Interview: Sarah Silverman Surprises Sundance With I Smile Back

Photo: Courtesy of Eric Lin
Sarah Silverman has done serious stuff before, but the stand-up has Sundance buzzing with her performance in the very dark drama I Smile Back. Silverman stars in this adaptation of Amy Koppelman's 2008 novel about Laney, a suburban mom with a taste for booze, pills, hard drugs, sex, and general self-destruction — anything except her anti-depressants.

We met up with Silverman at the Refinery29 after-party, where the comic talked mental health, unlikeable female protagonists, and shopping at Urban Outfitters. 

As someone who has written and spoken about depression, how hard was it to play a part like this?
"I always rolled my eyes and scoffed when actors would say stuff like that, but it did really — it affected me. It was such a heavy weight. It was fun in lots of ways because it was challenging and it was exciting and it felt like a team sport. 

"There are elements of it that I can relate to — the core of it, not the self-destruction necessarily. But, the elements of depression, and the highs and lows and fears, living in fear and how paralyzing that is. When you live in fear and you hate yourself and you want to punish yourself, those things sound very sympathetic, but the truth is it's wildly self-centered. There isn't room for anybody else, so here this character is — she loves her children so much, but that's not enough. She wasn't able to be there for them, but I think what makes it interesting is that depending on your own life experience, you can relate to her, you can sympathize with her, you can be empathetic toward her, or you could really just say, 'Fuck you. We all have had to overcome our childhoods, and some were worse than yours.' 

"But, everyone's kind of in their own personal velocity, and people are weak and people are strong. Like my mom says, sometimes all you have to do is be brave, and I think that that's not something that occurs to someone who is living in a terror of what-ifs."

You told Vanity Fair that you had a full-body panic attack over this movie...
"Yeah, you know when you feel it from the top of your head, and your whole body gets so hot — like when you're throwing up and you want to take your shirt off because you're suddenly so hot, and you want to touch the floor of the bathroom because it's cold."

I think I felt that on the shuttle on the way over here. How does it feel to finally show the movie and see people's reactions?
"It's interesting — I'm struggling with how to take it in. It's like, any comic after a set [will tell you]: You can go, have a good set, and they'll never say thank you. They'll say, 'well, I hated this one part…' So, this is a very interesting experience I haven't had before. Sometimes, it's just hard to say, 'oh, thank you very much!' [laughs]"

I love your stand-up, but I also enjoy your dramatic work. Is that something you're interested in moving toward?
"No, I have no plan or ambition either way. I always just kind of go with what crosses my path, unless I think of something and then I just do that. I don't have a game plan."

I think this has been an interesting couple of years for the unlikeable, hard-to-love anti-heroine, and Laney is definitely a character in that realm. Do you think that this a trend, because women are creating more or because we're becoming more transparent?
"No, no, I just think women are making stuff, you know? [laughs] And, I think people are afraid of change in general — we all are, instinctively, because it's scary. But, you know, more and more women are just undeniable. That's all it takes. You have to be undeniable."

I love your Tig button — the new documentary on her that premiered here at Sundance was so amazing. That scene where you guys were working on bits while Tig's in the hospital...
"I had no idea that that was being recorded! Tig said Riki Lindhome started videoing on her iPhone because she just thought Tig might want it someday. Isn't that amazing? I was shocked, I was like, 'oh my God. I did the dumbest, silliest joke,' but it's so great that they were able to capture it. There's so much great found footage and pictures! It's just extraordinary."

Everyone's talking about Cake and Jennifer Aniston, but what I think is really interesting about your I Smile Back role is that you're really a casual, chill, cool girl, and here you're playing a suburban housewife with some real issues.
"It's funny because it's so weird to see me that way! [laughs] And, then, there isn't a time these days where I walk into Urban Outfitters and don't think, 'I should be shopping for my daughter's first apartment right now,' you know? And, I'm not. You can't do everything you want."
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