Jenny Slate is pretty memorable as an entitled dry-cleaning client twirling a chihuahua around her head in Everything Everywhere All at Once, but it’s her role as an animated shell with one googly eye that really captured attention this season. In Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, we’re given a full-length feature version of the character Slate co-created with director Dean Fleischer Camp back in 2010. Voicing Marcel and leaning into her improv skills to help cook up the comedy character’s quirky and poignant dialogue, Slate explains why she thinks Marcel’s miniature perspective has inspired so many, and why this gig suits her so much better than SNL ever did.
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DEADLINE: Years ago, you came up with the voice of Marcel when you and Dean and some friends were squashed into a hotel room at a wedding. What part of you was speaking through Marcel back then? Because doing voices can sometimes be about expressing a thing you wouldn’t normally say.
JENNY SLATE: And sometimes that’s right. One of the reasons why I was not the right fit for a show like SNL is because I’m really bad at impressions of famous people. I can do an impression that, in its emotional expression, sounds a lot like someone in my personal life, like my mom or my baby, but am I going to be able to give you a really good Lady Gaga? No, I’m horrible at that and I don’t really want to, because there’s only one of those in my opinion.
DEADLINE: You don’t go there because you don’t actually want to do it?
SLATE: Yeah, I don’t really want to. And that is also another thing about me, you can’t make me do what I don’t want to do. And I really honestly am a person who aims to please, so that has always been a source of conflict for me. But the voice of Marcel is like somebody making an abstract painting to try to describe a set of feelings that they have. That’s as close as I can describe it. There are these moments in your daily life when you feel small and you feel needed, that you need to be heard. You feel insistent, and also gregarious and likeable and ready to party. You put that all together and it comes out in this weird tight stream. And that’s what that voice is. To me, the character of Marcel is me if I could really be considerate of and connected to other people, but just be a little bit less freaked out by what they think of me. And Marcel’s pretty relaxed into his own state of being.
DEADLINE: I feel like that’s a chunk of his broad appeal, the simple purity of self-belief in Marcel.
SLATE: When I think about the film, what I find relieving about it is that what stuns, hurts and wallops Marcel the most is also what sets him free to take his largest risks and feel his greatest power, which is that the world is infinite. It’s huge. Of course, you can be lost in it. It’s really, really frightening when you have a particular aim to connect and then you realize how much could possibly get in your way. How much distance is able to exist—distance that you can’t even measure—and how you’re not just in your house, your town, your country, your continent, or on the Earth. You’re in the universe, and it can really, really hurt to know that. But your smallness is a part of that. And it’s not smallness, it’s just existence and presence… I just love it. It makes me feel so good.
DEADLINE: Back in 2010, this was a little short. You didn’t expect anyone to see it and then suddenly, millions were watching on YouTube. It took seven years to finish the feature, but how did the film come about?
SLATE: I don’t think we intended for it to take seven years. And we had a Covid shutdown as well. But first it was me and Dean, and we were writing these ong documents, which turned into treatments, and we were like, ‘There is a movie.’ Then we brought on Elisabeth Holm, our incredible producer, and she also helped create the story with us. And then Nick Paley, who ended up being our co-writer, and who is responsible for many of the beautiful moments in the movie. He’s just an incredible writer and his writing and state of mind reminds me of how the Shakers made their furniture. It’s so functional and it’s aesthetically pleasing in a way that just is perfectly in the zone. It’s not too little, it’s not too much. It’s exactly what you need for the appetite you have.
Liz introduced us to the folks at Cinereach and they were our clear partners in that they were really good at giving us creative notes. They were really involved in shaping the film, but they also really let us have the final say. And when we did come to them saying, “Look, we’re going to need a little bit more of everything,” they considered it seriously and came back and gave us what we needed in order to make the film that we wanted to make. And that’s Philipp Engelhorn, who started Cinereach. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who actually really knows how to support artists in the way that Phil does. And the film wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t there. It’s really Phil and the people that work with him, Caroline Kaplan and Andrew Goldman and Paul Mezey. They’re incredible.
DEADLINE: Isabella Rossellini plays Nana Connie. Did she immediately get what you were doing? Is that why she wanted to do it?
SLATE: When she got to the house where we were recording, Isabella said that she didn’t know what Marcel was, and that her kids told her. She is really an adventurer. She just seems to be, to me, someone who wants work that impacts her senses. She had a lot of questions. And the interesting thing is, sometimes if an actor shows up to set and they suddenly have a lot of questions, it can be scary for them. A lot of people want to know what they’re getting into. But for Isabella, the questions were just exciting to her. She trusted that we had the answer. I don’t think she had done a lot of improv before and she was really keen to get in there. There was no hesitation. There was no, “I’m feeling silly.” There was no question about, “Why do I have a microphone taped to my forehead?” Instead, she just fully jumped in, and I felt that even though we had been working on the project for a while, the way that she was so confident and self-possessed set a tone for me, that I should also just come in there and totally inhabit.
DEADLINE: So it’s essentially improv that you re-work over and over and then you pick out the gems?
SLATE: Well, it’s multi-layered, and I think we try to talk about this really carefully because Dean and Nick did so much work on the actual script that exists. But that said, I also did a lot of improv… It would be like, now we’re going into the bathroom, and Marcel is telling Dean how he makes the rope out of pubes. But then from that, you get the improv of, they’re called ‘hardy hairs’ and you can hear Dean laughing.
DEADLINE: Sometimes the way you hear him laugh in the film, you know it’s the first time he’s heard something.
SLATE: Yeah, it’s really, really nice. And then there are other moments that are totally written. Marcel, how he climbs up the wall with the honey and things like that. So, we would record, then Dean and Nick would go through the audio, shape it down into a more understandable story, because we had so much improv and so much audio. And then from that, they would say, “Well OK, so we thought this moment would really land, but it turns out there’s not much there. What scene should be in its place? Should the story take a different turn here?” And then they would write to that. And then we would go back and re-record and re-improvise within that script and find more space. And then they would come back and write more and clarify what had been said. And then we would re-record again.
DEADLINE: Is there a favorite line from Marcel that still gets you every time?
SLATE: I really like the last part in the laundry room. It soothes me and reminds me of how I am capable of feeling. Oh man, I don’t know. I love so much of it. I’m not sure that I have a favorite line today, but I really like when Marcel says that he’s angry that he didn’t get a better goodbye.
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