This article about Sarah and this weekend’s Sundance Film Festival showing of I Smile Back, in which she stars, was posted yesterday on the Times website, and will be in print in tomorrow’s paper. It includes a new interview with Sarah.
by Brooks Barnes
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — The harrowing drama “I Smile Back,” making its debut on Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, opens with a drawn-out shot of a naked, forlorn woman. She is an alcoholic suburban mom having a cocaine-fueled affair and wrestling with mental illness. At one point she gets beaten bloody in an alley.
Sundance insiders think the performance by the lead actress will land with a sonic boom at the festival and, perhaps, on next year’s movie awards circuit. “An indelible performance” in a “career-defining, intensely layered and heartbreaking role” is how Kim Yutani, a senior Sundance programmer, summed it up.
But moviegoers could also snicker and cringe. It all depends on whether the unlikely star, Sarah Silverman, is allowed to be something other than a comedian.
With her squeaky little-girl voice and filthy vocabulary, Ms. Silverman has carved a reputation as one of the comedic greats by playing with extremes. She’s the sweet, responsible-looking one in pigtails who cracks sexually explicit jokes — the woman who wrote a song, “You’re Gonna Die Soon,” put on a great big smile and sang it to nursing home residents. (“It’s not cold in here/You’re just dying.”)
Now, through a circuitous casting route, she’s working a wholly different extreme. “I Smile Back,” adapted from Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel of the same name, finds Ms. Silverman, 44, tackling two firsts: anchoring a feature film and playing a brutally dramatic part.
“I have no idea how it will be perceived, and that makes me terrified,” she said over iced tea at a cafe here on Monday in a decidedly unsqueaky tone. “I would like for the movie to be liked. But that’s also an uncomfortable spot for me. I don’t normally give control of my self-esteem to other people, or at least I’m trying harder not to.”
We’re all socially or professionally typecast to one degree or another. You can be the clown or you can be the studious one, but you can’t be both. If you are a hard-charging man, you are chief executive material; if you’re a hard-charging woman, you are a you-know-what. (Am I “just the color guy,” meaning a feature writer, as an editor once dismissively referred to me? Or can I be good at both soft and hard news?)
But Hollywood, despite some minimal progress, continues to make pigeonholing an art form. Comedians, especially women and especially ones as successful as Ms. Silverman, have it particularly rough.
“People are not all one thing,” she said.
Not long ago, when a casting director refused to let Ms. Silverman read for a part, she challenged him. “I said: ‘Why do I always have to be the sassy best friend? I know I’m good at that. But what about that character who is kind and tries hard and deserves love? Why can’t I read for her,’ ” she said.
His answer: “Because no one will ever see you that way.”
Ms. Silverman took a gulp of her tea. “Tears fell out of my eye holes even though I kept smiling,” she said.
Ms. Silverman plays that kind of character in “I Smile Back.” Laney is a smart, pretty woman who has it all — the house, the husband, the adorable children — and yet falls, though no fault of her own, into depression, alcoholism and reckless compulsion.
Her frustrated husband, played by Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”), at one point asks what he can do to help. Laney replies, “To not pretend that it’s all going to be O.K. when nothing is going to be O.K.”
In person, Ms. Silverman was every bit as foulmouthed as her fans would expect. She arrived wearing a Beer Nuts baseball cap, her ponytail shoved through the hole in the back, and seemed genuine in a way celebrities often are not.
“What do people wear to Sundance?” she asked, having never been. Answer: Locals in Park City, Utah, where the festival began on Thursday, call movie industry attendees P.I.B.s, for People in Black.
“I Smile Back,” directed by Adam Salky, came to Ms. Silverman in an unusual way. Ms. Koppelman, who wrote the screenplay with Paige Dylan, was listening to Howard Stern’s radio show one day in her car. Ms. Silverman happened to be the guest, and she was talking about her memoir, “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.”
“I heard Sarah say something like, ‘The more people that surrounded her the more alone she felt,’ ” Ms. Koppelman said. “And I just immediately knew she would understand Laney. I thought, ‘This woman is a professional smile-backer.’ ”
Ms. Koppelman said she was aware of Ms. Silverman’s reputation as a comedian at that point but that she had never seen any of her work. (It must be said: Ms. Koppelman has a high-pitched voice that is reminiscent of the one Ms. Silverman often uses when she is playing Sarah Silverman.) Doggedly, Ms. Koppelman got a copy of her book into Ms. Silverman’s hands and ended up meeting with her.
“I honestly wasn’t looking for this,” Ms. Silverman said. “I’m not one of those actresses out to prove something or rejuvenate a career by chasing an award. I’m a comedian. I’m still going to make funny videos from my couch.”
Some people will find it hard to believe that Ms. Silverman isn’t trying to prove a little something. I’m admittedly one. But she is known for being brutally frank.
When did she first meet Ms. Koppelman? “I’m a stoner, so I have no sense of time,” Ms. Silverman answered. “Between two and 10 years ago?” (It was 2010.)
Sitting in the middle of a crowded restaurant at the only available table, she warmly chitchatted about her dogs and doing laundry. She does her own, for the record, in a communal washer-dryer in her apartment building. No, she would not like anything to eat; she was planning to meet a male friend for a late lunch. (No, it was not Michael Sheen, the British actor whom the tabloids have identified as her beau.)
The self-serious audience at Sundance will decide whether Ms. Silverman, a longtime skewerer of the self-serious, can go out on a new limb without falling off. But in one important way she has already succeeded. She’s delivered in “I Smile Back” perhaps the perfect example of what Sundance is about: challenging boundaries, stretching in unfamiliar directions and forcing viewers to be a bit more open-minded.