Here’s how Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre—to borrow the rom-com lingo—"met cute." It was years ago at a stand-up gig of Slate’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Robespierre looked on from the audience. Soon, Slate was delving into her more raunchy material: puberty, masturbation, poop jokes. "It was just one of those insane moments," says Robespierre now. "It felt like she was Donna."
"Donna" is the protagonist of the new film Obvious Child, a film written and directed by Robespierre and starring Slate. When Robespierre first saw Slate on that Brooklyn stage, she already had a draft of a short that she had co-written with two other friends, and they were hunting for the perfect Donna. In Slate, they found their woman.
Slate would go on to various kinds of fame—Internet (heard of a little guy named Marcel the Shell?), television (remember the case of that accidental F-bomb on SNL?). But with Obvious Child, Slate brings new dramatic range to a role—a hapless standup comic who gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to get an abortion.
We caught up with Slate and Robespierre to learn more about how the duo’s first meeting blossomed into a years-long creative partnership.
FAST COMPANY: What was it that made each of you trust the other at the beginning?
JENNY SLATE: I reacted very strongly to the material. It was really funny, and it was different from anything I’d worked on professionally as an actress before. I thought it was a really original idea, and it felt really necessary to me. I thought, "Why have I not seen this before?"
GILLIAN ROBESPIERRE: I guess the part of Jenny’s performance that made us feel she could be a dramatic actress was just from her onstage presence, narrating about her life and her childhood. I think we all took chances on each other, me being a first-time director, and for Jenny it being the first role that had some drama in it.
FC: First you made a short version of the film. Now, years later, comes the feature. What were those intervening years of development like?
ROBESPIERRE: I was sad when Jenny moved to L.A., but she did such amazing work, and it was fun to watch her career and voice blossom from afar. All along I was in Brooklyn, sending drafts, then finally I teamed up with producer Elisabeth Holm, who was really the major catalyst and the third part to this equation. We got the film in the right shape story-wise, and we put together a group of executive producers who were really psyched to make a movie with Jenny Slate.
FC: How rigid was the script, and how much was improvised on set?
ROBESPIERRE: It was an open and free environment. I was not precious with my words. The stand-up comedy scenes were really just bullets on a page. On the day of shooting, a lot of new jokes were born that morning.
SLATE: Gil really guided it with a steady hand. She’s confident enough in her tone, and the tone was clear enough that she would let me improvise the stand-up part. Because we really wanted this to seem like authentic stand-up comedy, which is hard to do in movies. Often it feels really wonky.
FC: Jenny, you were recently quoted in Vulture saying, "I just want to act!" But it seems like you do write—you improvise, and you co-wrote the Marcel the Shell videos with your husband.
SLATE: I like writing, but I like acting better. I like being given something I didn’t create and the challenge to connect with something foreign. I enjoy that more than structuring a story, which does in a way start to feel like homework to me. Improv is different. It’s playful and immediate, so improv doesn’t feel like writing. I’m just really very ADD. It’s hard for me to sit down and structure something. But I do consider myself a writer, and am proud to be a children’s book author.
FC: When the two of you had different ideas about the character of Donna, how were they resolved?
ROBESPIERRE: There are a lot of voices behind Obvious Child: Anna Bean and Karen Maine on the short, then Elisabeth Holm coming on. All these women, including Jenny, have a stamp on Donna’s voice and tone. Filmmaking is really collaborative. I think part of collaboration is just letting people put their stamp on something. It’s more like we’re passing it around like a medicine ball, adding more layers onto it.
SLATE: I wanted Donna to be six feet tall!
ROBESPIERRE: The beauty of this group is that we all had the same idea for Donna, we knew her tone, and it was fearless and honest and sort of genuine, not sarcastic. She’s something who’s hard on herself and feels things deeply.
SLATE: It’s weird, because at first I felt nervous. I was like, "I didn’t create this character. It comes from Gillian and Anna and Karen’s initial thing." And I think when they met me, to me they were, like, really cool Williamsburg girls, and I was like, "What if I’m just not as cool? And my interpretation of Donna makes her not as cool?" That was a shallow fear that went away really quickly.
ROBESPIERRE: I never felt cool. I thought Jenny was cool. Anyway, soon we were all just sitting around . . .
SLATE: Being cool.
This interview has been condensed and edited.