sundance 2015

Sarah Silverman on I Smile Back and Shooting Sex Scenes

Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

If comedy is just a front to hide the darkness within, then Sarah Silverman has fully lifted the veil with her dramatic turn in the positively bleak I Smile Back. It’s a raw and fully committed performance involving nudity, some horribly degrading sex, and masturbating on a teddy bear with her sleeping daughter beside her. And unlike other comediennes who’ve veered into drama, none of it felt like a stretch. But after 85 minutes of watching Silverman as bipolar housewife Laney Brooks, Napalm-bombing her unhappiness with alcohol, cocaine, and wildly self-destructive extramarital affairs, it was a relief to see the actress as her acerbic self in the audience Q&A. Why did she do the role? “Why wouldn’t I? What am I — busy?” she replied. Asked if she gets depressed, Silverman said she can’t bring herself to watch a YouTube video her mother sent her called “Elephants Reunited After Twenty Years,” she said, “as well as most Pixar films.” And, no, she didn’t find the movie cathartic because she spends plenty of time crying in her apartment on normal days. The day after the premiere, Jada Yuan caught up with Silverman to talk fake cocaine, nervous diarrhea, and why she relates to Björk.

So how do you feel after last night’s premiere? Was it hard to sit through the movie?
Yeah, it was really weird. It’s just so hard to watch, you know? But it was neat, and I woke up so happy this morning. I just didn’t know how it would be, what people would think. I knew it was out of my hands, so I was pretty calm, but it’s nice that people seem to like it so far.

It seems like a big departure for you. What drew you to the material?
Well, it was sent to me. They thought of me and that doesn’t happen often, certainly not with this kind of material, and I read [Amy Koppelman’s] book and then they wrote a script. You know, I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m lucky. And I just figured, why wouldn’t I do this?

Do you want to be doing more drama, branch out from comedy?
I love comedy, I love being a comedian, I love doing stand-up. That will never change as long as I can control that, but yeah, I’m interested in doing all sorts of things. But I don’t usually make some big plan. Like, “I’m going to show that I can … ” I don’t plan in that way, and it works out. None of us know what’s going to happen. I mean, have you ever predicted anything in your life?

Nothing good.
I’d love to do more things, but being a comedian brings me so much happiness. This just crossed my path. Usually I need to generate my own stuff, but when stuff comes my way and it’s something so neat and exciting and different for me, I’d be dumb to pass it up.

What was the scariest part about going into this, after you read the script?
The nudity and the sex scenes and snorting even fake cocaine is, you know, a bummer, and I just really prepared and braced myself. It’s funny because [I told a good friend about it] and I said, “There’s a scene where I’m having anal sex and blah blah blah.” And then, after the first week of shooting, he’s like, “How’s it going?” And I’m like, “It’s okay. It’s hard.” And he’s like, “How is the anal sex scene?” And I was like, “Oh, it was fun! It was good!” Because I had braced myself so much and then Tommy Sadoski [who plays a family friend she’s sleeping with] is such a professional actor and was so kind and so — I hate using the word generous because it’s a word actors use. But he was so protective of me and made me very, very comfortable. It was our first day of shooting, of course. There’s always that story. So, yeah. It was al lright. When you brace yourself for the worst, it can be good.

That kind of makes sense for the way the dynamic plays where your character seems to have more intimacy with him than she does with her own husband, played by Josh Charles.
Yeah, it was actually rain cover, like we were supposed to be shooting outside but it was raining, and then that was what we had to go do. It was like, “Oh gosh.”

They’re like, “Oh, the weather’s bad, but we can do the anal sex scene!”
I know, it’s funny. I’ve never been naked in anything until I turned 40.

Do you believe the line that your character said, which stuck out at me, that “No guy can love a girl whose ass he just fucked”?
Well, I never really think about life in terms of anal sex. It’s personally not a part of my life. It does seem kind of like — when you hear about how guys want to cum on a girl’s face or whatever or you see it in porn … That’s just not … I’m not against it, I’m whatever floats your boat, but I wouldn’t call that “making love.” But that’s just because it’s not really my bag.

There’s always been a darkness to your comedy that translates well to drama. For me, this film didn’t seem like a leap. It wasn’t like I was used to seeing you do slapstick.
Right, it’s not like my comedy is I drop a ball and then I go to pick it up and I kick it further. You look at a set-list and it’s like “Holocaust,” “Abortion,” “9/11.” It was a leap, but I think comedy at its best is very exposing and vulnerable, and those are elements in doing this kind of work, but it’s kind of the other side of that, the bizarro-world version. It taps into different things. I was in a very low-frequency place while, the whole time of shooting it. We still laughed and stuff, but it was just real dark and an intense month and a half or so.

Did you go home crying at times?
No, but I’ve learned something about myself which is when I don’t know where to put a lot of emotions — like I’ll have so much stuff inside me and I don’t know where to put it — it will come out in ways. I guess that’s what misplaced anger is. But with acting, it brought up all this stuff and then I’d go home and not know what to put it in. Or even at lunch, I’d be like, “How is there no coffee?! I mean, coffee, it’s just water! It’s not even an expense! The crew should have coffee!” and I’m realizing I just don’t know where to put this energy. But they would just take me with a grain of salt. And then I’d be like, “Sorry! I don’t know who I am right now.” I can usually compartmentalize to a pretty good degree, but it was stuff I wasn’t used to.

And when you say it brought up stuff, do you mean personal things for you?
No, I’m sure things from my life helped inform the way I performed. But I just mean, after doing things like that — I thought I’d be able to just snap out of it and then just be, like, goofy me, but it was harder than I thought. That it’s not just stuff that actors talk about, it’s real. Like when Björk did Dancer in the Dark, that movie was so incredible. And then in press, she was like, “It was terrible! That was just real for me, I don’t know how to act.” And I’m not saying that, but I kind of understand. It was such a great experience, such a great group, such a team effort and in a way it was such great fun, but it was really a bummer all the time. I’m not complaining. That’s just the truth, I guess.

In the Q&A at the premiere, you said it was painful.
Yeah, emotionally. It’s not real, it’s just pretend. But we’re made of just little particles and energy affects us. If mind and body weren’t connected then how would you explain nervous diarrhea? C’mon, Jada.

What were you snorting for the fake cocaine?
It was a combination of, like, Inositol and vitamin D and … I don’t know. It was a combination of these things that are, like, “It’s vitamins, they’re okay for you!” and it just, speaking of diarrhea, it completely makes you feel like you’re jacked up on too many vitamins on an empty stomach.

But it’s nutritious.
It was so nutritious. Always good to snort things.

What’s next for you? HBO passed on People From New Jersey, that show you were going to do with Paul Feig.
I’m actually doing another pilot for HBO, and we’re casting it in the next three weeks and we’ll see how that is. It’s not something I wrote, it’s written by a beautiful playwright named Lucy Prebble. It’s about a woman in Seattle who meets a British guy and she decides to take the leap of moving to London. It’s more than that but I don’t know what the log-line is. It’s interesting, it’s character-y. It’s not a high-concept plot so it’s hard for me to go, “It’s about a woman who’s a fireman who … ” I don’t know.

Sarah Silverman on I Smile Back