According to a recent New Yorker profile, Sarah Silverman “exerts a kind of mesmeric control over an audience.” Which is precisely what the comedian and actor did on January 7 when she joined Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell at the sold-out Bing Theater in Los Angeles for a slice of pizza and a lively conversation about her life and work.
The evening included numerous clips from Sarah’s career demonstrating her impressive performing range, from high drama to absurdist potty humor, including the parody trailer for Fête des Pets—aka “Fart Party.”
Sarah Silverman’s love of performing took root with her parents, from her mother’s work recording movie listings for a local theater (a pro bono gig she undertook due to her love of diction) to her father’s habit of walking like a dancing Bill Cosby.
With a raised eyebrow, Elvis brought up the anecdote about her father’s Cosby-esque soft shoe, which first appeared in her 2010 autobiography Bedwetter.
“I mean, now it’s not an exciting thing to say!” she admitted to audience laughter, as the conversation wound its way through such topics as why comedians make good actors, her time on SNL and being punched in the face.
Silverman made it clear that one of her earliest influences was Joan Rivers, whose ability as a dramatic actress, in films such as 1968’s The Swimmer, remains sadly underrated.
She explained what Joan Rivers meant to her. “I read her whole book [Enter Talking], which was a lot to read for pleasure. Enter Talking and The Color Purple are like the two books I read for fun as a kid.”
Of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Sarah said “I know that, from her documentary and from knowing her, that one of her great sadnesses was not being seen as an actress.”
It’s a lesson Silverman has taken to heart as she’s moved into dramatic roles, including roles on Showtime’s Masters of Sex and in her SAG-nominated performance as a troubled housewife in this year’s I Smile Back.
WHY COMEDIANS MAKE GOOD ACTORS
Delving deeper into the overlap between comedy and drama, Elvis cited a Martin Scorsese quote about how comedians must understand themselves in order to make their material work. “Do you believe there’s a kinship between acting and standup comedy based on that?” he asked.
“I think comedians are funny because they’ve had to become funny as a means of surviving their childhood,” she said. “That’s what makes comedians kind of like an everyman.”
It was this impulse toward self-preservation and survival that propelled Silverman into a comedy career, first as a standup, then as a writer and performer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live for a season.
“I didn’t let the dream of what it was to me as a child maintain itself because I was a part of it. And that was just a part of what I hadn’t learned yet. Or unlearned,” she said.
Chris Farley, on the other hand, seemed to have kept his childhood enthusiasm for what it meant to be on the show. The two arrived to set early one day and sat on the stage together. “I remember Chris Farley said ‘Can you believe it? We’re sitting on the stage where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd performed, and now we’re here!’”
That moment really stayed with me,” she said.
GETTING PUNCHED IN THE FACE
Talking about her feature film work, Silverman recalled one of her earliest non-comedy roles as a belligerent nightclub patron in Christopher McQuarrie’s 2000 crime thriller The Way of the Gun.
“I’ve been punched in the face three times in my life and one of them was by Ryan Phillippe,” she recalled. “And the shot they used, he actually connected.”
Silverman laughed, “I sound like a battered wife, but I blame myself because it’s choreographed and I leaned in and he knocked me off my feet flat on the ground.”
Phillippe was horrified, she said. “I probably would have cried but when I opened my eyes, he was already crying. He felt so bad, so it just kind of turned into me going, ‘it’s okay, it’s okay.’”
About her dramatic turn in I Smile Back, Silverman cited some key feedback from Mad Men’s reigning Emmy winner: “Jon Hamm saw [the film] and said ‘your nostrils were incredible in that movie.’”
After discussing her Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Actress, Elvis asked “Do you think of yourself as an actress now?”
“Deep down, I’ve always felt like an actor—much like Joan,” she said. “I spent my childhood crying in my bedroom, saying Emily’s speech from Our Town.”
Wrapping up, Silverman cited a quote from another one of her comedy heroes. “I remember something Gary Shandling used to say: ‘There are things that come too soon but nothing ever comes too late.’”
Matt Warren / Film Independent Digital Content Manager