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How To Launch A Risk-Embracing Career With An Anthropomorphic Mollusk: The Jenny Slate Story

Sometimes life’s greatest lessons come from a tiny talking shell with shoes on. Consider Marcel.

How To Launch A Risk-Embracing Career With An Anthropomorphic Mollusk: The Jenny Slate Story
Marcel walking by the window from THE MOST SURPRISED I’VE EVER BEEN [Photos: courtesy of Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp]

Since 2010 when Marcel the Shell, voiced by actress and comedian Jenny Slate, first squeaked his way to instant stardom, his stories of pint-sized living have spawned two children’s books and amassed more than 35 million views on YouTube–and Slate couldn’t care less about those metrics of success. Number of eyeballs? Please.

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“At this point, I have the luxury of saying it’s not my bread and butter–we don’t make any money from the Marcel videos. Maybe a little tiny bit from ad sales but we’ve never sold them. We could have but that’s not what it’s about for us. They’re awesome and the act of making them with my husband [Dean Fleischer-Camp] is so much fun and so necessary for me to have that fun that I kinda don’t give a shit about whether or not it’s a viral thing,” Slate says. “Marcel is actually a pretty deep character. He’s a real person to me even though he’s within me and within Dean. He could’ve been a gimmick and there’s a way in which you can see Marcel as this cute thing but to me he’s a real, full character.”

Marcel is an extension of Slate, like many of her other projects. For Slate, the line between performance and truth is virtually nonexistent because she goes all in, all the time, rarely pausing to run a risk assessment for failure (or heartbreak)–and so far her gut has led to resume highlights including a glorious, albeit brief, stint on Saturday Night Live, the Internet’s favorite anthropomorphic mollusk Marcel the Shell and her breakthrough lead role in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child.

“I always wanted to be an actress–it’s the only thing I can remember from the start about myself because I felt actresses I watched were magical people and I wanted to be like them and feel like them,” Slate says. “I also had a sense that if I wanted to become a film actress I was going to have to find a very specific way to do it without losing my confidence and without feeling like I was in a cattle call.”

It might sound like a vague set of standards to most, but to Slate it couldn’t be more defined: dive into what feels like a second skin. Here, Slate reveals the reason why SNL just wasn’t meant to be (and it has little to do with the oft cited F-bomb incident) and how a talking shell with barely a voice of his own has helped solidify her own.

Before Obvious Child, Marcel the Shell, SNL, and your omnipresence in TV, you were part of a sketch group with your college friend and comedy partner Gabe Liedman. Would you say that was the start of it all?

I would go so far as to say I would not have the life that I have right now if it wasn’t for Gabe Liedman. He is the first person I met in my adulthood that I felt was truly delighted by me and understood me and also was curious about me. I don’t have any horror stories of trying to start as a comedian and eating it constantly on stage. Although Gabe and I certainly had to find our way and didn’t know what we were doing, we had so much fun and we were so proud of ourselves. I don’t know what it would’ve been like if I tried to do standup by myself at first.

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Jenny Slate and husband Dean Fleischer-CampPhoto: Richard Koek

You have Gabe as a collaborator and you have your husband Dean Fleischer-Camp who you work with on Marcel the Shell. Do you do your best work collaboratively?

The first thing is, I work the best when I’m happy and encouraged–that is the number one thing I’ve learned about myself. That and I’m incredibly impatient. For standup it was definitely lucky that I had Gabe because I developed a confidence that was really true and that was based off of self-love and love of Gabe. And when you go up on stage and you have self-love, it informs people that they should love you too or at least try to find out why you love yourself.

And what about working with your husband?

I love working with Dean. He’s really the person who invented how Marcel looks, and he edits and writes and directs and animates the whole thing. The way the story plays out, including the pacing and the sound design, is all Dean. No matter how much he interviews me as Marcel or we write together, he has to do a lot of writing on his own to make the story work. Part of the reason I like it is I like watching how elegant his creative process is. I’m very playful and energetic and in the moment and Dean is very patient. I truly never know what he’s going to come up with but I always trust that it will always be good, and I remember that was one of the first things I thought about him when I started to fall in love with him. I’ve never met anyone with the personality that Dean has and I’ve never met anyone who is not pretentious about doing something elegant.

Marcel walking by the windowan excerpt from the new book Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been, courtesy of Razorbill

You’ve said you always wanted to be a film actress and your breakout performance in Obvious Child can only lead to more roles–where does the unexpected popularity of Marcel fit in?

It’s strange I’ve done so many things up until I did Obvious Child including writing children’s books and making Marcel the Shell. To me the through line is incredibly clear: it all comes from wanting to be connected to my own inner voice and not wanting to be on somebody else’s agenda if that means that I can’t be myself. And in the times when my career faltered or where a door was slammed in my face–I wouldn’t call SNL a door slammed in my face but I would say it was a wrong turn–not even a wrong turn because it was eventually right but not the right job for me to have for seven years, which is what the contract is. I was not able to be myself. I personally could not be myself in that environment. I couldn’t find a way to be natural and to be happy.

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SNL is practically every comedian’s dream job! What couldn’t you be happy about?

My baseline function is I’m usually really happy and optimistic. I think I really genuinely like being alive and I’ve got a spring in my step–that’s what I’ve been like all my life. I just didn’t even feel like it was appropriate to act that way there because I felt so bad about myself. I felt I didn’t deserve to even be happy privately–like, even if I left 30 Rock and went and got myself matzah ball soup, which is one of my true delights in life. You know when you feel those feelings like, “I don’t deserve this.” It’s like that.

Obvious Child makes sense to me because Gillian Robespierre who wrote the movie saw me do stand up, so her first glimpse of me was me doing my own thing and she wrote this movie for me because of the idea she had and because of what she saw in me and she thought I could play this part she had in mind. It always connected and I think it’s a big endorsement for sticking to your guns. It doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible but for me I just won’t survive if I feel like I’m being cheap or a butt-kisser–it makes me feel bad. I am the strongest when I can show people what I love about myself and what I love about performance.

Marcel flying above Nana Conniean excerpt from the new book Marcel the Shell: The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been, courtesy of Razorbill

You felt out of your element at SNL?

It’s pretty easy to see it like I’m a victim of that show when I don’t feel that way at all. If I was a victim of anyone it was myself and the reason why it didn’t work for me was because I felt that I was only supposed to be one thing there which is relentlessly confident and I don’t feel that way ever. I feel pretty confident but not all the time. I think the reason why Marcel works for me and why it was really important for me to create that character with my husband is because Marcel is expressing the truth about himself. I like that he’s many things at once: he seems small yet totally the right size to himself. He seems confident and straightforward while being a little bit singular and maybe just a touch lonely. He has a beating heart and what he expresses is the state of being an individual and how that can be exciting and beautiful and a little bit heartbreaking at once.

It’s crazy that we’re talking about a shell with shoes right now, but there is something achingly human about Marcel.

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I guess that’s how I feel about my daily life! I feel happy and heartbroken probably everyday. We all experience losses that even if they’re just very small, they really give us a little nudge that reminds us of life–it’s so weird that I’ve become so aware of it. Not that I want things to be bad so they can get good again but more of an acceptance that even the sad things that happen are part of our life and it’s beautiful to be alive. You have a choice to be alive and experience that and respect it. I’ve always jumped headfirst into romantic relationships–I never look before I leap when it’s matters of the heart and matters of creativity. I just always go because what’s being offered to me is so delicious even the potential of being in love or the potential of doing a great performance is worth so much more to me than the potential of the heartbreak or embarrassment.

Speaking of leaping into new things–any truth to the rumor of Marcel getting his own show?

There isn’t. There was and then it just did not sit right with us and we felt like all the discussions people were having even before there was any material–it just didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel like a safe, creative environment at all. It felt like we were losing control over things we cared about. It felt like the people we were thinking about working with did not have the same goals we had. Dean and I both felt like we can be patient if we want to make a larger project from this. We can wait to find partners who care about the things we care about. Otherwise it won’t be good and then we’ll feel like assholes. And I don’t want to feel like that especially with something I do with Dean. If I make a bad movie, that’s on me and I’ll get over it–nobody gives a shit. But I don’t want to start to do something that I can do perfectly well with just Dean and then fuck it up by bringing in people who maybe offer us a lot of money but don’t actually have the same creative goals we have.

So is there anything in the works now to take Marcel further or give him a bigger stage?

I think we have found cool partners to work with and right now we are working on a larger Marcel project but I don’t think I can say what it is!

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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