By David Templeton
Whenever a big Hollywood comedian steps over the invisible laugh-line into the alternate world of dramatic movies, the news is received by the press and public much the same way that everyone greeted the news that Michael Jordan was switching from playing basketball to playing baseball. Such moves are viewed with a mix of curiosity and skepticism, but also with a touch of hope. I mean, what if Michael Jordan had turned out to be a great baseball player? He didn’t, unfortunately, but some do make the crossover successfully. Robin Williams did it, proving adept at comedy and tragedy, as did Emma Thompson, who became famous in England as a comic actress with her own hit comedy show. Recently, Amy Schumer pulled off the same thing in Trainwreck, a film in which she proved equally adept at comedy and drama.
Last month at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, comedian Sarah Silverman admitted that making the leap to drama in her harrowing new film I Smile Back, based on the novel by Amy Koppelman, was nothing short of terrifying.
“I only said yes at first because I didn’t really believe the movie would ever get made,” she admits with a laugh, addressing a rattled but awestruck audience after a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of the riveting and gorgeously crafted, but deeply unsettling film. It’s the story of Laney, a secretly depressed housewife and mother who is self-destructively addicted to drugs and sex, engaging in casual affairs while hiding everything from her clueless husband (Josh Charles) and kids, one of whom she fears might have some of her own tendency toward mental illness.
“People offer things all the time that never get made,” Silverman tells the assembled fans, explaining that in Hollywood, the official word for having agreed to do a movie is “attached.” “I ‘attached’ myself to this one,” she says, “and then forgot about it. A couple years later I got a text on my cell phone saying, ‘We got the money! We’re making the movie!’ I immediately texted back, ‘Yay!’—and then I just kind of slumped to the floor and curled up in a little terrified ball. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god! I can’t do this! How can I do this? I’ll be terrible! Everyone will know what a fraud I am!’
“And then I thought, ‘Hey, you know, this is probably exactly how Laney feels every minute of her life. Hmmmmm … maybe I can do this!’”
Though still nervous, she convinced herself that making the movie would be fun.
“I said to myself, ‘Yeah, it’s a drama, and it’ll be really heavy—but in between takes, I can tell jokes and mess around, right?’ I’m so glad, now, that I didn’t know then that I was completely mistaken.”
“I actually found,” she says, “that in between shooting takes, or waiting for the next set-up of a scene, I would be sitting there with all these feelings on my lap. I was like a toddler who didn’t know what to do with her feelings. I saw myself acting out in ways that I don’t usually do, going, ‘Hey! There’s no coffee! How the hell can there be no coffee! It doesn’t cost anything! It’s water run through coffee beans! It’s practically free! How can there be no coffee?’ And later I would have to go on a little ‘Apology Tour,’ telling everyone I was really sorry, as they all laughed at me.”
The point is, Silverman admits that she was totally unprepared for the overwhelming intensity of the feelings she needed to conjure up to play the character.
“And making it worse,” she says, “is that I couldn’t really show those feelings while we were shooting. I had to have them, but I then had to cover them up—because Laney doesn’t show her real feelings to anyone. So I had to play that level as well.
“It was an amazing experience, and I’m glad I did it, but I am so glad I didn’t know what I was getting into, because if I did, I would have totally tried to weasel out of making this movie.”
With the support of her more experienced cast members, Silverman found an additional safety net that allowed her to dig deep into those emotions, and to take risks that others might have run from.
“On the first day of shooting, it was raining,” she recalls. “So we shot inside that day; it was what they call ‘rain cover,’ which is any stuff you can shoot inside, instead of whatever you were going to shoot outdoors the day it happens to rain. So … my very first scene I shot was the sequence in which I have anal sex with Donnie.”
Donnie—a married acquaintance with whom Laney is having a loveless affair—is played by Thomas Sadoski (The Newsroom).
“It’s funny,” Silverman goes on. “I have a friend named David in New York City, and at the end of the first week I was talking with him and he said, ‘How’d it go?’ and I said, ‘It was OK!’ And he said, ‘And how did that anal sex thing go?’ and I said, in this happy, chipper voice, ‘Oh, you know! It was good!’
“I’d been so nervous about shooting that, and it was OK, because Tommy was such a professional. I understand now what actors mean when they call other actors ‘generous,’ because he was so generous. He and Josh were both so concerned about whatever I needed to feel safe. I’m so grateful for that. All of them, all of the forces around me, were the reason I was able to do this.”
The source of Laney’s sense of self-hatred is her abandonment by her father (Chris Sarandon) as a young girl. It’s a painful backstory that Silverman found useful, and to a degree, identified with.
“I think we’re all just trying to survive our childhoods,” she says, to strong but scattered applause from around the theater. “And we all develop different skills to get through that. It’s a common bond amongst comedians. We all became funny as a way to survive and deal with our fucked-up childhoods.
“They say that if you live in the past, it’s depression, and if you live in the future, it’s anxiety—and that’s why it’s better to live in the moment. This woman is always in the state of thinking, ‘What if I screw up? What if I ruin my kids? What if I abandon them the way my dad abandoned me?’ And there isn’t space for anything else in her life, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for her.”
As Silverman talks, it becomes increasingly obvious why so many comedians are good at playing drama. Deep down, they aren’t really laughing, and they know a lot about the way our minds and psyches work.
“People have this perception that self-deprecation and self-loathing are some kind of modesty and humility, but it’s not,” she says. “It’s not modesty. It’s self-obsession. Mother Teresa never went around complaining about her thighs. She had things to do!
“And I think that’s true with Laney. She’s self-obsessed. She’s so consumed by her past that she’s terrified of her future. The only thing she can control is her own destruction, and so that’s what she does.”