Sarah Silverman Talks Sex Scenes, Bill Cosby and Revisiting Her Battle With Depression for 'I Smile Back' (Q&A)

Sarah Silverman - P 2016
AP Images

Sarah Silverman - P 2016

The comedy star admits she had a "full-body panic attack" when she signed on to play the dramatic (and SAG Award-nominated) role of a drug-addicted mom: "I think people who are open books are boring, but I am one."

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Sarah Silverman was tapped to star in the film adaptation of Amy Koppelman's novel I Smile Back, the comedian immediately accepted, thinking the movie would never get made. "I've been around awhile," she says with a wry smile. A year later, she received an email from producers crowing, "We got the money!" and immediately had what she calls a "full-­body panic attack" at the prospect of playing Laney, a coke-addicted suburban mom of two.

Her response helped Silverman — whose late mother was a theater director in Manchester, N.H., where the comedian grew up — realize that she already had access to the emotions she would need to play the daunting role: "I thought, if this panic attack is any indication of [my abilities], I got it," she says. Her boyfriend, Masters of Sex star Michael Sheen — whom she'd just started dating when filming began — gave her advice on acting in a drama, and Silverman drew from her own experiences with depression to create a character so convincing, she scored a SAG Award nomination for lead actress.

That recognition puts the 45-year-old comedian, who has dozens of television credits — from a season on Saturday Night Live to her own Comedy Central show, The Sarah Silverman Program — as well as several film appearances on her résumé, in the company of such awards-season stalwarts as Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett, along with the actress widely seen as the Oscar frontrunner, Brie Larson. Here, Silverman shares her thoughts on aging, her days as a bed wetter and what it feels like to bare all in a film — figuratively and literally.

"I love being a comedian. It's my joy," says Silverman (center, on the Smile set with co-star Josh Charles). "But I have more sides."

People say comic actors like Robin Williams and Mary Tyler Moore, who also had success in dramatic roles, had an ability to "turn it off." Is that true for you?

I went in the opposite direction. When Sarah Polley cast me in [2011's] Take This Waltz, I had it in my head that real people (lowers voice to a near-whisper) talk like this. In one scene, I was saying my lines on a bus, and Sarah asked, "Can you do it louder?" I couldn't because I didn't think it was real. Later we were at lunch, and I was standing up and (gesticulates), and suddenly I froze and said, "Oh, my God, I'm talking loud and this is real life!" It's a Sesame Street kind of lesson, but those are the big ones. In the end, I made a conscious choice to give into [the process] and had a lot of help from the director [Adam Salky] and Amy steering me away from ever going into my knee-jerk bag of tricks. All comics and most actors have that bag of tricks, you know? You'll watch them and say, "Oh yeah, she does that, that's a thing she does."

To be a successful comedian you have to be incredibly self-aware. Was it hard to stay out of your head for this role?

You always hear how Tom Hanks is the life of the party, then they call "action" and he becomes Captain Phillips. I love that about him, but I don't have that set of skills. Anyway, there was no room for me because Laney feels so much. I can't believe I'm being an actor, saying, "Laney, she …" I used to roll my eyes when I heard actors saying things like that. Now I realize when you roll your eyes it probably means you don't understand.

What was your reaction to seeing the movie for the first time?

I saw a cut first and gave some notes, but the first time I saw it with music and everything done was at Sundance. It was wild, but I wasn't really able to watch it: The whole time I was thinking, "Oh, they changed that, and this was the day we did that." It's also different seeing a drama with an audience versus a comedy because with comedy, to a degree you can see how things play. With a drama, you don't really know [what people think] until someone says something or someone comments on it.

There were some pretty intense sex scenes in the film. Did you have to push yourself beyond your normal limits?

I was never naked in anything until I turned 40. Now I'm naked in everything! The scariest thing is taking off your bathrobe, and then it's fine. It's literally like putting your sneakers on to work out. But it's not like I'm totally [comfortable with my body]. When Laney is looking in the mirror and lifting up her cheeks, that's me. I do that. I can feel my face falling off of my face. It's sliding slowly, like a really slow-moving horror movie.

You've talked about your own struggle with depression. Was it difficult to revisit that experience while doing press for the film? Are there things you'd prefer to keep close to the vest?

I think people who are open books are boring, but I am one. For the first 16 years of my life, I was a bed wetter. I was the kid at camp who woke up soaking wet, then made my bed like everyone else as if nothing was happening. It was such a shame-filled secret and so humiliating that at 17 the thought of doing stand-up was not at all daunting compared to the idea of going to a sleepover party. I became very funny as a means of survival.

Yet right now you're in a happy relationship. Does it make it harder to find material when you don't have immediate access to pain?

No. When I'm in a bad place, I'm pretty paralyzed. The only thing that hurts my stand-up when I'm happy is that I don't want to go to the clubs. I want to stay home and go to sleep early and snuggle with my loved one. I'm a huge sleep pussy. I need at least 18 hours or I'm not myself.

Do the two of you talk shop?

We had just started dating when I shot this movie. I remember him saying, "Have you done the work?" He is an intellect. He's an unbelievable writer. A nonstop reader. I'm in awe of him. I learn from him every day. I was so scared he wouldn't like the film. He was so scared he wouldn't like it. So it was a big relief that he did.

Silverman and Charles in I Smile Back.

Let's talk about the current P.C. landscape in comedy. Amy Schumer had to apologize for insensitivity to Latinos. Jerry Seinfeld says he's not doing college campuses anymore. Where do you fit into all that?

I've said stuff in another climate that I wouldn't say today. There's an episode of The Sarah Silverman Program from 2008 called "Face Wars" where this black actor, Alex Desert, and I get into an argument about who life is harder for, blacks or Jews. So we decide to switch for a day. I have the most offensive blackface on, and Alex is wearing a big fake Jewish nose and a T-shirt that says, "I heart money." Early on, I tweeted a photo of myself in black­face and wrote, "I have minstrel cramps." I thought I was talking to fans of my show who had seen the episode, but every once in a while I get someone so hurt and disgusted by that photo, and there is nothing I can do except direct message them and explain the context. A year later, 30 Rock did the exact same episode, but I was the idiot who tweeted a photo out of context and now it's on the Internet forever. All I can do is accept it and change with the times.

Then there's that other disruptive force going on in the world of comedy: the Bill Cosby scandal.

It's awful! I grew up watching The Cosby Show, and Bill Cosby was gigantic for me; he was a hero. But he's a wildly arrogant serial rapist, which muddies the waters. It's hard; can he take away what was mine? My experience of that art? I don't know. I can still appreciate it, but he's been sullied.

You've been so open about your flaws and the challenges in your past. What's your biggest fear about your future?

My biggest fear is that I'm going to lose my mind or go senile and become a public masturbator. I was too scared to see Still Alice. Michael went to see it. And I said, "Oh, it's about Alzheimer's. I can't wait to not see that and appreciate that [Julianne Moore] is unbelievable in it and it's a great movie." It's funny that I'm in a super bleak movie. My mother once sent me a link that said, "Elephants reunite after 20 years." I was like, de-lete. My heart can't take it. I haven't seen Inside Out yet, because I know it is going to kill me.