-wracking and shameful. The specific type of doubt that can come in in your 30s is something we can all relate to unless you’re 21 and you’re cool [Laughs]
NC: Right, and when you’re growing up 30 just feels so established where you’re supposed to have your ducks in a row, and things wrapped up in a bow, which also plays into the typical societal expectations that the romcom explores. I loved that the film played into that.
JS: Yeah, in a lot of ways, it’s a classic romcom. The romance is really sweet, and the comedy is really strong. You’re dealing with two people after getting dumped in the real world and taking an ill-advised spin through their exes social media, and up doing something that’s very unromantic and not very cool, but in the end, they have a nice landing spot.
NC: Working with Charlie Day must have been an amazing time, especially since you have these two characters on a similar journey together.
JS: Yeah, it’s really fun to play these characters — even though their scheme is ill-advised — they’re supporting each other. While they have this strange plan, they also become friends and typically support each other saying, “That was really cool what you just did” or “That is a specific thing about you that I really enjoy.” I think playing those sweet scenes is lighter than air, and working with Charlie truly felt like doing a fun dance. I think that translates on screen.
NC: Speaking of how this is a sweet film, seeing your character’s scenes with Trevor and becoming a mentor by getting involved in performing arts was a series of sweet moments. When you had to sing Suddenly Seymour on stage, what was that like? Was it a dream or was it more like, what have I gotten myself into?
JS: You know what it was like? It was like one of those dreams where you’re like, I wish someone would let me sing in a movie, and then they’re like, “You’re gonna sing this song,” and you’re like, “Ahhhh!! Actually, what if I did something else?” But I ended up liking it. I was pretty in my head about it for sure.
NC: And in the other singing moments in the film, anytime you can incorporate an Alanis Morissette karaoke scene is gold.
JS: Yeah, I was just excited to sing that song over and over. I love Alanis. I’m a gigantic fan. When Jagged Little Pill came out, that was a turning point in my own life. I was 14 when that came out.
NC: Alanis just has that way of connecting to people with her music. I was slightly younger when that album came out, but thought, yeah, I understand this pain, but really, what did I know?
JS: [Laughs] Yeah, little did I know that I didn’t get it until I did get it. I listened to the album again and was like, “Oh damn!” But yeah, that remains one of the best albums of my life.
NC: In terms of where these two characters land, there was a bit of a question, figuratively and literally. Where do you think these two wind up, or is that even ultimately important?
JS: That’s the thing about romcoms there’s an element of, “Okay, you take it from here.” It leaves you with this safe feeling of, “At least these two people are going to be happy forever!” I think it’s a fantasy that we’re allowed to have. I think these two people are together forever, and they deepen their love. I’m a hopeless romantic, so of course.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]