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Jenny Slate relishes complexity of abortion-themed comedy 'Obvious Child'

Actor Jenny Slate poses for a photo as she promotes the film

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Actor Jenny Slate poses for a photo as she promotes the film "Obvious Child" in Toronto on Monday, June 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - Comedian Jenny Slate is perhaps best known for her recurring role as the "total klepto, nympho and pyro" Mona-Lisa Saperstein on "Parks & Recreation," an outsized character so narcissistic and obnoxious that even her idiotic twin brother lovingly introduces her as "the worst person in the world."

It was with some enthusiasm, then, that the 32-year-old Slate stepped into a more nuanced role in "Obvious Child."

"For someone who plays (a character) who is literally described as the worst person on 'Parks & Rec,' it was really meaningful to me," said the personable Slate in a promotional visit to Toronto this week.

"Because it also meant that I'm an actress. I look like myself — I haven't had anything shaved down," she says as she motions toward her nose, "or put in, or whatever. And it means a lot to me that I can play the main character of a movie with a really good script.

"And it was a lot to prove to myself that I could hit all of the highs and lows. I always had the inkling. I felt that I could, but until you do it, you have no idea."

And Slate's first foray into feature-length romantic comedy is by no means the sort of boardroom-moulded fare audiences are used to being served.

From first-time writer-director Gillian Robespierre, "Obvious Child" casts Slate as Donna Stern, a struggling New York 20-something who chooses to work out her (ample) personal issues through rambling, boundlessly confessional standup sets.

She's reeling from a recent breakup when she meets and hooks up with Jake Lacy's Max, a straitlaced and sweet-natured computer programmer whose gentlemanly Midwest gentility stands in stark contrast to Stern's acidic wit.

Upon finding out that the drunken tryst has left her pregnant, Donna decides to have an abortion. Though the film captures a spectrum of emotions as her appointment approaches, she never questions her initial decision — an important factor for Slate.

"We really wanted to not avoid the fact that this is still complicated for Donna, but we certainly didn't want to make a meal out of the decision to have the abortion," she said. "She's not emotionally ready or financially ready at all to have this baby and she doesn't want to have it, and she exercises her right to have a safe procedure. Done.

"But that also doesn't mean that it's easy for her to do it. It is a big thing. In general, going to the doctor and having a procedure is something that a lot of people want to talk to their parents about or their friends. And that doesn't need to be avoided."

The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year, where it won an award, earned distribution and received enthusiastic reviews.

For Slate — who was notoriously fired after one season in the cast of "Saturday Night Live" for accidentally swearing on air — the reception was positive, but the personal testimony of moviegoers moved by the film was even more so.

"When I first read the script, I definitely didn't read it as an agenda film. To me, I was very aware that maybe the story hadn't been told in a romantic comedy format yet, but I wasn't really aware ... that so many people would cling to the story and really want to connect themselves to it," she said.

"That's been the most interesting part, all the people after the screenings who come up and say — male or female — 'I've had this experience with getting dumped (or) getting fired,' or other people will talk about their abortions that they had. It's a really interesting, at once intimate, but very casual way of sharing."

Although it's the film's unvarnished handling of abortion that's earning most headlines — plus the condemnation of conservative groups including the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation — Slate figures the film's skewed interpretation of the romantic comedy is as noteworthy.

Usually, women in romantic comedies are "given lines that are funny but not too edgy because they're afraid that the woman won't seem attractive," Slate notes. "'Obvious Child,'" she adds, "rejects that mindset completely."

"(It's) a genre that's known for being sweet and really easily metabolized — you take it in, it makes you feel better, you move on. You're not really supposed to carry anything with you except a little bit of relief, tension release.

"And I think that for us ... we love rom-coms, but we find them increasingly unidentifiable in terms of our lives. We were women who wanted to see people like us getting romance and doing funny things. And I think there's a lot of risk aversion in Hollywood and they're like: 'I don't know, take the prettiest person and the hottest dude and put them together. That'll be fine!'

"And it's just, like, we all deserve a little bit more than that."

"Obvious Child" opens in Toronto on Friday before expanding to other Canadian cities in the weeks to come.

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