Always content to be wildly inappropriate through a smile, Sarah Silverman has been one of the finest comedic minds kicking around stand up for almost 20 years. Confrontational and controversial in her material, yet bubbly and sweet in her delivery, she’s one of those rare performers who seems to be able to get a laugh out of almost any topic from race, rape, politics, and drugs, to good old fashioned poo-poo and pee-pee. Her stand up specials like Jesus Is Magic or We Are Miracles are delightful in their shock tactics and intelligent in they’re vulgarity. It’s a performance style that Silverman carried over to her wonderful (and much missed) Comedy Central series The Sarah Silverman Program, yet she’s never been particularly challenged as an actress-for-hire until recently.
For years Silverman was stuck with “bad girlfriend” and “snarky buddy” roles in comedies like There’s Something about Mary and School of Rock. She did well, but just never got the roles or material necessary to truly shine unless she wrote for herself. Over the last few years, that’s changed and oddly enough the more challenging roles Silverman’s received have been almost purely dramatic, like in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz or the HBO series Masters of Sex. Yet, nothing compares to the leading role she received in the new film I Smile Back, which boasts about as dark, harsh, and challenging of a performance as any actress has delivered this year.
Silverman stars as Laney, a depressed, addicted, and relentlessly self-destructive suburban housewife. The film plays almost like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call Soccer Mom at times, with Silverman delivering an uncompromisingly pained and disturbing performance that never panders for audience sympathy. The film taps into all of the acting potential that she’s suggested for years. It might even be enough to change how writers and filmmakers see her in the future and open up a new chapter in the almost obscenely talented performer’s career. Collider recently got a chance to chat with Sarah Silverman about the challenges of starring in I Smile Back as well as her ongoing comedy career and newfound “besties” status with James Lipton.
Collider: I’ve heard you tell a story about agreeing to do this film long ago and then panicking when you found out it was heading into production. Did it really not occur to you how challenging the role might be until then? It’d hard to believe anyone could read this script and think, “That’ll be easy.”
Sarah Silverman: No, no. It’s not that. It’s just that when they attached myself to the film, I didn’t think twice because it never occurred to me that the movie would actually get made. Most movies don’t get made, you know. So I thought, “Yeah, sure, sure. Like they’re going to get money for this drama because my name is attached. If it was a real thing, they’d have a movie star.” So that ‘s why I was brave, because I wasn’t really brave.
Had you ever trained in acting at all?
Silverman: Yeah. I grew up doing plays and stuff. My mom was a theater director, but I was more into musicals. Then I went to NYU for drama for a year and then I dropped out (laughs). My dad made me a great deal. He told me he’d pay my rent for the next three years as if it was my tuition. He was like, “We both win!” So I did that and then I stole classes from NYU. I wanted to learn things because I wanted to be a stand-up. I knew I could take acting classes outside of university, so I was already planning on switching to Arts and Sciences. Then when my dad and I made that deal, I just stole big lecture classes. You can steal college pretty easily, if you don’t need a degree. I took a great philosophy class. Most of the kids there are just rich kids whose parents make them go to college. I was actually excited to be there, but I knew I didn’t need a degree or anything, so it worked out great.
Since you ran your own show and produced on your stand up specials, I’d imagine you’re used to watching yourself perform and making adjustments on the fly. Were you able to do that for I Smile Back or was it too difficult to watch this material the same way?
Silverman: To be honest, I never look at dailies. Mostly because it’s always a race to get to sleep for the next day. I don’t know how people do that. I would just wash my face and put on a Law & Order marathon to drift off to the gentle tones of softcore murder. I remember my first acting job after Saturday Night Live was a two-part episode of Star Trek Voyager. I got an acting coach because I wanted to be great. So I hired this fantastic acting coach and he sat with me and read the script. Then finally he just said, “Look, sometimes when you’re running from lasers, you’ve just got to pretend you’re running from lasers.” I was like, “Thank you!” It was license to just pretend, not worry on drawing too much from life.
I like how ambiguously the movie treats the character of Laney. It never forces sympathy and frequently shies away from that. How did that affect you as a performer? Did you force yourself to find a level of sympathy for all the actions or just shove that from your mind entirely?
Silverman: I thought it was important not to judge. You can’t judge a character that you play and I didn’t want to judge her. That’s for the audience to do. I didn’t want to do that. It’s what I love about the movie and what I really love about this character. How you feel about her is going to depend entirely on the baggage that you bring to the theater when you see it. You know, the prism of your life experience. Everybody has been on one side or the other of addiction or mental illness or depression. That’s going to completely inform how you see the movie and how you feel about Laney, whether you have empathy or sympathy or compassion or total fucking distain and think she’s a spoiled cunt. Surely, there are people who have suffered through worse childhoods than her and persevered.
How did you feel about the experience in the end? Was it any easier than what you feared?
Silverman: I think in order to comfort myself, I said, “Well, it will see be fun. It’s heavy, but we can still have fun making it.” That didn’t really prove to be the case (laughs). It was an amazing experience and I’m so happy I did it and it was really life changing, but I wouldn’t call it ‘fun.’ I’m so glad I didn’t know that ahead of time because I would have definitely tried to get out of it. It was more than fun, it was different and exhilarating and challenging and exciting. Movie-making is a team sport. No one was there for the money and we became like a family in a way. Even when it was those really dark fucked up scenes where I’m alone with the camera, there were people all around me and I felt very supported. It was fine.
Have you been actively pursuing more dramatic roles? You did Take This Waltz before this and are on Masters of Sex now. So there have been a few of these recently.
Silverman: I haven’t really. I never think to do that. I don’t know why. I don’t have a career trajectory that I think about or anything. I’m small-minded (laughs). These things have just been dumb luck. I remember a few years ago saying to my agents at the time, “How about me for dramatic movies?” And they said, “We don’t even have tape on you that could be considered dramatic.” I said, “Well yeah, because I haven’t done anything.” So, then I suggested my scenes in The Aristocrats and they laughed at me. I said, “But its kind of drama. I played it real and she didn’t know it was a comedy. Just because the things she said make you laugh doesn’t make it any different than performing drama. I was talking about being raped and molested.” They didn’t go for it. People don’t have a big imagination for how to use you sometimes. The two dramatic film roles I’ve done in I Smile Back and Take This Waltz were both from women who were able to imagine me as something that they had never seen me do before, which is oddly rare in the world of show business.
Have you been able to show I Smile Back to your comedian friends yet? I’m sure it’ll be a surreal one for them to watch.
Silverman: Actually a bunch of them are coming to the LA premiere this week. My friend Tig Notaro saw it at Sundance. It’s very nice that they have an interest. It’s strange, but comics are dark, sad, depressed people in general. So this is definitely in their wheelhouse in an odd way.
I think it would make for a fantastic episode of Getting Doug with High for you to all watch it together.
Silverman: (Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know about that.
How was being on Inside the Actor’s Studio? Are you best buddies with James Lipton now?
Silverman: He’s next to me right now. We’re just hanging out. Actually, my mom died in August and I missed her so much shooting that. She was the one person in my life who would be blown away that I was one Inside The Actor’s Studio. My dad and stepmother have no idea what that is. I was just like, “Goddamn it, if she only held on three more months she would have been blown away!” But yeah, it was crazy. It went on for like five hours. I saw him afterwards and said, “How are you going to edit that down to 41 minutes.” He said, “It’s not 41 minutes.” I said, “Oh, is it a two hour show.” And he said, “No, it’s 43 minutes.”
And how is stand-up going? Do you have any sort of timeline in mind for when the next tour or special might be?
Silverman: I’ve had so many starts and stops, it’s driving me crazy. It’s all because of good things, but I have to keep doing it and doing it and doing it. I finally got a solid half-hour and I thought, “Great, I’m halfway to a special.” I’m not normally like that. I normally think, “Oh, it’s been ten years. I should do something.” I’ve kept stopping to shoot stuff, which is great. But it’s also like ‘one step forward and two steps back’ because when I go back to stand up, it almost feels like I have to start all over again. So, it’s been super slow to get honed and I definitely can’t wait to get back into the swing of things.