Jenny Slate on Playing Marcel the Shell: “Community Is Deeply Precious”

Pin It
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, 2023
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, 2023(Film still)

As Marcel the Shell With Shoes On hits cinemas, Jenny Slate talks about the film’s message of community, and how it feels to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film award at the Oscars

“We always treated the voice as an individual we were meeting, even before he was named Marcel,” says Jenny Slate, relaying the origin story of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the anthropomorphic shell herself and director Dean Fleischer-Camp introduced to the world over a decade ago on YouTube. “If you're going to learn more about Marcel, it’s because he’s going to tell you.” Fortuitously conceived by Slate as a reaction to feeling overwhelmed amongst friends in a tight space, the voice has subsequently spawned three YouTube shorts, two children’s books and now an A24 feature film. 

“He’s not a child or a boy, but he was always male,” continues Slate. “Dean had a bunch of found objects and was sticking googly eyes on a lot of stuff, then eventually he stuck the eye in the hole of the shell, put the shoes on, and was like, ‘I think this is the guy’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s definitely the guy’.” The name, like many of Marcel’s inflections, was improvised, though Slate credits a trip to France as inspiration. “We had just been to see where my Nana had been in hiding during the Holocaust – she’s a Holocaust survivor – and her brother was named Marcel. So I do think that’s part of it.”

Distinctive voices are a core part of Slate’s repertoire, as fans of animated shows like Big Mouth and Bob’s Burgers will know. Elsewhere however, the actress, stand-up comedian and author is perhaps better known for playing a Saperstein sibling in Parks and Recreation, leading 2014’s abortion rom-com Obvious Child, and more recently for her turn as dog mum Debbie in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Then there is her Netflix special Stage Fright and essay collection Little Weirds, both released in 2019. “Jenny’s writing is wide open, tuneful, tender,” wrote Durga Chew-Bose on the blurb. “She sees (and feels) the world like a bug might, two antennae poking out from her head like sensory wands.” The sentiment could easily be carried over to Marcel, who translates the world with a similar vulnerability and surrealist-leaning perspective as Slate. 

For the new film, Slate and Fleischer-Camp looked to documentary – specifically Billy the Kid and Grey Gardens – building on the idea of Marcel telling his own story. “Portraits of individuals who might, in one way or another be othered, but are put at the centre as a worthy hero,” says Slate. On the big screen, he is joined by another shell called Nana Connie – named after Slate’s maternal grandmother but imagined as an amalgam of both her grandmothers as well as Dean’s – whose character became even more distinct after Isabella Rossellini signed up. “Isabella is someone who, as the character of Nana Connie says, likes to take the adventure and she really does,” shares Slate. “She’s really inquisitive and really down to improvise – she doesn’t appear to be a very fearful person. We were lucky, our process was weird and we had the face of Lancôme with a microphone taped to her head – completely unpretentious, an exquisite performer.” 

Narrative-wise, the film follows Marcel in a search for his community, who’ve disappeared following a row between the humans he lives amongst. It’s community specifically that Slate and Fleischer-Camp chose to position at the heart of the story. “I just think it’s a lovely thing to put at the centre of a comedy,” notes Slate. “We are certainly more connected [today], than probably any other generation of human beings, just because of social media, but that doesn’t necessarily mean community. Community is something you can build for yourself, that is deeply precious, and that holds ritual and group memories. It was so important to make community this treasure that Marcel was hoping to find again. I know that, as a person, I really thrive off my community.” This notion is wound into a meta moment that appears in the film, with Marcel’s search campaign echoing the success of Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s first short (currently at 33 million views on YouTube), and he remarks, “it’s still a group of people but it’s an audience, it’s not a community.” 

A personal project for much of its life, in the week prior to my Zoom call with Slate, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards. “I was so excited about the Oscar nomination! I am still excited, it’s almost hard to process or metabolise,” says the actress. “We made it privately and for so long, that I was startled at first, that so many people were seeing it. But this film feels like the endpoint we could only have dreamed of [for Marcel], and with the Oscar nomination, it just feels complete. I feel a lot of peace and gratitude around it, for sure.” 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is out in UK cinemas now.