The True Story Behind Sarah Silverman’s Heartbreaking New Movie

Photo: Courtesy of Amy Koppelman.
We're so used to seeing Sarah Silverman as the unapologetic funnywoman — the comedian who doesn't shy away from profanity or obscenity and doesn't give a fuck whether you like it — that her candor in recent years about her longtime struggle with depression has surprised many. In an interview about her new film, I Smile Back, in which Silverman tackles the uncharacteristically dark role of a suburban mother grappling with addiction, the actress revealed her trepidation about doing the movie: "I knew playing Laney Brooks would take me back to a very dark place," she told Glamour.
For the movie's release today, we spoke with Amy Koppelman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Paige Dylan — and wrote the eponymous novel on which the movie is based. While I Smile Back is fictional, it's based on Koppelman's own battles with self-loathing, guilt, and shame. She shared these with us, along with her thoughts on mothers' fears of screwing up their kids, how she knew she wanted Sarah Silverman to play Laney, and why it's not her job to give viewers a tidy conclusion to draw from her movie.
While your work isn't autobiographical, it's based on themes from your own life — what is that creative process like?
"I started writing in the spring of '94 — I fell into a very bad period of depression, and as I started getting better, I started typing. I started typing letters to this friend of mine, and I never thought, Oh, I'm going to turn this into a book — [the letters] became a receptacle for sadness. In my first book, I was writing to the fear of, What if I don't get the help I need in terms of medication? In I Smile Back, I was writing to the fear of, What else do we inherit, besides hair color and eye color, from our parents? My father's very similar to Laney's character; he didn't take drugs, but he was a very destructive force. I've tried so hard to get better and have this little family, but what if it's just latently in me and I'm just bound to destroy, no matter how hard I try not to? "People seem to always think that I'm the Laney character, which is very funny because I live such a quiet, little, unexciting life. But all the feelings and the self-loathing, feeling undeserving, all of that, those are all personal; I relate to her in all those ways. And the overwhelming fear of when you love something so much, when you have these children and you love them so much, and you're so scared you're going to hurt them somehow, even when you're trying not to. I think every mother is always worried. How am I going to damage my kid?... My son and daughter, both of them came out perfect, and my thought was, I can only fuck them up from this moment. I can only ruin them; I can't possibly make them better."

My son and daughter, both of them came out perfect, and my thought was 'I can only fuck them up from this moment. I can only ruin them; I can't possibly make them better.'

Do you think women's experiences are taken more seriously now than they were in the past?
"I think so. I just was driving down the street listening to...I think it was NPR...some woman talking about postpartum depression... At least they're talking about it, and there's resources now, and people can kind of identify it more; doctors sometimes look for it. I think, sometimes, women are their own worst enemies with this. You're not supposed to say this, but I think some women make other women feel deficient somehow, to feel better about themselves. When I couldn't breast-feed my daughter because I didn't know if [my medication] would go through the breast milk or not, I felt so guilty... You're supposed to breast-feed, breast-feeding makes you a 'good' mom, and other moms will sit there and say, 'Well I breast-fed for six weeks,' 'I breast-fed for six months,' 'I breast-fed for six years!' I think, as a community, women have to be there to say to other women, 'Look out for this' or try to help them."
How did you know Sarah Silverman was the right person to play Laney?
"You know how if you fall in love, you can't really explain the moment? There's a couple times in your life when you get touched by something, or you have a moment... I was listening to her [talk about her depression on the radio], and I was thinking that she would understand what I was trying to say with Laney. I knew she would understand. We all just want to be understood, to be seen and heard. That was my first instinct. I didn't see Sarah do stand-up; I hadn't seen her TV show. I saw clips of all those things [recently] for the first time. I just heard her voice, and there was something about it... I just thought, She is going to understand my heart, and I wanted to get the book to her. The miracle was that she actually opened the book and read it...and then agreed [to be in the movie]."
What would you say to those who argue that the trope of the "desperate housewife" is cliché?
"I don't know when that became a problem. There's another way to say that, which is: How come we're still hearing the same story? In so much Russian literature, and Edith Wharton, and Jane Austen — I'm not comparing myself to those people, but they wrote about wealthy people, and we read about them without disdain. In this kind of story, the suburban housewife...has everything. The reason I gave Laney everything is because I wanted to take every obstacle away from her that gives her an excuse to not get better. She doesn't take responsibility, she doesn't take her medication; she has a supportive environment, people who love her, money to go to a doctor, and she still can't figure out how to escape it. Laney is trapped so much in her What if I hurt them? What if they abandon me? that she can't exist outside of it. It's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. She preemptively strikes at everybody before they can hurt her."

I just thought, 'She is going to understand my heart,' and I wanted to get the book to her. The miracle was that she actually opened the book and read it...and then agreed to be in the movie.

How have people responded to the movie? How do you hope that future viewers will?
"One out of every four people has some kind of mental illness, and I think all of us have been touched in one way or another by someone who does. If somebody who sees the movie goes and gets help or identifies with the character in the movie or sees their sister or friend and is like, 'I think you have this,' or it reminds them of their mother... One woman walked up to me after Sundance, and she was crying, and she was like, 'It was like you made a documentary of my childhood... I realize, though, that my mother did not hate me. She loved me.' That's the most important thing to me...that people realize that Laney loved her family, and yet she still destroyed the people she loved. That can be the nature of that illness."
What's next for you?
"I have a new book coming out on November 3; it's called Hesitation Wounds. It's about this woman who's a 45-year-old treatment-resistant-depression psychiatrist, so she does lots of electroshock therapy and medication. As a way to make sure she distances herself, she doesn't get too emotionally attached to her patients because they don't have talk-therapy sessions. But she comes across this one guy that's about the same age her brother would have been, but her brother died when she was much younger. And she comes to terms with all the ways in which she was guarding herself. With this book, I was trying to forgive myself for being okay, and telling myself it was okay to be happy, and it was okay to be okay. So I guess I was exploring the guilt of being okay when not everybody else is okay."

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