Several years ago, the writer Amy Koppelman, author of the 2008 novel I Smile Back, about an upper-middle-class, suburban soccer mom’s struggles with depression and substance abuse, was driving down New York City’s West Side Highway listening to Howard Stern interview Sarah Silverman about her own relationship with depression. “She just connected with it,” Silverman tells me by phone. Koppelman immediately knew that if she could adapt her novel into a movie, it would be Silverman she’d want to play her protagonist, Laney Brooks. “She got the book to me,” Silverman remembers. “She wrote the screenplay with Paige Dylan, her partner. It was a long journey, but after a couple years, they got the money to make it. And we made it! It’s crazy!”
I Smile Back the film, which was directed by Adam Salky, plumbs new territory for Silverman, who is best, or really only, known as a comedian. Silverman’s character, Laney, seems to have a lovely life: her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), is successful and adoring; their house is beautiful and ginormous; their two young kids are perfect. But as the movie quickly reveals, the foundation of that life is deeply and indelibly cracked. When Laney drops off the kids at school, she immediately heads out for a day of snorting coke and philandering with a family friend. Sometimes after dinner she’ll sneak downstairs and chug vodka. When she’s drunk or high, there’s a decent chance she might sleep with a stranger. When she’s not, there’s a decent chance that she’ll lie and steal to cover her tracks.
Casting Silverman against type as Laney was actually a genius move: The surprise we experience in watching a beautiful wealthy mother self-destruct in the face of addiction is kind of like the surprise we feel watching a brilliant comic deliver a wrenching, raw dramatic performance. “It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea,” Silverman admits, “but I do think it’s something that sticks with you. Everybody has been on one side or the other of addiction, mental illness, depression. How you feel about Laney and the movie is completely dependent on the prism of experience that you’re seeing it through.”
Read on for more from Sarah Silverman about unfunny roles, her darkest moments, and why she’ll be flying to small-town Mississippi this weekend.
What did you think when you read the screenplay for I Smile Back?
I thought it was really well done, a beautiful adaptation from the book, which I loved. I was so grateful that Amy imagined me as something that she had never seen me do before, which is oddly rare in this creative industry, you know? I knew I was lucky.
Did you feel intimidated?
Maybe a little? I don’t know why, but I don’t think so. I mean, I was scared. But they brought me into the project, so I felt a part of it. When it became a reality two years in, when it was like, “We have the funding, we’re doing it!” I was like, “Yeah! Awesome!” Then I had a full-body panic attack and fell into a ball on the floor of my bathroom. But then I pulled it together just in time to fall apart for the movie!
I’ve heard you say that you didn’t quite realize how dark it would get to be in a movie like this.
It’s true! I kind of convinced myself that it could be fun. Like, it’s heavy between “action” and “cut,” but it could be fun in between scenes? Joke around? Have a good time? That wasn’t the case. Because I don’t have easy access to my emotions, so they were all just kind of sitting on my lap in between scenes. I’m so glad I didn’t know that ahead of time. I would have tried to get out of it. But it was such an amazing experience for me. I’m so glad I did it.
Now you know. Would you go there again?
I would. Absolutely! I had to learn. I had to get it. I had to understand that there are things as satisfying as fun besides fun. Exhilarating and life-changing team effort experiences that are wildly fortifying despite not being “fun.”
What was the darkest moment during filming?
You know, the more fucked up the scenes, the more exhilarating it was, the more it was a scary, exhilarating challenge. The elements were probably the hardest part, the freezing cold weather in wardrobe that wasn’t conducive. I’m a huge weather pussy.
Where did you film?
Upstate New York in the winter. And everybody’s got their North Face jackets and their heat pad things that you crush and keep your pockets warm, and I’m not in winter clothes, acting, and just going: “Let’s go, rolling, I’m still fucking cold!”
You don’t drink, right?
What did you base your idea of Laney’s addiction and her drunkenness on?
You know, I’ve drank before, but I don’t like the taste. [laughs] But I’m surrounded by alcoholics. I’m a comedian. I know a lot of versions of this. I think the most interesting one is the professional drunk, who I think Laney is. She’s an expert at hiding it, at articulating, not slurring, for the most part keeping her shit together and being able to pretend she’s not drunk. That’s kind of what the expert drunk experience is. She’s very good at covering it, until she isn’t. And that’s how it goes. Ex-motorcyclists, when they don’t want people to ride motorcycles, they go, “It ends one of two ways: You die or you get into an accident and live and never ride a bike again.”
On that note: What do you have going on this weekend?
I’m flying to Mississippi this weekend for my best friend’s wedding. It’s going to be great because she’s a comedian. She’s marrying the love of her life. It’s her hometown. It’s a destination wedding. It’s going to be this tiny town in Mississippi just jam-packed with comedians.
Which part are you most looking forward to?
I always lose it during the vows. And I’m excited—I’ve never been to Mississippi, I’ve been dying to. It’s so foreign to me. And so I’m excited to check out the culture there, the people. I like to meet new people and have conversations and check out new worlds.
Okay, so not much time to consume any culture this weekend. What about in the future? Anything you’re excited about?
Yeah, I mean, I haven’t seen Walking Dead episode two of this season. Last night I missed it. I can’t wait to see it! I have to catch up on Homeland. Can’t wait. I’m in the middle right now of watching Breaking Bad. I’m at the end of season three. So basically I’m a tastemaker. I’m going to turn everybody on to this new show called Breaking Bad.