When someone is really, truly in love, it’s obvious. With Jenny Slate, I can practically hear it through the phone. She’s calling from her cozy perch at the Dedee Shattuck Gallery in Westport, Massachusetts, where her fiancé, Ben Shattuck, is a curator. “He’s installing the next show and I’m sitting in a big chair watching him,” she says, giggling. “There are photographs of people with lily pads on their heads. It’s wonderful.”
Slate’s romantic respite is well-deserved. In the past year, the 37-year-old filmed her first-ever standup comedy special, Stage Fright, now streaming on Netflix, and wrote a book, Little Weirds—part memoir, part stream of consciousness poetry anthology that invites us into the feverish inner workings of her brain. Today, she splits her time between the rural East Coast town and L.A., where she still has an apartment. “For a while, I didn’t really understand why I would ever want to come back here,” says Slate, who grew up in the Boston suburb of Milton. “Then, as I got older, I missed the woods and the trees and the Atlantic Ocean. The feelings you have in nature are unique.”
It makes sense, then, that Slate stayed local to harness those emotions. She wrote the bulk of her cathartic, quirky tell-all at her parent’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, which was in the process of being built and virtually desolate save for a couch and some mattresses. “I was single at the time, so I started eating very early dinners and writing all night long,” she says. “I also watched a lot of Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary—all these movies about heroines who are somehow lost on a moor.”
Both Stage Fright and Little Weirds offer an unfiltered look at Slate’s life during a particularly trying time. Since getting fired from Saturday Night Live for dropping an F-bomb, she’s been subject to heavy public scrutiny, particularly when she started dating Captain America actor Chris Evans following her divorce from director Dean Fleischer-Camp. But professionally, Slate thrived, racking up an impressive series of credits, including leading roles in Obvious Child and Gifted and a memorable recurring cameo on Parks and Recreation, not to mention the successful animated short film Marcel the Shell, developed in collaboration with Fleischer-Camp.
Of course, Slate’s self-imposed solitary writing retreat didn’t last long. In fact, she and Shattuck got together right as she was finishing the end her book. “I tend to write things down as they’re happening,” she says. “There is someone in my life now and I’m changing. I don’t want to talk about being divorced anymore because it’s starting to not matter to me very much. I want to talk about what matters.”
Below, Slate talks self-doubt, Virginia Woolf, and finding the love of her life.
You seem to be getting more involved in the social fabric of Massachusetts. You gave a commencement speech this past summer to a graduating class of one person at Cattyhunk Elementary.
It was weirdly high pressure. Everybody kept saying, “You did this larger-scale thing! Why is this so scary for you?” And it really was—it was an important day for Gwen [Lynch], the eighth grader. And that school is closed forever now, so it was also a somber day. It felt like when you’re a date to a wedding and you don’t know the people getting married. I just wanted to make sure that I said something that mattered and didn’t disappoint her or her family.
Did you have to give a speech when you were valedictorian in high school?
I did. It was mostly about how it’s dangerous to feel like your life is framed around one essential moment when you felt a big feeling. I was very into Virginia Woolf at the time. I became a pothead pretty soon after that, so I started reading her silently and kept my revelations to myself. I just remember really, really wanting to go to college.
You went to Columbia around the same time as Kate McKinnon and Greta Gerwig, who were part of the same satirical musical theater group as you. Were you friendly with either of them?
Kate and I were in [The Varsity Show] together for a couple of years, actually. One show was a Newsies, Chicago-y theme. She played a greedy, sensation-seeking newspaper editor who framed my character, an RA, as a murderer. I don’t think I’ve ever met Greta which is very sad to me because I admire her so deeply. I would’ve loved to know her in college.
Everyone seems to fixate on your firing from SNL, but you’re in pretty good company. There are a ton of notable one-season cast members, including Billy Crystal, Martin Short, and Ben Stiller.
It will always be strange to me that failure needs to be mentioned when the reason why my work is being discussed is because I have in one way or another succeeded. There’s a very old-fashioned sense that swearing is normal for men but sort of a fun risk for women. And that’s just not that case. It’s boring and reiterative. I guess that’s what misogyny is: boring and reiterative. But yeah, that’s a great list to be on.
I read that you developed stage fright shortly after getting fired. Did that inspire the name of your Netflix special?
Yeah. Whatever happened to me—the exciting velocity that I achieved my childhood dream and then publicly embarrassed myself right away, then was misunderstood, then lost my job—made me start to think, “Am I damaged goods?” When the dust cleared, I didn’t like the way that I had treated myself during that time. I had really disengaged from my own sense of self-respect and was trying to guess what would be the best way to behave in order to be successful in an environment that, ultimately, I didn’t love. It was a very unhealthy partnership for me, and it contributed to intense self-doubt. But I take responsibility for that. I’m grateful for that experience. I wouldn’t have done a lot of the things that I have truly enjoyed doing if it wasn’t for SNL.
Is it true that you went to a hypnotist for treatment?
Yeah, I felt that it worked to sand down the spikes of my stage fright. I think if you’re diligent about really encountering your issues, suddenly things start to change and it’s just about managing it. Whether or not it’s a placebo effect or the hypnotist worked, even though I still get really bad stage fright, I don’t feel like it’s like a force outside of me anymore. I understand that it is part of me and the majority of me is a seasoned professional.
Why did you decide that now was the time to do a standup special?
I realized that I had something that I was saying over and over again, and it was nearing a crescendo for me. It has been really moving for me to be able to do this therapeutic work where I talk about things that I’m afraid of and things that really rocked me. If I didn’t do a special, I would never see this material again, because I’m about to stop.
Is there anything that didn’t make it in?
There’s a version where I wear something really cutesy, but I don’t think your outfit needs to be funny in order to do comedy. I ended up choosing this ‘70s-inspired satin top and high-waisted wide-leg trouser by Nili Lotan with a pretty decorative bra moment. I like the idea that I’m basically covered up, but you can see, like, half of a breast from time to time, covered in black lace. That’s what I’m giving you.
In Little Weirds, you write that you lost confidence in your work after your breakup. Was the book an attempt to turn things around?
That’s exactly right. Everybody experiences sadness and loss in different ways, but what’s hard for me is that I was born with a bounce in my being. When I’m sad, there’s so much heaviness on top that the bounce can’t work. There’s a sense that I am still myself, but I have lost the connection to my essential source. This book was a way to find that or to prove that, even in the darkest times, it’s still there—the light does not go out.
Do you think that you have to learn to be alone before you can be with someone else?
I can’t speak for everybody, but that’s what I needed. Although I did a big dunk into the cold and shocking pool of being alone, when I emerged, I felt renewed. And I’m lucky enough to have found a partner who is interested in my process and not frightened by it and lets me be a full person. Learning to be by yourself is one thing but learning to be able to contain yourself while fully giving yourself to someone else, that’s another skill altogether.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re not a fan of dating apps. How did you meet Ben?
We met in real life. [Dating apps] are very overwhelming to me. I’m glad that I don’t have to do that. You know that part in When Harry Met Sally when Carrie Fisher says to Bruno Kirby, “Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again,” and he’s like, “You’ll never have to be out there again”? That moment is very holy to me, when you know that it’s right, it’s safe, and you’re going to go into the new phase of your life. That is the best.