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Sarah Silverman
Photograph: Robyn Von Swank

Sarah Silverman on freeing the nipple, smoking pot and going full-drama

The alt-comedy heavyweight shows us her dark side in I Smile Back. But don’t worry: She’s still hilarious—and honest—as hell.

Written by
Kevin Dickson

After half an hour behind closed doors, Sarah Silverman emerges from the makeup room of a photo studio and is greeted by a chorus of gasps. Her hair has been teased into an enormous cloud. “What?” she deadpans. “Too much?”

The comedy titan has made a career of that sort of thing, tackling just about every controversial topic under the sun with a sarcasm-soaked charm. But perhaps what’s most shocking about Silverman these days is the 44-year-old’s revelatory turn as a mother spiraling out of control because of addiction in the bleak indie I Smile Back. In the film, which costars The Good Wife’s Josh Charles, Silverman embodies pain with the same strangely irresistible gusto she brings to her usual comedic gigs in a tour de force performance that generated buzz when it premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. We’ve seen Silverman take on addiction before in Sarah Polley’s drama Take This Waltz. But for the first time, we’re seeing the actor go really dark. And she nails it.

After the photographer decrees that the hair is indeed too much, Silverman is sent back to makeup. When she returns, she has a more workable ’do and gamely sits in a pile of glitter, clad in a Cookie Monster coat. “What the fuck am I doing?” she says with ersatz ennui, then notices the food that’s been delivered. “Lunch is here,” she says, rebounding into a mischievous grin—ready to openly chat about her own anxiety, happiness…anything. “Let’s talk!”

Laney, your character in I Smile Back, is an addict. I have to ask, and I’m not implying anything, but do you still smoke pot?
Oh, yeah, I do. It’s so funny that people think I’m this huge stoner, because I’m open about smoking pot, but I’ll just take, like, one puff before bed, or if I’m at a party, I’ll have a puff. I could never do it before going onstage or like during the daytime.

I quit ’cause it got super depressing. But beer’s also depressing, so…
Well, I don’t drink at all. I just don’t like the taste. It makes me nauseous.

Do you ever get depressed when you smoke?
They always say sativa makes you giggly and indica is like really heavy. But sativa makes me edgy—I don’t like smoking that. I like the indica. Sudafed makes me feel anxious and edgy.

That can make your skin crawl.
Yeah, I don’t like anything speedy. I tried, you know…what’s the drug that puts you to sleep?

Yeah, Ambien. And my sister and I are the same way—it puts us to sleep for like 10 minutes, and then we wake up and we’re like edgy. I’m just not built that way—the way most people are, I guess.

Laney isn’t built like other people either. And I have to say, I forgot I was watching Sarah Silverman. I got lost in the movie.
Thank you so much. A director once told me, “Well, nobody’s gonna ever get lost in you, because you’re a personality.” It made me so sad, but…I completely understood, because I’m a fan of television and movies as well. When it’s someone that you see in all the magazines or someone that you know their personality, it’s hard to get lost in them. That’s why so many people’s first performance is the one that’s most lauded, because they’re the most mysterious.

Was it an immersive experience?
I hate saying that, because I always rolled my eyes when other actors were like, “You’re just carrying this weight around.” But I found it to be true, and much to my chagrin, I even kind of like lost my shit sometimes. You know, Why isn’t there coffee?!? The crew should have coffee! I didn’t know what to do with all those feelings, you know, and then I’d just go on an apology tour. I’d be like, “I’m sorry I was cunty.”

Is it uncomfortable to be viewed as a serious actor?
The pendulum swings both ways. I don’t want to make how I feel about myself defined by outside forces, because it’s a very dangerous thing. I want to let myself feel this and let it feel nice. But when what I put out there is perceived as garbage, I want to still stand and breathe and be happy. You have to, like, take it with a grain of salt, you know?

You seem to readily open up about past embarrassments, like bedwetting. Does that sort of honesty prepare you for a role this dark?
Being a bedwetter was so humiliating. I mean my family all knew; I would bring my sheets down to the wash or whatever—but I had to go to sleepaway camps from a really young age, and that was consistently humiliating. So attempting stand-up when I was a teenager was not nearly as scary. You know, once you’ve been a bedwetter and have made your bed over pissed sheets where everyone can smell it…stand-up is not as daunting as it is to most people. And I think, it’s given me bravery to do things I haven’t done in a lot of different fields, because nothing will ever compare to that. I mean I thought it’d be my biggest, darkest, deepest, most shame-filled secret of my life, and it kind of became my superpower because it made nothing seem daunting.

How did the project come about?
I’m so flattered [Amy Koppelman, the book’s writer] thought of me and that I’m the right fit for this. Oddly, in this creative world, people tend to only cast you in things that they’ve already seen you do, whether they realize it or not. So for [director of Take This Waltz] Polley before that, she just saw me on The Sarah Silverman Program, where I’m basically Bugs Bunny, and she was like, You should play this real character. With Koppelman, she heard me on the radio, and she felt so connected, so they asked me if I’d be interested. But it never occurred to me it’d get made. Most movies don’t get made. So it was like, "Yeah, sure!"

Why weren’t you confident it would get made?
Like, if they need my name to help them make this bleak drama, then this is probably not getting made. They would get a real hot-shit actress, you know what I mean? Years later, when I got an email that it was happening, I was like, Yay! And then I just went into a full panic attack of, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, this a mistake. I was just, What if, what if, what if. Then I realized that Laney exists in that anxiety stage of what if. So I was like, Maybe I can do this.

What’s Laney’s major struggle?
You know, they say that if you live in the past, it’s depression, and if you live in the future, it’s anxiety. And that’s why you have to be in the moment in a perfect world. And I just think, Laney’s past…there are more people with far more bleak pasts who, you know, persevere with aplomb. Um, that’s a word, right? Plum. Yeah.

Yeah, it has a b on the end.
Where are you from?

I’m Australian.
Oh, my God. That would’ve been, like, my sixth guess. I have a terrible ear. My sister-in-law is Australian, and I still would’ve been like, “Are you Scottish?”

Well, I’ve been here a long time. Do you think Laney’s selfish?
It’s complete self-obsession: “What if I’m a terrible mother, what if they’re fucked up because of me?” People might perceive that as self-loathing or some kind of modesty, but it isn’t. In my last stand-up special, I talk about how people who are self-deprecating think that’s modesty. And it’s just self-obsession—it’s the opposite. There isn’t room for anything else. Mother Teresa wasn’t complaining about the cellulite on her thighs. She had other things to do. She had space in her life for other things, because she wasn’t consumed with self.

Is Laney sympathetic at all?
You see a fucking asshole abandoning her children for drugs. It’s not very sympathetic. But how you feel depends on your personal history. And I love that. I don’t think you can place somebody without compassion. I have a great life, and I spiral into complete despair, so I understand that you can’t write down your life on paper and decide if you can have feelings or not. You know? I mean, my stepsister is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and she goes to groups of…what’s it called?

Survivor groups?
Yeah, because there’s such a common thread with children of survivors of the Holocaust, which is that they’re not allowed their feelings. Anything that comes up—regular high school stuff, hormones, teenager stuff, being hurt—is totally insignificant next to “I was in the Holocaust.” But of course, they should be allowed their feelings. You know, it always hurts me when a kid is crying about something that, as adults, we find trivial and we laugh. “Oh, she’s heartbroken over a crush, she’s 13, ha ha ha.” Those are fucking real feelings, just as real as your feelings. You know, Janis Joplin once said, “All you really have that really matters are feelings.” And that’s true. So I mean, I can see all sides of what you could take from Laney. I can see a very unsympathetic way of looking at her as well as a very sympathetic way of looking at her. But I tend to be sympathetic toward people, especially assholes. Mister Rogers once said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

This role was obviously a big shift for you. I’d like to ask about another potential shift. Would you ever host a late-night talk show? Why is that still such a boys’ club?
I don’t know. I will say that women pretty much run comedy. They don’t run late-night, but wanting a late-night talk show, the set of things…I don’t know. Comedians have a certain amount of fucked-up things that we all have in common and drove us to be comedians. And then, like, the more narrow things make you want to be a talk-show host or this or that. I love talk shows, I love doing talk shows, I love the hosts that are out there right now. I’m loving Colbert. I think he’s so brilliant; his questions are so well thought-out. I just adore him. But I would say I love all the guys in different ways. But [as a host] you have to be comfortable asking for favors every single day. It’s a constant.

It seems like a grudge match.
Right. Because it’s all ego, and not just ego, but it’s business. And you have to say, “You can’t do anyone else first.” There are all these rules.

Why do you think that’d be distasteful to women as a long-term venture?
I don’t think it is. I’m just talking about me.

So the lack of women in late-night doesn’t necessarily drive you crazy?
No, I don’t want to say it’s much ado about nothing, and I’m a big fighter of women’s causes, obviously. But I do think that you have to pick your battles, and I think that there are several women who’ve been asked and even begged to do late-night shows and have chosen not to. I’m sure Chelsea Handler, if she wanted a late-night television show, she could have one. Same with Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer. So I don’t know that it’s everyone’s cup of tea. But I could be wrong. It could be a big conspiracy against them, but I don’t know. It seems like the kind of position where you have to be groomed for years, like getting to be top of your company. Craig Ferguson kind of popped out of nowhere. And the kid who took over The Daily Show? I don’t think that was ever in people’s minds. I don’t mean to be a contrarian.

There’s no right answer to this.
I mean, I understand, late night in the ’80s and ’90s absolutely was a boys’ club, where people thought, much like the news, that people trust men with their news and their parody of news and their late-night shows. But I don’t know that we live in that anymore. I think that there might just be less women dying to be talk show hosts.

Let’s talk about feminism.

What does it mean to be one now? Is the definition always evolving?
What feminist means to people is so varied. I can’t imagine it’s the same definition for people who are offended by it as [as it is for] people who are feminists.

Are things getting better?
That Always tampons campaign or whatever? They did, like, the throw-like-a-girl, run-like-a-girl campaign? It’s brilliant. It’s totally brilliant. I think there’s a lot of really cool stuff. I mean, Lena Dunham existing. Everything she does. This Lenny Letter she started. Her nudity in Girls alone. The whole free-the-nipple campaign is great. I mean, it’s absolutely atrocious that we are shamed. You can oil up my tits and smash them behind suspenders and have, like, a champagne bottle between them, like, exploding with, you know, obvious jizz metaphors, and that can be a billboard. It could be a poster in the mall. But you can’t post a 70-year-old nude woman, you know, like, a piece of art, or like, a woman couldn’t nurse her baby at that mall.

As a man, I can show my nipples, which is weird. They’re useless.
Exactly, like, we should just have naked pictures of men and naked pictures of women and cut out the men’s nipples and [swap them].

In Australia, you can be topless at the beach. And it’s always been like that.
People say it’s bizarre. Is it because of fear? They’re like, “Guys and boys will be jerking off in the streets!” When it comes to just a human woman’s nipple and areola, what are we protecting our children from? It’s absolutely absurd. Look at Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls have big, fat shiny parts that guys jerk off to, and then who are we protecting by not having the nipple, the life-nourishing part on it?

And then there’s what’s going on with Planned Parenthood.
There’ve been about 600 laws over what women can do with their body in a single year and zero of men since the beginning of time. I just retweeted that. It’s pretty crazy. I think that when women and what we can do with our own human bodies is starting to be legislated, it’s beyond time to act. And people can call themselves whatever they want. If they don’t like the word feminist, they can throw it out the window. But it’s just about human rights, civil rights.

Does Twitter have any political power?
That’s where people, like comedians, can change minds. You can help influence change, you know.

So then comedy can change people’s minds?
I think if you can make it funny, humor can change people’s minds more than anger. Anger doesn’t do anything. I always try to think before I write something: How would I respond if that tone was taken at me? I try to just stick with what I think is funny. It’s just not effective if you put people in a defensive mode. They don’t think they’re bad. They think they’re good! They think you’re bad.

And they think they’re right.
And they think they’re right. So unless you appeal to them, with a kiss and a hug and a laugh, you’re not changing anyone. You can wail with lots of passion to the people who also agree with you, and that’s nice. That’s what a rally is for. But it doesn’t really create change.

What can you tell us about The Book of Henry, Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow’s new movie?
I mean, I just booked it. It’s a beautiful script, a really fun part, and I’m looking forward to shooting in New York with Naomi [Watts] and these brilliant kids.

It’s super top secret though, isn’t it?
Oh, well, now you tell me! I have no idea. No, I haven’t signed anything yet!

Well, it’s in New York, so there you go. That’s a spoiler.
Don’t trick me. I don’t know politics of things! That’s how I get in trouble!

The director is going to take on Star Wars: Episode IX. Did he show you his cut yet?
Yes, it ends with a big explosion. Wait. Come on. No.

You were just talking about New York, where you’ve lived. What was your worst apartment?
Oh, my God. I lived at 129 Second Avenue, a fifth-floor walk-up. A lot of the apartments didn’t have bathrooms; there was a padlocked bathroom in the hallway of each floor.

So you shared a bathroom with other people on your floor?
Well, we did have a bathroom. But there was a guy who had just gotten out of prison who was on our floor. I only talked to him once. My best friend, Beth, and I were walking down the stairs, and he was walking behind us with his friend, and they dropped a box of bullets. And bullets were just falling down at our feet, rolling down past our feet, and neither of us flinched—we just kept walking straight ahead and walking as if bullets were not raining down the stairs. We were so scared.

Damn. What were your favorite spots back then?
I love New York. My favorite place—I’m hoping it opened up again; I lived above it—was B&H Dairy. I still go there every time I’m back. It’s a kosher dairy and I’m a vegetarian, so it’s the only place where I can eat matzo ball soup, ’cause they make it without chicken stock. The soup there is so good. And the challah bread is this thick. It’s just this tiny hole-in-the-wall, but it’s so awesome, and it’s been open since like 1930…. It was [run by], like, Russian Jews, and then all the Jews died off. I think then there were Puerto Rican [owners], so their T-shirts said CHALLAH! POR FAVOR. It’s the best food in New York City. My favorite Italian restaurant is called Frank, and that’s on Second Avenue.

You didn’t leave the East Village, did you?
I mean, I love Central Park. My happiest memories of New York were on Mondays, when I would play softball in Central Park with the improv team. After we played our game, they’d let me give fielding practice because I can hit the ball anywhere­—like, I can hit the ball exactly anywhere. And we’d get stoned. And then I’d go home a little bit out of the way by way of the zoo.

The Central Park Zoo?
Yeah. I loved the polar bears so much—they look like big dads swimming. And then I’d take the 6 [train] downtown, take a nap, do a little stand-up, and then at midnight, Eddie Brill would be done with his show at Carolines and host a poker game. He still does every Monday. And we’d play until, like, 7 in the morning and then all get breakfast. It was all summer long. I was just like, This is my joy.

Do you get nostalgic about New York when you visit from Los Angeles?
It’s funny, because I always stay at the same hotel, ’cause I love the East Village. That’s always where I lived. And [the Pretenders’] Chrissie Hynde….

Are you a Pretenders fan?
I’m a huge Pretenders fan. We bumped into each other in New York, and she said, “This is ridiculous. Let’s go take a walk and have some tea.” The first question I said was, “Where are you from?” And then as soon as those words left my mouth, I thought, “Ohio. Right. I knew that.” And then I tried to get in cool with her, and I go, “Can you believe that CBGB is now a John Varvatos store?” And she goes, “Why do I give a fuck? I don’t care. That’s New York. It turns over.” And I was like, [Gasps] “You’re so cool.” It’s so true. You have to embrace the part of New York that’s constantly changing, you know? Like when I lived there, Kim’s Video turned into a Gap, and I was just like, This is so awful. But you know what? Then it changed from a Gap into something else and something else and something else. And that’s what you have to love about New York. Not one place, ’cause it will be gone.

And not one time.
And not one time, ’cause it’ll be gone.

Photographs by Robyn Von Swank

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