By Michael Phillips
CHICAGO — Like a lot of very funny comedians, Sarah Silverman has easy access to the dark side. The 44-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter is on a press tour for “I Smile Back,” which opens Nov. 6, but took its pre-release bow at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Based on Amy Koppelman’s novel, director Adam Salky’s film stars Silverman as Laney Brooks, a New Jersey mother of two (Josh Charles plays her husband) whose life is circling a series of drains. She’s an addict, recklessly devoted to cocaine. She’s having an affair. Before rehab and afterward, “I Smile Back” takes its protagonist, and Silverman, into harsh and challenging territory.
The film was shot quickly (20 days) and cheaply ($400,000 production budget). The actress makes her home in West Hollywood. Her romantic partner is actor Michael Sheen (“Masters of Sex”), who has a 16-year-old daughter with his ex, actress Kate Beckinsale. The movie, Silverman told me over eggs at Chicago’s Freehand Chicago hotel on East Ohio Street. (“I love it! It’s a hostel!”), made for “a very intense experience. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that space for three months. But scenes like the teddy bear scene (at one point, a trashed Laney pleasures herself in a desperate way with her child’s stuffed toy), they were oddly exhilarating to shoot. To get myself to do the movie I had to convince myself, ‘Well, it’s going to be fun! It’ll be heavy between “action” and “cut,” but we’ll still have some laughs between takes.’ And that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t fun. But I found this alternative to fun that was equally satisfying. To get the emotions on the surface and then cover them, that was the challenge, and the emotions all came out of their tightly packed compartments. I don’t have easy access to them, but once they were there, they were there.”
She continues: “Laney feels so much, but she covers it expertly. I can relate to that to a degree. She’s living in complete panic, that anxiety state of what-if. What if I ruin my kids? What if I mess them up? What if my genes are passed on? What if I abandoned them? When you live in that space there’s no room for anything like hope.”
In Sarah Polley’s film “Take This Waltz,” Silverman played an unsteadily recovering alcoholic. “I learned a lot doing that,” she said. “There was a scene where I was on a bus, and I had it in my head that when you’re in a drama you (murmurs, in a hushed, WASP-y way) talk like this. And Sarah was, like, ‘Could you be louder?’ Then I did it again basically the same way, because I thought this was what ‘real acting’ was. Then at lunch I was standing, and Sarah was sitting, I was all (big gestures, boisterous delivery), you know, loud. And real. It was a misconception in my own mind, that I had to be quieter to be real. The first time I did an interview with Terry Gross on ‘Fresh Air,’ I was like (NPR announcer voice) ‘Well, Terry …’ Until I realized what I was doing. In acting or in writing, you have to get past the pretext of what you think you’re supposed to sound like.”
Silverman and her sisters grew up in Bedford, N.H. Her parents divorced when Sarah was 6. “It was very hard on my sisters, very easy on me. I was like, ‘Oh, you mean you won’t be screaming, fighting every night? Sounds great!’ Joint custody’s hard. Anybody who knows me knows I’m crazy about my dad. We’re very close. But I lived with my mom. I just wanted to stay there, in my room, with my stuff. My sisters moved in with my dad, but he’d come over and we’d go for a walk. Or he’d pick me up, like, 6 in the morning, and we’d go to the Y and swim laps, and then get a Big Mac, and then he’d take me to school. I loved it. The fact my dad would come over just to take a walk with me, at the time I was like ‘whatever,’ but it’s moving to me now that I’m older.”
Silverman has been dating Sheen since early 2014. “We met in a great way. I did a (pro-choice) fundraiser, raising money for women seeking abortions in Texas, and he came to it, and he came with his ex and her husband. A good sign. We met there. I thought he was cute. Turns out we were being set up by our friend Mark Flanagan, the owner of (LA comedy club) Largo. He completely yenta’d us.”
After the “I Smile Back” press tour, Silverman returns to New York (“in the winter, but still”) for “The Book of Henry,” director Colin Trevorrow’s new film starring Naomi Watts. Silverman shot a pilot, “Jude,” for HBO. No word on that yet. She also recently got the James Lipton treatment on “Inside the Actors Studio.”
“That was great,” she says. “My mom passed away at the end of August, and that made me miss her so much. She’s one person in my life whose mind would’ve been totally blown by me being on that show. She would’ve died. Again.” She smiled. “I’ve really become my mother, in that I feel I have so much important information to tell people, all the time. I’m at a time in my life where I could fill out a comment card at every juncture of my day, every place I go, everywhere I am.” Pause, followed by the deadpan Silverman delivery that is serving her well in all sorts of material lately: “I just know how they could do it better.”