Tears of a Clown: Sarah Silverman Takes a Serious Turn in I Smile Back

Sarah Silverman is fearless in her comedy. But when it came time to accept her first major dramatic role — bipolar, substance-abusing housewife and mother Laney in I Smile Back — she readily admits to being terrified. If the seemingly invincible John Wayne once famously described courage as “being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” Silverman told SF Weekly last month that “To be brave is just to exist through the fear of the unknown and say, 'Yes.'” The risk paid off as Silverman delivered one of her most complex performances to date in the film, which opens Nov. 6 at the Roxie Theatre. Silverman also spoke about her difficulty doing drama, how she overcame her fears to play Laney and how her own therapy helped her get into character. 

[jump] You play a very complicated character, Laney in I Smile Back. How would you describe her?

I talked about in my last special something that I think is such a reality in this movie, which is people mistake their self-loathing for some kind of modesty — and it's not. It’s self-obsession because there is no room for anything else. And Laney lives in that fear of what if — that anxiety of I am going to mess up my kids — and there's no room for anything else. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because there's no room for hope or others. It’s kind of all about her, so I understand if people leave the theater having empathy for her or I would understand total disdain for her. It really depends on the prism of your own experience that you're watching this movie through, which is what I love about stuff — when it's inferable.

Laney's downhill spiral throughout the film was so hard to watch. What drew you to playing her?

I had no plan to do this thing. It just crossed my path. The woman who wrote the novel, Amy Koppelman wrote the screenplay with her writing partner Paige Dylan. They sent it to me and said, 'Will you attach yourself to this?' and I was like, 'Yeah, sure.' I didn't even think about it because it didn't occur to me that it would get made. Most movies don't get made. And especially ones like this. It's going to be a niche movie — not a blockbuster — because it's depressing. So I said, 'Yeah, sure.' A couple years later, I got an email, 'Yeah, we got the funding. We're going to make it.' And I said, 'Yay,' and then I crumbled into a ball on my bathroom floor and thought, 'What the fuck? I can't do this.' Then I realized that fear of what if I fuck it up, of how everything I was feeling was kind of where Laney exists, in fear of fucking up her kids, of blowing everything. So I said, 'Oh, maybe I can do it.'

How did you get through it?

I tricked myself by saying, 'It will be fine.' Yeah, it will be heavy between action and cut but that's the fun stuff. In the in between we can still fuck around and laugh and do bits. That isn't true, actually. You have all these emotions that you're kind of sitting with on your lap in between scenes. I’m so happy that I didn't know that ahead of time because I definitely would have tried to weasel out of it. And I'm glad because it was a great experience. And Laney doesn't know she's in a drama. She's just living life. So it was interesting. There were a lot of parallels between comedy and drama.

Were you nervous about taking on a dramatic role?

Comedy is part of my DNA. For so many comedians, you form a sense of humor as a way to survive childhood, so it becomes a part of your template. When it's a survival skill learned in childhood, ideally you want to unlearn it in adulthood because it only holds you back from living life. But this is something I’ve fostered. It was a challenge, it was new and I have not spent as much time in my life doing this. It was a learning experience. It was cathartic. 

Well, it definitely paid off. You were so believable as Laney that I actually forgot that I was watching Sarah Silverman, the comedian.

I had hope. The director and the writers Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan —  they were there every day. They were really helpful in restraining me from subconsciously going to my bag of tricks. You know, most comics and actors have a bag of tricks that they just reach for without realizing it, and that was very helpful because it just left a stripped-down person. I tried to play her objectively, so there wasn't really any me — the comedian — in it. I just have the same voice and look the same. I used a lot of my own experience or the experience of close friends. I had a lot of resources. Then I pretended. That's what acting is — pretending that it's real.

Struggling with depression yourself, did you find it triggering to play someone with bipolar depression?

It wasn't triggering in terms of my own depression. That’s just something that's a daily thing. I’m doing very well. I’ve been really lucky that the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor I tried was the perfect fit for me. I know that it's something —  just like with therapists or buying a car —  you have to try a lot and see what fits. And Zoloft was the right fit for me. I take 50mg, and I feel like I still experience highs and lows, but I’m able to live life without being completely paralyzed by chemical depression. I have good days and bad days, but I’ve learned enough to know that the bad days are finite, and this too shall pass. Therapy has also been a huge force in my life and I’ve had good therapy and bad therapy. I love the man I see now.

Has your work in therapy helped you get into the mindset of your characters?

Therapy is wonderful and has informed a lot of the things I do and makes my life a better place. It's given me a lot to think about and talk about in comedy. It’s also been a helpful resource in acting because it's the study of human nature and the way we work — not just you. 

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