Sarah Silverman went into Sunday night’s premiere of her new movie, I Smile Back, with very little clue of what to expect. She hadn’t yet seen the final cut of the film, and because Smile — one of the more anticipated debuts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — was her first full-on dramatic role, the 44-year-old comedic actress and stand-up had no idea if she was any good in it or not.
“Before the screening I was like, ‘I don’t know how to tell if people will like it,’” Silverman told Yahoo Movies. “With comedy, you can tell because they’re laughing.”
There was the occasional bit of laughter during the premiere, but the theater was largely silent as the audience watched in shock as Silverman’s character, Laney — a well-to-do housewife and mother of two — goes into a downward spiral of heavy boozing, drug addiction, and instantly regretted midday motel room affairs.
The film, based on the 2008 novel by Amy Koppelman, and directed by Adam Salky (Dare), required a total lack of vanity from its star. Laney is dealing with not only the emotional scars due to her father’s abandonment, but also a chemical imbalance that requires medication she refuses to take. When life brings those two internal live wires together, it is explosive.
Laney snorts copious cocaine, sleeps with her friend’s husband, drinks herself into a stupor, and pushes herself further and further to the edge, breaking down in tears at the end of each trip to the dark side. It’s the sort of performance we’ve never seen of Silverman, who often uses her comedy to expose the darkness in the world. Here, she had to turn the light inward.
“It wasn’t easy,” Silverman, who has been open in the past about her history with depression, said. "Comedy is very vulnerable and exposing, but this is a whole other [kind of] vulnerable and exposing. And it was scary.“
Of course, Silverman is hardly the first comedic star to make that leap. But curiosity and skeptical headlines trail any comedian who takes on a dramatic role. Never mind that Robin Williams so often heartbreakingly blurred the lines between drama and comedy, or that Bill Murray’s renaissance was built on his ability to combine deadpan lines with dead stares, or that former SNL stars like Kristen Wiig and Will Forte have earned some of their best critical notices by playing downbeat or difficult characters.
According to Silverman, moving into drama is a natural transition.
"Comedians tend to come from a dark place, or an isolated place, and they develop being funny as way to survive that,” Silverman said. “So when you let go of that, and you have people making sure you don’t reach for any of your personal bag of tricks, it forces you to face a darkness that already there.”
Silverman says she wasn’t out to prove herself, or make a move into dramatic acting, per se; the role just sort of landed in her lap, after Koppelman heard her talking on the radio with Howard Stern. She’s not all that worried about the response, but she does admit that the film changed her in at least one way.
“Once [the performance is] out there, it’s not yours anymore to define what it is,” she said. ”It’s for other people to infer from the context of their life experience … Laney lives in fear, she lives in anxiety, and — oh, my God! I’m an actor talking about a character like they’re another person. I guess I’ve really made it.”