fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘Little shell in a big world’: Jenny Slate talks about the art of empathy at Globe Summit

Globe columnist Meredith Goldstein, left, and writer-actor-comedian Jenny Slate in a screenshot from the prerecorded Globe Summit fireside chat.Globe staff

Many of us have that favorite book, film, or project that brings comfort and familiarity in moments of need. And maybe especially so during the pandemic, when many people have been isolated and leaned, perhaps, on those creative outlets more than usual.

Comedian, actor, and writer Jenny Slate sat down with Globe features writer and “Love Letters” advice columnist Meredith Goldstein for a fireside chat, part of the inaugural Boston Globe Summit, to discuss the art of empathy and finding sustenance during challenging times.

Slate’s work is wide-ranging and eclectic. The Milton native had a recurring role in the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” among other shows, starred in such films as “Obvious Child” and 2017′s “Gifted,” and recently published a book of essays called “Little Weirds.” Slate also cocreated the wildly popular short film series “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” which showcased the actor’s versatile voice work and wit, and in 2019 released a Netflix comedy special called “Stage Fright.”

In the 30-minute, prerecorded interview streamed Friday, Slate touched on the recently debuted feature film version of “Marcel the Shell,” revealing that fans will likely get to see it very soon. Goldstein and Slate discussed the concept behind the character, “a little shell in a big world,” and the parallels it draws to life today, especially during a pandemic.


“Being a tiny shell living in a much larger place often has its challenges,” Goldstein said, admitting that she found herself tearing up after rewatching the “Marcel” online shorts over the weekend. “I think for so many of us, we often feel like a little shell in a big world, specifically during a global pandemic where many of us were isolated, where many of us, like Marcel, may have pretended that a piece of lint was a pet.”


“A lot of us have just been trying to make it through,” Slate began. “How do I readjust to make it through every day when it looks so different and is so limited? It’s scary.”

Slate said she sees the ending of the full-length film, which premiered this month at the Telluride Film Festival, as a reflection of the fact that often when you think you’re done with something, you’re not.

“Say you’re walking out of a really hard experience,” Slate said. “You are changed forever because of what you endured or how you grew . . . There will always be a process of readjusting to what you know now about yourself in your world, and our film really inhabits that, and it’s really lovely.”

Slate often lets in audiences in a particularly personal way, and Goldstein asked Slate to unpack the balance of being vulnerable while also setting boundaries.

“Why am I revealing so much?” Slate said, looking back at some of what she’s shared through her work. “If you can understand me, I will inspire empathy in you, and you will see I’m real and alive and therefore you will treat me well.” Then she mused: “But why are you so frightened of being mistreated?”

Slate also talked about having a baby during COVID, and how that’s helped her draw lines where she needs to. “Having a child, now I’m so much in focus, and if I don’t want to talk about something, I don’t bargain with myself,” she said.


Slate took listeners through moments in her creative process, including her acceptance of the times when it’s dormant. Her advice for those lulls is “to not spy on it.”

“You can’t rip roots of a plant up to make sure it’s still growing,” Slate said.

She also talked about what it’s like choosing projects and shifting from writing to acting to stand-up and back again.

“In general, I love writing because I think I can reveal something that takes a little longer to emerge than when I’m on stage as a comedian,” Slate told Goldstein. She also shared her thoughts on what it’s like being “an actor showing up and playing the part.”

“Just in my experience, it’s a lot about your body, and it’s a lot about other people’s words,” Slate said. “For me, being creative started to surpass being funny or being successful and that has ramped up during the pandemic.”

Goldstein asked Slate what being creative means to her in general.

“Being creative is about making choices,” Slate said. “Just picking up the red or green crayon. These choices shape how you view yourself.”

Both Slate and Goldstein shared a bit about what it was like growing up in creative households, and how that instilled an appetite for art early on.

“My father is a poet and my mother is a potter,” Slate said, adding that her parents “kind of pressured” her and her sisters “to do creative things.”


“Sitting in front of the TV would be a big shame,” Slate said.

Goldstein asked Slate about being from New England, and how sense of place can imprint an appreciation for imagination, creativity, and nature.

“There’s something about being a person that shifts with the seasons,” Slate said. “It really does refresh one’s mind. It reorganizes yourself with what you’re able to do.”

When asked what some of her go-to outlets have been during the pandemic, Slate pointed to the first season of “Ted Lasso,” starring Jason Sudeikis, and the Nexflix sketch show, “I Think You Should Leave,” which she described as “the best comedy that there is.” In terms of books, Slate recommended “The Hearing Trumpet” by Leonora Carrington and “The Summer Book” by Tove Jansson.

“I like to read things by ladies from the past who are in a different country and watching as their world changes,” Slate said, reflecting on how that captures a bit about how she felt over the past year and a half. “I was just like, ‘Give me examples of other people who have stood ... in the unknown and just decided to sing out what they perceive.’”

Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @brittbowker and on Instagram @brittbowker.