The idea for Zoe Lister-Jones’ newest show, Slip, came by way of “cosmic download.”
“It just lands in my brain inexplicably,” Lister-Jones says, explaining her story ideation process. “And I'm like, ‘That's the show I'm making.’ But then usually because I'm working on something else when I get those ideas, the show incubates and percolates for a little while and then there's always a turning point when it's like, ‘OK, it's time to write it.’”
Following its debut at SXSW, Slip arrives on The Roku Channel on April 21 and Lister-Jones serves as writer, director and star. The existential comedy follows Mae, who has a steady job at an art museum and a thirteen-year relationship with husband Elijah (Whitmer Thomas). But with little romance and general life numbness, Mae falls into a surreal journey of parallel universes where she is married to different people. On her trek back to her partner, she ultimately finds herself.
Lister-Jones initially told her team about the story idea just before the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020.
“Obviously that gave me the time to devote to it, but I think a lot of the questions that are central to its themes became all the more resonant in quarantine and so it felt, I think, even more pressing for me to write,” she shares.
Before Lister-Jones filmed Slip, she took her talents to Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid. Also making its wide release on April 21, the Joaquin Phoenix-starring film sees a paranoid man embark on an odyssey home in the wake of his mother’s (Patti LuPone) sudden death, which reveals her lasting impact on his livelihood.
“I got a masterclass from Ari before we started shooting [Slip,]” Lister-Jones laughs. “To create something that is that funny and that bleak and that demented and irreverent and that visually arresting—I just think it's brilliant.”
When the surrealist black comedy flashes back, Lister-Jones portrays the mother of Beau’s childhood. Her role prep included time dedicated to studying LuPone and collaborating on the character.
“[We] read our scenes together and I recorded her saying my dialogue so that I could try and inhabit her as best I could. It's a dream of a character,” she says. “That pairing was just wild and so exciting.”
With Slip, Lister-Jones proves she too is a master of her craft through execution of her duties as writer, director and star. But despite the varied responsibilities of each role, taking it all on ensured her vision’s success.
“All cylinders have to be firing at once or I think the ship sinks,” Lister-Jones says. “When I write, I’m envisioning direction the entire time. It’s really helpful because then once I get to shotlisting, I’ve basically shotlist the whole thing in my head. And I've heard every piece of dialogue in my head so that when I'm directing actors, it's all organically in conversation in a way that feels really holistic and exciting.”
She adds, “As an actor, the goal is to be present. And as a director, from within the scene, one would think that that would be in conflict, but what I tried to remember as an actor is that in real life when we're in any conversation, we're having a thousand other thoughts at the same time. And so this fiction of being entirely present with a person just doesn't exist. And I think when you can give yourself permission to allow for those distractions as part of a human experience, then you're actually able to be more present with your scene partner. And I think directing from within a scene is so immediate and you have so many more tools at your disposal as a director and you can shape performance through performance, which is really cool. I love doing them simultaneously, even though it is challenging.”
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Still, portraying Mae alone required a dynamic performance. “A woman f****** her way through the multiverse is not something I understand where it came from except that it was the culmination of a lot of questions that I had,” Lister-Jones says. “I think knowing areas that I wanted to explore around sex and sexuality, particularly from a woman's perspective and how to do so unapologetically in the medium of film and television was important to me.”
At a time when film and media Twitter routinely debates the purposefulness of sex scenes, Lister-Jones offers a straightforward example. When her character Mae jumps universes, it is always through orgasm, which the camera doesn’t turn away from.
“I wanted to create a story where there was no way out of exploring all of the facets of a woman's pleasure,” she says. “That was the centerpiece of every episode. It was her mode of transportation in terms of world jumping. I think in order to divert the system, you have to really go for it. And I wanted to really go for it in a way that felt like the viewer was inside of the sex scene rather than watching from above in a more voyeuristic dance.”
Because Slip is about the human spirit, as Lister-Jones says, she found Buddhist concepts were an interesting way to unpack Mae’s journey. She points out the hungry ghost archetype, which in the show is featured as a painting that Mae is enamored with, no matter the universe. The concept itself considers hungry ghosts as beings who are tormented that can never be satisfied.
“I think that there's a karmic cycle that Mae is on in which her privilege has blinded her to the suffering of those around her because she's so obsessed with her own sense of suffering,” she says. “I think she's really forced to face the ugliness of that. And by the end, hopefully, [she’ll] have some sort of karmic redemption for herself just just to learn what her privileges afforded her. As we all know, that's not a linear path. There's so much to unlearn, so I think it was important that Mae was deeply flawed, but that that lesson was very difficult for her to actually embody. And if we do get a season two, which I hope we do, I think it will be explored even further.”
To watch Mae can be difficult, but she is also easy to root for. Her bravery is crucial to embracing the fact that she can suddenly jump into parallel universes of her life.
“I think that she does have an appetite for aliveness that's working so hard to break through her depression, which I relate to a lot,” Lister-Jones says. “While she isn’t totally the agent of her own self discovery, she is engineering it unconsciously.”
Photography by: Jill Greenberg