'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Sarah Silverman ('I Smile Back')

The comedienne opens up about her battle with depression, the recent loss of her mother, the art of comedy and why she's also drawn to dramas like her latest film, in which she plays a troubled housewife.
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Sarah Silverman

"I have a new love and respect for drama," Sarah Silverman tells me as we sit down to record the ninth episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The 44-year-old, who is famous for her work as a no-holds-barred comedienne, was reflecting on her experience making Adam Salky's dark drama I Smile Back, a $400,000 indie shot in just 20 days, in which she plays a suburban housewife — "a woman who on paper has a perfect life," as Silverman puts it — who's secretly waging a battle with depression and addiction.

The performance — her second in a dramatic film, after playing an alcoholic in Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz (2011), and her first leading role in a film — has earned her the best reviews of her acting career, which also includes an Emmy nom for her short-lived TV comedy series The Sarah Silverman Program. But Silverman is surprised that so many others are surprised she can handle the genre jump: "It's the same — we're saying lines honestly like they're real!"

(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Danny Boyle, Eddie Redmayne, Jason Segel, Ramin Bahrani, Michael Shannon, Ridley Scott, F. Gary Gray, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Ian McKellen and Brie Larson — on iTunes.)

She elaborates, "I believe that comedy and drama share a lot of the same bones. I would never want to never again do either. My DNA is I'm a comedian — I'm part of that island of misfit toys and I have great pride in that, and I would never want to stop doing standup and seeking laughs — but I like doing all of those things. I think of myself as someone who does odd jobs, whether it's a video on my couch or a dramatic role in a film or a part on a web series or a TV show or tweets. I like expressing myself in all sorts of ways."

Even so, Silverman is grateful for the opportunity to show that she's more than just funny. "It's ironically very rare in this creative world that somebody can imagine you as something they haven't already seen you do before," she says. Up until now, with the exception of Take This Waltz, she's found that members of the film community have tended to come to her for the same sorts of limited roles: "You get to be the cunty girlfriend before the guy realizes what love really can be, or the sassy friend who is the exposition for the main character because that was easier than writing it well."

Silverman says the positive feedback she's received for her work in I Smile Back has heartened her: "I'm letting it make me feel great. I've worked so hard in therapy to not have how other people feel dictate my self-esteem, so it's challenging because I know the pendulum swings the other way. ... But I'm just deciding to let this make me feel great."

Over the course of our conversation, Silverman speaks about the roots of her comedic impulse. "I was a very hairy, scrawny little Jew in blonde New Hampshire, and I remember having this instinct, looking back, of making my friends' parents feel like I was not a threat or scary, and being funny was a real way to survive that." She adds, "Since I was three, that's been my greatest high — making people laugh — as corny as that may sound. It makes my arms itch with glee."

What sort of a household produces both Sarah Silverman and a rabbi (her sister)? One in which creativity and edginess were embraced and celebrated, Silverman says — not least by her beloved mother, who worked in the arts, and who passed away in August. In addition to opening up about her mom, she speaks candidly about her own debilitating battle with depression during her teens: "Clinical depression came over me like a flu," she says, adding, "I was a 13-year-old kid taking four Xanax a day."

(Silverman offers her theory on why so many people who make others laugh are — or at one time or another have been — so unhappy in their own lives: "We drop like flies. I've started keeping a list of friends that are dying, and it just gets so long. I've thought a lot about this, and I think that one very real reason is — the reason why comics become funny is a means of survival. It's surviving childhood. ... There's a lot of darkness.")

Her salvation came in the form of standup, which she first did while at summer school in Boston and then as a student at NYU, which she dropped out of with her father's blessing in order to pursue comedy full time. ("My dad made a deal with me. He said, 'You're gonna be a comedian, and you don't need a degree for that, so why don't you drop out of school?' ") It was a gamble that paid off, she says: "By the time I would have graduated, I was hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live." She was just 22.

A rollercoaster year at SNL was followed by appearances on numerous sitcoms — Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, etc. — but her "unfortunate big break" came during a guest appearance on Conan. "I made a racist joke that was absurd and very, very clearly about racism," she recalls. There was a lot of outcry from a small number of people, which got her banned from NBC, but also had a larger effect. "It propelled my career," she acknowledges.

As for her forays into drama, Silverman says they have come from the most unexpected of places. Polley saw her on The Sarah Silverman Program and deduced that she could star in Take This Waltz. And, as Silverman notes, "Amy Koppelman [the author of the novel from which I Smile Back is derived] heard me on Howard Stern talking about my relationship with depression and she made a connection." After becoming attached to the project, Silverman contributed to drafts of the script and helped to get her friend Josh Charles on board to play her character's husband.

The experience of making the film was not what she expected. She thought she would be able to have fun between takes, but found that once she dove in to the character, she couldn't leave her behind: "My emotions are very, very tightly packed inside me — I don't have easy access to them, and I needed to access them — so once they were out, they were just on my lap."

Now back in her own skin, she emphasizes, "I still love fun and being funny and making jokes." But of the opportunity afforded her the chance to step outside of her skin, she says, "I was so grateful because I have more sides to me."

I Smile Back is being distributed in the U.S. by Broad Green Pictures. Awards voters are being asked to consider Silverman for best actress.

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