Before most people could recognise Jenny Slate’s face, they knew her voice. Because before she appeared on Girls or Parks And Recreation or House Of Cards or starred in Obvious Child, it was her animated short Marcel The Shell With The Shoes On that endeared her to fans. In the 2010 viral hit, Slate gave voice to a bashful shell who sounded like a whiny baby but was somehow still adorable.
Since then, she’s become one of the most sought-after voice-over actors in Hollywood.
Earlier this year, the 34-year-old played the evil sheep Bellwether in Zootopia, and she’s been recurring as a manipulative teen on Bob’s Burgers since 2012.
Calling from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, United States, where she was on vacation with her family, Slate discussed her disgust at working in sweatpants, affinity for screaming her lungs out, and satisfaction of earning her place as a voice actor.
You have a really identifiable voice. When did you realise how unique it was?
I never thought that about myself at all. I never noticed my voice. I did become aware as a little kid at camp that I liked doing accents. We’d do plays and skits, and I realised I loved speaking in voices that weren’t my own.
What kind of voices would you do?
Everything I did was kind of a rip-off of what I saw in cartoons, like Animaniacs, or Chip and Dale from the Chipmunks. And a lot of (Saturday Night Live’s) Coffee Talk. I loved pretending to be a middle-aged Jewish woman. I just wanted to do what I saw Gilda Radner and Carol Burnett were doing. But I’m not a particularly good impressionist. It was never my strong suit.
And yet I have always loved voice-over work. When I was growing up, I was so fascinated by Mel Blanc and all of the different voices that he did for Looney Tunes and watching Robin Williams record voice-over for the genie in Aladdin. It always seemed to be a major honour – something you have to earn. Like people trust you when they want to have you there without seeing you.
Speaking of Looney Tunes – are you still writing the script for a new film adaptation?
No. I wrote that movie when I first moved to LA. I really enjoyed the writing process, but when it comes down to it, I’m not suited to be a gun for hire. I had an idea I wanted to do that was really, really old-fashioned. It was incredibly fun, and I will always be thankful that they took a risk on me. But I don’t think I should plug into a franchise that already exists.
How did you develop the voice for Gidget?
They told me they were interested in using a version of my own voice. And once I saw her and her pink bow, I felt like it was a no-brainer. I wanted Gidget to sound like candy sounds. Like the crinkle of a wrapper or the sweetness of saltwater taffy. There is so much to do with a character who is bright-eyed and really positive but also has a short fuse.
Did your own dog have any influence on the character?
I spend a lot of time observing my dog Reggie, because I truly am bonded and obsessed with him. He is the opposite of Gidget. He’s a bichon frise, and he’s really old. He has seven teeth. He has diabetes. He is incredibly disobedient, and I don’t think he’s a super-positive creature. But he’s very loving. He’ll sit on almost anyone’s lap. And he sends a lot of messages. If you leave him at home, he knocks over the trash and eats stuff he shouldn’t eat. He’ll eat, like, trays of brownies. And this year he ate five tampons at once and had to get emergency surgery.
Over the last few years, you’ve played a shell, a sheep, a snake and a dog. Why do you think your voice works well as an animal?
I guess I have played a lot of animals. It makes a lot of sense to me that I would be a cartoon. I feel like a cartoon as a person. I really, really do. Around the time I made Marcel The Shell, I became more aware of my speaking voice. I always thought I sounded like my mum – weirdly, I thought I had a deep voice. I sometimes listen back to my stand-up sets, and I am really surprised by my own voice.
Do you do as much preparation for a voice part as you do for a live-action role?
It feels simpler to me to do voice-over work, because sometimes you don’t get your script until you get in there. But for any role, I will take a little private moment with myself and recognise that I’ve earned my place and that it’s hard to earn your place. I wish I could say that voice-over is a really detailed process for me, but it feels like they’ve usually created an atmosphere that is so stable and fertile that I can just go in and bounce off the walls.
OK, so there’s no vocal exercises or special tea?
There are certainly days where it’s like, “OK, we’re doing all the screams today.” In Secret Life Of Pets, she falls and jumps, and with every one of those comes a grunt of a scream. So there’s definitely some tea brought into the studio after a while, but nothing major. And it feels great to scream. I definitely like to empty myself out. There have been times when I have wanted to scream because I felt a build-up of emotion or stress, and I really feel that I cannot do it in my house because somebody will call the police.
A lot of actors say they love voice-over work because you don’t have to dress up and you can show up to the studio in sweatpants. Do you do that?
That’s just not the type of lady that I am. I don’t go in in sweatpants ever. Nor do I go on planes in sweats. When I was little, you dressed up for the airplane just like synagogue. When you go to work, it’s a respectful thing. I don’t want to let go of the traditions, because they are really important to me. I’ve wanted to do this ever since I can remember. I don’t want to be casual about it. So I dress like I would dress for a nice lunch with my grandmother. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Amy Kaufman