Clean Sheets. A morning visit to a museum. Sitting on the porch and having a beer. Houseplants, ones that are really thriving. Bikinis where the tops don't match the bottoms. All these things have something in common: They are all things that Jenny Slate thinks are horny-and, in the case of a mismatched bikini, really horny.
"That's my way of life," Slate said to me, recently. "Horniness." She was wearing a shiny silver trench coat, and nothing else, while sitting perched on a large, pristine, white cube. Her dangling feet, freshly pedicured, didn't quite touch the floor. We were surrounded by people because we were in the middle of the photo shoot for this magazine's cover, and had only met a few hours before, but Slate spoke with an urgent familiarity as she continued to explain herself: "I use the word horny to describe a lot of stuff, and it doesn't have to be sexual... I have to be horny. No one's going to take this horniness away."
"Horny" is a funny word, and Slate knows, as she talks about all the things that make her horny, that she's being funny. She also knows that she has a reputation for getting instantly personal in interviews, for opening up about the sort of things that most other actors keep well-hidden. It's hard, for example, to imagine Michelle Williams, Slate's costar in the soon-to-be-released movie Venom, talking in earnest about being horny, even if that horniness is tinged with humor, and revolves around a day trip to L.A.'s Broad Museum, followed by a michelada on the front porch. But, in fact, it's hard to imagine anyone else talking about pretty much any of the things that Slate talks about, because if there's one thing that can be gleaned from the last 10 years of her career, it's that Slate's voice is singular, inimitable in its ability to surprise, startle, and inevitably send people into peals of uncontrollable laughter.
When did you first hear Slate's voice? Was it when she appeared in 2009 on Saturday Night Live, her debut season also being her last, feeling like an aberrant asterisk on the career she would build from there? Or, maybe it was when she was part of Big Terrific, a stand-up comedy showcase hosted by Slate and friends Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri, that gained a cult following in Brooklyn after it was launched in 2008. Or perhaps, and even probably, it was when her voice came querulously out of the mouth of an anthropomorphized one-eyed, shoe-wearing seashell named Marcel, who plaintively explained to anyone who would listen that he used a lentil as a hat and men's toenails as skis. Or, you could have heard Slate as a diabolical sheep in the animated blockbuster Zootopia or as middle school mean girl Tammy on Bob's Burgers or heard and seen her in indie film hits Obvious Child or Landline.
"I have to be horny. No one's going to take this horniness away."
To be honest, it might be hard to say exactly when or where you first heard Slate's voice, but at some point in the last few years, that voice-whether in the form of Marcel's tremulous warble, Mona-Lisa Saperstein's excruciating vocal fry on Parks and Recreation, or even Slate's own natural and lovely timbre in one of the videos she posts on her Instagram-has become inescapable. And that's lucky for us, because Slate's voice is one that, while undoubtedly mercurial, slipping and sliding into seemingly infinite incarnations, has two very important throughlines: It makes you want to believe. And it is telling the truth.
"I am just deeply allergic to subtext, and I really can't keep a lot of things inside," Slate said to me, later that day, after the shoot was over and she had changed out of the silver trench coat and back into her own No. 6 Store jumpsuit and clogs. (I told her about the concept of #ClogLife, and she fully embraced the idea, saying that she loves how clogs are "chic, but really natural-and weirdly very comfortable even though they're actually made out of wood." Which, where's the lie?)
We were talking about the ways in which the last few years of her life, which have been marked by radical changes in her personal and professional trajectories, have forced her to reassess how-and who-she wants to be in the world. And after a lot of internal questioning, it seems clear that, for Slate, the answer is obvious: She wants to be herself, and she doesn't have room in her life for people who don't live up to the standards she has set.
"I've made mistakes before in work and in personal relationships where I've just been like, I just want to be here so badly, that I will look past this glaring issue that I do not like. And that makes me feel uncomfortable," Slate said. "I would not be able to metabolize that thing that I didn't like. It would just sit in me like a stone... It would burn me up from the inside out, and then I would reach a point where I still hadn't processed it, until I would be like, Why am I sitting here on this job? Or, Why am I sitting across from this person? I'm not serving them, and they're not serving me."
It's a situation that's instantly familiar to me, and to most of the women I know. How often have we stayed in jobs or relationships that didn't fulfill us, but also represented what we thought we wanted, what we had been told we deserved? It never ends well, staying in situations like that; Slate explained, "You can-for a while-look past the problems, but for yourself, you can't really look past anything. You can repress, and you can try and be blind, but you will always be hobbled. I think one will always be hobbled by what they're trying to hide in themselves-that burden will always make a weird emotional posture for you."
Slate doesn't mention any job or relationship specifically when talking about the dangers of this type of repression, but considering she works in an industry that has been rightfully roiled by the #MeToo movement and has long been plagued by the sort of toxic behaviors which have resulted in women feeling like they're best served by being silent, it's beside the point whether or not she has personally experienced that kind of damaging on-set behavior. The point is more that Slate has identified what she won't stand for any longer and has figured out how to deal with it. She said, "For me it was like, well, you can't look past this, and you can't hide that you're acting like this or that, or that you believe you're a victim of this or that. All you can do is change. So what are you going to do? You have to change."
The way Slate has changed is by becoming more closely connected to herself, and by spending time alone. This is not, Slate told me, her natural way of being: "I'm a real love bug. I really want to have a partner. And I don't necessarily love going to sleep alone, but it's something that I've had to teach myself how to do."
In 2016, Slate and her husband of almost four years, editor-director Dean Fleischer-Camp, divorced, and it wasn't long after that Slate found herself in the news for the duration of her months-long relationship with Chris Evans-Captain America, himself. And while on this personal roller coaster (which, and maybe it's just a coincidence, but Slate who used to hate literal roller coasters, now says, "It turns out I love them, actually. I love a thrill. I love a big thrill"), there were other, more universal problems for Slate to navigate. She said, "The last three years of my life have been the best years of my life and also the hardest. It was really hard and sad to get divorced. It was really hard and sad to watch what happened in the last presidential election. It's hard and sad to watch the news. And for me, I think I had to take a look at what wasn't serving me. Because I started to not recognize the way I behaved."
For Slate, this took the unfamiliar and unwelcome form of a general cynicism; she told me, "I think of myself, and I believe in myself, as a kind, rational woman. And I think I really started to expect the worst in people, and I really didn't recognize that point of view in myself. I started to understand that it came from a dissolution of some of the belief systems that I had. I believed partnership should be one way, and then I got divorced. I believed that our political system worked in a certain way, and that democracy worked in a certain way, and that was really, really turned upside-down. "
Slate needed to recalibrate, reorient herself in the world:
I had to take a look at what my own behaviors were, why they didn't serve me, and what I lost in my life. Whether it was my own self-esteem, whether it was my sense of reality, whether it was simply my temper that I lost... or was it just my faith or my innocence? Those are things I want to keep, no matter what's going on in this world. [I want to keep] my faith in people-not my religious faith, but my human-based faith. Those are the things I need in order to be an artist and in order to be a good partner. And I just didn't feel that I believed in myself as either one of those things. And so I had to really look at it. And it's really hard. It can be humiliating.
There is something particularly humbling about starting over when you're an adult, and when you've already achieved no small measure of success. You're not supposed to be some inchoate person, you're supposed to know what you're doing. But any residual humiliation that Slate might be feeling is not at all apparent; it doesn't really matter why she had gotten to a place where she needed a reboot, it only matters that she was able to do it, and do it on her own terms. Slate said, "The second that I started to have to be alone and really understand what I want from myself, it started to happen pretty quickly that I was able to make changes and grow up finally. I really do feel like I'm the adult version of my child self-which means that I haven't lost my innocence or my inclination to be gregarious or have fun. But my self-respect has grown, and my dedication to being a feminist is stronger than ever... Whatever my next partnership is-even though I don't know who that will be with, because I really have been so super-solo-I know I'll be a good partner, because I feel that I have more dignity, and more flexibility and more eagerness, to accept someone than I've ever had before, and I do think it's because I accept myself."
"If I could wish anything for myself, it's that I stop debating whether or not I'm too much."
There have been other changes for Slate besides just internal ones; she cut her once-long hair off a couple of months ago into, she as she puts it, "a triangle." (This is an accurate description, but incomplete, because it fails to describe the way in which her curls shift and settle into slightly different patterns with every turn of her head; it's not, as is the case with everything about Slate, even remotely static; for a triangle, it's awfully dynamic.) Slate said she made this common post-relationship aesthetic choice because she realized how much she was "unconsciously bending toward the male gaze." She explained, "I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, I actually don't know why I have long hair. And this is such a stupid thing, but then I was like, I do know why I have long hair: Because I heard a man-who I was actually kind of afraid of-say he didn't find women with short hair attractive. It made me feel sad."
That sadness also, she said, made her feel "the opposite of horny." And it becomes clear that when Slate talks about being horny, she is talking about desire, and about hunger; she is being blatant about what it is that she really wants in life, about asking for the things that make her feel happy and comfortable and loved-like clean sheets and thriving houseplants and trips to the museum-and about saying no to those things-and people-that don't. Slate talks about being horny, it seems, because she understands the importance in being deliberate when it comes to desire, specific about how and with whom she spends her time-both when it comes to her career and her personal life.
And each of those things is a huge priority for her. Slate might not be involved with anyone romantically right now, but, she told me, that's actually been helpful for her in terms of strengthening other relationships in her life-specifically friendships. She said, "It's been very important to me to realize I can experience deep intimacy in non-romantic partnerships. It's really important to me to feel like I can express myself, the full scope of my internal world. And my friends allow that."
Slate spoke of her close friendship with fellow actors Mae Whitman and Jane Levy, explaining how wonderful it is to experience "true unbridled joy just hanging out." That type of fun may or may not, Whitman recently told me, entail Jenny making "you laugh so hard you pee your pants-which has definitely not happened to me every time we hang out or anything."
Whitman, who explained to me that Slate is someone who "really wears her heart on her sleeve," elaborated on why their friendship is so important to her: "Jenny is definitely leader of the pack when it comes to being an incredibly caring, kind, and loyal friend. We've gotten through things together by the skin of our teeth, just by holding hands and having a cocktail and crying for a long time while looking into each other's eyes-like, one million things that I never thought I'd be able to get through on my own... There's definitely nobody I'd rather follow around like a little heartsick puppy dog for all time than Jenny Slate."
While her friendships and close ties to her family provide a strong foundation from which she operates personally, Slate has lots of boundaries she wants to continue to push as an actor; she said, "There's the appetite to do something new, that's always there for me... I don't always want to be playing the funny Jewish girl who lives in Brooklyn. The way I choose my roles is: Is this something new for me? Are the people good people? Will I feel upset around them or will I feel happy? Because if I feel like the atmosphere is cruel or shallow or uninspired, I feel bad about myself and then I do bad work. There's a lot of times where I feel like I've really screwed myself over, because I tried to fit myself into a place which wasn't meant for someone who has a frenetic spirit."
That "frenetic spirit" has recently been channeled by Slate into projects which appeal to her inherently collaborative nature, like the film version of her close friend Rebecca Dinerstein's novel The Sunlit Night, which Slate produced as well as starred in, and spent much of this past summer filming in the far northern reaches of Norway. Slate said, "I love to collaborate, and I think I'm inclined to do it... Some people are better when they're on their own, but I do better creatively when there's another person in front of me-I reveal more. Because I want true connection so much, I'm like, they've gotta get all the information."
Dinerstein said of working with Slate, "Jenny's enormous and unlimited intelligence, coupled with her almost angelic love of life and beauty, makes her a profoundly powerful creative partner-the most generous, imaginative, and skilled partner I've ever encountered. She's got a cheetah-quick mind guided by a gale-force heart."
Despite her love of creative partnership, Slate is currently venturing forth on a solo project: a book of essays. It is, she said, something she feels "very vulnerable about," and finds scary because, "I'm really, really speaking like myself." For those of us who have heard her speak in so many different voices, it is maybe hard, at first, to imagine, what it sounds like for Slate to speak like "herself."
"I don't always want to be playing the funny Jewish girl who lives in Brooklyn."
Before you even start to think this means it will just be humorous vignettes, stop: This is not going to be a new generation's Bossy Pants. "If I were to write a book of comedy essays..." Slate started to say, and then cut herself off: "I actually just don't want to do that-I'm not interested in it, and I don't want to." She paused for a moment and then said evenly, "The way that my writing comes out sounds like the voice that's in my inner world."
It is, at this point in our long day together, that it became clear that Slate had to leave. She was meeting her friends for dinner in Silver Lake, and had already pushed back the reservation once; we were a good half-hour drive away, and she needed to be there in about 20 minutes. Slate asked me if I wanted to ride with her in the car, but I told her to go ahead, I had everything I needed. She left with a hug and a big wave and instructions to call if I had any follow-up questions.
After she left, I noticed something: I did not need to exhale; I did not need to relax. I had been totally at ease during my time with Slate. This might sound like something small, but it's not. There is so much that's inherently exhausting (and embarrassing) about the act of a celebrity profile-the forced intimacy; the tacit, reciprocated pretensions; the unasked, unanswered, but mutually known questions that hover in the air. And it can be doubly difficult to interview someone who is known for being funny; it's easy to suspect that whenever they make a joke that they are maybe making fun of you, or, at least, just fucking with you, saying whatever comes to mind without really believing in it, but forcing you to respond as if you believe in it-making you vulnerable, while they stay protected.
"All you can do is change. So what are you going to do? You have to change."
This wasn't the case with Slate. There was nothing artificial in anything she said; she brought up delicate topics before I even had the chance to ask the questions. It made immediate sense why she takes pride, as she had told me, in being "earnest." It's this inherent sincerity to everything she says, the delight she takes in sharing with the world what makes her happy, that comes through in her work; this is why her voice is so believable, this is why it sounds like the truth-it's because it comes from somewhere real and well-intentioned. Yes, that place is strange and absurdist and dark and light and hungry and horny and myriad other things, but it is also honest, and it is hers.
And seeing all the fragments, all the different pieces, come together into the one cohesive voice of Jenny Slate, is a good reminder that we should all be a little more earnest, and a lot more ourselves. That, anyway, is what Slate's goal is for a year from now. As she told me while heading out the door, clogs clacking, "If I could wish anything for myself, it's that I stop debating whether or not I'm too much." She paused before saying, "And... that my life is filled with people-including myself-who say, 'You are just right.'"
Photo + Video Crew
- Stylist Monty Jackson
- Hair Stylist Nikki Providence
- Makeup Artist Kirin Bhatty
- Nails Glam Squad