Sarah Silverman is one of the most successful comics currently working—which makes it all the more surprising that she’s been quietly building a totally different second career as the indie drama scene’s newest star.
Following up on her supporting role in 2012’s Take This Waltz, Silverman takes the lead in the new film I Smile Back (out Oct. 23). As Laney, a housewife who papers over her depression with profligate, secret substance use, Silverman shows us a whole new side; the pitch-black script, which pushes her to violent extremes, is about as far from comedy as an actor can get.
That suits Silverman fine. After a brief moment of panic on her bathroom floor, she says she threw herself into the role, and it shows onscreen. It’s all a part of an evolution that Silverman attributes to therapy. She may have developed a sideline career, but even her main gig has changed: “There are jokes in my first special eleven years ago that I wouldn’t say today because they would have a different meaning. Comedy changes with time and it’s important for a comedian to grow and change with the times.” Silverman spoke to TIME about her developing interests, how she learned not to be afraid of being “actress-y,” and why comedians tend to get so depressed.
TIME: You’ve been moving into dramatic movies; how does your preparation differ from your costars’?
Sarah Silverman: I think that everyone has a different method, even within their personal realm of expertise. I don’t know, I think that comedy and drama are different but they definitely share a wall, at least. They’re adjacent, at least. There tends to be a lot of darkness in the comedy community. And, even in my comedy, I mostly talk about bleaker things.
That said, it’s totally different. It’s about timing and surprise. Not that that isn’t in drama, but it was different for me. For me, I had a lot of help from the writers who were there every day and the director to keep an eye on making sure I didn’t subconsciously reach for my bag of tricks that all comics have, and a lot of actors have too. It wasn’t a part that should have anything familiar in terms of me or the comedy I do. I wanted to play her very objectively. It’s different because there’s all these emotions you have to have at the ready, and then when you enlist them, you’re also covering them, because that’s the character. It was an interesting kind of balancing act.
And, of course, Laney doesn’t know she’s in a drama. The people you’re playing don’t know they’re in a dramatic movie.
Do you choose scripts that are as far from comedy as possible? This is pretty much the polar opposite of your act.
Whether it’s comedy or anything, I’m interested in doing something that I haven’t done before, something I don’t think I can do. When I first signed on to do it, it didn’t have money to be made, and I didn’t think twice about it. I’m never making a plan; the opportunity presented itself and I was like “Sure!” I didn’t put any thought into it because it didn’t occur to me the movie would get made. Most movies don’t get made. When it became a reality, I found myself in a ball on the floor trembling, thinking “I can’t do this.” Then I realized that’s Laney’s constant state of mind, living in that “What if,” living in the horror stories we tell ourselves. That’s when I realized, “Maybe I can do this. Because I’m doing it now on my bathmat.”
Why is there so much sadness—depression, addiction—in the comedy world?
I think it’s because to need to become funny usually comes from a way of surviving, a survival skill of childhood, a means to get through some kind of adversity. That’s why we all have some element of sadnesses or darknesses in common, whether we bring it to the stage or not at all. That’s the reason people become funny is to overcome pain. The most basic is the fat kid making the fat joke first.
Did filming get easier as it went along?
It did get easier because I was in that headspace. It is daunting when you have to veer away from the things you know you can do well. But that fear informed a lot of the bones of who she is anyway. And I’m also a woman, I have all sorts of sides, just as we all do: We’re one way with our friends, and one way with our mother, and one way with our boss. People may think of me as one thing, but of course, nobody is one thing. So I have a lot to draw on that I hadn’t necessarily brought forward in the work I’d done before.
It seemed to me like the film’s dark mood, though, might grow oppressive day-in and day-out.
I had convinced myself, “Just because it’s a drama doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, in between scenes!” It really wasn’t like that, but it was an amazing experience. But the way I comforted my anxiety was [to imagine] it’ll be heavy between action and cut, but it’ll be fun. But that isn’t the case, because you’re holding all these feelings. I was like a 2-year-old who didn’t know what to do with her feelings in between scenes. And I’m so glad I didn’t know that going in because I would probably have tried to get out of it. Because I’m a quality-of-life junkie. The thought of an intense four weeks, I probably would have pussied out, and I’m so glad I didn’t.
Does your making this movie indicate that have your interests changed over time?
I’ve been attached to movies that were dramas, and then they get financing and they get a movie star. So I was surprised that when they got money this time, they wanted me. But this one crossed my path at this time and maybe it’s for the best. I remember Garry Shandling telling me, “Things can come too early. But things don’t come too late.” Meaning, you might not be ready for things if they come too early, but life is long—if you don’t die.
How did you build chemistry with Josh Charles?
It was very comfortable with Josh. I’ve known him for years, and now I understand what actors mean when they say someone is “generous.” He was so generous! He cared so much about anything I might need. And we were good together, it just felt very natural. Here’s another word I would roll my eyes at an actor saying: I felt very safe.
Do you have a better understanding now of these stereotypical actor-y words or traits?
All the things I would scoff at that actors say, I’m saying. “Working with such generous actors”; carrying these heavy emotions home with me,” “not being able to separate from it.” All of these things, I would go, “come on!” But we are our feelings. That’s what we’re made up of. When people die, you see their bodies and there’s nothing there. Everything we are is the stuff inside; that’s science, it’s the truth! And as a woman who considers her religion to be science and love, it is very scientific that when you’re bringing up emotions and feelings and things that you’re using in a scenario that you’re deeply trying to believe to be true, you can’t just detach from it; they’re still in you, ruminating. It takes a while for them to settle back, very deep down.
Standup isn’t always the peak of empathy. Did working on a project that required so much emotional labor on your part make you reconsider any of your comedy?
I don’t think of my standup as malicious at all, that kind of comedy. I don’t think doing a drama has changed the way I approach my comedy. Therapy has changed the things I’m interested in; the world around me has definitely changed the things I think are funny and the jokes I would make. There are jokes in my first special eleven years ago that I wouldn’t say today because they would have a different meaning. Comedy changes with time and it’s important for a comedian to grow and change with the times. You can cling to things, but that just makes you old.
I used to say “That is so gay!” I’m from Boston! I have gay friends. I don’t mean “gay” like that. I mean “gay” like, lame! I found myself defending it and I stopped in the middle and said, “Oh my God, I’m the guy who says ‘colored’!” It was such a revelation to me that it’s important to change with the times. I’m not saying “Be P.C., don’t be P.C.”—what is P.C.? It’s defined in so many different ways depending on who you’re asking. I believe what I feel is funny in my gut is funny, but what I feel is funny in my gut changes with time.
Did you worry that therapy might make you less funny?
There are comedians who have that fear. For me, therapy has opened up a whole new world comedically. I love being a comedian—I love aggressively dumb stuff but I love exploring human nature, and how we relate to each other is stuff I mine for comedy all the time. The new things I learn in therapy have informed my whole last special. It doesn’t sound funny in this conversation. There are people who romanticize the depression or darkness of art, but when you’ve battled with depression, you want to be happy and you want to figure life out. I don’t think comedy will ever suffer for knowing more.
If I was a comic dependent on being angry, maybe, but the fear that comics have of going to therapy is silly, because it’s really just a fear of changing their act at all. People are afraid of changing and they stay with the devil they know, but I dare to be brave enough to want to learn more and find ways to be happy in life. That’s not what kills comedy. Therapy and learning about human behavior doesn’t kill comedy. What kills comedy is being out of touch with what’s going on in the world. People become rich and famous and they aren’t in the clubs and they aren’t seeing what’s going on around them and giving credence to youth. You need to be interested in the vital people around you or you’re going to become dated.
Do you feel exempt from some of the pressures actresses face because you already have a successful career?
I am a comedian; that’s what my bones are made out of and where my heart is. And I love acting and I love drama; I love making videos on my couch, I like all these different mediums. I don’t have any kind of gameplan. I never was naked in anything until I was 40, and now I’m naked in everything! I was never the sexy girl in a big-budget movie, and now I’m just me! I’m allowed to be naked and say, “This is my human shell, that’s all it’s supposed to be.” Maybe it’s partly that I love being vulnerable and comedy comes easier to me; I’m almost an exhibitionist. With drama, it’s been a little different, because I’ve discovered there’s ego and defensiveness involved, because I do care about it and I am proud of it. I’m trying to put myself out there in a way where if people don’t like it, it’s about more than not having the same sense of humor. That’s why I try very hard to keep the source of my self-esteem from inside me and from the people I love. It’s vulnerable-making.