Sundance Institute’s reporter, Eric Hynes, posted this release to the Sundance website January 26, based on the I Smile Back team’s press briefing.
Sarah Silverman has built a career on confidence—on being the smartest, funniest, and most brazen person in the room. But after the unveiling of her career-turning, soul-baring dramatic performance in I Smile Back, which premiered on Sunday night at the Library Theater, she seemed utterly disoriented in front of the appreciative crowd. “Weird,” she intoned into the microphone, then tried to hide behind director Adam Salky.
In the film, she plays Laney, a suburban woman with two adorable children and a successful husband, who nevertheless suffers from depression and addiction. At first she manages to cover most of her tracks, but ultimately spirals into a dangerous maelstrom of alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity, rage and self-destruction. She rehabilitates at an addiction treatment center, and tries to reconcile with her estranged father, but struggled to readapt to normal life.
Silverman spoke of how she came to play the part. “I wasn’t looking for this, but it came to me. Amy [Koppelman, author and co-screenwriter] heard me on Howard Stern and decided I was Laney, and got in touch with my agent, who loved her book, and forced me to read it. And it’s hard for me to read—I had to learn how to read first,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “And I thought it was beautiful and I didn’t know if I liked her or not, but I liked how complicated it was. And they wrote a script of the book, and then they let me play it. And why wouldn’t I? What am I, busy? Why wouldn’t I do something so different where I’m unable to use any of my myriad bag of tricks?” Seemingly catching herself for slipping into a comedic routine, she then confessed, “I feel such pressure to entertain.”
In the post-screening discussion, Silverman, along with Salky, Koppelman, and co-screenwriter Paige Dylan discussed Laney’s questionable likeability, and the value of that ambiguity. “I understand seeing her sympathetically, and I understand seeing her like, fuck you, we’ve all had to survive things from childhood. And that’s what I like about it. That how you like Laney is going to be subjective and depend on your lives, and that’s interesting to me. We can fight about if she’s likable or not because we’re talking from our own little selves and life experiences.”
As for how Silverman’s own experiences filtered into her portrayal of Laney, she offered a story about her personal sensitivities. “My mother sent me a link, and the subject line said, ‘Elephants Reunite After 20 years.’ Now I’m sure it was really beautiful and a happy video, but I didn’t watch it. Because my heart can’t take it. As well as most Pixar movies. There are certain kinds of beauty that, for someone who might be kind of depressive, it’s too much.”
And when asked if working on I Smile Back was cathartic, she replied, “No, it hurt. But I’m really glad I did it. And came through the other side.” And though she wavered between being caustic and confessional during the Q&A, she admitted that the two are actually very related. “Comedy I feel is very vulnerable and exposing, and this was both of those things but on the other side of the coin. It was something I’d not experienced before,” she said.