After a wedding one night over a decade ago, Jenny Slate, the actress, comedian, and writer, packed into a hotel room with a bunch of friends and her now ex-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. “I was feeling extremely cramped,” Slate says. “To represent that cramped feeling, I started talking in this tiny little voice. Everyone in the room loved it.”
Slate is a prolific and versatile voice actress. Her career took off in 2009 when she became a cast member on Saturday Night Live, where she would whip out different voices with preternatural ease.
That tiny voice became Marcel, the titular character of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, which Slate and Fleischer-Camp started as a web series of stop-motion shorts in 2010. Last year, the two, no longer married but still creative partners, turned Marcel into a feature film with the production company A24. The film will be shown at the Provincetown International Film Festival next week.
Slate will be in town to receive PIFF’s Next Wave Award, given to artists who have made it a point to shake things up in the film world. Bowen Yang, a current SNL cast member and the star of the film Fire Island, will also receive the award.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, like its protagonist, is a little thing with big wisdom. Marcel is a pipsqueak. “I’m partially a shell, as you can see on my body, but I also have shoes and a face,” Marcel says. “I like that about myself, and I like myself, and I have a lot of other great qualities as well.” Slate voices Marcel as a shy little boy who, suddenly seeming to forget himself, has turned chatty. His voice is shaky, but he has something to say, and he’s breathlessly trying to get it across to you.
Slate has only a few rules for making art. The biggest one: “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. When Marcel came into being in 2010, the internet was already beginning to sour. Internet humor, developed on sites like Funny or Die and YouTube, was wry, sarcastic, and pointed. Marcel, with its otherworldly featherweight humor, was an antidote to all that.
Marcel, placed mostly on countertops and floorboards, says things like: “Guess what my skis are? Toenails from a man.” “Guess what I do for adventure? I hang-glide on a Dorito.” His dog, Alan, is a piece of lint; Marcel walks Alan with a strand of hair.
“You know what they say: lint is a shell’s best friend,” Marcel says.
The whole premise, and the humor that comes out of it, is absurdist yet sincere. Fleischer-Camp and Slate take Marcel’s small world seriously. The film has a very “the-meek-shall-inherit-the-earth” ethos.
Slate grew up in Milton, attended Milton Academy and then Columbia University, and stayed in New York afterward to pursue a career in comedy. During her very first episode on SNL, she accidentally said the f-word, a big no-no on live television. Her contract was not renewed after that year, and Slate says she just wasn’t the right fit for the show.
In 2014, Slate became something of an indie darling when she starred in the comedy film Obvious Child. Slate’s character, Donna, is a stand-up comedian who, after breaking up with her boyfriend, has a drunken one-night stand that leads to an unwanted pregnancy and, after much torturous deliberation, an abortion. Slate won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress for the role.
Although Slate’s career has been defined by taking unexpected turns and experimenting with new forms, roles like Donna are ones she wants to hold close. “I try not to repeat myself too often,” she says. “But I love playing people who have broken hearts. That type of role feels good to repeat, the way skiers love to do the same mountain. They find something new each time on the course. That’s how I feel about having a broken heart.”
Around the same time as Obvious Child, Slate played the recurring role of Tammy on Bob’s Burgers and guest roles on shows like Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, and Girls, on which she delivered one of the show’s most moving monologues. It’s about what happens when your self-worth becomes wrapped up in the praise you receive.
In 2019, Slate published a genre-breaking book. Little Weirds is part memoir, part essay collection, part prose poetry. “Writing my book was, in one way, really challenging,” Slate says. “There were times I wanted to scrap everything. It was the first time I did work that required me to be completely alone. Normally, my work requires being on a set, surrounded by a lot of people. I like that kind of thing because I get really lonely. But I proved I could do it. I could write a book.”
On straddling the worlds of film, television, and literature, Slate says having her hand in so many buckets is the only thing that makes sense: “It never really felt worth my time to be restrictive in terms of form but instead to have standards for how I want to be treated at work and who I want to work with.”
About Cape Cod, Slate says, “If you asked me to try and envision the most soothing thing, something that would lower my cortisol levels, I would say it’s being on the Cape with a bag of chips and a sandwich that has a ton of stuff in it.”
Slate’s husband, Ben Shattuck, is the author of Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau. One of those walks was through Provincetown and, while on it, Shattuck met designer Mary DeAngelis. Slate says she and Shattuck became close with DeAngelis and her wife, photographer Marian Roth.
“We went on a tiny vacation to one of the Provincetown dune shacks while I was very pregnant,” Slate says. “Marian took a lot of very pregnant, very naked photos of me. So, I would say that I don’t know the beaches of Provincetown all that well, but they know me very well.”