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Jenny Slate on how her new sci-fi podcast lets her be more than a funny voice

In Earth Break, Jenny Slate pushes against type to become an alien-killing action hero.

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Building a sci-fi podcast around Jenny Slate — an actress and comedian best known for her stints on Kroll Show and Parks and Recreation, as well as roles in movies like Obvious Child (2014) and Venom (2018) — may seem like a peculiar creative choice. Although Slate’s most recent work has skewed dramatic, she remains a beloved presence in the comedy scene.

And even in her more dramatic roles, she brings the gravitas — and comic timing — of a well-spoken, thoughtful, and hilarious chameleon of sorts. It’s that chameleonic nature that makes her a great fit for Earth Break: A Few Suggestions For Survival, With Additional Hints and Tips About How to Make Yourself More Comfortable During the Alien Apocalypse, a new narrative podcast in which she plays a woman who may be the sole survivor of a planet-decimating alien invasion.

As Lynn Gellert, Slate finds comfort in the voice recorder she rescues from the rubble around her, taping her efforts to avoid contracting the genocidal virus the aliens spread. The listener is privy to all of Lynn’s uncomfortable, lonely, intimate moments. She sings to herself to mask the silence around her; she shouts into the empty stretches of nothingness ahead of her, greeted only by her echo; she fumbles around with the recorder as she recounts her life experiences, both before and after everyone she knew was killed.

The result is something of an unsettling audio diary, a mix of calmer, more emotional moments of loneliness and action sequences filled with horrifying monster noises that provide a backdrop for Lynn’s breathless attempts to escape. But it’s not completely hopeless: Despite Lynn’s circumstances, the six-part story is not about giving up. It’s about moving forward.

In Earth Break, Slate gets to showcase what may be her most distinctive and well-known quality: her voice. She first broke out by voicing Marcel the Shell, the adorable star of a 2010 short film she and her (now ex-)husband Dean Fleischer-Camp directed called Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Slate gave the sneaker-clad Marcel a warbly, tiny voice; the character spent the three-minute film talking about his bizarre interests and his happy-go-lucky outlook. The video was a hit online, ultimately spawning two sequels; the “trilogy” has garnered nearly 50 million total YouTube views. There’s even a feature film in the works.

After Marcel’s debut, sitcom spots and movie roles quickly followed for Slate, but fans and interviewers remained keen to throw back to the shell as Slate’s best role, even years after it went viral. But to fixate on Marcel is to ignore how varied a career Slate has had in the nearly 10 years since, crafting numerous characters on sketch shows and becoming a leading woman onscreen.

Slate’s ability to inhabit myriad, diverse characters is what makes shorts like the Marcel series so fun and her first dive into a narrative podcast so exciting, especially since she shoulders almost the entirety of the talking in Earth Break, and all of that talking is to herself. Though it’s much more dark, dramatic, and physically demanding than Slate’s previous work — more than half of the show was recorded with Slate acting out the scenes outdoors on a ranch — Earth Break keeps with her tradition of throwing her voice to unexpected places.

To get some insight into how the show came together, I recently spoke to Slate about her interest in stretching her boundaries through projects like Earth Break, her resistance to typecasting, and getting over the embarrassment of acting out fights against unseen aliens during the recording process.

Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Allegra Frank

I’m excited for your new podcast, Earth Break. When I first heard about it, I thought, This sounds cool because it’s Jenny Slate, and cool because it’s an interesting premise for a podcast, but I wouldn’t necessarily think of you as doing something like this — a sci-fi narrative podcast.

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that, but I’m curious about what brought you to this project.

Jenny Slate

Well, I first wanted to do it just because I really wanted to work with [indie director] Aaron Katz, and I love his film Land Ho! and been a fan over the last, I don’t know, four or five years. I’ve just been kind of constantly checking in with him to ask, have you got any new projects? He texted me and he was like, “I think we have something we could do together.” So whatever it was going to be, I just wanted to work with Aaron.

But you know what? Actually, you are right. I think the reason I was drawn to this was exactly connected to what you are saying, which is that I’m not normally — I don’t think it’s a no-brainer that I would be cast as a woman who survived an alien apocalypse and is physically fighting with these aliens and running and jumping. I never get to really do action and haven’t existed very much in the sci-fi world at all.

Venom [in which Slate has a small part as a scientist] is much more of a superhero movie, and Hotel Artemis [where Slate plays a police officer in a dystopian, rioting Los Angeles] is much more of a future-noir kind of thing, and this is a straight-up alien apocalypse story. And I think for me, I really want to be able to exist as a performer in a world that doesn’t have a margin of what I can be. I can often sidetrack myself with self-doubt or by just getting into my own head, like, “Nobody would ever pick you to do that.”

So for me, knowing that this was all voice work but that physically we were going to record it [in person, as if it were a movie], [my thought] was that it was going to be impossible. So if I run and jump over a stone wall, I run and jump over a stone wall. I was actually doing all of that. And when I was, let’s say that there’s an alien — I would actually be running across the driveway, crouching, jumping up, and then stabbing an alien. I probably looked like [how] when I look out the window, and I see my nephew doing, like, kicking and punching to nobody in the backyard, that stuff. That’s what I looked like.

But I wanted to do it because I don’t think I normally am thought of in those types of roles, and I would like to do them actually on the screen, and so this is a good way in for me. And there is no shame in finding a way to get yourself into the space where you want to be, as long as you don’t compromise your own success, and I certainly didn’t do that. This is a very exciting and wonderful process of finding out how to be confident within this new genre.

Allegra Frank

You’re describing running down the driveway and actually swinging punches, and that’s obviously a funny mental image, but it’s also surprising because it is for a podcast. And something that’s cool about that, too, is that you’re shouldering the entirety of the show. So, one, it’s this genre that’s sort of new to you, but, two, it’s a narrative podcast, where we’re dependent on you and your voice to carry us through. Does that feel even more daunting, trying out something more action-focused in what’s also a different kind of medium than what you normally work in?

Jenny Slate

After I got past the initial fears of, “Oh, no! I have never dwelled within this genre before!” I just felt really, really excited. Because we’ve been recording the Marcel the Shell feature film, I’ve [gotten used to doing] long projects where I’m the only person performing and I have to carry that, and I really, really like that. It makes me feel proud and I feel good at it, and that’s how I want to feel in my life. I want to feel that I can settle, and that I feel a sense of legitimacy in my work, and that I’m doing something that nobody else would do in the same way.

It feels that way also when I do standup, like once I get going, I can just feel my singularity — I can feel that I am moved and be able to see that in a way that is not narcissistic or not egotistical, and that just doesn’t just hinge on other people saying, “Oh, yeah, there she is, I designate her to as the one to look at.” But where it comes from within me, it feels like all my lights turned on.

I will say the one thing that I have to do is to look past the feeling of being really embarrassed — that I was kicking and punching nothing. And a lot of times, the sequences were long, like, “Okay, you’re going to run out the front door, you’re going to crouch behind this garbage can, you’re going to see an alien, you’re going to say, ‘Stay away from me, motherfucker,’ throw a rock at nothing, [and] jump in fear.” It’s this sequence, and [the crew] just watches you do it. And that can be really embarrassing, but it’s also so cool to watch someone totally commit to something and not give a shit about whether or not other people find what they’re doing to be embarrassing.

The way that I can be myself in the world, I’m starting to realize or have realized, is often embarrassing to other people. They’re just like, “Wow! You really shared a lot there,” or, “You don’t seem to have a problem telling someone you just met that, whatever, your gynecologist doesn’t do that.” I definitely just have different boundaries than other people have, but I’ve never put them to use in this way in my work, so that felt really good.

Allegra Frank

What you were just saying now, about how your boundaries seem to be a lot looser than most other people’s — you do seem like you’re comfortable being vulnerable and open with people. Do you feel as though that might be beneficial, that it might actually be a good quality to have when trying to sell someone on this sort of story that is audio-only? Earth Break, again, is primarily you, and it’s in a different genre than your fans might be used to experiencing your work in. Do you think your tendency to be open and vulnerable is something that will help make this more accessible?

Jenny Slate

For me, being open is just — that’s the necessity that I feel, being alive. That’s just what it is for me. I don’t feel courageous, I just feel like that’s the way I have to be, and I start to feel like I’m dying if I can’t say what my experience is. With that said, sometimes people don’t want to know, and I’ve had to learn how to be respectful and how to learn to make sure that people want to accept what I’m bringing. When I was a younger person, nobody understood that — not that I’m old now, but you can’t just constantly fling yourself at people. I think they don’t want that.

Not everyone is willing to catch a full, complex identity all the time, but I do think that I depend on using my voice onstage, and in my work as well a lot of the times, to give a picture of a full identity. What I say usually matters more than how I look. Even if I’m onstage and I’m doing standup, and I have a cool outfit, that just serves as a sort of dressing. It’s nothing compared to the statements that are being made. And so I feel like I do know how to create really good entertainment for people that is voice first and words first.

If someone’s going to do it, I am the right woman for the job, in a sense, and I am so in love with voice acting. It changes for me all the time, and some people say, “Oh, you do cartoons, you must show up in your pajamas.” While I am currently wearing my pajamas right now, I show up in the full outfit that an actress would wear. I go to work wearing whatever Isabella Rossellini would wear. I’m having a full experience all the time, even if you can’t see me.

Allegra Frank

Right, your voice acting roles, in Marcel the Shell and movies like Zootopia, were a major part of how you broke out. But when I hear that Jenny Slate is attached to Earth Break, that speaks to me as, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like a ‘Jenny Slate thing,’” unlike how a dramedy or goofy sketch show does. Do you think that there is a Jenny Slate type of role, or a definition of your career?

Jenny Slate

I mean, pardon me, but it’s none of my business to figure out how people would characterize me so that they can understand me and be done with that work, because I’m going to be emerging and becoming myself until I’m dead. So I don’t know — the Jenny Slate type in 30 years will be a hag with really long hair, with fire coming out of her fingertips.

No, I’m just not super concerned with it. But I will say that it’s important to me for people to know that I want to be in this world to bring beauty and pleasure to my community and to myself. I’m a little pleasure seeker. I’m like a nice little party animal, and I want people to feel that at once they can be excited and safe around me. So if I were to be any type, I would hope it would be that.

New episodes of Earth Break are released weekly on most podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Stitcher. You can listen to the first episode below.