The Hot Seat: Jenny Slate

The former Saturday Night Live cast member embraces the shell inside of her.

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Jenny Slate

Jenny Slate Photograph: Ben Trivett

How did you come up with the voice for Marcel the Shell, the star of a viral video you created with your boyfriend Dean Fleischer-Camp?
I was feeling really small, and I think I was also feeling small in other ways, or that maybe people thought that I was a small person in many ways. I rejected all of it. I reject that there is something wrong with me, or that I'm weird, or that I'm small. My reaction to that is not to say, "Argh, it's crowded," or "Some people are assholes." It's to be, like, "I actually think there's something good here and I'd like to show what it is." It feels really good to talk in the voice. And now that I've had a year to be talking in it, alone in our home, the character of Marcel is very developed. It's really fun to talk with Dean as Marcel.

I like watching the video when I'm feeling crappy about something that just happened to me. Have you heard that before?
To me, that's the best thing that came out of this—the e-mails that I get from people. Some of them are quite sad, like, "My life is really hard," and there will be a list like, "My wife is dying, and I have three kids to care for,"—things that are super heavy—"but I watched this video..." It makes me feel really good, because I have always wanted to be a person who can make other people happy. And not just make them happy like giving them money, or a prize, or take them on vacation. I think it's really important to keep in mind that when I was making this video, I knew that I was going to be fired from SNL. At the time, that was not easy for me, and embarrassing. I wouldn't try to do my job if I thought that I was unfunny or too strange or weird. I think that it's really good to make people happy. Being able to say that "I like myself" and that "I think I think I have a lot of good qualities..." and just be able to say it plainly, and innocently, is really important.

When did you and Dean realize that what you created was essentially Internet gold?
When I started doing the voice, it was just like, Whoa—what is that weird little voice and where did it come from? I'd never done it before. I find myself walking around speaking in a lot of weird voices, so it was kind of shocking to me that there was a new one I'd never done before. But we didn't really think about anyone else when we were making it. We just decided to make something with it, like when you have food in your house that you think might all combine to makes a nice dish.

Who decided what Marcel would look like?
We went to the toy store and we bought little pieces—googly eyes and a big bowl of shells. So the pieces were all there. There were several permutations of Marcel. At one point, he was a little plastic boom box that came with a Polly Pocket, [which we gave] an eye and shoe. Then I went to lunch and I came home and he was there, sitting on the kitchen table, and I was like, There he is! He's here! He just sits there and takes it all in.

Why did you decide to have Marcel appear in a children's book?
I've always wanted to be a children's author—since I was little—but not as much as I wanted to be an actress. And when the opportunity came, it was just beautiful. And also, it was a time in my life where I was like, I'm not going to be on this TV show anymore, but I'm going to be doing these other projects now, and do these movies. And I was like, Maybe it's just time for me to spread it all around.

What made you decide to commission oil paintings of Marcel for the book, as opposed to something cartoony that mimicked the stop-motion animation of the video?
I think you've put your finger on it. We did not want to associate Marcel with anything that was saccharine, or anything that seemed obvious. I think our feeling was, Let's honor him a little bit—because he deserves it. And wouldn't expect it. And he would really like it. If you go on the Penguin website, he talks a little about how he feels [about] being in the book and being in a film. We answered some questions as Marcel, and some of them were really funny, just to ask the questions and answer them, because I knew the answers immediately. His favorite movie is Home Alone.

I like how the text in the book looks like handwriting that's as jittery and nervous as Marcel himself. Was that intentional?
Dean did all of that, by hand. Everything is based off of Dean's artwork. So it's not Marcel's handwriting, but it is a human hand. It's irregular but elegant. And I think Marcel is irregular and elegant as well.

Where does Marcel live, and what does his family look like?
He lives in an apartment in Brooklyn. But he doesn't interact with the people that he lives with. He has a family of his species—he has his own gang, and family. His parents are named Catherine and Mario. I've never told anyone that, and it's not in the book. His grandmother's name is Nana Connie. You get to glimpse her in this book, and she'll show up a lot more in the second book and the film.

Can you talk more about the other characters in Marcel's gang?
The second book, which we're writing right now, will definitely show some more characters in his life. He has a best friend. His name is Jerry.

Why does Marcel have only one eye?
Well, that's all that he has. I don't know. It's like, compared to what? Yeah, he has one eye. Because that's what he has.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me (Razorbill) is out now. Slate and Fleischer-Camp will appear at the powerHouse Arena Nov 4 at 6:30pm.

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