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Jenny Slate On ‘The Sunlit Night,’ Addressing Racism And Her Hopes For Art After The Pandemic

If you’re looking for something beautiful to watch while at home, look no further than Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night, which comes out on Video on Demand July 17th. While the film in no way directly deals with the current state of the world, it touches on the concepts of finding meaning through isolation, loneliness and the great abyss of the unknown. It just does it in the dramatically beautiful, sweeping landscapes of Arctic Norway, the Land of the Midnight Sun.

In this Sundance hit, the immensely charming Jenny Slate stars as Frances and works alongside two of her friends, writer Rebecca Dinerstein and director David Wnendt. Frances is an aspiring painter, equal parts headstrong and vulnerable. She decides to leave New York City as her personal and professional lives crumble around her. She finds herself on assignment in a remote village in Norway under the mentorship of a difficult but world-renowned Norwegian painter, and acclimating to a new language, culture and climate, one in which the sun never fully sets and baby goats find their way into her makeshift RV home. In her lostness and dealings with the eccentric characters of this small town (played by Zach Galifianakis and Gillian Anderson, among others), Frances not only learns about who she wants to be as a painter but grows exponentially as a person. The Sunlit Night reminds the viewer of the transformative power of travel. Unlike so many Hollywood travel narratives, this one tells a “Go West Young Man” kind of story about a female protagonist in her 3os.

Slate has proven herself both a remarkable and relatable presence through her work in film and television. Her performance in The Sunlit Night is no exception. She recently made headlines with her decision to step down from the role of Missy, a biracial character on the animated Netflix sitcom Big Mouth. In a recent Instagram post, Slate stated, “At the start of the show, I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play Missy because her mom is Jewish and White-as I am. But Missy is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” Slate went on to acknowledge her flawed reasoning as a result of her white privilege and an act of erasure of Black people. Slate is not the only White actor who has recently agreed to stop voicing a Black character. Actor Kristen Bell, who voiced Molly, a mixed-race character, on Apple Tv+’s animated series Central Park, has also recently acknowledged her complicity and regret.

I spoke with Slate about her decision not to voice Missy any longer. We also discussed what drew her to Dinerstein’s script, what she does to stay creative and inspired when traveling is no longer an option and what kind of stories she hopes to tell and experience in a post-pandemic world.

Risa Sarachan: I love that this movie is about a woman journeying out into the unknown to find herself. Was that one of the things that drew you to Rebecca’s story?

Jenny Slate: It’s interesting that you put it that way. First, I read the novel, and I did think of it as a story that did not seem like a typically female-centered story. Because the character of Frances in the novel and then in the movie to some extent really doesn’t follow a prototype. There are sort of some recognizable jumping-off points, like she starts at the bottom, she’s dumped, she’s criticized harshly in her art school, but yeah, it is clearly a story about a woman, but the way it’s told is clearly ungendered, and I like that.

Sarachan: The Sunlit Night reminds us of the importance of travel to grow and access creativity. How do you continue to be creative during this time? Does it feel different from being in between projects in the past?

Slate: I think the difference is that when I work and I’m on set, I’m excited to go back to what I consider to be my sort of quotidian rhythms and I’ve missed them, and I’m not looking for them to change, but for me in this time I haven’t found myself really able to write. It seems like I’m experiencing something that is a variation on a collective experience and it’s not feeling that profound.

I notice that my creative efforts are efforts of intake, that I’m reading a lot. I’m learning a lot during this time. Which is really good. And the creative effort-take it or leave it-is finding new ways to be in my day. Finding new ways to not let my mind completely take over with fear fantasies or wishing that things were different, and just trying to create new patterns that allow me to dwell in what’s happening now and not ask for anything other. And that’s been really nice for me because I’ve learned that I can do without a lot of what I thought I needed.

Sarachan: What are you reading and watching right now?

Slate: I’m currently reading Marilynne Robinson, and before that I was reading the book, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. It’s really all over the map, which feels right to me. Oh, and I just read All About Love by Bell Hooks, which is a real revelation. It’s a really amazing book.

We’re not watching a lot of television in our house, but actually, my fiancé had never seen Parks and Rec, and I had never seen it from beginning to end, so we’ve been watching that a little bit. It’s hard to admit, but I hadn’t seen a lot of it and that’s really fun. I find myself wanting to watch things that were comforting to me when I was younger. In fact, a couple of friends and I, each on our own, watched the movie Babe.

I really love 90s kinds of thrillers. Just this past weekend, I watched The Pelican Brief. I find myself wanting to watch things like The Client and The Firm- I don’t know why I want that, but I love them so much.

We just went to the drive-in last night, and we saw Ghostbusters. It was wonderful. We drove an hour and a half to watch it. I guess I know every line of that movie. My fiancé didn’t remember any of it. I know everything-the weird soundtrack songs that kind of blend into the background. There’s a song that I think is called Saving the Day, and it’s just completely literal, it’s just forecasting that they’re about to save the day.

Sarachan: He must have been so impressed that you knew all of that.

Slate: [Laughing] I’m not sure. I’m not sure that that’s what he values. Maybe. But he was excited about how happy I was, that’s for sure. He knew exactly what I wanted, and he gave it to me, which is wonderful. We drove through Rhode Island, got falafels, and then drove another hour back into Massachusetts to go to this tiny drive-through. I had an Orange Soda. Everything was great.

Sarachan: I applaud your decision to step down and no longer voice the character of Missy, a young black girl on the animated series Big Mouth. What other steps are you taking to help amplify Black and Brown voices and confront racism and social injustice?

Slate: I think the most interesting fallacy is that there’s not really anything you can do at home. If I could pinpoint anything, the first thing is for White people-if you’re having a family dinner or you’re back in your hometown and meeting up with childhood friends, and you realize that you have differing points of view-break that White solidary. Break the silence and create the disruption of the embedded racism and white supremacy that really does go through our culture, and find ways to call it out and create a space for discussion. To find a way to tolerate your own shame. There’s a lot of behavior to unlearn and a lot of behavior to learn, and that can be done truly in interpersonal relationships on a daily basis, even with people that you’re with all the time.

My partner and I are truly looking at how we behave, and it’s illuminating. So there is that, on a very personal and local level, in your home, in your community, there are conversations to be had, and the way to notice that is to try to look at what you’re avoiding and what you let go of. What you let slip by because you think it’s not worth it. It’s worth everything to figure out how to speak what has been consistently silenced- the disruption is a good thing and just try to find how you can do that.

Another thing is just getting the books and educating yourself, it’s easier than anything to find those resources. It makes a world of difference.

Sarachan: How do you see the pandemic affecting art in a larger sense? How do you think it will shift the way narratives are told and the stories people want to hear?

Slate: It’s a hard question, but I can say, at least from where I sit, there’s a real sort of “out with the old” feeling. That’s just like, there are some tropes that I don’t think we need any more of. I think that there are people of color that have been blocked from being in positions of power. I hope the change isn’t just in the narratives we see, but in who is actually controlling what stories are made. I think about it a lot and just for myself in terms of what kind of comedy I might make moving forward, and that people are pretty exhausted joking about Donald Trump. By the time the Coronavirus passes through, however many years that will take, will we want to talk about it? Is it necessary? I really don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to want to say. I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see.

I think a lot of narratives and a lot of stereotypes and tropes are just going to seem embarrassing and odious to us the further we go along. I’ve felt that way for a while. I can’t believe that there’s still the character of this chill understanding wife who is not very disturbed that her husband is doing this immature thing. That misogynistic version of a woman still exists, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while anway and so have a lot of other people. And I think those cultural changes are going to be made and I think it’s long overdue.

Sarachan: Yeah, that wife character is everywhere. I definitely know her.

Slate: Yeah, and she really doesn’t do anyone any favors. Whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s so deeply hurtful, so impossible and so grotesque because also, it keeps the misogynists themselves as just a little baby who needs a partner who basically has zero reactions except reactions that are just praise and pleasure. I think that’s a giant bummer and I have no respect for it. It makes me kind of scrunch up when I hear a man describe a woman as “chill.”

This interviewed has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Sunlit Night will be released on VOD on July 17th from Quiver Distribution.

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