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EXCLUSIVE: How Jenny Slate Channeled the Bumps of Our 20s into a Surprise Return to 'Girls'

by Stacy Lambe 12:28 AM PDT, June 14, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

When Jenny Slate first appeared on Girls in season one, as Hannah's (Lena Dunham) friend-slash-nemesis, Tally, in the penultimate episode, she was still widely known as the actress who said "f**king" on an episode of Saturday Night Live.

In the years since, Slate has expanded beyond her one season on the live sketch comedy series, becoming a MVP guest star on shows like Bob's Burgers, House of Lies, and most notably, Parks and Recreation. On the NBC series led by Amy Poehler, Slate was an instant hit as a spoiled townie, Mona-Lisa Saperstein, who was as obnoxious as she was funny.

Then, in 2014, Slate starred in Obvious Child, a Sundance hit about a woman who decides to have an abortion after learning she's pregnant from a one-night stand. It was both funny and sentimental, with Slate earning praise for her performance. It also showcased a new side of the actress, who largely got laughs for her louder performances.

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"I wouldn't be able to do my job if I felt that I was being overly repetitive," Slate tells ET. "We all have a skill set that we use, and that means occasionally we function on one energy level. When I made Obvious Child that was when I noticed for myself that not only could I play a more real expression, but I was fulfilled by it."

By the time Slate returned to Girls in season five to reprise her role, again in the penultimate episode, she brought something deeper to Tally, who was drowning in her own self-doubt as a successful writer. "This time around, she's really taken some hits and she's taken the specific hits that many of us take in our 20s, which are shame and disappointment that somehow we haven't become a fully-formed and fully-functional person with all of the awards for doing that," Slate says.

Not only is Tally grappling with the ideas of success and failure, she's also dealing with imposter syndrome. Between Googling herself and lamenting to Hannah over a joint, she says: "I'm not just wondering that there's something wrong with me. I think that there is. I'm just wondering if I'm the only one."

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"It's really exciting to return, because even though you're not really meant to love Tally, you are allowed to love her in a complicated way," Slate says. "It's an exciting thing to do, to show someone's growth, because to me, those moments where you're realizing that it didn't turn out the way you thought it would are also the moments where you decide how it could start to be better. And it's those moments where you have to make specific choices and also be humble that make us into better people."

Admittedly, Slate has learned some of Tally's lessons firsthand, such as the dangers of Google and Twitter. After joining the latter in 2009, she immediately realized she didn't like it. "The compliments don't feel good because they don't actually feel very specific about who I actually am," she says. "And the insults feel really specific about who I am. You can't win."

Unlike Tally, Slate can disengage from all of that, which she says is important "to keep my real identity alive within myself."

"It's tricky. I don't want to have to change who I am or how I express myself because the environment is sometimes dangerous. I think that the moment that we try to change ourselves because we're afraid of how other people might treat us, we also deny ourselves the ability to be treated with kindness, specifically by the people who understand us," Slate says, which is something her character wasn't able to control onscreen.

"It's easy to do, but I don't think it makes her a bad person," Slate says.

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