Obvious Child star, director dish
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
A scene in Gillian Robespierre’s romantic comedy Obvious Child takes no prisoners: a pregnant comic with an abortion scheduled for the following day prepares to go onstage for a stand-up performance. A friend tells her to “kill it out there.” The comic, without missing a beat, says, “No, that’s tomorrow.”
The audience I saw Obvious Child with gasped audibly. The air seemed to be sucked out of the room and then replaced with superheated fumes. A hundred seat cushions groaned under unsettled asses. And let’s admit it, the joke is clever. But it pushes — and punches, and curb-stomps — some buttons.
“That was a scripted line,” Jenny Slate, the actress who plays the comic, says of the joke. “I think that’s an important moment … She’s making a joke, putting a toe over the line.”
Slate plays Donna, the meandering millenial with a bun in the oven and an impending abortion on her horizon. She has caring parents, a kind friend and a well-meaning boyfriend — her life is decent, and the baby was unplanned. After the abortion, her life continues, and she finds love. The movie seems to be a counter-punch to the pro-life argument that abortions ruin womens’ lives.
Slate and Robespierre waded into the debate Wednesday during a Scottsdale screening of Obvious Child. They were upbeat and enthusiastic, because, as they see it, they made a comedy movie, not an abortion movie.
“There are a lot of aspects that are new or stick out about this movie. This is my first leading role and this is Gillian’s first movie, and what we were initially trying to do was just to make a movie. The story, to us, is modern and natural. We aren’t trying to push anyone’s buttons,” Slate says in her gravel-inflected voice. “The situations … some of them haven’t been delved into before in the romantic comedy genre, but we’re trying to make a movie that is thoughtful and funny and satisfying to us.”
Robespierre simplified it further: “We wanted a movie with characters that are actually funny” — Slate laughs at this — “and female characters that get all the good lines. We set out to make this movie and we didn’t go through a studio and we didn’t ask anyone’s permission. We just told a story that we wanted to tell in the voice and the way we wanted to tell it.”
But this is America. And if there’s one thing guaranteed on the same level as piping-hot apple pie, Yankee baseball and a #3 combo super-sized, it’s that abortion is something we fight and argue about from here to eternity.
“I’m not afraid. I’m welcoming the conversation from both sides,” Robespierre says. “I don’t know that the right-to-life people will ever see this movie. They’ll just go off the trailer or what journalists say, and that’s a real shame. I think when you take the layers away, you get ‘romantic comedy’ and ‘abortion’ and those words aren’t really describing what we mean.”
Slate, who’s had bit roles on Bored to Death, Bob’s Burgers, Parks and Recreation and on Saturday Night Live — she was not invited back after letting a “fuck” slip in a live sketch — says Obvious Child aims to create truth in the humanity of real people. “Gillian and I are both feminists. We seek a world where there is equality between the sexes and we think that every woman has a right to choose for their own bodies. We aren’t telling anyone what to do, we’re just presenting one woman and her complex, and hopefully fresh, story.”
The movie was purchased by A24 in the first week of the Sundance Film Festival. “We went in with normal to low expectations,” Robespierre says. “We were just really excited to be at a festival and then one night I was up until 5 in the morning at the [talent agency’s house] negotiating with A24. It’s strange, because we worked very hard and we’re very proud of the movie, but you never know how people will bond to it, or perhaps they won’t. You want them to connect to it. So far it feels like everyone is very excited, and people are connecting with it.”
The connection is unmistakable in scene that inspired the title: as Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child” plays, Slate and her male lead, Office add-on Jake Lacy, dance around in their underwear in a foreplay of giggles, kisses and awkward nuzzling. And then they have the sex that leads to her pregnancy.
“It was a real go-for-it moment for me because well,” Slate says this next part to herself, like an inner monologue, “‘You know you said you wanted to be a lead actress and not just a jokey woman, but a woman with some real sexuality so go for it. Get in your underpants and dance the way you do it and don’t think how other people are doing it. Just do it.’”
And that’s what she did.
Obvious Child opens in Phoenix Friday, June 13.