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Jenny Slate: Queen of comedy, school, and cultivating her inner child

Jennie Slate as "Bonnie" and Chris Evans as "Frank" in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Jenny Slate walks into the room like royalty.

This is a woman who has learned to fly her flag boldly. Here she is at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, carrying herself with confidence and a sweet, unique, cracks-around-the-edges voice at the press conference for her most mainstream project yet, Fox Searchlight’s “Gifted.”

Out of consideration for the journalists around the roundtable, she spits out her gum and brightly takes a seat with her back straight, not touching the back of the seat. A journalist tells her that she looks really good for someone doing press early in the morning.

“I’m a morning person, I would say I look worse at the end of the day,” Slate laughs. She’s wearing a bead bracelet with her name on it, which her young co-star Mckenna Grace just gave to her in the hall.

I tell her that her light pink, summery dress is beautiful. In return, she compliments my outfit, points to my hairpiece, and smiles. I’m wearing a red bow with a Captain America Shield in the center.

I wait for the other journalists to kick our Q&A session off, but when no one does, I start with a question about what she learned from playing a teacher in “Gifted,” a movie about a child prodigy’s talents being discovered (Grace) and her uncle Frank Adler (Chris Evans) fighting to keep custody of her. Slate plays Bonnie, the first grade teacher we all wish we had—kind, sensitive, joyous like sunshine, with an eye for potential and equipped with words of encouragement.

“The one thing I remember from my childhood is that I wanted my experiences to be taken seriously,” says Slate. “I think it’s a really important thing to make sure that a child knows that you’re guiding them, but their experience is theirs and they have freedom to make decisions. The character of Bonnie is to allow Mckenna’s character to use her mind freely. Letting her be powerful.”

Mckenna Grace as “Mary” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Growing up the middle child of three in Massachusetts with the self-described personality of a “bouncing ball,” Slate’s childhood wasn’t easy, especially in school.

“I had really difficult moments in elementary school. I have always had an attention span issue. The right teachers will help you work with that so that you can access your intelligence, and the bummer teachers will make you feel shame for the specific ways you’re able to learn or not learn,” she says.

Then she switches gears, and lights up.

“I had a wonderful fourth grade teacher, I still love her so much. It was the year I learned about Ancient Egypt. I just remember her taking a good look at me and saying, you are smart, but you’re also hyper. And hyper creative. You’re going to need to use all of that at once and not discard part of yourself. How are you supposed to learn fully if you deny parts of yourself?”

And Slate has never been one to deny herself. A question is asked about people recognizing her on the streets. She takes a moment to reflect on her fame. It’s a tricky line to walk: a celebrity discussing their own renown with the media, the exact culprits who feed the stardom.

“For better or for worse, the one thing I’ve learned for myself is to fly my flag,” she says, composing her words carefully. “I don’t know that there’s much of a control valve but I put forward who I am.”

She’s off-brand Hollywood in her courage to be brazen and speak what’s on her mind. Her foray into the industry has garnered something like a cult following. Most of the people who recognize her are usually “Marcel the Shell” fans, a stop-motion series she wrote and voiced featuring—literally—a shell with a Googly Eye. Or “Obvious Child” fans, a movie about a woman deciding to get an abortion. She says meeting women who are fans of the movie is incredibly rewarding, and the reason she continues to thrive in the industry: to connect with strangers.

With two comedic movies at Sundance this year, Slate is as prolific in her work as the cast of “SNL” (a show she was fired from after dropping the f-bomb on her first live skit). She explains that she knew she liked making people laugh “from forever,” and recalls a time when she made her great-grandfather laugh. Her childhood was, she says, about “learning your powers. Not to be witchy right off the bat, but I do believe that,” she laughs. “When you do something and it can make a light turn onto someone else, and that light turns back on you and you’re together in the glow, that is a beautiful feeling.”

Marc Webb, Jenny Slate, and Chris Evans in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

She was a natural teacher on the set of “Gifted.” Director Marc Webb told her that the children in the classroom knew that they were in a movie, but if she continued to play teacher even after “cut” was yelled, they would forget. She started asking them simple questions, about the four seasons on Earth and what happens to nature during those times, and they responded with enthusiasm. Slate loved it.

“I really liked being the anchor in the room,” she says, noting that it was contrary to her high-energy personality. “It helped me get into character and be someone who was both firm and curious, which is like a dream teacher. In control but also curious about the identities of each child in the children.”

In a way, Slate has always been her own teacher.

“I feel that my inner child is really alive. I’ve done a lot to protect her,” she says. “When I was 7, when I was a little girl, I really felt so excited to be a woman. I really looked up to my mother and grandmothers and Aunt Barbara, and I just wanted a female body. I wanted to be able to make my own decisions. When I saw myself as an actress, I didn’t see myself in a movie. I saw myself as a woman who gets to go to work, gets up in the morning, chooses her outfit, knows a lot of people, says ‘hi’ to the man putting up the lights and the lady doing her hair. I saw myself as part of a community with a specific task in the creative arts.”

She also saw herself at Columbia University. No one in her family had gone to an Ivy League school—her parents went to high school together and went to college in the state of Massachusetts. She was competitive academically, but she wanted to go there for herself. She calls her high school years the “drive to accumulate the first resume of your life.” She indulged in speech team and performance arts based extracurriculars, not because of her Ivy League dream but because she truly enjoyed it. She called her Columbia interview the “first comedy set of my life.”

“You got to lean on the parts of yourself that make you proud to be who you are. And that’s such an empowering thing,” she says.

In the movie, Frank’s neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) scathingly suggests he reads a book about the fundamentals of decision-making. I ask Slate what would be in that book for her, and what goes into the decisions that she makes, whether in her career or personal life.

“That’s a really good question,” she says, taking a moment. Perhaps she is reflecting on her decisions to take roles in “Gifted,” or “Obvious Child,” or the upcoming “Despicable Me 3.” Perhaps she is ruminating about her recent breakup with her co-star Evans—a man as famous as the country he represents.

“It’s one that is never old. I think for me right now, it comes back to something I’ve said before, which is: Are you doing it to exercise your kindness? Or are you doing it to show your importance? And that’s how to stand on either side of that line. If you are making a decision to help yourself grow and be kind, you’ll never be wrong. It never costs. But if you’re doing something hoping that people will see that you are powerful, you will probably lead yourself into a little darkness.”

It’s a time in my life that I’m making important decisions. When I tell her that I am a high school senior, the room erupts. She’s shocked and impressed, and after the roundtables, she takes the time to ask me where I’ve gotten in and where I want to go. When I mention that I got accepted to Harvard and received a Likely Letter from Columbia, she grins and congratulates me. It’s as if I’ve received a queen’s blessing to make my decisions with confidence and wisdom, and ultimately, whatever school I choose is the right one.

Journalist Cassandra Hsiao and Jenny Slate. Courtesy Cassandra Hsiao
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