Q & A: Jenny Slate Talks ‘Married’ and What She Learned from Her Time at UCB

Jenny Slate talks about getting involved in Married, her character, working on Parks and Rec and what she learned from UCB.


Jenny Slate stars in FX’s new comedy, Married. The show also stars Nat Faxon and Judy Greer (as Russ and Lina Bowman) and is about how great it is to be miserably in love. Slate play Jess who is married Shep (Paul Reiser), a much older man who can’t keep up with her.

Slate appeared on Saturday Night Live for a season and has since gone on to have some really funny and memorable guest star roles in Parks and Recreation, House of Lies and The Kroll Show. And if you haven’t seen her in this summers great Obvious Child, you should check it out when it’s available to stream. On that note, if you haven’t gotten a chance to see Married yet, definitely give it a shot! It’s got a season pass on  my TiVo!

In this interview, Slate talks about getting involved in Married, her character, working on Parks and Rec and what she learned from UCB.

Married airs on Thursdays at 10 on FX

Can you just talk about, kind of, how you got involved in the project?

Jenny Slate: Sure. I got involved in the traditional way. My agent called me and said, “There’s this project coming up at FX, and it seems like the kind of thing you would be interested in.” Really, I heard the premise; I got the script. I read it, and thought, yes, this seems different for me. This seems like the kind of story, and the kind of character, that could actually go a bit deeper than some of my television work so far. I really loved all the jobs I’ve done, but I think it’s good to always do something different, and I love the cast. I think Judy [Greer] and Nat [Faxon] had already been cast, and I was huge fans of both of them, so I just went in and auditioned. Very traditional. Very traditional. Yes.

“Jess” doesn’t really operate in binaries, per se, but she has to be either an angel or a devil to “Lina.” At times, I feel like she arbitrarily decides which role she’ll fill; can you elaborate on what makes her such a magnetic force each and every episode thus far?

Jenny Slate: Well, I’m glad you think that. You know, I think “Jess” operates off of a central need, which is to—she’s just trying to find out what her worth is and where her worth stems from. I think she knows that there’s nothing she could do that would make “Russ” abandon their friendship, and I think she feels, in a way, that “Lina” is stuck with her because “Lina” and “Russ,” you know, are unified. For “Jess,” things are almost exactly what she thought they would be and like completely disappointing.

I think she has spent most of her life being fun, being a party girl, being like some weird combination of insecure and completely aggressive in terms of how she lived her life, you know, just really go in, and get it. I think that drive comes from feeling insecure and not having a place. I see her as someone who has probably made some sort of silly mistake in high school where she hooked up with some guy and he ended up calling her a slut or something, and she got labeled, and she has a chip on her shoulder when she kind of feels like, hey, we’re all trying to go for it, why was it me? Then she’s also wondering well, was it me because I’m really sexy, or am I sexy? Is that the currency that I’m working with here?

I think she’s just trying to figure that out, and she has come to a point where she’s married a much older man. I think he does turn her on. I think she likes it. I think she thinks it’s kind of dangerous and taboo, and I think she saw him as somebody powerful and as a father figure to her, but now, you know, he’s lost his job. They have a baby. She’s not 22 anymore, and she just isn’t really sure where she fits, and if she’s going to fit. I think when she gets the chance to stick her head into “Russ” and “Lina’s” life, she acts a bit free radical, in a way.

She just wants to be the driving force. She wants to be someone making assertions; whether or not she’s making it better or worse, she just wants to be someone who has the power to change stuff and to make stuff happen, because I think in her own life, she’s just not sure if she has any power at all.

Between the success of Obvious Child and having this new series, do you feel like you’re having a breakthrough year or have you even had a chance, at this point, to kind of look at it and go, Wow?

Jenny Slate: I think I keep my eyes pretty wide open when it comes to my career, because I’ve always wanted to be an actress, and I’m thrilled that I am working. I think it would be wrong to say, “Oh, no.” I don’t notice anything different, because that’s {{indiscernible}}. I don’t think of it in terms of like, “Wow, this is my year,” because that kind of insinuates that like there’s some sort of like peak to me and that scares me. You know, it’s like the people who were like, “I loved high school,” and you’re like, “Oh, no. That’s such a bummer.”

You know, I just started working. I’ve only been working for like four or five years, and I will say that I feel that the door is much more opened for me now, and I feel more grounded and confident, and I feel very agile in my work. I think that comes from being given the proper opportunities in which I can really like flourish and taking jobs that allow me to think deeply about what I’m doing, and that does feel different. I feel very excited, and I feel very fortunate and really pumped. I’m just really excited to see what my next piece of work looks like. That’s how I feel. I feel that I’m in a good zone to do some good work. You know, actresses that I admire, and that I’ve always admired, are like Ruth Gordon, Lily Tomlin, Madeline Kahn, and people that have a lifetime of work, and that’s what I’m going for.

You were saying you’re kind of looking forward to what the next thing will be. I would imagine you do have some hiatus time to take on some other project. How do you think you would like to use that? Would it be going to stand-up? Doing another film? How would you like to use your downtime?

Jenny Slate: That’s such a nice question. Really, I like to use it for everything. I get very, very restless, and I get lonely really easily, so I like to work a lot, and I like to maximize my time. My husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, and I are just—we’ve just finished our second Marcel the Shell with Shoes On picture book; and that will be out in October.

You know, I’ve also continued to record more of Bob’s Burgers, and I just finished Season 3 of The Kroll Show, and soon I’ll be going back to House of Lies and Parks and Rec and I do, I fill my time. Yes. I’m reading scripts and deciding and auditioning and deciding what my next feature will, so I think I just try to keep it all going. The one thing I try to keep in mind is just to not spaz out. I guess.

I don’t know if you’ve seen that documentary about Joan Rivers. It’s called A Piece of Work, and there’s this one part where—she works constantly, and I recently went on her show, and she had been up since like 4:00 in the morning, and was taping this show on E. Then was going to go and do a web series, and then had a show at Largo—a standup show at 8:00 p.m. She’s 81, and it’s amazing. I watched the documentary and there’s this part where she’s looking at her datebook, and there are empty parts, and she’s like, “This is what I hate, this emptiness.”

I don’t think I’m exactly like that, but I just want to work so badly. I just always wanted it. I enjoy it so much. It’s very romantic. I fill my time with work, and then I’ve taken a couple of vacations with my husband this summer and my family. We went to Martha’s Vineyard, and now as we speak, I’m on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my husband’s family and his 94-year-old grandmother, who saw me on Fallon and commented that my dress was very revealing and that she could see all of my breast, but not my nipple.

Do you have plans to work more in feature films at the moment? If so, what do you look for in a screenplay to really attract you to a project?

Jenny Slate: I do have plans to do more features. I, in general, would love to just fill my time more with that type of work, and actually, I kind of include Married in that type of work. It feels like we’re making a little “Indie” just in pieces, and it feels really nice.

You know, when I first started to work as an actress, I just looked for jobs. I just wanted jobs. I didn’t want to be on unemployment. I didn’t want to be a nanny or a waitress anymore. My standup is, I do it all the time, but it’s “alternative standup,” which means that usually I do it for free. I just wanted to get paid at first, which is why—you know my IMDb page is like a strange collage, but that’s how it goes. Sometimes you just kind of like have to suck it, but now I feel that I have the luxury of choosing, and I don’t take that lightly.

I think what I look for really is to just play a role that is not a stereotype of a woman, and even if it’s a sort of character structure that we’ve seen before, I look for one that I can add my own voice to. You know, I think that might be a boring answer, but I just don’t want to play anybody’s shrill wife; I don’t want to play anybody’s girlfriend, who is like, “That was weird.” You know, like when her husband is doing something weird. I just want play a person who has their own decisions and opinions. I don’t really care what the genre is. I’m truly interested in doing everything.

I just want to make sure that I continue to put interesting female characters out into the world, and I don’t want to be bored, and I don’t want to work with, you know, ***holes. Those are sort of my criteria.

I don’t want to feel bad. I want to feel good. I don’t want to be bored. I want to be excited, and I want to work with people who want me to use all of my abilities.

Do you do more improv on Parks and Rec versus Married and then The Kroll Show, like you’re shooting…, is that really loose because it’s mostly like a documentary. Could you maybe just talk about the differences in the shows?

Jenny Slate: Sure. You know, I think there is an interesting thing going on in comedy now where in order for the show to be good, you can’t just like—I mean, certainly, I guess those sort of typical three-cam shows are very successful, but that’s a real different kind of comedy. There’s some trend going on now, and I don’t really know how to describe it, but there’s a very specific voice coming from the creator and a need for collaboration. All of the projects that I am involved in, and I would even include House of Lies in this, have taken me on not just because of how I will perform what I was written, but I think because I am playful in nature, and they’re looking for that added touch from their performers. You know, like Ben Schwartz and I improvise a lot on Parks and Rec, but usually what ends up on the show is what is written, but I think allowing us to play around helps us to say the written lines better.

On Kroll, there is a script, but Nick and I tend to improvise a lot, and it’s what he wants. If there’s something that needs to be said and just be said, then he’ll tell me, and we won’t improvise; but normally, it’s weird because we go in and there’s a script, and for the most part, we completely improvise even after seeing that script. We follow the storyline, of course, we don’t like make up a new plot, but we improvise.

On Married, Andrew [Gurland]’s writing is very exciting, and I want to stick to the script, because all of the lines are things that I would never say. The character is somebody who is very hard for me to be. She truly upsets me sometimes, and I like that.

Sometimes I will read the script and just feel so bad, so bad, about what my character is doing. A woman who leans on her sexuality the way that “Jess” does, but doesn’t really feel that it’s hers, you know, that breaks my heart a little bit. She’s kind of a landmine; she could just really blow people apart by mistake just because of her nature. I try to stick to the script with Andrew, but he’s very flexible.

He always says, “I can tell if you don’t want to say a line,” and that’s really embarrassing to have someone say that to you, but also really helpful. When he can tell that I don’t want to say the line, he asks me to make up a new one, and we work on it together.

I don’t do well in shows where I have to stand in one place and say one line. I’m not sure that that’s a skill that I want to develop. I had a little bit of that on SNL, and I have worked on a three-cam before, and you know, it just makes me nervous. I’m just too much of like a squiggle to have to stand in a straight line.

Your TV husband is played by Paul Reiser. Can you tell us about working with him and if we’re going to see him again later this season?

Jenny Slate: Sure. Yes. You’ll definitely see him again later this season. I think our characters are going through a pretty complex time in their marriage. Yes.

At first—I’m 32 years old. I believe Paul is 57 or 58. When I signed onto this project, I knew my character had an older husband, a husband that was older than her, but I didn’t know if we would see him. He wasn’t in the pilot, and I honestly never—I didn’t think about that that much.

Then when Andrew started to text me about like, “Okay, like, yes, the show’s going to go. We’re going to get you a husband.” The first one that came in, he was like, I’m really—we’re talking to Paul Reiser about being your husband. I was like so excited, I texted all of my friends and was like, “Guess who might play my husband? Paul Reiser.”

I was freaking out. I was really nervous, because then it’s just like, it’s Paul Reiser. That’s like saying like—I don’t know—like it’s Paul Reiser from Mad about You. That’s the way that I think about it. I watched him on TV when I was a teenager. To me, he’s like a good looking, successful like nice Jewish man that I would see on TV before I was a woman, and the whole thing just made me feel like really green, just really young.

I was like, I’m a standup comedian; what if he thinks the kind of standup I do is kind of fake? You know, what if he doesn’t like me? What if he thinks I’m a joke? What if he sees I am a first-timer at a lot of stuff? You know, this is the first time I’ve been a regular on a show. I have worked a lot since my career started, but, I mean, it’s nothing compared to what he’s done.

I was very nervous, but Andrew had us get together, just me and Paul, for lunch, and we ordered the exact same thing. We sat there, and we talked, and I realized that we were truly just two people, and that he is a performer by nature, and it’s really fun to be around him. He’s very supportive and complementary.

You just could’ve never told me that I would have a natural scene partner in him, because I never would’ve known. I think of myself as coming from a totally different movement of comedy, but I think, for me, our scene work is the most satisfying to me on the show. I really like it.

I can really see us, as the scenes unfold, and I’m not afraid to yell at him and to tell his character how much he’s ruining my life sometimes. Yes, I love it. I really, really like working with him, and I like him a lot as a person.

You know, him and his wife went to see Obvious Child, and he wrote me the nicest email afterwards, and I was just thinking this is so ****ing weird. This is so weird that like Paul Reiser is writing me an email saying he’s {{indiscernible}}, you know, because of Obvious Child. He also knows—like we were talking, one of the first times we were talking, and he was like, “What’s your favorite movie?” And I said, “It’s Crossing Delancey.” He said, “Oh my God. You really are Jewish.”

It’s funny because we are of a different generation, but I don’t know, it feels like he’s just another friend that I hang out with on set with, and it’s really, really nice.

Can you talk a little bit about working with Nat and Judy?

Jenny Slate: Sure. Well, working with Nat and Judy is a real dream. I think they’re both very easy to be around, and it’s nice to play Nat’s best friend. He and I are actually both from Massachusetts, and we both come from an improv background. He’s from The Groundlings. My background is part standup, but I started in improv in college.

I don’t know; they’re easy to joke with. Judy is very openhearted and very honest, and I like asking her opinion on everything. I really do, whether it’s like my performance or where or not I should buy a pair of clogs. It’s a nice little home, the home that we have. It’s truly lovely. Judy and I, both of our husbands are named—we are both married to men named Dean, and we like to talk about our Deans.

A common thread in your television roles, especially “Mona Lisa” and “Jess,” are these grand entrances that they make—how do you sustain that level of energy over a long period of time? I guess that’s only 20 minutes, but how do you sustain that level of energy with the roles?

Jenny Slate: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I have a lot of energy. I have a lot of energy. I think—you know, it’s not like I’m being these people like all the time. I think that’s what it is. It’s like sprints. It’s like short bursts, except I’m not exhausted at the end of my day playing these characters. It’s just very playful, so I think it builds on itself.

Yes. Yes. It actually feels like a lot of times like I’ve, kind of, burnt off the dust a little bit during the day while I work, and by the time I’m done working, I feel clean, shiny, and empty in a good way. Then, that’s a really nice state of mind to be in when I go home and go back into my life with my husband and my dog.

You’ve got this, Obvious Child; and you work on Parks and Rec and you do a lot of work, but do you still get like super excited when you book a new role?

Jenny Slate: Yes. I always get really excited. Yes. That’s what I’m like. I don’t think I’ll ever not—when I go to a restaurant and there are buffalo chicken fingers on the menu, I like freak out. Like I get excited; that’s in my nature.

I am a bit competitive and, you know, I audition. There is something that feels like you won the role when you get the part. I don’t think that’s the best way for me to see it like when I’m going in there. You know, usually I try to focus up and do my own ****. You know, if they kick me, they kick me, but casting is so incredibly subjective. It’s not like taking a test or running a race in anyway, but, yes, I get really, really excited because, you know, it’s the next step. It’s something new, and that’s what I want.

Have you had relationships with older men in your past or do you know anyone who has and has that experience informed how you play your scenes with Paul Reiser? How you approach that character?

Jenny Slate: I’m trying to think if I know anyone who’s dated someone that much older. I haven’t. The boyfriend that I had who was the most older than me was probably like 11 years older, but I was like 22, and he was, you know, 33. It didn’t really—it wasn’t the same. Yes. I mean one of the reasons this is so exciting and like a little bit scary in a way was because I don’t know this territory at all, so you really in a way, are looking at this person and being like what would it be like?

You know, you can’t think of this person as an older man, as a stranger, or as Paul Reiser; you have to go on nothing. It’s like you’re flying blind, and that’s very exciting, because I think we did an okay job of it. It actually helps us to build a relationship that even though it looks like it’s a bit odd, it really could be happening.

What things have you learned from doing live comedy at UCB or SNL that have stayed with you and that you think have carried you in your career?

Jenny Slate: I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is that if you’re going to ask to be in front of people, and that’s going to be a pleasurable and useful experience for you, is that, at least for me, I have to know that it is pleasurable and useful for the people watching. It’s helped me to focus on what feels like a performance, and what feels like masturbation, because there’s a fine line.

You know, I am a middle child, and I’ve said this before, but there’s a part of me that can be a little bit ashamed of how much I’m like, “Look at me. I want you to see me. I’m here. I’m here. Do you know that I’m here? I’m me. I have something to say.” I need love, and those are my needs.

I think performing live and performing very personal standup has just put me on, I think, the right path, which is that it’s okay to want people to look at you, but just make sure you give them something useful to look at. Don’t just like jerk off in their faces, because they’re going to feel like weirdly excited and like really upset.

Your standup material in Obvious Child, did you write that or was it a combo of what was a script and then improv?

Jenny Slate: Yes. It was a combo. Jillian wrote it at first. All of the subjects are her ideas, and she wrote out the standup, and then we work-shopped the script together, and she rewrote based off of what we had work-shopped. Then on the day of, we just reduce the script to bullet points, so it was a lot improvised and then—yes, a lot of it was improvised, and a lot of it was written. I don’t know, I guess it’s just like equal. Then I throw in like maybe three of my own standup jokes in there just to make sure that they didn’t stick out and to make sure it seemed like I was like actually doing standup, which is very important to us.

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