While Sarah Silverman’s comedy is well known by now, the comedian and actor has also been quietly taking on dramatic roles, most notably in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. Now, she’s moved from supporting actor to star for her first leading role in a drama, the stark and deeply serious I Smile Back. (The film opens today in select cities, and expands to others in the coming weeks.) Silverman plays Laney Brooks, a married mother of two struggling with addiction and anxiety. It’s a role that required her to shed her comic persona, embracing a flawed and tragic identity in a brutal character study. As a result, we at The A.V. Club wanted to delve into the difficulties of a transition to serious dramatic acting and the universal experience of anxiety. But we also kicked things off with talk of pretending to run from lasers.
The A.V. Club: Since we’re talking about this very serious role for your new film, we should start by acknowledging your first onscreen dramatic role: Star Trek: Voyager.
Sarah Silverman: [Laughs.] It’s so true. Actually, I was in a two-part Star Trek: Voyager, and I was a scientist in a study lab with a half-shirt and a push-up bra. And I was like, what the—this isn’t how scientists dress! And they’re going, “Uh, yeah. It’s Star Trek: Voyager.” But I went to an acting coach for it and everything. This fancy acting coach. And I remember him looking at the material and just going, “Look, sometimes when you’re running from lasers, you just gotta pretend you’re running from lasers.” And I thought, yeah, okay, right. Like, you gave me license to just pretend. Acting is pretending. You can’t draw from your childhood for running from lasers on Star Trek.
AVC: You talk to Michael Gambon or these esteemed British actors, and they take their craft very seriously, but they’ll also say they play pretend for a living. They’re not precious about it.
SS: Yeah. Certain things can’t hold the weight. I wasn’t going to shadow a scientist in a study lab for eight months to do Star Trek: Voyager. That’s not about that. I don’t think the people writing it—I mean, it’s awesome, but sometimes you just gotta pretend you’re running from lasers.
AVC: Often when comedians do their first dramatic role, there will still be opportunities to be funny, as a way to provide a comfort zone. This was the opposite of that.
SS: It was. It wasn’t anything I fought. I agreed with it. The writer of the novel and the co-writer of the screenplay, Amy Koppelman, it was important to her that there wasn’t any element of me the comedian in there. Even with Laney having a sense of humor, it isn’t a professional thing. She was so helpful in gently reminding me or keeping me from subconsciously reaching into a bag of tricks that all comics have, and a lot of actors have as well. I was able to really, hopefully play her as objectively as possible without any comedy sauce or drama sauce or any sauce on it.
AVC: It’s almost like the worst-case-scenario version of the character you played in Take This Waltz. It’s interesting that this is the second time you’ve played someone with this self-destructive streak.
SS: Oh, wow! That’s true. It’s the second drama I’ve done, really, and it’s also the only two times that I’ve even had the opportunity, you know? It’s odd that it’s rare, but it’s so rare in this creative world that someone is able to imagine you in a way in which they haven’t already seen you. Sarah [Polley] probably saw me on The Sarah Silverman Program, basically being Bugs Bunny, and could picture me as this struggling, recovering alcoholic. Then Amy Koppelman heard me on The Howard Stern Show and said, “This is Laney.” So I got lucky, and they were two out of two opportunities that I was smart enough to not be a dummy and pass up.
AVC: Do you have a personal connection to the material? Because it’s very easy, when you’re watching it, to go, “Oh, I know this person.”
SS: That’s why I love this movie. I mean, I’m interested in this film and this character because there isn’t anyone who hasn’t been touched by depression and/or addiction on one side of it or another. I like how subjective it’s going to be when people walk out of the theater. They’re going to have empathy for her or they’re going to have total disdain for her, and it’s all going to depend on the prism of their own experience that they’re watching it through, and that’s always cool. That’s, you know—art, dare I say. It’s subjective, you know? I like when people walk away from something debating it, and I like walking away from something and arguing with my friends about what it means or what we saw. Having it be like the blind man and the elephant.
AVC: It almost has that Shame split, where you see people saying, “Oh, I hated that character,” and the other person is like, “No, I get it.”
SS: Totally. It depends. She’s not had the hardest childhood. I mean, her dad left, and that sucks, but people have had far worse childhoods and have persevered with aplomb. This is just her story. It’s not a competition, and whether it’s because she’s weak, or has a disease, or she is selfish, or she is stoic and damaged, or—you’re going to see it all sorts of ways depending on you.
AVC: Did that feel liberating, or did that freak you out? What were your fears going into it, or even as you were shooting it?
SS: Well, when it became a reality—I mean, two years had passed. I didn’t think twice about committing to it because it didn’t occur to me that it would ever get made. Most movies don’t get made. If it were real, they would have a movie star attached to it. But they got the money for it and still wanted me, and it was cool. It was like, yay! Then I completely melted down and had a panic attack and was in a ball on my bathroom floor because I just thought, “What the fuck! I can’t do this. What if I can’t do this?” Then I realized, that’s where Laney lives, is in that terror of “what if.” How do they say—“If you live in the past, it’s depression; if you live in the future, it’s anxiety”? She lives in that anxiety. It’s like, I’m going to fuck up my kids, what if they get my genes, what if I abandon them, what if I do what my father did, what if I—it’s paralyzing, and there isn’t room for anything else.
I said it in my last special, how people think that self-deprecation or self-loathing is modesty, and it’s not. It’s self-obsession. There’s no room for any—you know, Mother Teresa wasn’t sitting around complaining that her thighs touched. She had stuff to do. So I can see people seeing [Laney] as very selfish, and I can also see people seeing her as very damaged and doing the best she can with what she’s got.
AVC: Did such emotionally raw acting feel like a natural extension of your identity as a performer?
SS: I mean, there are odd parallels between the things I’ve done with her. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before, it’s just so bleak and so raw, but in The Sarah Silverman Program, I played a self-centered, arrogant, ignorant asshole. There’s something adjacent about them in a way, in that she’s also completely consumed with her own fears, and it’s created very little space for success in her life, emotionally. And the one thing she can control is her own destruction.
It’s funny, I met a psychiatrist at one of the screenings, and he said, “They say that the high comes before the high.” Meaning—and it makes sense—it’s like, when she decides to see her father, it’s because she wants to get high. She needs an excuse. I don’t think she’s consciously thinking that—and I didn’t think that. I didn’t know that when I shot it or anything. But even for me it’s interesting to think about it in hindsight, after seeing it and experiencing it and going, “Of course! Why would she go visit her father if she hates him?” They haven’t spoken in 30 years. But it was an opportunity to be triggered so she could do drugs again. That was so neat meeting him. I’m sorry, I used up our time with this digression.
AVC: No, it’s fine. It’s interesting because it does make you realize how many decisions made are motivated by fear. Are you one of the people who is able to turn on and off the emotional part of acting, or did you bring this character home with you? Was it hard to get out of that headspace?
SS: I can’t believe—all these things I would roll my eyes about, what actors would say, became very true for me, because I don’t have easy access to my emotions. They’re all tightly compartmentalized, so accessing them and then needing to cover that was—Laney covers it expertly, you know? But then in between scenes I’m just sitting with it on my lap. I felt like a toddler acting out, like I didn’t know what to do with my feelings because they were all just here suddenly. So at the end, it was tough. It was a few weeks of—it felt like when you have a low-grade flu that doesn’t go away for a while. It was like that, and then it was gone finally. But it did, it stuck to me.
AVC: It sounds like you would be open to more material like this in the future. Is there a role you had in the past that was draining like this but not rewarding? Something where you thought, “Never again will I do that.”
SS: I’ve done plenty of shitty stuff, but I’ve always wanted to do it. You just never know how it’s going to come out. But I’m lucky in that I keep my overhead really low. I own my apartment and my little car, and I don’t have to do anything compromising. I don’t compromise. I only do the stuff I want to do. Sometimes it’s shitty, but no. I’ve been really lucky like that. I don’t have a taste for purses or anything, and I don’t have children. So I don’t have any expenses. I know that sounds technical, but it’s true. I can make free videos on my couch, pretty much.
AVC: It sounds like a good endorsement for not having children.
SS: Well, it’s so funny. I’m child-crazy. I mean, like, just getting through this movie, Laney and I shared this desperation that children can smell, because I was like, “Hi! I love kids!” But I did hear an interview on NPR with, like, an 108-year-old woman, and they said, how have you lived so long? And she goes, “I never had kids and I eat ice cream every day!” [Laughs.]