Emmy Award-winning comedian Sarah Silverman is about to make her greatest career pivot to date. Her latest project, a dramatic feature film entitled “I Smile Back,” is a grand departure from her entire body of work.
Silverman’s early days on Saturday Night Live were filled with her bubbly exuberance. Her 2005 film, “Jesus is Magic,” left no taboo topic untouched. Her HBO program, “We Are Miracles“, landed her an Emmy, as did her original song, “I’m F***ing Matt Damon,” performed on former flame Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show.
More recently, her recurring role on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” positions her on the same program as her current beau, Michael Sheen, who portrays famed sexologist Bill Masters.
And then there was this…
Her deep dive into the dramatic festival hit, “I Smile Back,” is a disturbing portrayal of a suburban wife and mother who has it all. And yet, the lead character Laney’s many wins can’t seem to compensate for critical losses: a tragic childhood, mental illness, substance abuse and a disturbing lack of self worth.
Directed by Adam Salky, the film made a rousing debut at Sundance and the Jerusalem Film Festival, and has continued to create buzz on the festival circuit. General release is scheduled for October 23.
Beautifully shot, the film portrays her at times with intense close-ups that suggest an old Hollywood glam. (Weird onscreen trivia, Josh Charles, the actor who portrays her husband in “I Smile Back” also portrays a competitive love interest, pitted against Sheen’s character, on “Masters of Sex.”)
To find out more about how Silverman took on the role and where the project has taken her, The Times of Israel shmoozed with the actor, comic and writer on the eve of her receiving the Spotlight Award at this month’s Mill Valley Film Festival.
Here are highlights of a somewhat serious, yet thoroughly Silverman chat.
What did you enjoy about your first drama feature film role?
When they got the funds to actually make the movie I was terrified. To them I was like, “Yay! We’re doin’ it!” But inside I thought, “I can’t do this! This is a disaster! I’m going to ruin it.” Then I realized that’s Laney’s exact emotional state. This woman is pretending she’s okay but inside is in a state of panic — she’s in a constant “what if.” and I thought, “Oh wait, I can do this.”
In what other ways did you prepare for the role?
‘I think most comics and even most actors have a bag of tricks they are both aware and unaware of. It differentiates us at best, and makes us predictable at worst’
Just knowing the lines, understanding the scene, and playing it without any of my usual bag of tricks. I think most comics and even most actors have a bag of tricks they are both aware and unaware of. It differentiates us at best, and makes us predictable at worst. I didn’t want any part of the comedian part of me even transcending through this woman.
I had a lot of help from the writers Amy [Koppelman] and Paige [Dylan] and the director Adam [Salky] with that. They stripped me down and left me with little more than the objective truth of this person and that was far beyond helpful to me.
What do you love about the final scene that I understand you suggested?
Well, the ingredients were all there. She makes them lunch. It’s a consistent part of motherhood that even at times most dire, can be done just by existing through it. Muscle memory. And it was something even she knows she can do. It may be all she can do.
There is so much buzz with the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Spotlight Award. I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot of films screened at MVFF end up as Oscar contenders. How does it feel to be standing on the precipice of what could be your career turning point?
Whoa! That’s heavy. And lovely. And I’m letting it make me feel lovely. I’m letting myself feel great about it. But I’m wary of letting outside forces dictate too much how I feel about myself, as the pendulum swings both ways and I need to be strong and have perspective for those times too. Oh screw it. It’s great!
What does it feel like to be taken seriously after getting your start in comedy and performing as a comic for so many years?
Well, now we’re back to that. How I’m “taken” just can’t influence my happiness too much because that stuff is fleeting. I welcome it with open arms but I think I’m just fine as a comedian. I am as proud of my life as a stand up as anything else. Wow. I am talking about the different parts of a career like they’re my children. Weird. “I love them both equally!” I guess what I’m saying is I deserved love before I made a drama and I’ll deserve love after my biggest flop. Just like you! You deserve love! Wait, what was the question?
The character you portray is so dark and disturbed. After all your work as a comedian, was it hard to take the role seriously?
Not at all. But I think I know what you’re saying and it’s what I love most about this movie and about this character. What people come away thinking about it, and whether they have empathy or sympathy for her or total disgust or disdain — depends entirely on the prism of one’s own experience. It depends on the context of your own life history. And that’s what makes any art cool. It’s subjectivity and the myriad ways one thing can be inferred. Wow, that was a lot of big words used correctly…
What parts of the role in “I Smile Back” do you identify with?
Elements of depression. Of anxiety. A feeling of being very alone in a crowded room. The motion of covering despair with a more palatable acceptable everyday veneer… Okay, now I’m just using words to use words. This is getting ridiculous. It’s elitist!
You have detoured from conventional roles of wife and mother off-screen. How did it feel to play that part on-screen?
It’s an opportunity to live out that kind of “Sliding Doors” thing. I love kids. I love the idea of motherhood. Of just unfettered love. Of going to games! But I chose a career not easily conducive to that and that’s my lot. And I love my life. But these mom gigs are cool in that they give me a chance to role play that particular “What if?”
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