Sarah Silverman came into the Toronto Film Festival this week as the comedy star we know and love, but judging by the reaction to her career-bending performance in the new indie film I Smile Back, she is leaving Canada as a dramatic actor — and awards contender. The film reportedly played great at its Princess Of Wales premiere Wednesday and its star received heavy applause when she came out for a Q&A. Her surprising turn as a suburban wife and mother who tries to battle her drug and sexual demons is strong stuff to say the least, but against all odds Silverman finds the core humanity in this character that makes us care. It is a heartbreaking portrayal of someone who seems to have a perfect life on the surface but can’t help constantly trying to throw it all away.
The film, which first debuted at January’s Sundance Film Festival and will be released October 23 by new distributor Broad Green Pictures, is a tough and demanding sit for audiences. But with Silverman showing real acting chops, it should make a dent in this year’s awards race, very possibly starting with the Independent Spirits. I spoke to Silverman at TIFF just before Sunday night’s Broad Green cocktail reception. We met in a Fairmont Royal York Hotel suite (where she said she was excited for the interview because “Deadline is something I actually read”), and I was really surprised to find she isn’t necessarily looking for her already critically acclaimed lead role in I Smile Back to send her off in a new career direction. In other words, she’s not angling to be the next Meryl Streep. Unlike the character she plays in this film, she’s very happy right now just being, well, Sarah Silverman.
“I’m open to anything but it’s not like I want to…I don’t have anything to prove — I love comedy. I’m proud of being a comedian. I’m not looking to not be a comedian anymore,” she told me. “I’m so glad I didn’t know how dark and scary this experience would be because I would have pussied out. I went into going between action and cut that it will be whatever, but we’ll still have a good time. I didn’t realize that what all these actors say — and I roll my eyes at — is true. It’s a lot, it’s so much. It’s heavy.”
“Heavy” is a good word to describe the film itself, which first came Silverman’s way when she was on Howard Stern’s radio show and the book’s author (and co-writer of the screenplay with Paige Dylan) Amy Koppelman heard her talking about her own book and depression. She thought immediately there might be a connection between the character of Laney and the star herself. “She got the book to me and I read it and liked it. I was surprised. I’m always surprised if someone can imagine me in a way that I have not already been seen. There’s not many people who can imagine you outside of what they’ve already seen you do,” Silverman said. She became attached to the project but never dreamed it would actually get made.
When she got an email two years later saying they had the funding she says she descended onto the bathmat of her bathroom in a ball trembling. “I thought, ‘What have I done?’ I can’t do this,” she recalls now. She shouldn’t have worried. Actually, I think some of the best dramatic performances I have seen in movies and TV have actually come from comedians given a chance to stretch. There is a very gray line between comedy and drama.
“I mean they definitely share a wall. They’re adjacent at the very least. There’s so much darkness in comedy. I mean we’re dropping like flies in case you haven’t noticed. So I think that isn’t as far as one would think to travel, but it was definitely a challenge,” she said, also recalling a 2011 film she did called Take This Waltz. “Seth Rogen and I were both in it and people would ask, ‘Was it hard to switch to drama?’ We were like, ‘No, it’s the same.’ You just say words honestly.
“But [I Smile Back] was different. There were interesting, weird parallels because in comedy I’ve always loved exploring the very self-centered arrogant character. There isn’t that much difference with this in very broad strokes because she’s a character that has a lot of self-disdain and lives in fear and anxiety. It’s always ‘What if? What if? What if?’ That may seem like a modest state to be in but it isn’t. It’s all-consuming. It’s self-obsession. There’s no room for anything else, and in that way it’s not so dissimilar to that comic character of self-involved.”
Silverman said that much of the research she did for the role was actually internal: She’s familiar with depression having grown up in a house with depression. Although she hasn’t suffered from addiction, she says as a comedian she is surrounded by it. Friends helped her with the detox scenes which she had only previously known from other movies. She just hopes the portrayal comes off as real. It is very real, and often harrowing in her portrayal, which she found hard to shake off after shooting every day. “I would go to my hotel, wash my face and find a Law & Order because then I can just relax to clear my mind to the mellow sounds of soft-core rape and murder. It feels like home. There’s a normalcy about it because it’s just always there. So I found comfort in that,” she said, laughing.
As for her own career as the movie hits theatres this fall, she has an HBO pilot she did but isn’t sure what is happening with it, as well as a role in Showtime’s Masters Of Sex, which happens to star her boyfriend, Michael Sheen. She won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Writing In A Variety Special and clearly wants to keep the comedy coming in between these “finite endeavors,” as she puts it. “Maybe I have not enough ambition for this business, but I never make a plan. I keep my overhead low. I own my apartment and my car. So if something crosses my path and it’s interesting, then it is exciting to do.” That certainly defines the experience of playing Laney in I Smile Back, which will certainly get her fans talking — and maybe bring some new ones.
“I think it’s interesting because people are going to leave the theater either having compassion for her, or just being like this f*cking bitch has everything. These are white people problems. This is first world sh*t. What they get from it almost completely depends on the context of their own lives and their history, and where it’s coming from,” she said. “I like that people will see it in different ways, and have different levels of sympathy and disdain for this character.”