Jenny Slate on finding hope in the apocalypse for her new podcast Earth Break
The actress stars as the only woman left alive after an alien invasion
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Jenny Slate feels pretty good about it.
The actress, comedian, and writer has worked across TV shows and films big and small (beloved sitcom Parks and Recreation, comic book fare like Venom, indies like Obvious Child and Landline), and now she’s venturing into new territory twice over: starring in a post-apocalyptic tale that unfolds in the new scripted podcast Earth Break: A Few Suggestions for Survival, With Additional Hints and Tips about How To Make Yourself More Comfortable During the Alien Apocalypse, which released its first two episodes Tuesday.
Slate plays Lynn Gellert, who’s seemingly the last person left of Earth following an alien invasion. The story, framed through her speaking into a voice recorder, follows Lynn as she navigates this dangerous and uncertain new world — which includes her discovering that she’s pregnant. She’s not a skilled survivalist (or, as the logline deadpans, “even good at camping”), but still finds she has what it takes to keep moving forward.
Ahead of Earth Break’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend, Slate spoke to EW about diving into the sci-fi genre, getting to literally punch and kick her way through the recording process, and the inherent hopefulness of post-apocalyptic stories. (She also touched in on what a certain pair of Pawnee residents might be doing on a weekend afternoon.)
Listen to a preview of Earth Break below, and find those first episodes now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or whereever you get your podcasts. Read on for our conversation with Slate.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about how you came aboard this podcast.
JENNY SLATE: I really wanted to work with Aaron Katz, who directed Earth Break, and I’ve been a fan of his for a while. When the movie Obvious Child came out, he also had a film that year called Land Ho!, and I remember both of our work kind of came out at the same time and I just became so interested in him as a storyteller. There’s a certain innocence to what he does — and also very, very intelligent and straightforward, while being really complex.
Then for me, I think it’s always a constant pursuit of finding new ways to use my creative abilities. I tend to feel rather bad about myself if I feel like I’m being reiterative. It felt very exciting to play a more physical part, but one that didn’t require anyone to actually look at me because I can be rather shy — although it takes a certain amount of confidence, I think, to do the work that I do and to also just greet the world the way that I greet it. I think I’m comfortable saying that it takes confidence. It also doesn’t mean that I live without self-doubt. I live with both! I just figure out which one to give authority to. [Laughs] I think I would feel shy having to be the one person in a piece that is all about a woman surviving the apocalypse and doing a lot of athletic things. There’s a chance that I could get in my head about that, and because I knew that nobody was actually going to be looking at me or critiquing whether or not I, you know, “Oh, she runs weirdly!” or whatever nightmare you’re gonna present yourself with. I just took the chance at being able to play the part that I wanted to play, and fully immerse myself in it without really any insecurity at all. And it seemed like this was an opportunity to do work in a classic genre and do it in a totally new way.
Was it actually very physical in what you were doing, or just the things that your character Lynn is going through?
I think we had five days total, and two were studio days. And then the other days, if I’m running up the stairs, I’m running up real stairs in a ranch that we rented. Or running across a field, I’m actually running across a field with a backpack on and jumping over stuff. If I’m using the crowbar, I’m using the crowbar. If I’m throwing a boulder, I’m throwing a boulder through a pane of glass. It’s so funny the line between performance and pretend, the line between what kids do to play and what adults end up calling performance. There was a lot in this where I truly felt like my 11-year-old self — when you look out a window and you see a little girl karate-kicking the air, and she clearly has an imaginary adversary, and she’s fully dialed in, and it doesn’t matter whether or not anybody else can see. That’s really the way that I did this. If I had punch, I fully punched the air. It must’ve looked totally crazy to the people who might’ve been passing through the ranch, but I would just be running and screaming, and then turning around on a dime and kickboxing the air. But that’s how we did it.
I liked when Lynn says that she has survived so far by failing upward. Often in these stories you’re following a character who’s just been kicking ass and taking names the whole time. But most people would just getting by as best they can.
Yeah. It would be very interesting to play someone who was an end-of-the-world warrior. That’s also really cool, and I would love to see how I would do that. But the fact is this is somebody who just happened to have an immunity — just truly by chance, Lynn has an immunity to whatever the aliens brought to her planet and killed everyone else. For some reason, it just doesn’t make her sick. It’s no more glorious or wondrous than some people are allergic to avocado and some people are not.
Lynn doesn’t have any pride in her survival. She only has her survival. She’s not able to say, “Look at me. I did this.” She’s survived, but in order to keep living, she has to first make decisions that she probably wasn’t making in her actual adulthood when she was living with other people. Lynn talks about that sort of passive quality of her life. She took care of her mother when her mother was dying, but that was an obligation, and Lynn is a sort of typically good person so she wasn’t going to abandon her mother. But she becomes special because of the way that she chooses to live and survive, and because of her compulsion to express herself. She is not extraordinary at the start. I just like the idea that everyone kind of has the potential to be the hero of their own lives. They just have to find out what those changes are that will bring them into the center of that image.
And then when Lynn realizes she’s pregnant, that complicates things even more.
I don’t know why somehow I continually find myself in these stories about women who are pregnant, especially since I myself have never been pregnant. But I’m very, very interested in the stories that we tell about our own reproductive journeys. That is something that is central in my life. I really wanted to make sure that it was not an anti-choice statement. I really wanted to make sure that Lynn is still more important than the fetus, and that Lynn as a person and as a character doesn’t suddenly become just a vessel for somebody who doesn’t exist, and isn’t even born yet, and might die right away. There are many, many complications, but what I love is Lynn’s decision to keep the baby because she’s just kind of weighing out what kind of challenges she wants to be involved in. That is a lot of what life is about. I’m not a pessimist, but we’ll never be without suffering. It’s there. But we do have choices for which suffering we can kind of avoid, and how we want to process the suffering that we inevitably are kind of connected to or experiencing.
Also, Lynn being pregnant is not a hopeful thing for her. It’s the state of affairs. It’s super f—ing scary. She’s pretty sure she’s gonna die while having this baby, and becomes more and more comfortable with the idea of just trying her best to survive. The more she focuses on herself and wants to be alive, the more she actually becomes attracted to the idea of caring for someone, of being a better mother than her own mother was, and of living in this lonely world with a young friend. With a child of her own. It’s really deep.
What you said about suffering is interesting, because I think that’s part of why people like post-apocalyptic stories so much. You see all these things that could happen, and it allows us to work through what we would do in those sorts of situations. Do you think that’s right?
I do, and I think that there’s a lot in our experience that, even when things are halfway good and halfway bad, there’s this feeling that things could tip into the worst case scenario at any moment. We live with the tension of that tendency of things to just completely fall apart. I think that genre of post-apocalypse human life is first of all really hopeful, because the initial statement is the worst thing that you can imagine didn’t get you. And then it sets up an allegory for something that many of us go through, whether you’re going through it because you just went through a breakup, and you’re just like, what would life ever be like without this person? A lot of times in my life, that’s been one of the scariest things I could think of is like, how will I live without this person that I’ve had, or what will I be like after I’ve survived? While this is obviously set in this backdrop, and there are aliens running around and the world is altered, Lynn stands out as supremely human. I think we need that. I think it’s not just for the fun of a woman punching an alien in the face, but it’s also to see how the human spirit and human emotional makeup, how that all holds up in extreme situations. Because you’re never not gonna be a human being.
The first two episodes of Earth Break are premiering at Tribeca. Where does the story go from here?
Lynn hits some real physical challenges, she has to continually be on the move. She learns more and more about how to survive and how to combat the aliens, and what I really love is that the more Lynn traverses this really hostile and frightening, dangerous world, she also starts to cycle back through memories that were traumatic for her in her life before there were any aliens on Earth. Mostly her relationship with her mother, and her feelings about herself — feelings of not being good enough, and of just not necessarily being a “basic” person, but of being just truly medium. She says something like, “If you wanted to ask of me what the significant moments of my life have been, I couldn’t tell you.” Just a really, really flat existence.
As the danger mounts, she also starts to deal with something I think a lot of us deal with in our early 30s which is, I actually think I might be a bit stronger than my culture or the less kind people in my life have told me that I am. Why have I just been assuming all this time that I couldn’t do this? Why have I always been assuming that I am not the one who could decide what’s best for me, or who would ever know what to do in terms of caring for myself? She starts to find a reserve of strength that she has discouraged herself from looking for. The story’s very complex, and really exciting, and I think very, very touching. And really real. Really scary.
You’ve done indies like Obvious Child and Landline, and then also you’ve worked on bigger titles like Venom and Secret Life of Pets. Do you deliberately seek out these different sorts of projects, or is that variety just the product of what’s come into your orbit?
I think it’s a combination of both. I would like to be successful enough, whatever that means, that I could just have my pick of whatever there is. But no, that’s not how it goes. I’m an actress that auditions, and sometimes somebody comes to me and they say, “Will you do this?” I can just hop on board without having to prove myself. But I like that because I am in a constant state of emergence. A couple weeks ago, I emailed my agents and said, “Is there anything out there that’s really scary? Is anybody writing a really classic thriller?” Pet Sematary, the reboot, had just come out, and I just think that’s so cool. So maybe an appetite for something will be stirred in me. I will say after recording this podcast and doing all of the physical things, I had a real hunger to be a part of something where I run and jump and kick, and I felt that way for awhile. I think I just want to look back on it all and be entertained by this sort of various nature of my body of work. So far, I feel really good about it.
My colleague spoke to Ben Schwartz last week about his new project, and afterward in the office we were debating whether your Parks and Rec characters, Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa Saperstein, would have organized Fyre Festival or gotten stuck at it.
Stuck at it.
Stuck at it?
Yeah, they’d be stuck. I just don’t think they’re actually mean enough to create a Fyre Festival. Maybe they would create something in Pawnee. Maybe they would do something in the town, but I don’t know. They’re not sinister people. They’re just garbage.
That is the perfect word for them. Do you have any idea what they would be up to right now?
Right now? What time is it, 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday? I’d say Mona Lisa is on MDMA getting her a—hole waxed, and Jean-Ralphio hasn’t woken up yet. Or Jean-Ralphio is on MDMA getting his a—hole waxed, and Mona Lisa hasn’t woken up yet. Take your pick.
This interview has been edited and condensed.