The serious side of Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman’s rougher edges have been smoothed by two decades in the spotlight. But make no mistake, the comedian and act-ress remains an iconoclast unwilling to accept 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 said during a recent interview in San Francisco. “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.”

Sarah Silverman in the drama “I Smile Back” photo/courtesy mvff

Silverman, 44, has never avoided her ethnicity, and she immediately mentions her older sister Susan — an outspoken rabbi in Israel — before an interviewer has the chance to bring it up. 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 said. “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 im-pulses destabilizes the family and disturbs her young children, established Silverman as an accomplished dramatic actress when the film premiered in January at Sundance. “I Smile Back” opens Nov. 6 in the Bay Area.

Laney is detached from her world due to substance abuse, and Silverman powerfully conveys the chilling sensation of being an outsider in one’s immediate family.

While this was not the case in Silverman’s own family, as a Jewish child living in a small town in New Hampshire, she can relate to 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 recalled. “Being Jewish kinda 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 realizes 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!’ ”

Silverman soon met many Jews — and Jewish entertainers — who grew up surrounded by other members of the tribe. While she was interested in their backgrounds, she was more intrigued by how they dealt with their Jewishness in public.

“It never occurred to me to do any-thing like change my name,” Silver-man said. “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 said. “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 that she wants to play. And though she’ll likely be offered plenty of dramatic roles going forward, there’s one part that she’s reconciled won’t be coming her way.

“My dream was always to be Lois Lane,” she con-fided 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.”

“I Smile Back” opens Nov. 6 in Bay Area theaters (85 minutes, rated R for strong sexual content, substance abuse/disturbing behavior and language)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.