Jenny Slate has tried hypnotherapy three times in the past few years. Twice, it didn’t work. She was hoping it would help her kick her habits of sleepwalking and sleep-eating, but no such luck; she still occasionally gets up at night to scarf candy and Mountain Dew in a trance, like a kid at a one-person slumber party. What it did do was cure her stage fright, which she developed after moving from New York City to L.A. in 2012. That was the year the actress and comedian became a New York Times best-selling author for Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the children’s book she co-wrote with her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, based on their quirky online videos. It was also two years after Slate had ended her one-season stint on Saturday Night Live, which included a much-blogged-about F-word incident during a sketch. At the time, L.A. seemed foreign, and work was spotty. ”I felt really scared and judged, just from being thrown into the public eye and worrying about what my next job would be,” says Slate, 32, who’s been doing stand-up since graduating from college in 2004. ”I had a couple comedian friends who went to get hypnotized, so I was like, whatever, I’ll give it a try. And it worked! There was a picture in the office of Charlize Theron — apparently this guy [claims he] helped her quit smoking. I want him to hypnotize me to be Charlize Theron. I just grow seven inches and become a South African beauty god.”
Those seven inches never came, but Slate — who has since become a scene-stealing guest on shows such as Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, and House of Lies — is closer than ever to stardom. This summer she’s been getting raves for her first lead role in Obvious Child (now in theaters), an R-rated indie comedy about a struggling stand-up comic named Donna (Slate) who decides to have an abortion after accidentally getting pregnant from a one-night stand with a square businessman (Jake Lacy).
Obvious Child started out as a 2009 short film; writer-director Gillian Robespierre cast Slate after seeing her comedy act at an NYC club. ”Jenny was so close to what we had written on the page — naturally funny with a bawdy character and a vulnerable side,” says Robespierre. By 2013, when the feature version was shot in just 18 days for less than $1 million, the character had become even more like Slate, with their shared passion for brutally honest stand-up. But the character isn’t a clone. Donna is a full-blooded New Yorker; Slate was raised by a poet father and a potter mother in suburban Milton, Mass. Donna is a raw nerve with a love of fart jokes, whereas Slate is poised and eloquent with a deep love of fart jokes. She looks and sounds like the kind of woman who could’ve been valedictorian of her prep school (which she was) and gone to an Ivy League college (which she did — Columbia) and still interject the phrase ”blow my colon out” into an 11 a.m. conversation over breakfast (which she does, in reference to the spice level of her Bloody Mary). ”I think my friends would say I’m pretty goal-focused but whimsical,” she says. ”I tend to be really spacey, but I don’t think it’s because I’m unintelligent — it’s just my imagination and a little bit of ADD.”
Slate is just as candid about her career. Movie acting was her childhood dream (Lily Tomlin, Madeline Kahn, and Rosalind Russell were her idols), and comedy offered a way to set herself apart from the auditioning hordes. Getting on SNL was exhilarating, but she has complicated feelings about the continued interest in her F-bomb slipup. ”For me, it’s like a breakup or getting pantsed at a dance — it just adds to my character at this point. But I am…” — she lets out a weary ugh — ”frustrated that I have to keep talking about it. If I was a guy, people probably wouldn’t keep asking me about it. What about Marcel the Shell and that I’m a New York Times best-selling author, and I’m on five TV shows and now have this movie? What about all those things?”
That list is getting longer by the minute. Slate has a supporting role on the upcoming FX comedy Married, plus a part in a new film from Drinking Buddies director Joe Swanberg. She also hopes to make a Marcel the Shell movie with her husband. And she’ll be tackling it all with a renewed confidence, thanks to Obvious Child. ”I think I’ve definitely shown something new,” she says. ”I wouldn’t deny that out of some sort of false modesty. I don’t know exactly what’s next. But I do know now that it’s something, rather than nothing.” She looks happy. Wistful, even. A minute later she’s standing, offering a goodbye hug and a parting observation that’s clearly also been on her mind: ”Now I really need to pick my shorts out of my butt.”