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Jenny Slate Talks Cheating, Sexism, and Her New Comedy ‘Landline’

Variety logo Variety 7/13/2017 Brent Lang
© Provided by Variety

Landline” brings audiences back to a simpler time — an era before texting and Twitter, an age of alt rock and Blockbuster Video runs, and a time when a Clinton was in the White House. Set in 1995, the film looks at a Manhattan family’s struggles with infidelity, career frustrations, and regrets about the road not taken. It also reunites Jenny Slate with director Gillian Robespierre. The pair collaborated memorably on 2014’s “Obvious Child,” a funny look at a woman grappling with an unexpected pregnancy.

In advance of the film’s premiere on July 21, Slate spoke with Variety about being a child of the ’90s, cheating, and the downsides of social media.

I grew up in the 1990s, and I’ve been laboring under the delusion that it wasn’t that long ago. This film made me feel so old. 

I’m sorry! It’s weird, at first, I felt the ’90s were just around the last corner, but it’s actually a lot further away than I remember. Also, I was a teenager in the 1990s. In a way, I felt like I was playing a version of what I thought adults would be like when I was a teenager. I was so obsessed with being a woman, so in a way it was kind of a fantasy come true to play a woman back then.

What did your fantasy version of adulthood consist of?

I was focused on alone time. The movies that I liked in the ’90s, the women I saw that made me excited, were always kind of doing their own thing. They had their own apartment or they were ordering Chinese food all by themselves. Those were things that felt fun and free to me. Also being able to have a sex life. I was always really into love and romance.

In retrospect, the ’90s feel like a simpler era. It was before 9/11 or the Iraq War or the Trump and Russia mess. Do you feel like it was an innocent time?

It’s funny, because I remember in the ’90s feeling like it was an explosive time, especially with the grunge music. I was really into Hole and Garbage and a little later Fiona Apple and Alanis. These were all women who were just really letting their wild side come out. I remember thinking we’re really on the edge of something. Looking back, it was the last time that in order to have relationships, people had to be face to face. They could be on the phone and they could write a letter, but you couldn’t just access someone by beeping someone in their pocket. Those boundaries have now been broken and that makes the world a harsher place.

I came of age before Twitter. When I applied to college, I didn’t do it online. I wrote my applications out myself. The foundation of who I am came at a time before cellphones — we called them car phones and you only used those if it was an emergency. I am from maybe the last generation of people who only used computers to write papers and play Oregon Trail.

Are you a fan of social media?

Twitter and Instagram are fun, but I’m realizing that just like any relationship in your life, you have to ask questions about what works for you. I also think that at any moment of technological revolution, you get these exciting tools and you just want to use them, but you have to realize that you have to keep an eye on your human rhythms, because all of a sudden you can be shocked by how much you’ve let in.

This is your second film with director Gillian Robespierre. Why do you like collaborating with her?

I really believe in her as an auteur. I’m invigorated by the way that she wants to show the world what she thinks women are like.

Can you describe your character Dana in ‘Landline?’

She’s way more uptight than I am. She’s sort of a square of a person. The restrictions of that personality type are not boring. They’re very highly charged. Dana is someone who is very traditional, but it’s from force of habit. She realizes that she has some wildness that she needs to get out. When you’ve been a square your whole life and you realize you need to get wild, you panic. That panic is funny and it’s interesting and it’s a bit dangerous.

Why does Dana cheat on her boyfriend?

It’s not because she’s a bad person or he’s a bad boyfriend. She gets to the point that a lot of people get to in long term relationships where they start to feel that there is a stasis and realize that they’ve confused that stasis with a sense of stability and having a bond. That stasis is really unhealthy. Dana panics.

I like that even though she’s a woman who makes mistakes, and she breaks hearts and causes damage, she’s not condemned as a bad person. When women are unfaithful in their sexual partnerships, they are condemned as bad people. They’re confusing their place in the patriarchy and that’s just not allowed. While it’s horrible to cheat, it sometimes happens between humans, and it’s sort of a genderless mistake.

You think people are easier on men who cheat?

A lot of times people are more understanding of men who cheat. It’s, ‘Oh they weren’t being satisfied,’ or, ‘They weren’t being heard,’ or, ‘They were being smothered.’ When a woman cheats or lies, it’s, ‘She’s a liar. She’s insidious. She’s weak. She’s needy.’ That even happened in our last election. We had a woman who lied or who withheld in one way or another and was condemned as just an evil person. We had a man who lied, blatantly lied, and he was elevated as a power player. There’s something really wrong with that system. Because a lot of people bought into it now there are some really heinous problems.

‘Obvious Child’ came out during the Obama administration. Do you think that it would be received differently if it debuted now, at a time when the President is opposed to abortion and pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade?

It is an abomination when people get their human rights taken away from them, but it also a time to remember that people will fight for their rights. If ‘Obvious Child’ came out today, I think it would have a warmer reception. It isn’t just a film about a woman having an abortion. It’s about a woman being free to choose. Her choice to have an abortion is not the central thing in her life.

We live in a world in which a small group of men are trying to completely erase women’s reproductive justice as we know it. Having a piece of joyful, specific art to pass around would be very helpful. And, by the way, that art still exists. It’s on Netflix. People should watch ‘Obvious Child,’ probably more now than ever.

From ‘Zootopia’ to ‘Secret Life of Pets,’ you’ve done a lot of animation work. What do you like about voice work?

I am an animation nut. I wanted to be an actress for my entire life and because of that there are certain little things that I noticed, even as a little girl, that were signs of success or that your community is honoring you. I remember loving Robin Williams and thinking he was the funniest person. There was this behind-the-scenes footage of him doing his voice work for the Genie in ‘Aladdin.’ It made me think that when you’re really funny, they just have to hear you, they don’t even have to see you.

What’s your favorite cultural artifact from the ’90s?

The double pierce. As a teenager, I thought it was so cool, but I wasn’t allowed to get one. My mom said my sister and I weren’t allowed to get our ears pierced before we were 16 years old, and eventually we bargained her down to 13 by telling her that if we got our ears pierced before our Bat Mitzvahs, we would be able to get a lot of earrings for presents and she wouldn’t have to buy us jewelry.

When we made ‘Landline,’ my character gets an eyebrow pierce. I was kind of looking through ’90s looks and thinking, ‘I wish I had a double pierce.’ This year, I went and got a double and triple pierce even though it’s 2017.

Was it everything you had hoped it would be?

Yeah, I think I look great. Also, it didn’t hurt that much.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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