Someone’s been trying to break into Sarah Silverman’s apartment.
Don’t worry, they were unsuccessful. But the attempted burglaries did prompt the actor to install a security camera outside her front door—which in turn led to Silverman doing what fans of her particular brand of sweet-voiced, foulmouthed comedy have been doing for almost 20 years now: laugh at her onscreen.
“Every once in a while I’ll look at myself coming home, and [in one video] I reached for my key and everything in my bag fell out. And I laughed at myself ’cause I’m an idiot, but it was so interesting to watch.
“To see yourself in real life—to have just a real-life moment—is neat to study.” She was animated, she says, “and in acting, if I did that, I’d think, That’s over the top.”
Silverman has long embraced living and acting truthfully in the moment. Her no-holds-barred attitude has been with her from her early days on “Saturday Night Live” to “The Sarah Silverman Program” to her standup specials, in which she jokes about sexism, racism, politics, religion, and everything else not suited for the dinner table. “I was raped by a doctor,” she jokes in 2005’s “Jesus Is Magic.” “Which, you know…is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”
But in the new film “I Smile Back,” out Oct. 23, the comedian is testing that attitude in a different way. Silverman stars as Laney Brooks, a suburban wife and mother whose drinking, drugging, and fondness for anonymous sex destroys her family.
Laney snorts cocaine in the bathroom while her kids call for her from the other side of the door, mixes various pills with alcohol before calling another mother from school, and steals drugs off a family friend (Thomas Sadoski) with whom she’s having an affair. And that’s just the beginning.
“There’s a part of me that can understand wild self-destruction and the odd freedom that that is. I go back and forth with how I feel about her. [I have] compassion and empathy, but also, fuck you. Get your shit together. Other people exist,” Silverman says.
“You can be wildly empathetic toward her and her struggle, but you can also go, ‘What a self-centered person,’ ” she adds. “And so that’s what art is to me: People will see different things depending on their own life experiences.”
Directed by Adam Salky, the film marks a stark transition for the Emmy winner, who, despite having done her share of drama (2012’s “Take This Waltz” and Showtime series “Masters of Sex”), has spent the last two decades primarily in comedy.
Pair that with such complex subject matter, and nothing could prepare Silverman completely for “I Smile Back”—even if the movie was written for her.
The screenplay was created by Amy Koppelman, who penned the 2008 novel. After hearing Silverman speaking about depression with Howard Stern and feeling like she could hear so much of Laney in the actor, she decided to adapt the story for the silver screen. Silverman took the news in stride.
“So many things come across your path that never pan out, so I was, like, ‘Sure, attach me to it. I’m flattered,’ ” she says.
Not fully understanding the scope of the film and its intensity, the actor admits, “I thought I’d just do it. Like, look, right now while I’m talking I can go ‘ha ha ha’ and be fine…but it’s different.
“I thought, Well, it doesn’t mean I have to be sad. We can still joke around and have fun in between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ The sad is just pretending. But it wasn’t fun; it was sad,” she says.
Silverman deems herself “a quality of life person,” which is why she doesn’t seek out dramatic work, but rather lets it find her. “If I knew I was gonna be in a dark place for a month, I’d probably be, like, ‘Naaaah,’ ” she says with a laugh.
To help guide her, the actor enlisted Josh Charles, whom she texted to ask if he’d play her husband in the film and whose dramatic work as Will Gardner on “The Good Wife” earned him two Emmy nominations.
“I think Sarah is a genius, and I would do anything she asked me to do with her,” he says via email, “but that being said, I read it and was immediately excited she was taking on this intense role and material.
“Wanting to be on this journey with her was the primary reason I took the film. I’m glad I did, because I got to witness firsthand her incredible work, and I can’t wait for more people to see her in it and have their minds blown.”
Charles adds that because he and Silverman are friends, their chemistry came naturally—
“I do think the familiarity helped create a safe space in our scenes together,” he notes—while for her solo scenes, Silverman relied on her ability to remain fully present and connected to the material.
For one of Laney’s more shocking moments—the shamefulness and “fucked-upness” that causes her to check into rehab—the actor decided to forego preparation. “That was intense. That was something I decided, like, I’m not gonna think about that day or stress about that day. It’s gonna come and I’m gonna do it and that’s it.”
There’s a saying about presence commonly used in therapy that Silverman says she models her own life after and that Laney could have practiced better.
“If you live in the past that’s depression, and if you live in the future that’s anxiety. So you have no choice but to live in the present.”
As with “I Smile Back,” Silverman’s gone with her gut when it comes to making all her career decisions. “I always do what I feel like doing or what crosses my path,” she says. “My therapist says we’re looking through a pinhole: ‘You’ve never been able to plan anything that’s happened in your life.’ And it’s kind of exciting when you realize that.”
Acting 101 With Sarah Silverman
Silverman doesn’t hesitate when asked her advice for aspiring actors. She quickly begins firing off tips, starting with something she’s said a few times throughout the conversation: Keep your overhead low.
“So many people are, like, ‘Well, I had to take this job because…’ You’re totally free if your overhead is low. You don’t need stuff,” she urges.
Next, she says you have to “get your Malcolm Gladwell”; you have to get your 10,000 hours in.
“I remember I’d meet people who would go, ‘I want to be a writer.’ Write! Are you just waiting for someone to hire you to be a writer? Write every day! Write garbage! Just put pen to paper. It doesn’t have to be good. No one has to see it. Just write a bad version ’cause then it’s less daunting and you can always [fix it]. And don’t steal,” she adds.
Lastly, Silverman advises actors to not think about being famous, but rather work on their craft and focus on doing what they love.
“You can get stuff too early, but you can never get stuff too late—although I worry I may never get to play Lois Lane.”