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The Hemi Q&A: Sarah Silverman

America’s most mischievous stand-up comedian channels her dark side in a game-changing dramatic role

Author Nicholas DeRenzo Illustration Jeffrey Smith

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More than her mile-wide grin or her gee-whiz delivery, Sarah Silverman’s stand-up comedy trademark just might be that devilish sparkle in her eye—always on the verge of a knowing wink, existing somewhere between a smart-alecky teenager and the second coming of Joan Rivers. It’s there when she’s at the mic delivering her filthiest punchlines. It’s there when she’s doling out slash-and-burn insults at Comedy Central Roasts. It’s there when she’s behind her guitar, singing ditties that would make a sailor blush. And it has even been there during her recent forays into dramatic roles, including a lauded recurring gig on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” 

That is, until now. In her bleak new addiction drama, I Smile Back (in theaters now), Silverman tackles the harrowing role of Laney, an unstable suburban mother battling depression, alcoholism, a pill habit and a penchant for cheating on her husband (played by Josh Charles). And rather than fall back on her natural charisma, she’s somehow managed to banish that sparkle—a particular feat, considering how often the camera lingers on her face in unforgiving close-ups. 

The role is miles away from her wheelhouse. But, since I Smile Back premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Silverman’s performance has been receiving raves for its lived-in authenticity. Here, the Emmy-winning, Grammy-nominated comic charts her brush with the dark side and the personal battles she relived in putting together the role. 

Hemispheres: This movie is coming out at a time when comedic actors—like Jason Segel in The End of the Tour and Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street—have been given a chance to flex their dramatic muscle. And the critical consensus can best be summed up as: “Oh man, we had no idea he/she had such depth!” Do you think that being seen as part of that trend by the media has had an impact on the way your performance has been received, for better or for worse? And do you bristle at all when critics express that sense of surprise? 

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Sarah Silverman: I did a dramatic film called Take This Waltz, and Seth Rogen and I kept getting asked the question: “Is it weird going from comedy to drama?” And we would just be, like, “No. We’re just saying lines honestly. That’s what comedy is as well.” But with this film, I don’t have that kind of defense mechanism. Because it was real different. And I was thankfully not allowed to use anything in my bag of tricks—and was stopped from any impulse toward that.

Hemispheres: I got the chance to watch this film in a Manhattan screening room with a group of jaded pop culture journalists. Before the movie, they were typically chatty. At the end, they were stunned into silence—which I think might be the biggest compliment you can give a movie like this one.

Silverman: Thanks! Yeah, it is not a feel good movie. [Laughs.]

Hemispheres: How did the casting process come together for this project? 

Silverman: This movie came to me because Amy Koppelman, who wrote the book and co-wrote the screenplay, was listening to Howard Stern. I was on promoting my book The Bedwetter and was talking about my experiences with depression. She said that she heard that and felt that I was Laney, and it made her want to write the screenplay. So they sent me the book, they sent me the screenplay, and they were like, “Would you attach yourself to this?” I was like, “Uh, yeah, sure!” I was super-flattered, but it was kind of like a passive attachment to it at first. I was just like, “This isn’t gonna come together. If this were a real movie, they’d get a movie star!” 

Hemispheres: But you must have started to at least get yourself into that dramatic headspace, right? 

Silverman: I never thought about it. I never expect things to actually get made. And then I never expect it to get edited. And then I’m surprised when it’s gonna come out. I’m a positive person, but I never really have expectations. I’ve learned to live my life just for the thing right in front of me. 

Hemispheres: That doesn’t sound easy. Especially for an actor, who I’d imagine has to always be thinking ahead about future projects. 

Silverman: It’s a process. They say that if you live in the future, it’s anxiety, and if you live in the past, it’s depression. I’ve had a well of experience with both of them. I’m still not out of the woods.

Hemispheres: So how did you finally wrap your head around the idea of acting in such a dark movie?

Silverman: I attached myself to this film, and in a million years, I didn’t think it would get made. Like, a year later, I get a call: “We’re making this! We got the money! It’s happening!” And I emailed back, reply all, “Yaaaaay!” I pressed send, and I remember I was in my bathroom getting ready for bed, and I collapsed on the floor in a full-on panic attack. Then I just said, “It’s a bleak movie, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be laughing. We’ll still have fun and joke around, and then in between action and cut, we’ll pretend, and that will be serious.” And it really isn’t that way. 

Hemispheres: So the experience really challenged the way you view acting?

Silverman: I had this sudden apologetic feeling toward actors that talk about being stuck in the darkness of a role—something that I used to roll my eyes at. I was like, “I’m one of those actors!” It was a really dark existence for four weeks and a few weeks beyond, because, you know, that’s what you’re mostly doing. I kept telling myself beforehand, “It’s a sad movie, but this character doesn’t know she’s in a sad movie. She’s just living her life. It’s not like I’m going to have a big scowl on my face the whole movie.” But as soon as we wrapped, it was a race to wash my face and get into bed and just try to watch something mindless to clear my head. There are actors who you hear about, they call cut, and they’re back to their center. And that probably comes with experience. 

Hemispheres: Well, part of that deep connection you felt to the character might come from your own childhood battle with depression, which you detailed so brilliantly in The Bedwetter. Was that aspect of your personal narrative helpful in creating the role, or was it painful to have to revisit those experiences?  

Silverman: It was very helpful. It’s not like I have the magic, like I put myself into a trance. It was helpful to be able to draw on those experiences—feelings that might cause an adult to self-medicate. Then also having friends that were addicts and talking to them about rehab and their feelings.

Hemispheres: How does empathy play into your depiction? Did it factor at all into how you approached the role? 

Silverman: The thing that I find interesting about this movie is that I feel like people will walk away from it having very different, very varying responses. And that’s what I like about things you can call art, because people will see it within the context of their own histories. I can see having total empathy for this woman. I can see having no empathy for this woman, who is married and well-off and lives in the suburbs with two great kids. I like the idea of the potential debate. 

Hemispheres: Did you allow yourself to form an opinion on Laney? To pass judgment? 

Silverman: Usually a movie is made to tell you how to feel, or it’s skewed enough that you know who the good guys and the bad guys are. And this isn’t that. I waffle around about how I feel about her. It’s hard, because I’ve dealt with depression and the kind of chemical existence that doesn’t respond to reason. The desperation of seeing my friends that were just living life and going to school and not in a ball crying. That was amazing to me. I would have done anything to just live like a regular kid and go to school and laugh and have my friends over. All the things that I did before depression. There was this group of years where my perspective got skewed by a few degrees. And in some ways, in a deeper kind of way, it was a difficult, labored existence. So I understand that part of it. But I also know about self-hatred, which is a totally self-obsessed existence, where there isn’t room for your kids or for other people. It’s your biggest fear, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it’s so hard to have sympathy for that. But also, if you can see your way to it, it’s heartbreaking. But I can also see having an adverse reaction to that behavior. Hating yourself or hating what your potential might be is so self-obsessed. It’s not modesty. I think that’s a mistake people make. They think that self-hatred is modesty, and it’s just self-obsession. You know—think about other things!  

Hemispheres: So do you see more roles like Laney in your future?

Silverman: I’m so open to doing that again on a finite level. I do think comedy and drama are mediums that can complement each other. But my heart is in being a comedian. That’s just who I am in my core.

Hemispheres senior editor NICHOLAS DERENZO would gladly drop a few hundred dollars on a Kickstarter campaign to bring back the cult classic “The Sarah Silverman Program.”

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