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SAG Nominee Sarah Silverman on Her Intense Turn in ‘I Smile Back’

SAG Nominee Sarah Silverman on Her Intense Turn in 'I Smile Back'

If you’ve seen Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” then you know Sarah Silverman can do drama. So it shouldn’t surprise that the unrepentantly brazen comedian goes into full manic meltdown mode in “I Smile Back,” once again playing a substance-abusing mother who tumbles off the wagon with a shrug.

“I Smile Back” (in theaters and on VOD) marks a serious dramatic turn for Silverman, and landed her a surprise SAG actress nomination this month. She plays Laney, a suburban housewife whose facade is slipping away in the face of manic depression and drug and sex addiction— unknown to her long-suffering husband, played by Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”). This unsettling movie, even as it careens into melodrama, is a real showcase for Silverman, who embodies a frittered woman willingly complicit in her own downfall, all steely gaze and grimly staring into the void. She wants redemption — but not quite yet.

In our interview, Silverman spoke about the speedy currents of her character’s mind, which lead her into a chasm of one-night stands, a failed rehab stint and an unsuccessful visit with her estranged father. Directed by Adam Salky and written by Paige Dylan with Amy Koppelman, who authored the book it’s based on, “I Smile Back” doesn’t glamorize the road to oblivion, either.

RL: What triggers do you use to take yourself to rock bottom for this character?

SS: I have no trick or thing I can do. It’s really hard for me to access my emotions; they’re very tightly packed and compartmentalized deep inside me. I had to bring them out to the surface and it was harder than I thought. In between scenes where I thought we could have a good time and laugh and joke around, I’m just not seasoned to do that. It was all on my lap. I felt like a toddler who didn’t know what to do with her feelings. I was just carrying them, like when you have all the laundry in your hands and no basket to put them in.

Were you instantly smitten with the material, or were you resistant to take on the role?

I wasn’t resistant. It was really something different, and also, it didn’t even occur to me that the movie would ever get made, so I had no problems attaching myself to it. I was like, “Yeah! Sure! No problem.” Most movies don’t get made, you see. And I’m like, how are they going to get funding with me? I’m not just being fake-humble or something — genuinely, how’re you going to get a movie funded that’s a bleak drama and say “We got Sarah Silverman attached!”? I was fearless in attaching myself to it; it was when the film became a reality that I thought, “What the fuck have I done?”

There’s one scene that, to describe sounds ridiculous, but it’s an intense moment in the movie, and you sell it really well. This is when you’re masturbating with the teddy, crying in your daughter’s bedroom?

It was a really important scene, such a drug-induced vomiting of shame and pleasure and destruction and everything that might make her feel free and make her be comfortable in extreme shame and disappointment in herself. Gee, I didn’t articulate that very well. But I do think she has so much terror around damaging her children that it becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy, that the only thing she does have control over is her own destruction.

There are moments where, as she plunges into her own self-destruction, Laney seems to enjoy acting out.

There’s something in the psychology of addiction called “the high before the high,” and she’s already high and fucked up at that moment, but there is that decision, whether conscious or unconscious, where you know you’re going to allow yourself to get high. Just the knowing that is that first high. In my opinion, you may wonder why she goes to visit her dad when she hasn’t seen him in 30 years, has total abandonment issues around it, and there’s no possible way this is going to be a good encounter. Well, it’s the high before the high. It’s that somewhere inside her she knows if she sees her father, she’ll get to do drugs because she’ll be set off. And that is, I think, the biggest part behind the decision of her going to see her father at the worst possible time in her recovery. It’s like a smoker who’s like, “I’ve had a really hard day! I deserve this cigarette!” They’re thriving on having that hard day and deserving that cigarette because they get the prize. 

How many takes were you shooting on average?

We shot in 20 days. I always was kind of in that zone. It was a very intense, solid amount of time. We did — I don’t know how many takes — but enough until we had it. I trusted the director that he wouldn’t move on unless he felt he had what he wanted. When everything comes together and it’s just a reality, you’re pretending it’s real. That’s just a dumb way of saying acting but — one of my first acting jobs was on “Star Trek Voyager” and I had an acting coach, and I remember he said, “You know, sometimes when you’re running from lasers, you just have to pretend you’re running from lasers.” It was such a great permission to pretend, to realize that acting is just — you do all the research you can to learn about this person and this situation and the pieces of it, and you learn the material, and then you just pretend it’s real.

How do you feel about people reading your performance as a strategic one? Which is to say, does it bother you if people read this as the “Sarah Silverman turns serious” movie?

I don’t really know my own feelings. I understand what you’re saying. But I never felt a frustrating need to prove myself in this arena. I’m proud of being a comedian. It’s in my bones. But this was always a part of me. I remember asking my agents a bunch of years ago, “Well how about me for dramas?” And they were like, “Haha! We don’t have any tape on you.” First of all, that’s always frustrating, just the thought that in this creative world someone can’t imagine you as someone they haven’t already seen you do before. It’s weird that that’s so rare. That’s why I got so lucky with, first, Sarah Polley and now, Amy Koppelman. That’s why I told my agents at the time, when they said they didn’t have tape on you, I said, “What about ‘The Aristocrats’?” The scene I did, they laughed at me but to me that’s drama. There’s no difference to me between that and drama other than people are laughing at it, but who I was being didn’t know she was in a comedy. It was heavy, but it was real, to me!

I’m glad you mentioned Sarah Polley because I wanted to ask about “Take This Waltz.” There’s some overlap between your role in that film and in “I Smile Back.”

Just that they’re both addicts? I think that’s a coincidence? I also never drink. I’ve no experience with drinking in my actual life. I only am just surrounded by it. I don’t like the taste of it, personally. Gives me a stomachache.

Did doing “Take This Waltz” inspire you to take on other kinds of roles outside comedy?

You have to understand, I’ve done two dramas, and I’ve had two offers to be in dramas, and those are them! So it’s not really up to me. That’s why the things that are up to me are the things I can control in my life: my comedy, which I create and write myself. But it’s not like I’ve had all these opportunities where I’ve been like, “Nah.” Those were opportunities that came to me and I took them. 

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