Sundance 2015: Nothing funny about Sarah Silverman in 'I Smile Back'

Sundance 2015: Nothing funny about Sarah Silverman in 'I Smile Back'
Sarah Silverman shows her darker side in "I Smile Back" at Sundance. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Sarah Silverman was sitting in the lobby of her hotel with a bunch of dudes. She'd just met the guys, who all looked young and kind of star-struck, like they'd high-five one another after she left.

"OK, so I'll text you later," she said, waving goodbye.


"How adorable are they?" she asked, making her way over to a nearby restaurant. "We're all going to go play basketball later."

After performing for over two decades as a stand-up comedian, this is the brand that Silverman, 44, has established: the goofyeverygirl who brings her marijuana vape to the Emmys instead of extra lipstick. As she puts it: "The mayor of everywhere."

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"When Nicole Kidman walks into a room, people are like, 'Oh, my gosh,'" she said, acting intimidated. "But with me, it's like, 'Oh, Sarah!' People feel like they went to camp with me."

Which is great, for the most part — until one day you decide you want to be a little more like Kidman. That's where Silverman's at right now, and why she's at Sundance for the first time with "I Smile Back," a bleak drama that barely offers even one moment of comic relief. Silverman plays Laney, a housewife who seems to have it all — two cute kids, a loving husband who dotes on her. But she's struggling with crippling depression, and instead of taking her prescribed pills, she self-medicates by doing lines of cocaine and sleeping with random men. Sometimes she's pretty despicable.

Adam Salky, who directed the movie, knows that may be hard for moviegoers to accept. "The business is always trying to put you in a box," he said. "But Sundance is the perfect place to take risks, because that's what it's all about."

A couple of days before her film had its premiere, Silverman was nestled into a fancy booth with a view of the Wasatch Mountains. An eager waiter came over to offer her the house specialty, fondue, but she grimaced and said she wasn't hungry. She ordered a ginger ale and rubbed her stomach as if it hurt.

"I'm not sick," she said, readjusting her ponytail. "I'm just Jewish."

It's been difficult for Silverman to figure out how to promote "I Smile Back" because she can't really make jokes about it. That makes her feel vulnerable, she said, and she's not even a fan of depressing films. When her stack of screeners arrives during award season, the serious movies end up at the bottom of the pile.

"Even like 'Captain Phillips' last year, I was like, 'Ugh,'" she said. "I always need a shove to see something that's going to give me pain."

That may be because she feels she's already dealt with enough of it. Silverman battled depression when growing up in New Hampshire. She complained to her parents that she felt alone even when surrounded by others, and at 13, a therapist prescribed her a regimen of four Xanax pills four times per day, she said.

"Whoever put me on that should be imprisoned," she said. "I just felt numb. I didn't feel better. I kept them all in a shoe box because I kept thinking, 'This can't be right, but my parents believe the doctors.'"

Silverman was talking about her history with mental illness on Howard Stern's radio show a few years ago when Amy Koppelman tuned in while driving up the West Side Highway in New York. The author, who wrote the 2008 novel the film is based on, immediately imagined Silverman as her leading lady — even though the actress had thus far had roles only in comedies like "School of Rock."

"She was talking about her childhood and medication and depression, and I just had this moment where I thought, 'She's going to understand this,'" said Koppelman, who co-wrote the film's screenplay. "That sounds Pollyanna-ish, almost, but I just had faith in her. I knew she understood the aloneness the character felt — and the fear of loving so hard."


On the surface, it seems there's been a lot of love in Silverman's life. She dated Jimmy Kimmel for five years and has been in a relationship with "Masters of Sex" star Michael Sheen for the last year. But she also yearns to have children — a fact that playing a mother in "I Smile Back" only compounded.

"It's funny, because whenever I go to Urban Outfitters or whatever, I'm like, 'I should be shopping for my daughter's first apartment,'" she said. "I forgot to have kids. And now I feel like a weirdo.... But when am I going to have kids? I'm on the road all the time. I had to make a choice, and you can't have it all."

Someday, she might want to "go the Diane Keaton route" and adopt when she's in her 50s. That's why she keeps playing basketball and working out — to stay in good shape in case she has to keep up with a little one eventually.

But stand-up is where her heart is, and she doesn't want "I Smile Back" to be seen as an indication that she's leaving the mike behind. In fact, she's found it difficult to incorporate the glitzier parts of her life — movie sets, film festivals, celebrity friends — into her act.

Last year, for instance, she went to lunch with Kanye West at his request. He wanted to talk about writing a movie based on "The Jetsons" television show — an offer that she declined. But while they were eating, they realized that they each used the notes application on their phones to jot down their creative ideas. So they started sharing their joke and rap ideas.

"His was like, 'Weak is a description / Weed is a prescription,'" she said, unsure of whether or not she was remembering his words precisely. "And mine was like, 'My grandma gets really heavy periods.'"

"And then I got home and had dark red quinoa between every tooth. Like, did he think it was a grill? I knew it was all such a funny story, but I just don't want to go on stage and say I had lunch with Kanye West."

Silverman may know what bits will work on stage, but heading into the premiere of "I Smile Back," she felt unsure of how to gauge the audience's reaction without laughter. A few years ago, she watched Joan Rivers' documentary, and in it the comedian says her biggest heartbreak was that she was never taken seriously as an actress.

"But comics are actors, and people don't realize that," Silverman said. "In this movie, the filmmakers wanted me, but they didn't really — they didn't want any sign of 'me' in it. So with this movie, I guess I want to say, 'You can get lost in me. I can disappear into things.'"

Follow Amy Kaufman on Twitter @AmyKinLA