Talking Obvious Child and Alternative Footwear with Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre

Comedy Features
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It seems like every year there’s a dramatic indie rom-com that starts off as a hip festival darling before gaining momentum and turning into a surprise hit amidst the CGI-soaked summer movie lineup. Last year it was The Spectacular Now; this year, we have the abortion rom-com, Obvious Child.

Yes, you heard that right: “abortion rom-com.” The touchy subject of abortion does play a role in the dramedy, but it’s not the film’s central theme. It’s about a woman’s life experience that goes far beyond that. It explores her relationships, careers, family and her career as a stand-up comic (that’s where the well-written humor comes into play). Based on a short film co-written by director Gillian Robespierre, the movie isn’t a snarky parody, but a topical story with sharp wit and heart told through a modern lens.

We recently had the chance to talk to Robespierre and star Jenny Slate about the making of Obvious Child and alternative footwear.

Paste: Did you model the relationship between the characters of Donna and Joey with the real life comedy relationship of Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman?
Gillian Robespierre: It crossed my mind. The part was written for Jenny, and I’ve been a fan of Jenny’s comedy and have gone to see her and Gabe perform since 2009. So I definitely wrote with their style in mind and how they tell jokes, and their voices were in my head. Jenny and Donna share the same style for sure.
Jenny Slate: We do.
Robespierre: When they tell stories about their life, Donna gets a little more personal than Jenny.
Slate: I can get pretty personal. Gabe and I just wanted the stand-up to be good. We’ve seen a lot of movies where you can tell the people aren’t standup comedians. [Gabe] loaned a lot of his stand-up to the film. Some of the jokes repeat and he also had some new ones that he did in the movie that he used in his special because he loved them so much.
Robespierre: We actually spent a day in San Francisco in December. We won an In-Kind Grant from the San Francisco Film Society. Jenny, Gabe, Gabby Hoffman, myself and our producer, Elisabeth [Holm], spent a morning just like reading through the whole script and doing a table read. In the afternoon we went to the Haight and did standup. I had a tape recorder and Jenny and Gabe workshopped a bunch of stuff and that’s where Gabe came up with the grinder material. A lot of the material that’s in the movie spawned from that day.
Slate: The style is the same I’d say is what I do in life. I wanted to use that style because I think when I do stand-up I feel a lot like I’m jumping off something high into a lake or something. I wanted that feel, that immediacy. I used maybe a couple of my own actual stand-up jokes in it but most of it were from Gillian and from our workshop. I thought it was important to make sure those jokes were specific to Donna.

Paste: What do you find most difficult about balancing comedy and drama in the movie like this?
Robespierre: I think Jenny did a really good job of doing that. A good example I think is in the moments where there’s not a whole lot of dialog happening, and it’s a more quiet moment. I see it and it’s very subtle. When she’s having the procedure done and she sort of smirks because she notices the Crocs that the nurses are wearing and it reminds her of her mom and everything that’s been going on with Max. She falls into the light sedation and is contemplating everything that’s going on. That one solid tear rolls down her cheek. It all happens in 20 seconds without any dialog. But Jenny’s face is so malleable. You can what is going on behind her eyes and it’s really beautiful. I think those are really tough moments, and difficult moments. On the page it makes sense, but when it’s actually being acted, you’re not sure if the person can pull it off, but Jenny definitely does.
Slate: I think I’m glad that Gillian thinks that [laughs]. I love that scene too. I’m not sure how to describe how I perform to be honest. I think it’s actually better for me to not dissect it and just continue to make sure that I understand the separation between myself and the character and to have enough focus in the scene to make sure that I’m not acting the way that I would react exactly. The one thing I’m sure of there is a sensitivity running through both the standup scenes where she’s confident and the standup scenes that are aggressive when she’s bombing. That sensitivity is running through those ones just as much as it’s running through when she’s in bed crying with her mom. That sensitivity is what makes her a very like tuned in and observing person.

Paste: Donna has tough journey in the movie and she gets a lot of pep talks. What’s the key to just nailing a pep talk do you think?
Robespierre: I think the secret of giving a good pep talk is not thinking that you know more than the other person.
Slate: Right. That’s a really good way to put it. Yeah, checking your ego at the door.

Paste: And getting Gabby Hoffman to deliver it is also helpful.
Slate: Yeah, yeah, that girl is amazing.

Paste: How has the reaction to the film been in the different areas of the country?
Slate: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. First of all, the Q&As are great. What’s cool is some people come up to us and tell us about their life. One woman said that the movie changed her narrative about an abortion she had in the ‘60s. She’s an older lady. That’s been cool. It’s not a story about the issue, it’s about one woman’s experience.
Robespierre: Also the movie doesn’t say that it is something else than what it is. It’s not a secret ending: “Will she or won’t she have the abortion?” It’s very straightforward—at least about what it’s going to be. At this point the people who have seen it, and the people who will see it, will always know what it is.
Slate: And we’re okay with it igniting a conversation. I think we’re in a bubble right now from festivals which are very like-minded, awesome, arty liberal people. It’s been wonderful, exciting and encouraging. We’ll see on June when it comes out, when people who just stumble into the movie theater to watch it because it’s hot out and they want AC.

Paste: Let’s go back to talking about Crocs. Where did the idea of putting the Crocs come from? And are you fans of the footwear?
Robespierre: Well I’m the lucky gal who got to take those home at the end of the shoot. I wear them ever single day of my life now. Also the green sweatpants. Jenny got some beautiful sweaters [laughs]. You know what? I can’t remember the Crocs. It’s always been in the script. I just don’t remember where it came from.
Slate: I could go either way on Crocs. You’re not going to catch me wearing them. I’d way rather wear Crocs than those shoes that have like the fingers for the toes. I’m on the verge of punching people when they wear those to the supermarket. Like how dare you? You might as well have your dick hanging out [laughs]. Those are like so gross. Those are rude. Those are rude shoes.
Robespierre: I saw somebody with them yesterday in the airport.
Slate: I saw a dude in the Whole Foods wearing them. I was like, this is a fancy supermarket, and open air salad bar, don’t wear those [laughs].

Paste: They’re like biker shorts for feet.
Slate: They are totally.

Obvious Child is currently playing in theaters.