Sarah Silverman’s rougher edges have been smoothed by two decades in the spotlight. But make no mistake, she remains an iconoclast unwilling to accept received wisdom and pat generalizations.
Most Jewish celebrities follow the path of least resistance with the Jewish press, offering benign anecdotes and routine platitudes. Silverman is, shall we say, more complicated.
“I always cringe a little bit at the idea of Jewish values,” she says in a recent interview at a San Francisco hotel. “Of course, I don’t cringe at it. I mean, it’s beautiful, but to make it elite to Jewishness, as Jews, feels wrong in my gut.”
Silverman has never avoided her ethnicity. She immediately mentions her older sister — an outspoken rabbi in Israel — before an interviewer has the chance. She just can’t abide simplistic axioms.
“I know that Jews are universally hated, and there are whole governments whose mission statements want to wipe Jews off the map,” she declares. “And to that I want to celebrate the whole idea of Jewish values. But I don’t like ever feeling like some kind of exclusive club.”
Silverman was being feted that evening at the Mill Valley Film Festival for her brave, committed performance as an affluent (and nondenominational) suburban mother and wife struggling with alcohol and drug addiction in the indie drama, I Smile Back.
Her depiction of the smart, troubled Laney Brooks, whose inability to contain her self-destructive impulses destabilizes the family and disturbs her young children, established Silverman as an accomplished dramatic actress when it premiered in January at Sundance. It opens nationally on Friday.
Laney is detached from her world by substance abuse, and Silverman powerfully conveys the chilling sensation of being an outsider in one’s immediate family. As a dark-haired child in a small town in New Hampshire, Silverman recalls the experience of being viewed and judged by others.
“We weren’t brought up religious at all; our parents are agnostic, and we just thought being Jewish meant being a Democrat,” Silverman recalls. “Being Jewish just meant being different, being ‘other than.’ We lived in this little town that was so aware of us being Jewish that it made us aware of being Jewish.”
Silverman had a perfectly happy childhood, but says she has come to realize that she was affected by the experience of not completely fitting in:
“I think it informed my comedy in a lot of ways, in that I felt a pressure that I wasn’t aware of until looking back on it to show my friends’ parents that I’m not scary, and nothing to be afraid of, and not going to convert their kids. Growing up, my friends’ parents would always say, ‘Are you from New York?’ And I’d go, ‘What’s New York? I’m from here.’ I moved to New York City when I was 18, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I am from New York!’”
In conversation, one gets the sense that Silverman was fascinated in the early years of her career to hear about other Jewish entertainers’ upbringings — and how they chose to share it (or not) with the public.
“It never occurred to me to do anything like change my name,” Silverman says. “But when I first came to Hollywood, I would ask executives, ‘If Winona Ryder kept her name — Winona Horowitz — would she be the ingénue of all these movies that she was starring in?’ She’s a brilliant actress, and should be [starring]. And they all said, ‘No.’ I was impressed by the honesty, but wow! There are a lot of hidden Jews on camera in Hollywood.”
This many years later, Silverman no longer pays much attention to other people’s preconceptions and expectations of her.
“Who I am is for you to decide,” she says. “So you go, ‘Oh, she’s a Jewish comedian with Jewish values.’ And to someone else I’m something different, and maybe it has more to do with their lives and what they want me to be. It has very little to do with me, actually.”
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Silverman doesn’t have a list of Jewish roles — like, say, Queen Esther in a Ridley Scott biblical epic — that she wants to play. Although she’ll be offered plenty of dramatic roles, there’s one part that she’s reconciled won’t be coming her way.
“My dream was always to be Lois Lane,” she confides with a rueful smile, “and now I can officially say I’ll never play Lois Lane. I’m not going to cry anti-Semitism for it, but, boy, I would have been a great Lois Lane.”
Michael Fox is a film reviewer based in San Francisco.