Interview – Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate talk about Obvious Child

Obvious Child

OBVIOUS CHILD is the story of unapologetic Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a twenty-something loose cannon who gets dumped, fired and pregnant in quick succession. Better at cracking jokes about her flatulence and the contents of her knickers in her weekly stand-up routine than doing her taxes, Donna has a lot of growing up to do. With her parents nudging her to take control of her life, Donna is forced to do just that when she falls pregnant following a one-night stand with clean-cut, sensible Max (Jake Lacy) – a guy not remotely her type – and decides to seek the choice most responsible to her future. With the support of her friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and Joey (Gabe Liedman), Donna learns how to be brave, honest and vulnerable in real life; not just on stage.

A hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film has been a great success for an independent film in the USA and is now set for a UK release on 29th August. 

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Director/Writer Gillian Robespierre and lead actress Jenny Slate about the film and Jenny’s portrayal of lead character Donna whilst they were in London promoting the film.

How’s the reception been for the film?

Gillian – We opened June 6th in New York and LA and we’re still open. Going into our 12th week in theatres in New York at every single theatre it started at, all these big indie theatres in New York and Brooklyn, and that’s pretty incredible to be an independent film that’s open all summer. You know Wood Allen’s film came out and I thought they’d get rid of us but they kept us, Boyhood came out and they kept us, so we’re now screening next to Boyhood.

Jenny Slate and Nick Kroll as PubLIZity - Kroll Show

You are most likely to recognize Jenny Slate for her larger than life brash characters including the fantastic Mona Lisa in Parks and Recreation and one half of PR power-duo PubLizity in Kroll Show.

 In Obvious Child Jenny plays Donna Stern, a stand up comedian doing her best to get through life, the film is hilarious but a has good dose of realism. We asked Jenny how it was for her playing a more dramatic character dealing with life’s difficulties on screen in a way that she hadn’t previously had the opportunity to.

It was a real dream come true, I love working in comedy and I’m very happy to go and explode in any direction that I’m allowed to aim. I think for a while I felt that I would like to do something that was focused and reflected just more of the women I know, in my world. Whatever part I get, I’m going to try and ground it a bit, or at least make it something that you can love. And what Gillian offered me was so more than that because they character is just as flawed as she is perfect, her nuances are really something to work with and she’s as funny as she is vulnerable and I just wanted it really badly. So it is the most meaningful part I’ve ever played.

The film grew out of a short film starring Jenny, which Gillian co-wrote with friends Anna Bean and Karen Milne.

Gillian – We didn’t have Jenny in mind cause we didn’t know her yet, but she existed and she was living in the same borough as us in Brooklyn. We had this idea to tell the story using the romantic comedy genre and to tell the story about a woman who gets dumped, fired and pregnant and has an abortion. A first date in an unlikely location was the plotline for the short.

We then we saw Jenny perform, we hadn’t filmed yet and we were taking a night off from being 25 and there she was on stage doing comedy that was so exciting for me, because it was unlike anything I’d seen before. Somebody telling stories that I thought and felt but doing it in such an articulate and hilarious way and I looked around the room and everyone was with her, it was like she was one of us. Jenny describes it that every time she goes on stage, it’s like she’s at a dinner party and she’s sharing her favourite stories, the one she knows the best, and bringing the dinner party to life, and that’s what it was like. We immediately sent her the script and she said yes, we short it in three days in the winter with no money.

We decided to expand it in the editing room, it felt like Jenny’s performance was something we hoped for but didn’t know how magical it was until I was putting the whole short together. It also felt like a story that could be expanded and we could go in a hundred different directions with the expansion of this woman’s world, which we did, it’s nothing like the short but it still stays true to the heart of the short.

On the heart of Obvious Child and the character of Donna

Gillian – The heart of it is about a woman who’s dealing with low self-esteem and losing confidence after getting dumped, who’s trying to find her voice on stage but also find strength off stage. Her character who starts off kind of meek and unsure of life, tends to be a victim “he’s dumped me because I talked about him on stage”, “he’s sleeping with someone else cause she’s tall and blond”. She was never proactive in her own life until the very end and that’s when she’s in the recovery room, she’s just sat there and there’s no dialogue, she’s just looking at the other women and I feel like there’s a hope in her and a sense of confidence that you hadn’t seen, even when she does nails that final comedy bit at the end, you know that’s the sort of character we were trying to create and it just kept on getting better and better as we got closer to shooting the feature.

Jenny Slate as Donna SternDonna is a stand up comedian and her stand up scenes make up key parts of the film. I asked Jenny how the stand up scenes were constructed, what was the script and what was Jenny.

Jenny – Well, Gillian wrote the stand up, writing in my style, this sort of confessional freeform story telling, and it was really really funny.  We got an in-kind grant from the San Francisco Film Society, we went there for the day with Elizabeth Holm our producer and Gillian’s story collaborator, Gabe Liedman who plays Joey and Gaby Hoffmann (Girls, Uncle Buck) who plays Nelly in the movie. Gillian had me improvise off what she had written, you know if you were doing this and this was something you had to talk about, what would you say right now. I did that and she recorded that.

Gillian – A lot of great jokes were born that day

Jenny – So she rewrote based off of that and that was what was in the shooting draft. Then on the day we shot the stand up, we went through and really generalised it and made it into bullet points, cause that’s the way I do my own stand up. It’s not written, I don’t really say the same thing every time, I tell the same stories, but I tell them differently and so we had a progression. I had the lines of Gillian’s that I really wanted to say and we left a lot of room for improv and we also decided to let me throw in a few of my own jokes that would have fit in with Donna’s just to make sure that the rhythm of the stand up was authentic. When someone’s doing the kind of stand up that I do, it’s not like people laughing all the time, it’s a flow, it’s a story, we wanted to make sure that Donna’s stand up scenes seemed natural, because one of the most important parts of her character is her natural impulse to connect and if that seems fabricated at all, it just would be…

Gillian – What make’s Jenny a great actress is that she’s also a stand up comedian and there’s a muscle memory that’s hers. But she didn’t go into Jenny Slate comedy, it was really taking her voice and years of training as a stand up and years of working in rooms similar to the room we created in Obvious Child, taking all that energy and putting it into her character and using the voice of the character.

Using lines that Donna would say, not Jenny Slate but still using her style and her face to deliver it, it was a collaboration and real acting. Sometimes standing behind the camera, I was just blown away and I didn’t have to do much except every now and then say “go back to the discharge piece!”

Jenny – That was what was interesting, cause I share a sense of humour with Donna, but my impulses as a performer are honestly just a bit gentler on the people that I know, you I know I have the same impulses, the same sense of humour but…

Gillian – Donna’s mean to herself in a way that you’re not

Jenny – She has a bit of a destructor in her that she needs to learn how to control and how to use it, and she uses against herself in the second set. In the first set she’s kinda waving a gun around and it pisses off her boyfriend. He doesn’t dump her because of that, he dumps her because he’s an asshole but you know it’s kinda fun to realize that the person I was playing was just a bit careless.

So you wouldn’t announce something similar to say having an abortion in a set?

Jenny I don’t know, I don’t know about that. You know Donna, she tells everyone that she’s going to have the procedure because that is where she is, and she’s learning to understand that her comedy comes from her life and wanting to connect is in her nature and that she is not separated from her life just because she’s making a decision that’s kind of a one time thing and a new thing for her. And she has to use it, she must, she must connect with her mum, she must connect with the audience. I think for me, I don’t need that because I’ve already learned that lesson, I don’t have the intimacy issue that Donna sort of deals with in our film and for me I have a partner in my life, Donna’s going to go up there and tell that story whether or not Max is there, it’s not for him, it’s for her.

For me if I were to have an abortion now, that would also be my husband’s story and you know it just doesn’t seem appropriate to me, and I don’t need that, but it’s something that Donna needs. I do need to talk about my hurt feelings, and I do need to talk about things that confuse me, even if they’re like sexual or political or social, you know things that people might think are private, I don’t mind putting those out there. I’m just very very careful to not expose anybody and I understand the line.

Gillian – When Donna does it in our movie, it was something we were nervous about

Jenny -We didn’t want it to be cheesy

Gillian Robespierre

Gillian – But part of the way Jenny performed it and also the way we shot the reactions in the audience, the audience was just devouring it. They couldn’t get enough of this bit, everyone was connected to her, just as much as she was connected to the story, the audience were to each other and to her and that’s just a moment we wanted to create, not just shock value “I’m going to say something really shocking”. It’s something that, we didn’t want people in the audience to be filming it, it was for that moment only, it was to live only for that second, how it was outside the doors.

How I imagine it is that audience members in the movie are going to go and start talking about it and the way that you leave a movie or going to a see stand up comedy performers and go “remember that joke, that was great, can you believe she said that, I had an abortion too”, you it makes a conversation and it empowers not just the people on stage, it empowers the people watching.

Jenny – And you know, she says to them at the end, you’ve been very generous to me tonight, and I like that she calls it out, that you know, this is something I needed. I need to say it, I needed it from you and something has happened between us and essentially that I think what comedy is about, you know something happened here there was a connection and she still does stand up, you know she can’t help herself, it’s still bubbling through, but there’s this new thing. I’m not sure looking back at it, how did we do it! I watch it and I’m like “oh my God!” but it really all does work I think.

In the last few years there has been a real resurgence in strong female comedic voices both in TV and film, shows like Broad City, The Amy Schumer show, Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s Girls have put female comedians in the forefront, and really spoken out about female issues in a language which is really refreshing and challenging.

Gillian – I’m really excited about all these fun TV shows and movies that are out there with these real singular original voices, people are taking this comedic tone, taking normalcy and the nuances of life and filtering it through their lens men and women are doing it. There’s just a real wave of real fun TV. I’m enjoying binge watching it, it’s a problem! You gotta watch Felicity!

Obvious Child is released in UK cinemas on 29th August

This interview was originally published on The People’s Movies, a website I’ve been doing a lot of writing for recently.
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