To Better Understand Herself, Jenny Slate Endured Goat Poop And 'Ghost-Daddies'

A revealing conversation with the actress about her new movie, "The Sunlit Night," and her quest for self-discovery.
Jenny Slate stars in “The Sunlit Night,” an adaptation of Rebecca Dinerstein’s buzzy debut novel.
Jenny Slate stars in “The Sunlit Night,” an adaptation of Rebecca Dinerstein’s buzzy debut novel.

Jenny Slate’s quest for self-actualization included a detour in goat feces.

Don’t worry, it’s not some Goop-type health hack. Just another sacrifice required of an actress who has spent the past few years figuring out who she wants to be in an industry that is finally listening to women’s voices. The goat droppings entered the picture while Slate was making “The Sunlit Night,” an adaptation of Rebecca Dinerstein’s buzzy debut novel that premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. She plays Frances, a New York artist who accepts a low-end residency in picturesque northern Norway, where the sun never sets during summer. There she bonds with another heartbroken soul (Alex Sharp), a Viking obsessive (Zach Galifianakis) and a small goat that routinely relieved itself on the set. And she feels great about it.

When I met up with Slate at Sundance, she was earnest and forthcoming about the state of her career. We talked about misconceptions regarding how women are meant to dress in movies, the dearth of quality comedy roles, making “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” for the money and all the “ghost-daddies” still running Hollywood. 

Norway looks like a dream come true. Had you been there before?

Yes, I went to Norway right after Sundance in 2017 [when “Landline” and “The Polka King” premiered]. We went in the winter, but Michael Clark, who produced this film, said, “I’m in Berlin, and I’m actually thinking of shooting up to Lofoten to see what it’s like.” He asked if Rebecca Dinerstein and I wanted to go with him. We were like, “Sure, but just so you know, it’s almost 24 hours of darkness.” When we really thought about it, there was maybe going to be six hours of dusky daylight.

We first went to Oslo, and I thought, wow, this city’s so beautiful. It’s so progressive. I remember going to the pharmacy and just seeing a bunch of medications that in the United States you have to get with a pharmacist. 

Like birth control?

Or like, yeast-infection medicines. I remember being like, “Yeah, why do I have to go through insurance to get this?” You don’t make people get Tinactin or whatever from their pharmacist. They’re just a little less freaked out about the body there. I was like, this is a place where people are treated equally, and it feels really good to be here, especially right after the Trump inauguration. Like, oof. I really wanted to find a way — and I feel this way now — to be a patriot, but I’m also going to take a teeny-tiny, one-week break from the United States of America right now, and that was February 2017 for me, around Valentine’s Day.

We went to the Arctic. It’s incredibly remote and astonishingly beautiful, really untouched and very pure. While it is a marvel, the mountains themselves are very modest. They remind you of kings, but they have the attitude of monks. Just beautiful. So we went in the winter, and then we went back in the summer to see it again, and we brought David [Wnendt], our director, with us, who we had found in that time. Then to see Lofoton in the summer and to really understand what it’s like to be in 24 hours of daylight. 

Slate in "The Sunlit Night."
Slate in "The Sunlit Night."

It’s one thing to visit a place with radically different seasons. It’s another thing to work there. Was it a comfortable transition?

Yeah, and because I started professionally as a stand-up comedian, I’m used to conditions being volatile and live. I never need conditions to be locked down. I never need to be very sure of my surroundings in order to perform. In fact, I’m used to performing in what I would describe as an emotional zoo. If you go out and you’re doing stand-up, you’re performing for between 200 and 1,200 people, all who are experiencing their own emotional reality. And your job is to draw everyone into one big bubble, one big giggle, one laugh. 

I was very prepared to play the part, and I function really well in sunlight. I’m a person who sleeps with the light on. I like to sleep in the middle of the day. Apart from the guilt, I enjoy staying up all night — you know, when you just stay up all night with your friends and you go to bed at 9 a.m. Some people feel dread, but as long as I have nothing to do that day, the idea that I will have a gentle sleep in the daylight with the window open, it’s a fucking dream. So I was ready to go.

How long into your stand-up career — or your career at large — did it take you to develop the flexibility to dip into an unfamiliar room and be comfortable no matter what’s going on around you?

I think I experience a very personal discomfort almost continuously. I’m very comfortable in interviews, on Q&As, on panels, in therapy.

That’s an accomplishment. It takes a while to get comfortable in therapy.

Yeah, I’m comfortable in any place where I have nothing to lose by being myself. So stand-up, for me, is a dream world where I have to find the version of myself that I love and present it to a community of strangers who are not in community with each other — really, a group of strangers who, at the end of my performance, will hopefully be in some sort of temporary community with me.

But I get incredible stage fright, and it’s really, really hard. I’m trying to find a way for that to be better, and I just haven’t found that yet.

In a weird way, maybe being yourself is easiest around strangers. But you seem to be pretty tapped into your own psyche across the board. 

I think the one thing that has been hard for me about being an actress is that I’m in an industry that has been unconsciously bending over backward for a cis hetero male gaze forever. When we made “Obvious Child,” Gillian Robespierre dressed me in a way that I was like, “Whoa. What are you doing to me? What are we saying about me?” And she was like, “What do you mean? You look really good.” And I was like, “Oh, I just assumed I’d be wearing some ugly jewel-toned shirt and low-riding jeans because that’s what everyone’s wearing.” She was like, “What do you mean, that’s what everyone’s wearing? No, they’re not. Look around you. This is what the women look like in Williamsburg. These women are sexually active. They’re hot, or they’re not, or whatever, but they’re here. And it’s not about whether they’re hot or not. They’re alive, and they’re making choices, and that’s what you represent. That’s what we’re doing. There isn’t another voice. There isn’t a demeaning, closed-minded, misogynist male gaze here on this set, so why are you bringing it in?”

Slate and Jake Lacy in "Obvious Child."
Slate and Jake Lacy in "Obvious Child."

And it seems what you’re talking about has only improved since “Obvious Child.” You dress very functionally in “The Sunlit Night.”

By the time I arrived on set for “The Sunlit Night,” we were lucky enough to get Stacey Berman as our costume designer. The way that she dressed me was so that, yeah, Frances is someone that’s attractive to the people around her, but she is dressed in a one-of-a-kind expression of her own identity. She’s dressed in clothes that are functional for her work, clothes that are dear to her. ... We really didn’t want her to be some manic-pixie-dream-girl artist because there was a version of Frances where she wears a bra and overalls, and it’s like, “Whoa, what are we doing? Absolutely not.”

Stacey and Gillian really are two women who have refocused me when I start to go into what I’m conditioned to do, I think. I’m constantly reminding myself that I don’t need to do it, which is to figure out how I can be pleasing to an industry that’s made up of ghost-daddies.

I like that phrase, ghost-daddies. Were you satisfied with the trajectories of “Obvious Child” and “Landline”? Did they receive enough attention?

Yeah. “Obvious Child” was a niche film, in a way. I think what bothered me was that it was oversimplified by being positioned as an “abortion comedy.” It was like, what do you mean? That was annoying because we were never making light of abortion, and it wasn’t a comedy about abortion. It was a comedy about a woman. 

Would you call it a rom-com?

Yeah, I totally considered it a rom-com, and I don’t think that’s a derogatory term.

Not at all.

I love romantic comedies. More than anything, I would love to be in a Nancy Meyers romantic comedy. It’s a straight-up goal, just as much as I would love to be in a Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece or a brilliant Spike Jonze film. I would also love to be in a very romantic rom-com where I’m wearing really nice sweaters. 

And you’re in an elegant kitchen.

Yeah, and I own a postcard store and you just feel great.

The only thing I don’t want to do are big studio comedies where I truly cannot identify the female characters, where they all seem like men to me. I really bristle at that type of comedy because I think it’s positioned as feminist comedy but it’s actually holding us back. Women are funny in a million different ways, and I want to see women like Frances in our film — women who just have complex personalities. They can be your hero even if you’re not drinking a beer at 7 a.m. or whatever.

Slate and Riz Ahmed in "Venom."
Slate and Riz Ahmed in "Venom."

Sundance can be a great haven within Hollywood, but does it disappoint you that it’s sometimes the only route to get those types of movies made?

I don’t think it’s anything new. I actually think the only thing that I feel is intense gratitude that this community exists. I was thinking about it last night: How did it happen that this community has accepted me repeatedly? As someone who is genuinely afraid of being shut out socially ― that’s just a very old feeling that exists from middle school and from literally getting my period at 16 1/2 and wondering if I’m actually physically going to be shut out from the adult world because I don’t have an adult body. “I literally don’t have my period. Will I ever be a woman?” Those are feelings that run deep.

So for me to be accepted here again in a community that knows what it wants to put out in the world — the programmers here and the people that run this festival are not just tastemakers, they’re sending a message to the world. And these projects that I’ve brought to the festival are very different. I was here with the very first “Marcel the Shell” short. That was the first time I was here. And then all the way to this film, which is about a visual artist that goes to Norway to try to become a person after living in everyone else’s identities and everyone else’s agendas — means to me that I am keeping pace with a hive mind of people who want to put new things out in the world.

The reason why I do stand-up is because I want a new chance, always.

Because you can constantly refresh the material and open the door for a different reception?

Yeah, or just be accepted again. You know what they say about love — that you need to decide to love that person every day? That just because you say “I do” it doesn’t mean it’s complete? Obviously, I’m a divorced person, so clearly I need to learn it better, but I think the way we grow and change and the way we keep creating new things is that you make the decision to love yourself, to love your partner, to love your work. You make that decision every day. You have to decide how to engage in the world.

That’s why I’m here at Sundance. I made this film because I said, “This is how I want to engage in the world. I want to make an idiosyncratic, emotional, unapologetically gentle, unapologetically sweet film about a dear, vulnerable, completely wreckable woman who goes to a place that you have most likely never heard of and does this thing that you probably haven’t ever done.”

I want that, and my entire life for the past four years has been putting this film together. I mean, I’ve done other work. In that time, I’ve written a book, I’ve done stand-up, I’m working on a comedy special, I’m writing other movies. I’m doing a lot of stuff, but this has been my main focus.

What have you learned from going through public breakups?

I’ve learned that I love talking about my feelings ― I think they’re really interesting ― and that I don’t like discussing specific people. The only specific person I am interested in dismantling and putting back together is myself, and in the public eye, it’s weird. For me, my work is so various. On my worst days, it’s inconsistent — or not inconsistent, but it’s so random. When I think of myself, I’m like, “Yeah, Jenny, you’re super-random. You like a million different things.” I’m never going to be the person that consistently shows up in one thing. I would love to be in a big, big studio movie. I just haven’t yet found one that I like.

Have they come across your desk?

Yeah, of course. But I really don’t like mean comedy. I don’t love comedy that feels like a reiteration of what I’ve seen before. But I would like to be in a movie that reminds me of the sweetness of “Wayne’s World” or “Tommy Boy.” So I love classic comedies. Like, I love “Uncle Buck.” It’s not like I don’t want that old-school shit, because I love it. But I don’t like the newer stuff where I don’t know where the movie takes place and every restaurant looks like a Cheesecake Factory to me. All of these people look like they’re wearing the same outfit, just in different colors. I miss the things from the ’90s. I miss “The Addams Family.” What’s going on? I try to write it myself.

But not literally “The Addams Family,” right?

No. Something like that. I think that’s why a movie like “Napoleon Dynamite” really blew everyone’s socks off, because it was so intensely specific and it wasn’t ripping anything off. I bristle at the reiteration because comedy is supposed to wake you up.

Do you ever look at those movies and wonder why actresses take certain roles?

That’s not for me to say, no. I mean, why was I in “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”? Because I needed money and because I needed experience. And I guarantee you I will probably eventually again be in some giant weird studio movie that doesn’t represent my personal tastes. Maybe a day will come where I say, “Oh, shit, I spent all my money on fancy sweaters, and I can’t pay my mortgage.” If they’ll accept me now that I’ve talked so much shit, maybe I’ll have to be in that type of film. And I’ll always do it with a good attitude because I honestly think, more than anything, I want to work, and I have been lucky enough to create work for myself.

But I also ― again tapping into a really old feeling ― want to be chosen. The careers that I admire the most right now are Saoirse Ronan and Mia Wasikowska and Tessa Thompson and Elle Fanning. These women are working really hard. They’re doing exquisite work. My top is Rachel Weisz. I want to be able to work as hard and as well as Amy Adams or Michelle Williams.

And actually, Michelle Williams. I don’t know her personally, even though we were both in “Venom,” which is a movie where I really wanted to be in a big movie where I could run and punch, and then I ended up being a scientist. They were like, “There’s a script for ‘Venom’ coming your way,” and I was like, “Sweet! Am I gonna get to —?” They were like, “No, you’re not. If you even are lucky enough to get this part,” which, by the way, I never thought I would get.

So you were sought out for that?

I had to audition like everyone else.

(From left) Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Slate in "Landline."
(From left) Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Slate in "Landline."

Those huge Marvel experiences are hit or miss for actors. Did you enjoy it?

I really liked it. I really liked working with Riz [Ahmed], and most of my stuff is actually with him, if you watch the film. He just made me laugh and is very smart. I wanted to know what it was like to make a movie like that. I knew [director] Ruben Fleischer from before, and he is just a really chill dude. He is great to work with, so I feel I lucked out because I had a very easy experience. I got to go live in Atlanta, and I didn’t work every day. At that time, I had just started writing my book that I just finished, so I got to write on my days off or go to the aquarium. I had a wonderful time.

But I did wish that I got to work with Michelle Williams, because I think of her as such a rare bird. She’s just so elegant and intelligent, but she also is so down, down, down with her feet on the earth. There are a lot of women out there that I’m looking at and just wishing I can encounter them and work with them. And when I think about people I want to work with, it’s almost always women.

In your own writing, are you thinking of those women?

No, I don’t, because I’m too shy and I feel like it’s presumptuous. I was actually thinking last night, I hope I can make another film with Gillian Robespierre. I would like to be the Catherine Keener to her Nicole Holofcener. But I would never presume, because it’s her work. And I really understand that she would want to refresh herself and work with someone new because she’ll grow that way. But there’s a part of me when she’s like, “I wrote something for you …”

There can’t be a better feeling.

There’s not a better feeling. But I think it’s a really bold move, and I’m not bold enough to do that for other people. And I think in general it’s a bold move to show up for someone who said they wrote something for you because you have no idea what they had in mind. 

I didn’t know Becky Dinerstein when she gave me her book to read. And then when she asked me to be in the film, we were just pen pals. She was like, “You’re the person I’m seeing in this role.” I remember saying, “I can play this part, but I don’t know why she thinks it’s me.” We had to get to know each other over three years, and then I understood. It just takes a while.

More than anything, I just want to be able to keep working and doing better work. I really want to be the actress that shows up to set and knows exactly how to be respectful of the process and respectful of herself.

A fun question before I leave: You share a lot of scenes in “The Sunlit Night” with a cute goat. What was it like working with him?

I love animals. I was super-pumped about the goat, but it was also a nightmare because it pissed and shit all over the bedding. And we didn’t have a lot of change-outs, so what I knew was that if it shit, they would shake it off and maybe turn the quilt over. It was really uncool. But that’s all we had.

I remember sitting there like, well, would they do that with so-and-so [other actor]? But the goat was really cute. They say this thing like, “Never work with kids or animals,” and I’ve worked with both, and it’s been lovely. The goat piss — what could I possibly say about that that would be positive? It’s heinous. I really am a person that in general is not fond of unknown upholstery. You know what really grosses me out are those movie seats where you lie back. I’m just like, “Ugh, what happened here?” It’s a little bit like, “Stuff has really been on there.” I’m not a germaphobe, but that’s the one thing. Like when you sleep in someone else’s house, if you crash there and you’re just in a bed and you’re like, “Well, who was in here before?” Imagine that feeling but amplified by goat shit and goat piss. Maybe you can appreciate the serenity of my performance a little bit more knowing that I was legit entrenched in goat shit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.