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The ‘Obvious’ appeal of Jenny Slate

Jenny Slate.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Jenny Slate.

MILTON — Fans of Jenny Slate might have trouble recognizing her in “Obvious Child.”

On screen, she’s often larger than life and not quite human. Her character on “Parks and Recreation” is the classless Mona-Lisa Saperstein, a woman of great volume who manages to overpower Aziz Ansari’s character, Tom Haverford. On “Kroll Show,” Slate plays multiple outrageous personalities, including the brassy Liz B., one half of the public relations firm PubLIZity.

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Online, Slate is best known as the voice of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” a stop-motion animated short featuring a tiny shell who chats with an interviewer about his unique life.

She’s also voiced characters on “Bob’s Burgers” and in the film “The Lorax,” played Sarah Guggenheim on “House of Lies,” and was a crazy island dweller in “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.”

At the restaurant Steel & Rye, here in Slate’s hometown, the actress joked that for once she sounded like Marcel in real life — because she had caught a cold. “Last night when I was really sick, my mom was like, ‘Do you want to take a shower?’ And I was like, ‘Nooo,’ ” Slate said, squeaking out Marcel’s high-pitched, raspy tone.

In “Obvious Child,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in January, Slate plays a regular woman. Donna Stern, a stand-up comedian who gets dumped, has a one-night stand, gets pregnant, and decides to have an abortion. Donna can be vulgar and silly, but she isn’t exaggerated. She’s just a young woman coping with the aftermath of a difficult decision. She could be someone you know.

A24

Slate and Jake Lacy in the new film “Obvious Child.”

“I’ve always wanted to play a normal woman,” Slate said, “and I think I have been offered these parts where I play a kook because I’m not the idea of what a normal woman is.”

Slate gives credit for much of the critical success of the film (her performance was almost universally praised by Sundance critics) to writer-director Gillian Robespierre, who originally made “Obvious Child” as a short. Slate starred in that project in 2009, and Robespierre went on to write the feature for her specifically.

Robespierre said she’s watched Slate perform her big characters over the last few years and felt like she was the only one who knew that the actress could pull off starring in a full-length drama.

“It sort of really jumped out of the screen — how good she was as an actress,” Robespierre said.

Robespierre explained that years ago, when she was searching for an actress to star in the short, she went to see Slate perform and felt a connection to her style.

“Jenny’s stories were so relatable,” she said, adding that Slate and her character Donna “share a sensibility.”

Slate said she wants to do more projects like this — where she can star in something with drama and carry a film. She hopes “Obvious Child” will change the scope of her offers.

But that isn’t to say she’s done with being ridiculous.

She will soon debut a new character on “Kroll Show,” and this summer she’ll appear in a new FX comedy called “Married,” which stars fellow Massachusetts actor Nat Faxon and Judy Greer. Slate plays the romantic partner of Paul Reiser.

“I play a woman who’s married to someone who’s her dad’s age and is trying to get her life together, but . . . really just wants to be a young, fun, party person. Sort of desperate, but also very smart and [there’s] just a little bit of torture in there.” (Slate says of her costar, “He’s exactly like Paul Reiser. Whatever you think Paul Reiser’s going to be like, he’s like that.”)

COMEDY CENTRAL

Nick Kroll and Slate in Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show.”

Fans of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (whose first video has had about 23 million views on YouTube) can celebrate: Slate says there will be a Marcel movie.

“Right now, I think what we’d like to do is record late this summer, but it’s just taken so long for us to get our act in gear,” she said of herself and her husband, filmmaker Dean Fleisher-Camp, who co-created Marcel. “I’m anticipating a really cool cast, that’s for sure. I want Yoko Ono to be in the Marcel movie. . . . I guess as . . . Marcel’s grandmother’s neighbor.”

Slate has a tight filming schedule, so when she’s home she usually stays inside with her family. This trip has been more active than normal; she screened “Obvious Child” for a Boston Jewish Film Festival audience and then for friends and family and the Boston Women in Comedy Festival.

“I usually don’t leave my parents’ house. They have a really sweet old colonial, and there’s land around it; and usually when I come back to Milton, I really come back to stay at my parents’ house — just sit in there, go for walks with them. That’s it. My older sister lives in Natick, with her husband and three kids. My little sister is here now, too, just visiting.”

Slate said she isn’t hiding — although these days, she does get recognized.

But you won’t hear her complaining.

“I always wanted to be a movie actress and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t aware that this film has gotten me more attention. I think that’s good and that’s what I want — and it’s good to know what I want.”

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at meredith.goldstein@globe.com.
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