It’s hard not to ascribe meaning to Jenny Slate’s Shirley Temple. The actor who orders the grenadine and ginger ale is not unlike the drink itself–a little bit retro and a lot sweet. She lists embroidery among her hobbies; she doesn’t like “sourpusses” or “grumps”; and Kristen Wiig, who worked with Slate on Saturday Night Live, says her cast mate’s affect is so joyful that she “heard little birds singing and a unicorn appeared” when they first met. On the other hand, sometimes a Shirley Temple is more than an adorable beverage. Soda also happens to be one of Slate’s favorite hangover cures.
If anyone can make a child’s cocktail a window to the soul, it’s Slate, who matches girliness with ribaldry, innocence with insight and sharp wit. “I feel like I’m exactly like Sylvia Plath, except I’m bad at poetry,” says Slate, who is reading a biography of the poet. “She wanted to be good at what she knew she was good at.” That balance of striving and silly is on display in Slate’s new movie, Obvious Child (in limited release on June 6), in which she plays a struggling comedian dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and a matter-of-fact abortion. Serious issues abound in the film, but it’s only minutes before her character, Donna Stern, is delivering a joke about gastrointestinal distress and explaining that an unpleasant bodily by-product is due to the fact that “I have a human vagina.”
Slate, 32, is best known for playing outsize characters on shows like Parks and Recreation (Mona-Lisa, the unflinchingly unpleasant twin sister of Jean-Ralphio) and Girls (Tally Shifrin, a college classmate who inspires jealousy in Lena Dunham’s Hannah) and for being the voice of Tammy on the animated Bob’s Burgers. An understated performance also brought kudos when she co-wrote and voiced the title character in a viral video short called Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, directed by her now husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. Marcel is cute and captivating as he reveals small secrets in a gravelly voice. (“Guess what I wear as a hat,” he says. “A lentil.”) The twee, melancholy humor struck a chord: the video has more than 22 million views on YouTube and gave rise to a sequel, a book and a prospective movie. But the happy medium was missing: Slate loves comedy but wanted, she says, to “talk in a normal voice, not just make faces all the time.”
Slate grew up outside Boston, in an artistic home; her father was a 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for poetry. She always wanted to act, to play pretend like a kid with, as she puts it, “a lady’s body and my own will.” After graduating from Columbia University, where she was active in the undergrad comedy scene, she started doing stand-up and sketch, working with the noted Upright Citizens Brigade comedy program and supporting herself with odd jobs. She developed a style that was more TMI than taboo, sometimes gross but never mean-spirited.
That was how Child’s writer-director, first-timer Gillian Robespierre, found her. After 2007, the year of Knocked Up and Juno, Robespierre and some friends decided to make a short film to depict an unplanned pregnancy with a different outcome. They were looking for an actress who could do both bawdy and genuine, and a trip to a show starring Slate and her comedy partner Gabe Liedman (who is in the movie as well) proved fateful. “I just felt like we went to camp together,” Robespierre recalls. “Her material was about dry-humping furniture.”
The short, also called Obvious Child, was finished in 2009. Its plot carries over to the feature film: breakup, casual sex, abortion treated seriously but not tragically and romance. It now boasts an impressive supporting cast–Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper and The Office’s Jake Lacy in the romantic role–and a richer life for Donna. The gap between 2009 and 2014 was a big one for Slate too. She got roles on shows like HBO’s Bored to Death and in movies like The Lorax, and co-created Marcel. She married. She moved to Los Angeles. She saw a stray dog while walking her own, and now she has two.
And she spent a year at SNL. Shortly after the Child short wrapped, Slate started at what should have been a dream job, as a featured player on the legendary comedy show. It was the first time humor would pay her bills. But while in character as a biker chick on her first show, she dropped an F bomb on live TV. Wiig, who acted opposite Slate in that sketch, says, “It was just a mistake and she was obviously a little nervous about it afterward, but it was fine.” Still, something didn’t click. She wasn’t rehired after the 2009–10 season, and for years after, she fretted that her peers would see her as a pariah. Getting older has helped her get over that, as has getting work–particularly this work.
“Somehow I’ve made a safe escape,” she says. “Making this movie was a turning point for me more than anything else. But also, wanting to be on SNL, being on it, having it not be what I thought it would be and then having it be over not by my own choice is like the best thing that could have happened to me, because it freed me up.”
A few months after the cursing incident, Sigourney Weaver hosted SNL. She gave Slate a piece of unsolicited advice: If anyone told her she wouldn’t make it, she should direct the word that got her in trouble at that person. “I wonder why she gave me that advice then,” Slate says. “I don’t know that I was asking for it. Maybe I was and I didn’t know it.”
Our Bawdy, Ourselves
A good retort may yet come in handy. Slate describes herself as a delicate creature, but her new movie revolves around one of the most controversial topics in American society, and her face appears on a poster that features the word abortion in type nearly as wide as her head. The movie screened to rave reviews at Sundance and South by Southwest. Outside that self-selecting circuit, though, criticism is already appearing in the comments sections of websites that have posted the movie’s trailer and at antiabortion blogs, where the idea of depicting abortion with no moral repercussions has been dismissed as disgusting.
Robespierre is careful to say that Obvious Child is a rom-com rather than a public-service announcement, but the film doesn’t skirt its central issue. Hoffmann, who plays Donna’s experienced best friend, relays factual information–whether it hurt and how long it took–and Draper, as Donna’s mother, describes the challenges of a pre–Roe v. Wade world in vivid detail. Robespierre worked with Planned Parenthood to ensure accuracy; the organization also allowed the crew to film at a clinic. At festivals, some women have said the movie made them feel better about their own experiences with abortions. “I feel like a guarder of those stories,” Slate says. “They’re not secrets, but they’re precious. They’re not anything to be ashamed of, but they’re private.” And they’ve made an impact on Slate, who says she now feels connected to the fight for reproductive rights.
There’s a subtler activism at work in Obvious Child, which mines comedy from the workings of a female body without making that body undesirable. Donna talks about holding in gas during the early stages of a relationship, but she still seems datable. It’s not as extreme as the Bridesmaids food-poisoning scene, but it’s a realistic reminder that bathroom humor isn’t just for the guys, in a world where sex and its aftermath can still be safer topics for a female comedian than farts.
Still, while Slate wants to support creative women–as Obvious Child does, behind the camera and in front–she has no interest in making broad statements about gender and comedy. “The second I become part of this now-is-the-time-for-women-in-comedy conversation, I completely erase my face, I x myself out,” she says. “It feels not progressive at all to say now is the time for women in comedy. It feels rude. Are you going to stare at Lily Tomlin in her face and tell her that? She would punch you, and she should.”
Slate’s time, meanwhile, is filling up with work. She’ll be on the FX show Married in July. More movies are in the pipeline, including one her husband is writing for her to star in. It’s clear that her future isn’t populated by comedic characters alone. “I couldn’t have picked a better part to show everybody that I can act,” she says of Obvious Child, “and also to prove it to myself.”
This appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of TIME.