Sarah Silverman was her playful, jokey self when she sat down with Indiewire hours before world premiering her new film “I Smile Back” at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. In her first starring role, that sparkle is gone.
“I Smile Back,” stars Silverman as Laney, a suburban wife and mother who struggles with depression, reckless behavior and addiction. Within the first first 20 or so minutes of Adam Salky’s harrowing drama, based on the 2008 novel by Amy Koppelman, Laney goes on a drug and alcohol fueled rampage that causes her husband (Josh Charles) to check her into rehab. Silverman is astonishing in the role, fearless in her portrayal of a woman on the verge of self destruction.
“I Smile Back” is one of the most hotly anticipated films playing this year solely based on the interest in your dramatic performance. What’s that like?
I feel like it’s just set up for… failure. I feel like I’m happy about the positive buzz, but I feel like it is such a classic set up for like — anytime a person says, “Ooh, this movie’s going to be so great,” it’s never as good as [that]. I want people to have very low expectations going in so that it will be the best it can be.
I mean, I’m still a comedian. I’m not going to stop being a comedian. It’s just a movie.
What about playing Laney appealed to you?
There were things about it that I could connect to, and I felt like I could access. Sounds like a fucking actress, doesn’t it?
And it was different, and it came across my path; it was offered to me. You know, this isn’t something that happens — getting an offer. But the woman who wrote the book and then the screenplay, Amy Koppelman, heard me on Howard Stern and was convinced, “This is who should be Laney,” and wrote the screenplay, and so you know, who am I to argue? What am I, busy? Yeah, I did it! It was four weeks, it was intense, it was a real team effort, and I’m proud of it — and it’s neat to do all sorts of things, and I’ve always liked doing all sorts of things in all sorts of mediums.
You know, I love doing free videos on my couch just as much as I like doing a movie, or a TV show, or someone’s web series. I mean, listen, I own my apartment, I keep very low overhead, and that makes me very free — I do whatever I want to do that I am allowed to… and some that I’m not allowed to.
Were you surprised that Amy saw Laney in you?
[laughs] It was from Howard Stern, I was on Howard Stern talking about my book, “The Bedwetter,” and it’s a lot of vulnerable stuff; a lot of stories and I talked about depression, and being on medication, and… you know, I don’t know what story it was that made her go like, “She’s the Smile Backer!” If you talk to her she’s fascinating and wildly inarticulate in the moment, and just a brilliant, thoughtful complex writer, you know. She’s one of those kind of geniuses. She’s just so totally unique, and I wanted to be a part of it. And geez, five years later, they got funding for it. I was like, “Oh my God, this is happening,” and I hung up the phone, and had like just a full body panic attack. [laughs]
Has that panic attack continued, or do you feel totally confident in the work?
I don’t feel confident about it, I just know that it’s completely out of my hands. I cannot control how people are going to perceive this movie. I’m hopeful for it, but I can’t put my self-esteem in the hands of what strangers think of my dramatic turn in a movie. It would be a very sad life to live that way.
You’re very open about your own battle with depression in “Bedwetter.” What was it like tapping back into that for this movie?
It was oddly more difficult than I thought. I had really convinced myself, “I can still have belly laughs and have a fun time, and then they call ‘Action!’ and I do my thing, and then they call ‘Cut!’ and I can be silly.” And it really isn’t that way. So much is brought to the surface, and there’s just so much stuff and then they’d call “cut” and instead I would just be like, “Why isn’t there coffee? This is a fucking movie set!” You know what I mean?
The director was like “You weren’t cunt-y, you were great!” And I was like, “No, no, no,” but I could feel myself like funneling these kind of sad, scary, lonely, anxious, depressive feelings, and kind of funneling them into rage or dissatisfaction. There are so many people with misplaced anger, and this was like four weeks of that, of like just not knowing where to put it, you know, when “Cut!” is called.
And you know, I always hated that, when actors would be like, “You know, it took me so long to come out of character and I really lived the part.” I mean, I didn’t want to do that, but it was just a low grade, low feeling, for that month. I snapped out of it.
It sounds like you discovered something about your own process.
Well, I just think I underestimated acting in a drama. I did a drama before, but it wasn’t like this dramatic, in “Take this Waltz.” People would always ask Seth [Rogen] and I, “Oh, is it weird doing a drama?” And I’d be like, “It’s the same.” It’s just, you just say lines like they’re real, you know?
But yeah, it was different. Comedy’s very vulnerable in lots of ways, but this is just a completely different type of vulnerable and exposed as comedy. Comedy is vulnerable and exposed in a controlled chaos kind of way, and this is just not controlled. It’s a little harder for me to access and control, you know? It’s like when the Greatest American Hero first learns to fly, and he’s falling all over the place. That’s too old a reference for you, Nigel.
I’m 31. But, yeah.
Did you always want to tackle a drama this intense?
You know, I don’t have any plans or ambition.
You have ambition.
I have ambition about stuff like… when I thought to do the video, “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World,” I was like “Yes!” I got excited. But I wasn’t out to prove that I can do drama or… you know what I mean? Like, I am excited about the prospect of that, but I love what I do. I love comedy; I love being a comedian. That’s who I am. But we all have so many facets to who we are. You can’t just be one person. I mean, you’re a completely different person when you’re with your mother, than when you’re with your best friend! So there are so many sides to all of us, and it is fun to show more than what’s in my pinky.
Maybe I’m shitty and I suck, but I think it’s good. And I’m proud of it. And I know that the other performances are amazing. Like tonight, I don’t know if the audience is going to like it. You can’t measure it in laughs, like you can with comedy. It’s just going to be quiet! I guess the less cell phone lights I see, the better it probably is. [laughs]
They kick people out who pull out their phones, so you’re good on that front.
Is that true?
I like that. I like a strict theater.
You’re 44 and this marks your first lead role in a film. As a female comedian, have you felt pigeonholed by the industry?
I have. But I blame my own laziness for that. Because most things I’ve done I’ve written myself or created a lot. And, you know, you look at “Bridesmaids,” and it’s like, you can do anything if you’ve got the goods, and you can write it, and you’re brilliant. So I’m not going to sit here and be like, “I was pigeonholed and playing the bitchy girlfriend.” That was just what was coming my way, and I didn’t write any movies for myself.
But yeah, first of all, women comics and Jewish comics, Jewish actresses… all that whole combination equals sassy friend or bitchy girlfriend, but that stuff is all changing, and I don’t blame anybody but myself, because we’re responsible for our own happiness, aren’t we?