By Matt Pais
In Sarah Silverman’s 2013 comedy special “We Are Miracles,” the stand-up notes an online porn clip featuring several guys and one woman ending with one of the guys telling the woman, “Great job, I know you were sick.”
Obviously, that’s meant to be funny. But Silverman’s point about people being multifaceted and possessing unexpected humanity is relevant in thinking about the depth that the 44-year-old comedian, not necessarily known as a major actress, brings to her first dramatic starring role in “I Smile Back.” She takes the promise shown in her stirring supporting turn in the great “Take This Waltz” and absolutely nails it as Laney, who battles depression (something Silverman herself has dealt with), drug addiction and the way a wide variety of fears and traumas impact her relationships (her “Masters of Sex” co-star Josh Charles plays her husband).
“In a way, I feel like, ‘Why? Why is it such a surprise?’” Silverman says when I tell her that based on the progression of her work, I wasn’t as surprised as people involved in the film seemed to have been about thinking of her for the part. “And then in another way, I join them in that surprise.”
The actress talked about music, depression and more:
Question: The movie deals a lot with pain and trauma; in “We Are Miracles” you talk about everyone experiencing trauma but people not always realizing it because there’s no music telling them how to feel. How interested would you be in having an automatic soundtrack playing throughout your life for a week, so as things happen to you either happy or sad music comes on?
Answer: Oh, yeah, well, that’s probably my all-time favorite thing to do in the world, is walk through the streets of New York with the soundtrack to my life in my ears. It’s like, “I’m melancholy; I’m listening to Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day,’ walking through the autumn streets of New York.” “Oh God, you make me feel so …” What’s that line? “(You made me) forget myself/I thought I was someone else, someone good.” (Mock cries.) It’s so true.
Q: What’s the happy version of that?
Answer: Then I walk through and I’m listening to Taylor Swift “Shake It Off.” (Laughs.) I do like happy music, but I really love heartbreaking music.
Q: Then would you be interested if you lost your shoe in mud and automatically the world cued up sad strings?
Answer: (Laughs.) Yes, yes. Music in movies is such a fine line because you don’t want to be told what’s coming. You don’t want to be told how to feel.
Q: “Oh, this is the important moment, OK.”
Answer: Yeah, yeah, right, right. “Oh, this is going to get sad.” Then there’s just the one key playing, the piano key: “Is this going to be scary? Is someone going to get killed?”
Q: It’s like Jason Segel composing in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It’s just tones.
Answer: (Laughs.) Yeah. The music in this movie, I think it’s good. It’s more like “Peter and the Wolf” in that — not that each character has a tone, but that tick tick tick tick tick when she’s triggered or something. It’s pretty cool.
Q: You were thought of for this role when you were heard talking about depression on Howard Stern, and you’ve said your darker years have always informed your work. Have you thought about if you would have been able to do this role without having personal experience with depression? And as an extension of that, I suppose you could say this about any disease, but does it feel like depression is something people can’t understand if they haven’t gone through it?
Answer: That’s a good two-part question. The first one is do I think I could do this part if I didn’t battle depression myself: I don’t even know if I would be in show business if I didn’t have the childhood I had or the experience I had or the chemical makeup. So maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know who I would be. I probably would be a much more secure teacher who doesn’t need the love of strangers. (Laughs.) And then the second part was what?
Q: Is depression something people can’t understand without going through it, in a different way than a more physical illness?
Answer: I mean, people can empathize with it. I do think that people — I’ve seen people romanticize depression. I think that artists that kind of romanticize depression, sometimes I wonder if they — there are comics that don’t want to have therapy because they’re afraid if they get past their sadnesses they won’t be funny. I just feel like that is someone who has not experienced depression because you don’t want to be depressed. (Laughs.) You’d maybe do anything to not have these paralyzing downward spirals. They’re not as effective. People might write incredible songs when they’re depressed. It is true: Adele got her heart broken and she wrote “21”; it’s like the greatest. (Laughs.) So I’m contradicting myself. Look! I’m not a perfect person. It’s early; I’m drinking a Red Bull, which is drugs basically.
Q: But is that what you mean by romanticize, when artists act like it’s a good thing because it gives them something creative to do? People always have frustrations; even if they’re not depressed, something can happen and you want to write about it, I would think.
Answer: Yeah, and I mean, I understand romanticizing depression in that I let myself wallow in it. Listen to sad music, feel sorry for myself and all that stuff in a way that kind of helps me process it. But real depression is not something that you want to experience for your art. It’s something that art sometimes comes out of as a way of just expressing through something.
Q: You said you like that “I Smile Back” will evoke different reactions out of people who see Laney different ways. How troubled are you when it seems like everyone thinks the same thing about a movie? I can’t stand when everyone is like, “This is the best movie ever; there’s only one opinion you can have, end of story.” There’s no conversation to be had there.
Answer: Yeah, I know. I didn’t not like “Up.” I love “Up.” (Laughs.) I love Ed Asner. But I was like, maybe it was just where I was coming from. That movie I cannot take — I understand that Pixar movies are the greatest movies ever made —
Q: Well, the first third is the part everyone loves.
Answer: My heart can’t take it! It’s too much for me. I was crying so hard in the first half-hour of “Up.” I remember I just looked at my friend, she was sitting next to me, and I just went (wailing), “Why are they doing this to us?” That’s how I felt. It wasn’t like, “‘Up’ sucked!” It was amazing; I don’t like, and I know I’m promoting this movie that is this way, but I don’t like being made to feel too much because it hurts! Which is why this process was hard for me, actually.
Q: As someone who thought “Boyhood” was just OK, I’m fully in favor of people saying how they feel, minority or not. The lack of ability for people to have truth in their opinion does no good for community.
Answer: (I) didn’t like “Sherlock Holmes”! How ‘bout that? Is that something?
Answer: (Fake sad) Hmm.
Q: Maybe not as controversial, but I appreciate your honesty.
Answer: (Fake sad) Ohhh …
Q: On that note, why is it controversial for a comedian —
Answer: How about this? I loved “Knight and Day,” with a K? Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz vehicle. Loved it! Thought it was a super-fun romp.
Q: Let’s close with a few quick ones. Based on your sensibilities, which was more absurd: You being in “Wreck-It Ralph” or Bob Saget being on “Full House”?
Answer: Oh, that’s a good question. I guess Bob Saget in “Full House,” but he was great in that. I’m not being playful enough. … I’m so sorry. I want to do right by you.
Q: Who’s someone who would never get roasted but should?
Answer: Oh, Jesus! I don’t know, a Weinstein! OK, I take that back, my manager just went (exaggerated, pained facial expression). Who’s someone who will never get roasted that should? The Senate?
Q: That would be awesome.
Answer: Boom! That’s my final answer. Harvey (Weinstein), you’re off the hook.
Q: And last one: What scares you now? Not as playful of a question.
Answer: (Pretends to cry, takes a deep breath.) Feelings. And greed. The direction greed has taken the world. How ‘bout that? I know that’s a big one. I mean, honestly, there are people starving to death, and we have plenty of food resources to feed everybody in the world. I feel like this is a good pope; he’s going to do some good things. I once