It's A Beautiful Day In Jenny Slate’s Neighborhood
Jenny Slate, mother of Marcel the Shell (and Ida the baby), has given up performing her identity and doubled down on delighting you.
Jenny Slate has asked me to meet her at a general store down the block from where she lives with her family, in the kind of idyllic coastal town in Massachusetts where everyone wears garden clogs with their alma mater’s T-shirts. The store is a big, clapboard house, painted daffodil yellow, with native plants in hanging baskets and a placard that says it was established in 1793. When I googled the location the night before, I found several local news items about her husband, Ben Shattuck, who grew up here and bought and reopened the store with his brother about a year ago.
As I paw through the shop’s beeswax candles, flour sack towels, and small but flawless selection of books (Natalia Ginzburg, Elif Batuman, Shattuck’s own), I notice someone holding court in the cafe area. Hair piled on top of her head, Slate is wearing a tailored vest with no shirt underneath and what she later refers to as her “large jeans.” She looks both totally normal and 20% cooler and more beautiful than everyone around her.
“Are you going to interview Jenny?” a woman in a bucket hat asks me from the friendly scrum. Whether you recognize Slate, who turned 40 this year, from Parks and Recreation, or her Netflix special Stage Fright, as one half of PubLIZity on the Kroll Show, or the movie Obvious Child, or from her book Little Weirds, her stint on SNL, or her voice on Big Mouth, Bob's Burgers, or Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, chances are that if you’re a certain age, you know her from somewhere. The woman in the bucket hat knows her from around the neighborhood, and assures me Jenny is normal and I shouldn’t be nervous. As does the cashier, and, later, the store manager, who encourages us to try the adventurous new flavors of seltzer they had by the register. Jenny (we are all on a first-name basis with her, it seems) proposes we take our drinks to a picnic table outside, under a tree.
An SUV with the windows rolled down honks and a woman with an iced coffee waves and shouts hello. Once the woman drives off, Slate tells me how great she is, that she “teaches nature.” Here in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on this perfect June day, the idea of someone teaching nature, or of learning it, makes absolute sense to me. And it makes absolute sense that Slate, a writer/actor/comedian who has never quite fit into Hollywood’s constrictive commercial categories, would want to raise her 17-month-old daughter, Ida, here, where she is about as famous as her artist/writer/shop-owner husband, and where everyone who approaches her is a neighbor or friend.
At the picnic table, Slate tells me she didn’t know she wanted to be a mom until she met Shattuck. “I never had a partner that I wanted to have a baby with. I didn't think I would ever have a baby. And then I met Ben and I really wanted to have one with him. I just kept feeling more and more safe, more and more happy and really being, ‘Oh man, this is what it's like to be in love. This is what it's like.’ I want Ida to know that Ben and I already had a lovely relationship, but she's made it better.”
Once she decided to go for it, I ask, what about having a baby was she most afraid of?
“Exploding my vagina. A hundred percent. Everything else I'm like, ‘I can work on this.’”
And then we are off to the races. Slate tells me she always knew she wanted an epidural and was really irritated by what she calls the hey mama self-care movement. “Where there was once a man telling you when to have a C-section,” she riffs, “there is now a woman being like, ‘You're not a feminist, unless you have birth in a tub in your house.’ Everything about feminism, as I understand it, is about standing at the intersection of everything and trying to make that work. And I was like, ‘I want a fuckin’ epidural, dude.’ But I honestly think anyone who's stuck up about the way their birth went down, is an asshole.”
I am nodding vigorously, sipping my Mountain Valley Spring Water in heaven, desperate to hear more about her birth story.
“I was moments away from having a C-section and she had to be vacuumed out. I pushed her a great way. But there was this suction and — ”
Vacuumed, as in, a vacuum-assisted delivery?
She laughs, nodding, amused by the detail. “It's a little plunger on their head!”
Aside from her fear that she wouldn’t be able to handle the pain of childbirth, Slate says she was concerned about the postpartum hormone drop, aka the deceptively benign-sounding “baby blues.” Slate told Shattuck to watch out for hormone swings, and to remind her, when she was in the thick of it, that it wouldn’t last forever. “And when I was in that hormone thing, it was exactly like smoking bad weed,” she says. “I don't smoke weed anymore. I quit three years ago. But I quit because it started making me really paranoid.” She tells the story of a time her friend, the actor Mae Whitman, had to talk her down during a particularly bad high. “She got in the bathtub with me and was like, ‘You can't smoke weed anymore. You're high in a way that isn't fun. It will pass. But it is real for you right now.’” After giving birth, Slate says, “I was like, ‘This is like that.’ Except it was, ‘You had a baby. You exploded your vagina. You have stitches. You have hormones. [...] They're like drugs in your system. And you're doing a major thing right now.’”
Thankfully, Shattuck was prepared and pulled through when Slate needed it, because, as she puts it, “the worst part is feeling crazy.”
"There are, I think, central human experiences that people return and return and return to to make art.”
I ask what it was like working again after becoming a mother, and Slate casually mentions that she filmed I Want You Back when Ida was 10 weeks old. I must look stricken because she quickly explains that Ida was more portable, then. Now, Ida has a routine. She has a bedtime, and Slate doesn't want to miss it. Slate says the idea of going back to a set scares her even though she really wants to do it; having Ida has been clarifying, in that way. “I just know if I'm going to work, I want to make sure that it's worth it. I just want to make sure that it's worth it. If I'm going to spend time away from Ida.”
One project that’s been worthy of Slate’s time is the feature-length version of her beloved 2010 viral video Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, which comes out this week. The original stop-motion mockumentary shorts captured the quotidian challenges in the life of Marcel, a tiny mollusc shell with doll sneakers and one very expressive googly eye, who lives alone in an enormous-to-him human house. (“Guess what I wear as a hat? A lentil.”) In the movie, Marcel has convinced himself that he can survive with only the company of his elderly grandmother, but eventually realizes he needs more and sets out on a quest to find his long-lost family, with the help of the internet and 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl (who plays herself). “I want to have a good life,” he tells the camera, “I don't want to just survive. I want to have a good life.”
That might sound like a metaphor for going into pandemic isolation, becoming a mother, and deciding to move to your artist husband’s small hometown, but Slate tells me that most of the Marcel audio, which was largely improvised, was actually recorded seven or eight years ago, before the lengthy process of producing and layering the live-action, stop-motion, and animated versions of the movie; which is to say, long before themes of isolation and connection dominated the cultural conversation.
Slate's longtime collaborator Elisabeth Holm, who produced Marcel as well as Obvious Child, Landline, and Slate's Netflix special, says that from early on, “the film dealt with themes of loss and grief and death and divorce. But it also dealt with healing and renewal and community and family." (Slate and her first husband, Marcel director and co-creator Dean Fleischer-Camp, were divorced in 2016, though they continue to collaborate.) "I think that those were all experiences that Jenny and Dean and we all were going through over the life of the project in different personal ways,” Holm says. “But I think that often happens with film — the ones that really do resonate often have a many-year, layered creative process that just meets the moment at the right time."
Or, as Slate puts it, “There are, I think, central human experiences that people return and return and return to to make art.” She has a faraway look but a determined voice. “And why a baby born right now will be the best artist of her generation in 60 years from now. And that she'll probably be talking about the same shit that we're talking about now.”
Well hopefully not the exact same shit. I want to talk to Slate about all that needs to be fixed for our children’s generation, but I’m not even sure which bad current event to open with. The pandemic? The end of Roe v. Wade? School shootings? Formula shortage? We land on each of them, express a shared horror, fight back tears, and talk about how it feels impossible to say anything meaningful. When Slate logged back into Instagram, which she had taken a step back from recently, to promote Marcel, she was flooded with posts about school shootings and came away depressed about the state of the discourse. “It feels like one of those fake volcanoes that you make in chemistry. It's like, ‘I am this. I am coming from this point of view, and I'm pouring that in and it's going to make a reaction with the people who are opposite from me, and then we're just going to have this frothy, shitty mess.’ That is not the real thing.” Meaning social media posts are not real, effective communication, with the ability to create change. “It doesn't move anything around. It's just a reaction in the middle of the air that dissipates and just makes this disgusting film over everything that it lands on. And it sucks.”
So, no, hopefully the artists born today will not be talking about our same crises, she says, but the deeper aspects of the human experience she's grappling with: “Heartbreak. Loss. Wondering if anybody knows that you're there. Wondering if there are other people like you out there and having hope and feeling the huge danger of hope.” Slate says she sometimes forgets how much power and comfort she derives from hope. “I feel that way about artichokes. Every three years I'm like, ‘Oh shit, I forgot that artichokes are my favorite vegetable.’ I keep going to the cucumber. And then I remember, ‘Oh, it's artichokes.’ … [Hope is] the thing that I forget about, when I come back to it, [I] can really feel it. It's like fixing your sight on a tiny light in the horizon. But it's really, really scary and hard.”
“I noticed that when I went to work after having Ida that I just didn't feel like kissing butt at all. And I didn't feel like performing any parts of my identity anymore. I just was like, whatever is here is definitely enough.”
It is really scary and really hard. The mounting difficulty of keeping hope alive makes the return of Marcel, with his haphazard confidence, feel especially poignant. Watching the film now, it's impossible not to think about how much has changed since 2010, when I watched Marcel on my white MacBook with wine in a coffee mug, the next decade of my life rolling out in front of me, pure possibility. I screened the new version with my two children, who were immediately and utterly transfixed by Marcel’s tiny voice and visual gags. I, meanwhile, was nearly brought to tears by a shell singing an a cappella cover of The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
I tell her Marcel was a nice respite from all the garbage “age-appropriate” content currently on streaming platforms, and though so far the only thing Ida watches are '80s episodes of Sesame Street, she knows what I mean. She is worried that the algorithm has changed everything — not what she wants to create, but what gets funded. She doubts they could make Marcel now.
According to Holm, audiences still want to watch stories like Marcel — “to be delightfully surprised by something that feels genuinely new” — but it’s a challenge to find business partners who will take that leap of faith as the industry consolidates into just a handful of companies. “That is a massive bummer on so many levels and it makes it really difficult to make art that feels new and alive and curious. I do think it's possible, but I think it requires people like Jenny, with her whole sort of enchanted and enchanting psyche, to still want to get up and do what they do and share it with us.”
“If I have one career dream right now,” Slate tells me, “it's to make a really good children's show, where I function as a version of a hybrid of Pee-wee and Mr. Rogers.” She talks about exposing little kids to beautiful things like modern dance and “deep, rich colors” (“somewhere along the line, things for kids became all lime green and fuchsia and it's so ugly”). She’s genuinely lighting up. I am, too. “I really hope someone lets me do it," she says. “Again, there's that little... It's like a kite flying in the distance of hope where I'm like, ‘Ah.’ What am I going to do? Not do it? Not try? That would never happen.”
Around this time, Shattuck sends her a text; he’s coming by with the baby, and can she hold her for a minute? The author of a book about sustainable fishing is giving a reading at the store tonight and Shattuck is supposed to introduce him. I don’t want to invade her privacy, but also I am stranded at this general store until I can get a cab to my whaling-themed Airbnb. So I meet Shattuck, who is like any somewhat harried dad, in garden clogs (check) and a T-shirt (faded blue, no college name), and he hands off their daughter, who is a pure dumpling in mismatched stripes. (“She looked like a baby,” Slate jokes I should write.)
For a few minutes, our conversation turns monosyllabic and adoring as we talk to the baby. Then Slate squints and cocks her head, and I can tell she is going back into existential mode. “Since having a baby,” she muses, “I’ve felt this general... I've called it, a frizzing away of my greater vanities. I do think I have less to prove. But I also feel shyer, and more boring. I noticed that when I went to work after having Ida that I just didn't feel like kissing butt at all. And I didn't feel like performing any parts of my identity anymore. I just was like, whatever is here is definitely enough.”
“But I do want to make things that she will be proud of and that she'll find beautiful,” she says, squeezing Ida's sandy, bare foot. “I get to think along the lines of, ‘What would be delightful for her.’ And so that's a really nice new way to be inspired.”
Top Image Credits: Brandon Maxwell clothing, Notte Jewelry earring on the left ear, Pandora earring on the right ear, Éliou necklace, Manolo Blahnik shoes.
Photographer: Kerry Hallihan
Stylist: Peju Famojure
Hair: Clay Nielsen
Makeup: Kirin Bhatty
Manicure: Ami Vega
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Marshall Stief