There’s a moment in the first Marcel The Shell With Shoes On YouTube short where tiny Marcel proclaims, “Sometimes people say that my head is too big for my body, and then I say, ‘Compared to what?’” As Jenny Slate recalls, it was one of those moments of truthful improvisation, a line that says a lot about a character even if the actor can’t articulate precisely why.
Slate has voiced the anthropomorphic shell, one of the comedian’s first acting credits, since 2010. Now, as Marcel completes the transition from YouTube to the big screen with the release of A24’s Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, directed by co-creator Dean Fleischer Camp, Slate talks with The A.V. Club in a wide-ranging conversation about how the truths she utters in character illustrate the depths of her own psyche. Marcel has never just been a silly viral sensation to Slate. Rather, he’s a vessel to explore everyday beauty, loneliness, and grief.
AVC: How did you think about the scale of a full-length Marcel story? A feature film has to be more ambitious than a short, but you also don’t want a huge star-studded adventure, right?
Jenny Slate: We thought a lot about that. The first part is that we just tried to follow what was already there. So it just didn’t really make sense to us that Marcel would be anywhere else because the scale of his world was already pretty established and that seemed to work. But we thought a lot about how to accept that this was his world, mostly limited to the house. We wanted to see it from his perspective; there are so many different locations and places to go on vacation to even within the house. But also Marcel has always been someone who didn’t really understand the point of comparison. He says that kind of right at the start. Like [he’s saying to us], “Comparison only matters to you, that’s not how I see it. Of course I have my own perspective and I’m contained within it. Without being selfish and without being self-focused, I don’t feel the need to size everything up.”
AVC: Reading deeper into Marcel’s line—“compared to what?”—is fascinating. What you’re saying is so true, but to me that’s always been just a funny line.
JS: I do get that. And also that’s the weirdest thing sometimes to me about being Marcel: I feel like I’m being dead serious and a lot of the time it comes off as comedy. But I just felt like the first time I really saw his body, I started to think what are the things that this individual would be set aside about? What would people say about them that show that they’re an outsider or whatever? And that’s just me sort of playing with my own, old pain. I’m just a kitten with a ball of yarn there. But that was one of the first things that I said as Marcel. And it sort of didn’t even make sense to me! But I know exactly what I mean when I say it.
AVC: Because that was, like many of the lines in the original videos, improvised?
JS: Some of them were written. Dean’s really good at one-liners like “Guess what I use as a pen? A pen, but it takes a whole family.” Whereas I say something like, “One time I ate a piece of cheese and my cholesterol went up to 900.” Or “I’m afraid to drink soda because I’m afraid the bubbles make me float up onto the ceiling.” [It comes from] just sort of knowing what it is, you know? Like, have you ever known someone so well that you know what they would say?
AVC: Yes. Is that act of taking Marcel very seriously a capturing of childlike imagination? It seems to me what you do in his shoes is something many actors or creators, especially adults, find difficult to achieve.
JS: That’s so funny because honestly, I think it’s just what I prefer to do. It’s just the way I think. Also, I love acting. I really like the chance to do a performance where I know the person’s personality so well. Because a lot of it is just kind of mimicking the occurrences in my psyche and my own preferences and just creating my dream conversation: What would I like? Well, I’d like someone to ask me questions, I’d like to be able to earnestly explain myself. And that’s what Marcel is doing.
But also, to not have to have a body is really freeing to me. Everybody has obviously a million different ways they’re going to feel about whatever body they’re walking around in. But I think that I arrived in my thirties feeling so annoyed and beset by the constant barrage of misogyny in our culture that I just was like, I want to step out of this body. I don’t want to throw it away, I don’t want to desecrate it or anything. I just want to know: What would it be like if I could say all of my feelings? And they didn’t have to come along with whatever comes along with your unconscious bias, of what it looks like when it’s all being said through something that’s, like, very femme, you know? Marcel is a boy. He doesn’t have an age, but he is a boy.
AVC: How conscious is the process that you just described? Or is it more like channeling unconscious inspiration as Marcel?
JS: Staying in character is something I have to pay attention to. Occasionally when we’re improvising, I’ll say something and be like, That’s not really Marcel. That’s just me trying to reach for a joke and we’ll cut that out. Like, if the joke doesn’t really represent him as a character—I will sometimes scribble outside the lines by mistake. But the rest of it is not conscious and it’s just following what I want to do. And because Dean and I know each other so well, it’s really, really easy to just get in there and start doing what we do. And we know the rules of the character and the world in which he lives. We don’t have to discuss much about what works and what doesn’t work. We just have more than a shorthand, it’s a really, really developed understanding. But when I look back on it, and the more I understand about myself as an artist, I’m like, oh, I can see what I needed there. Oh, I was creating relief. I was creating a new form for myself to live within. I was creating just enough of a disguise so that I could slip into the truth and show it to everyone—without them stopping me as a woman at the door.
AVC: You must learn so much watching the film back, especially the final product.
JS: I cry every time I watch it.
AVC: Speaking of crying, late in the film Marcel sings The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” That was a moment where I couldn’t help but wonder how consciously you yourself are working stuff out.
JS: I’m always trying to work stuff out. I mean, pretty consciously. Now more than ever, I feel like all the dials are really turned up for me recently. Or somebody finally gave my emotional vision the glasses it’s needed for so long. I have 20/20 on a lot of stuff right now that I didn’t used to have. But yeah, the only reason why I do this, my own created work, is to work stuff out. That’s why I love it. That’s why I do it. That’s why I cherish it. That’s why it is the greatest privilege and incredibly nourishing. Whereas being in other people’s things—which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoy, just being handed a character and being directed and being obedient and finding new things within that obedience to create, I just love that—but what I’m trying to do as a performer is take all of my wishes and just try to make them come true. I do want to be the person given the most amount of space to perform in a movie directed by a brilliant director. That’s what this is. Dean is brilliant. I would love to be his main actor. I’m so lucky that I got to do it. But also, I really like singing covers as Marcel. The ballad at the end is in this movie because while I was on the press tour for the movie Landline—I think I was at the Seattle Film Festival, 2017. And it was like 2 a.m., I was alone in my hotel room, I couldn’t sleep. I was singing songs to myself as Marcel to just kind of down-regulate my system, which I sometimes do. And I was singing The Eagles because I had heard it played in the car earlier, and I was like, Oh, I love this song. It’s actually so sad. And I love it when Marcel sings sad songs. And I just recorded it and sent it to Dean.
So part of that is also, I love this movie because—you know that drawer in your house where you just have all this stuff that you save? And none of it really goes together and it can be kind of stressful even to know that it exists? It’s not your junk drawer, but all this stuff, where does it go? A lot that’s in this movie is stuff, my random stuff that Dean has been so generous to include. He was like, we can use this in something. And I think part of that is him knowing that I don’t like being alone. It’s hard for me to be in a hotel room at two in the morning in a city where I don’t live. This is a moment that comes from truth, trying to soothe one’s self.
AVC: Does that fit into the personal mission statement? What is your ultimate goal as an artist?
JS: It’s different than it used to be. Because it used to be that I just wanted to kind of prove that I’m here. And now I think I want to say, moment to moment, what things are like for me. One, as an effort to make sure that I stay in the moment. But two, also as a way of changing a sense of aloneness in one’s own personal experience into just one of a multitude of true experiences that are happening at once. I’m trying to create art that reminds people of their own unique and deep existence, and how beautiful that is.
AVC: Aloneness is really a prevailing theme here. Like you’re creating art in response to your loneliness, and where it overlaps with others?
JS: Yeah, because it also can be so beautiful. Like, I know mine comes out of a need for closeness and that loneliness is in me a request. And that it’s up to me to fulfill that request and make relationships that are so beautifully attached that even when I’m alone, I still feel that other with me.
AVC: That to me is why the themes of loss in Marcel The Shell resonate. The film seems to be making the case that grief is not all sadness, and not at all simple.
JS: Yeah, and it talks to you. Your grief, your experience of loss, you can really be in conversation with it. Because, for example, if you are in a moment of grief just like Marcel looking out the window—he sees the beautiful world and what the world says back to him is, “Because of what has happened to you, you’re looking at the beauty, but you’re feeling set aside.” And he’s saying, “Yeah, that’s right.” But it also creates an imperative to try to be in the midst of it again. One thing I really don’t want to do is to hurt anyone. I really, really just want to give people something that is beautiful. And for that beauty to feel not just so inclusive, like it’s for everybody, but that weirdly, it’s just for you. I think Marcel is like that. A lot of people are like, “I’m the one that showed Marcel to all my friends.”
AVC: Grief, loss, art—they’re both individual and collective, to be shared?
JS: Yeah! And I know I’m the same way. And at this point, I also do feel at odds with a lot of the stuff that’s being created now. [Laughs] There’s just a lot of programming and a lot of entertainment out there that is just not what I prefer. And I’m sure people who make art have felt that way forever about whatever their discipline is. I don’t think that’s a new feeling. But when I see something that represents what I hope for in terms of what people are spending their time to create and give, it just makes me more encouraged. It just makes me feel like I actually do belong and it matters that I’m here.
I felt that way—I know I’m briefly in this film—when I saw Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is a movie that I was only on set for for a couple of days, and the script was vast and I could never have envisioned the final product. And it is a glittering, moving masterpiece. It is a masterpiece. And when I saw it and I realized that there had been people who had gotten behind it, that A24 had been like, “Yeah, actually we’re going to make this movie ... we do this on purpose”—that’s what I want to do. And so I’m trying to make something that furthers that experience.
AVC: Amazing. Are there any other examples, like Everything Everywhere, that are in line with what you’re feeling artistically?
JS: I really like the new Aldous Harding album and the videos that go with it. And I also really feel that the new Big Thief album is in line in that same way. Right now, I can only think of music. But I will say, I always use the artist Maira Kalman as a reference for how things can be. She has such a beautiful point of view. I’m trying to think of what else. Björk. Of course Björk. You know, always Björk. When in doubt, Björk.