Sarah Silverman on Serious Turn in ‘I Smile Back': ‘Most Comedians Come From a Dark Place’

The anxiety of her own childhood, Silverman tells TheWrap, connected her to the self-destructive character

Last Updated: October 23, 2015 @ 10:04 AM


If you’re used to laughing when Sarah Silverman opens her mouth, the new movie “I Smile Back” could put an end to that right away.

In the dark drama from director Adam Salky opening in limited release on Friday, Silverman plays a depressed, self-destructive young mother who torpedoes her comfortable suburban life with drugs and random sex. Fans of the comedian and actress know she can be raunchy, but this raunch is born out of self-loathing, and it’s not played for laughs; it’s unsettling and often hard to watch.

But it’s also a good role for a comedian, Silverman insisted in an interview for an upcoming issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

“In terms of comedy and drama and the DNA they share, most comedians come from a dark place,” she said. “They became funny as a means of survival. A way of existing through childhood unscathed, or with little injury.”

That, she said, was certainly her own experience. “It came from needing to be funny to be liked in school,” she said. “Being really teeny tiny small for my age — my dad kept saying, ‘Keep walking past those open windows,’ because I reminded him of the girl from [the John Irving novel] ‘The Hotel New Hampshire’ who wouldn’t grow, who jumps out a window. I learned as I got older what that meant.

“I was a chronic bed-wetter into my teens, and my parents made me go to sleepaway camp from 6 on — not out of being evil, but because camp was where they shined in their childhoods. I was the kid that smelled like pee, that peed my bed every night, and just made the bed over it and pretended it wasn’t happening. Or going on a school camping trip at 13 and having to hide Pampers in my sleeping bag.

“It was all very humiliating — but I was very funny, and that was my saving grace. And also, I was a little, hairy, dark-haired Jewish girl with a mustache in blonde New Hampshire. Looking back, I had this innate sense that I needed to make my friends’ parents feel comfortable with me, to show that I didn’t have horns and was affable and friendly and silly and non-threatening. It was survival.”

She found some of those themes in “I Smile Back,” which is based on a novel by Amy Koppelman. The author sent the book to Silverman after hearing the comic talking about depression on Howard Stern’s radio show. And when she read the book, Silverman said, “I didn’t know exactly what Amy saw or heard in me, but I did connect to it and felt that I could do this. We’re all trying to survive our childhoods, and certainly the character is.”

Sarah Silverman with Josh Charles in "I Smile Back"

Sarah Silverman with Josh Charles in “I Smile Back”

She agreed to attach herself to the film, secure in the knowledge that the odds were against it ever getting off the ground. “Most movies don’t get made,” she said with a laugh, “so it was like, ‘Yeah, sure — use my name to get funding for a drama. Good luck.’

“But somehow they did get the money, and that’s when I was collapsed on the floor in a full-body panic attack,” she said. “I was going, ‘What have I done? What if I can’t do this? What if I’m terrible?'”

But those fears, she eventually realized, helped connect her with the state-of-mind of her character Laney, whose perpetual anxiety helps fuel her self-destructive bent.

“When I had my panic attack,” she said, “that’s when I realized that that’s kind of where Laney lives, in that anxiety of ‘What if?’ It’s the terror of anxiety, of ‘What if I ruin my kids, what if I abandon them, what if I pass down my genes?’

“And that’s when I thought, maybe I can do this.”