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Comedians turn in dramatic roles all the time, but rarely do the performances feel as genuine as Sarah Silverman’s in I Smile Back, out in theaters this weekend.

Silverman plays Laney Brooks, a wife and mother of two who battles depression and compulsive behavior, which have led to cocaine and sex addiction. Laney is desperate to turn herself around for her family but backslides again and again. Stripped of her standard sarcasm and dirty mouth, Silverman delivers a beautifully nuanced portrait of a woman going punch for punch with her demons and ending up bloodied in the corner but ready for another round. It’s not polished or easy to watch — and that’s the point.

Silverman has had her own battles with depression (she recently detailed them in an excellent Glamour piece), which is how director Adam Salky knew she’d understand Laney’s complexities. Salky, who’s best known for the 2009 teen drama Dare — another haunting film about the delicacy of relationships — chatted with us about working with Silverman and his own feelings toward mental health.

adam salky i smile back director

Why did you think Sarah Silverman was right for the role?

I wish I could say I had anything to do with hiring her. Amy Koppelman, the writer of the novel that the movie’s based on, was driving down the highway about six years ago and she heard Sarah talking about her own struggles with depression on The Howard Stern Show. Amy just had a lightbulb moment and thought “Hey, Sarah would really understand this character.”

I also knew she had written about depression in her book, The Bedwetter. So if you know your lead actor has personal, relatable experience to the character, that is the gold standard.

How familiar were you with Silverman’s work?

I was very familiar with her, but I did some research and I unearthed some things that just bolstered my feeling she could do this. Sarah has a small role in School of Rock, and if you watch that film again, what you’ll see is an actress playing a character. It’s not Sarah Silverman playing a character. Even though it’s a small role, you can see she’s capable of really being a great actress.

Also, she was on an episode of The Graham Norton Show. That’s a late-night talk show in the UK where all the guests sit together and everyone drinks. One of the actors drank too much, and Sarah was so gracious and warm and almost motherly toward him. It was an unscripted moment where she showed a side of herself that isn’t necessarily part of her comedic work. I was like, “That person could definitely play a mother of two kids.”

What made you want to tackle the subject of depression and mental health?

When I first read the screenplay, I was very moved by it, and it’s a story that doesn’t often get told. But depression and other mental illnesses, and some of the effects of those things, are definitely very close to me and my life through people who I love and care very much about.

Storytelling has such a great power to affect people by making them feel, and that’s really the way in which fictional stories can change people’s lives and help us understand people’s lives better. I think that was one of the things that made the casting of Sarah so essential, because she has an innate kindness and warmth to her, that I think gives audiences permission to go on the journey with her.

Broad Green Pictures

The movie balances Laney’s dark scenes with gentle moments where we see her as a loving mother. Why was that balance so important?

The idea that the Laney character really loves her kids was crucial to the narrative. I think it speaks to the mysterious and sometimes tragic and confounding reality of people who are struggling with mental illness. They have families and they love their kids and they love their spouses, but there’s something within them they can’t control.

What do you hope people take away from the movie?

Robin Williams passed away when we were finishing the film. I was reading the news, and in one of the articles I read, his wife issued a statement that said she hopes others find the strength to seek care and support to treat whatever battles they’re facing.

To me, that really encapsulated what it was all about. If there’s one person who can see this film and have their point-of-view changed about mental health and addiction, or be affected by it because they’re struggling themselves, that will have made it worthwhile.

As a director, how important is sleep to you?

It’s absolutely essential to my work. I really can’t function if I don’t sleep well, and really the key thing I’ve instituted in my life is that I refuse to check email after 9 p.m. I also won’t look at news. I won’t check email. I won’t try to start something that I can’t finish, like watching half of a movie.

Basically, what I’m trying to do is avoid getting my mind running at a moment in the day when it should be winding down. If I can pull that off, then I can really wake up and seize the day.