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Sarah Silverman's dramatic turn wins surprising SAG Award nomination

Sarah Silverman's dramatic turn wins surprising SAG Award nomination
Sarah Silvermanis nominated for outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role for her performance in "I Smile Back." (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Comedian Sarah Silverman's drug-addicted, adulterous suburban mother in "I Smile Back" won her a surprising SAG Award nomination for lead actress in a role that tapped into her past and established her as a gifted dramatic player.

Silverman got the nomination in a category where a number of accomplished actresses in standout performances were left out, including Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy," Carey Mulligan in "Suffragette," Lily Tomlin in "Grandma" and Charlotte Rampling in "45 Years." Her nomination also came out of a movie that has had little traction, grossing only about $58,000 at the box office. 

"I'm doing a Snoopy dance right now," said Silverman in reacting to the news. "My arms are itchy with glee. I work hard to not let my self esteem be defined by outside forces, but ... today I'm giving myself a pass."

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Silverman's portrayal of Laney's self-destructive slide contained little of the arrogance and invective that bristles in her stand-up comedy. Silverman has had small, resonant roles in films such as "Take This Waltz," but her lead turn in "I Smile Back" was riven with interior demons that permeated every frame and demanded a nuanced performance of a woman falling apart.

"I don't have easy access to my emotions. They're very tightly packed and compartmentalized. But for this part, they had to be on the surface," she told the Times in an interview earlier this year. "A really big director I admire told me once, 'You're really good, but I'll never cast you in anything because you're Sarah Silverman. People are too familiar with you. You're like a personality. I need actors that people can get lost in.' I couldn't argue with him other than give me a chance."

She added: "To me, I've always been a serious actor, but I'm not good at selling myself."

Silverman understood the threads of despair and addiction that pushed Laney from her family. She suffered depression as a child; she was taking four Xanax a day when she was 14. "You feel squashed by drugs," she said. "You're even, but there aren't high and lows." These days, she's on a small dose of Zoloft: "It saved my life. ... I happen to think I need it. I feel free on it."

In preparing for Laney, Silverman relied on director Adam Salky to keep her honed to the character in a film that bears no hint of a smile.

"I needed to be restrained," said Silverman, whose stand-up comedy has defined her for a generation. "I didn't want this to be me. You know, comics travel with a very unconscious bag of tricks, and a lot of actors do too. I didn't want to have that. (This character) was something I wanted to be immersed in."

Times staff writer Tre'vell Anderson contributed to this article.

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

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