From YouTube to Movies: Jenny Slate on 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On'

CUL PS Jenny Slate
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 10: Nominee Jenny Slate poses for a portrait at the 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominee Brunch at BOA Steakhouse on January 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Christopher Patey/Getty

"There will be something here for a lot of people because the grief, the loss, the unknowns about how to move through grief."

One of the first YouTube viral videos was Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Released in 2010 and created and voiced by Jenny Slate with Dean Fleischer-Camp, the video about a talking shell has since raked in millions of views, been turned into a children's book and now is a new film from the studio A24. Behind the voice it started with, Slate says, were "confusing, dissonant feelings about my own worth as a performer, as a person." In the film, Marcel teams up with a new friend Dean to find his family, along the way being interviewed by his hero, Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes. "Marcel says she's got class—and she does." What makes the film version of Marcel different is how unexpectedly deep and therapeutic it is. "Marcel, in different ways, has always felt incredibly important, boundary-breaking and self-affirming to me." After the pandemic, a universal story of bonding with loved ones and reconnecting with family is not only what fans of Marcel needed, but it's what Slate needed as well. "I received a lot of personal comfort and rehabilitation through playing the character."

From YouTube to the Movies: Jenny Slate
A shot from 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’ starring Jenny Slate. A24

How wild is it that this viral YouTube video has only grown more popular over the years? So much so that now it's a movie!

Life actually does accumulate, it turns out, tiny moment by tiny moment. So Marcel, in different ways, has always felt incredibly important, boundary-breaking and self-affirming, to me. It's just come in different waves of experience. This wave right now is that a lot of people are about to see it as a proper film. That is really new, but in a way, it's just always been kind of a magical amulet to me in terms of being solid proof of at least I feel like my own tastes, my own preferences, my own ways that I am able to show how I can be creative and to exceed my own expectations. So now it's just in this form, which is kind of like a traditional form. If you had told me back then that what we were doing would become this and that generally the reaction would be so lovely, I'd probably float around, I'd probably be lifted off the air with that type of glee that you get from that. But I think in a grounded way, I just feel really right about it. I feel like it's right and good. I'm giving it away. Now it [Marcel] belongs to everyone else.

How did it all start? Where did the idea for Marcel come from?

Well, it started with the voice. Although behind the voice was a set of feelings that I had, confusing, dissonant feelings about my own worth as a performer, as a person, my own desire to be in the public eye and also feeling pretty frightened by it after a year on [Saturday Night Live], and my desire to be creative and my fear that I would be locked out of that opportunity. And that was all there. I don't know how it works for other artists, but for me, whatever is happening, it's always stepping up on the pedestal that is made out of my current mound of emotions. So there was that. And we [Slate and her friends] were at a wedding and we were sharing a hotel room. It was a lot of men in one hotel room and then me, and I started to talk in the Marcel voice. And I think in that moment it was like the urge to say the truth, which is that I feel so tiny, I feel tinier and tinier all the time. Because these people are just taking up more of my space, and also the deeper instinct to make people laugh. Those things, for me as a performer, are always there. To say the truth of how I feel and to try to take that truth through a process of friendly fabrication, make that into something that other people can touch and be a part of.

What do you think it is about Marcel that people connect with?

I think what they like is that he's so unaffected by his own experience. He has no affect. So when he says what his experience is, a lot of times, it's rather heavy duty. He's saying something pretty serious sometimes. But I think he's very handsome, but he has a comic form. It's always funny when something's the wrong size or something is the unexpected size.

You just described my life.

[laughs] I think people like it when it feels like such a large truth are held by something that's rather tiny, but mighty. Because it does feel easy to relate to, and also really miraculous. So I think they like that. Then there's also just some perfectly tailored one-liners. That's Dean [Fleischer-Camp], the director's strength. He's so good at really tight comedy like that. I'm more of an experiential person that says things like I'm afraid to drink soda because I'm afraid the bubbles will make me float up onto the ceiling. Which is really funny, but that's also what he's talking about, that's gonna happen to him [Marcel]. He's earnest about it. That would be scary. But I don't think that he's saccharin. He's not sappy, and he's not asking for anything. He's not a desperate person.

From YouTube to the Movies: Jenny Slate
Dean Fleischer-Camp as 'Dean' with Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) in ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.' A24

The film is about family and loss and finding your people in a lot of ways. It feels very therapeutic. Does that stand out to you?

It's kind of a scary expectation for me to hold. I want it to be used as broadly as possible for whoever feels connected to it, however that will work for them. But yeah, there have been those responses for sure, especially after the last two years. There was an adult man who was maybe a decade older than me, maybe more, who was saying that he had been physically separated from his family over the pandemic, and that this movie really made him feel super sensitive about the truth of what that really did to him. The fact is, when something is happening to us, we're living in it. You have no choice but to live through it, but you have a choice about how you do live through it. You have choices within your limits. So I do think that there will be something here for a lot of people because the grief, the loss, the unknowns about how to move through grief. They're all there. We made this movie for the last seven years. I think that it was very therapeutic for me to make the movie. I know I received a lot of personal comfort and rehabilitation through playing the character, and that's why in my daily life I slip into responding to an event the way that Marcel would. He tends to cut right to it. I often describe Marcel as aspirational me.

Considering your book [Little Weirds] and some of your recent projects, do you think you're putting more of yourself into projects?

If you're lucky, as a performer—and I think I am—you always have more to use the more that you live your life, and you have less of a reckless way of using those things. You really understand how to treat yourself a little bit more gingerly as you get older anyway. I think that a certain humbling that I went through in my mid-30s coincided painfully and perfectly with how this character needed to start to make his way through his own narrative. I think that coincides with a personal reckoning that I had with my own internal misogyny. To be able to play a character that doesn't have a female form on Earth, and who is male, and who has no age, and no sexuality that we talk about was really good for me. I hadn't been through that sort of reckoning [in 2010 when Marcel was created]. I just really had a different set of priorities that were super brutal toward myself. I think I still did a bunch of good work, but I think it was highly flammable. I didn't really care about my well-being the way that I now approach my work. I really have no interest in doing it if it's going to take a toll on my well-being, especially after becoming a mother. But you don't have to be a parent. I just mean my daughter challenges me to not fail. Anybody who says you can only do this or that if you're a parent, any statement like that, you're always gonna end up being proven wrong.

Hearing Isabella Rossellini voice Marcel's grandma made my day. How exciting was it to work with her?

Dean and I had the reaction that anybody else would have, which was like, hard to believe it but you do believe it because it's happening. So you're really trying to just contain all of that inside yourself and still do what you need to do to get the work done and not be intimidated, but still let yourself feel those feelings. We did convince this legend to come and live inside of it with us. I mean, she's a legend. She showed up to where we were recording, every time she has the most beautiful outfits, it's just nonstop. It's always happening. It's inside and out. Head to toe. Class and intellect, elegance and feistiness. What a huge honor for us. We were thrilled and are thrilled and wear it as a total badge of honor that she's in our movie.

From YouTube to the Movies: Jenny Slate
CBS' Leslie Stahl in 'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.' A24

Speaking of legends, can we talk about how CBS' Leslie Stahl is honored in this movie?

It was awesome. A real professional. It's like, this is what it looks like to be a hard-core professional with really good manners and really good work ethic and really high confidence because that's how she comes across and it's how she behaves. I showed up to set and my back was really, really hurting me to the point where I was lying down on the floor. She, weeks after the shoot, emailed me, "Did you get your back looked at? Just want to make sure you're okay." It was just what it means to be a full-on professional. You're not just there humoring everyone and being nice, you're following through, you're remembering specific things about people and continuing to say you mattered in the moment and you still matter to me now. I was so floored by her. She showed up, she looked perfect. Marcel says she's got class, and she does. A lot of what's going on in the Marcel movie, there's so much improv, and it's like what's your description of Leslie? She's got class.

Your appearance in Everything Everywhere All at Once was so perfect! What was it like working on it and how blown away are you by the positive reaction it's receiving?

It was incredibly exciting to be asked to do the movie. I did not know anything about what it was about. The Daniels [directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert] emailed me and said, "We're hoping you'll be in our movie." I just didn't even ask any questions and said yes, and I'm so glad that I did. I know them socially and Dan Kwan's wife Kirsten [Lepore] is our animation director on Marcel, they're in our community. But I feel like [the word genius] is used too often that it's becoming sort of neutralized, but they really are geniuses, they really are. It makes me feel a bright blooming sense of hope that this movie has been so successful because it shrieks with true originality, and it's incredibly beautiful, and touching. And I've never really gotten the chance to do any action stuff before, so it was a new thing for me, which is always very valuable.

You mentioned your time on SNL before, and how that moment shaped your narrative there for a while. Considering all you've done since then, and how you've really written your own narrative for your success, looking back, how does it feel?

Oh, I feel so happy. I feel happy that the little motor on my little boat as I go out to sea to make my little journey has been one of what I actually like. Personal work created out of sweetness, out of wanting to be close, out of not trying to posture and puff yourself up and be larger than you are, or having a problem with what you feel the size of your own identity is like. When I was little I always wanted to be a performer on a larger scale, I wanted to be a movie actor. And I wanted two things, I wanted to be a performer that a lot of people knew about and would watch and to really be someone that my culture knew about and had good feelings toward. I think that speaks to how much love I need as a person. But I've become comfortable with that. It's just like saying most people eat three meals a day, I eat six. I need a lot of different kinds of love. But I also really wanted to be in love person to person. While I look around my life every day and do feel that I live in this wonder dome, in a miracle, I also know that it does come from me. I have a lot of gratitude because it could have gone any way. I just feel fortunate. A lot of it comes from a pretty deep instinct of feeling the weight, when something culturally is dragging me down. Brutal old expectations that come with patriarchy and come with misogyny and come in environments that are cult-like. Those things make me feel downtrodden and pulled down. Imagine your emotions as having a body. Like how bad it feels when you're stooping in your physical body. When you're crouching down because you're like unpacking a box forever and your lower back just hurts. My emotions feel like that. So I've just been trying to figure out how am I standing up straight? Or am I in a weird position? I just have to figure out how to stand up nice and straight.

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