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‘I Smile Back’ role a serious challenge for Sarah Silverman

Robyn Von Swank
Comedian Sarah Silverman stars in “I Smile Back,” a drama.

TORONTO –

In one scene, Sarah Silverman sits topless on a toilet, snorting cocaine. In another, she does lines (not the kind with words) off the same kitchen countertop where she makes and decorates sack lunches for her school-age children.

The shock isn’t in seeing Silverman do these things. The New Hampshire-born actress and comedian is well known for feasting on uncomfortable subjects and working blue. What’s surprising is that her latest vehicle is a straight-on drama titled “I Smile Back,” a sobering, seriously downbeat feature film in which Silverman plays the lead — and makes it look as easy as delivering a raunchy joke about Paris Hilton.

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The movie opens in the Boston area the same day it’s available on-demand, Nov. 6.

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“It is so different from what I’ve done before and what I know professionally,” Silverman, 44, says in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film screened in September. “But comedy and drama share a wall; they’re wildly adjacent if not overlapping.

“You’ll be hard pressed to find a comedian that doesn’t live mostly in darkness,” she adds, briefly mentioning Robin Williams, who took his own life last year, and concluding wistfully: “We drop like flies.”

Silverman herself has battled depression since she was a teenager, which she discussed freely in her 2010 memoir, “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee,” and more recently in Glamour magazine.

Adapted from Amy Koppelman’s novel, “I Smile Back” casts her as Laney Brooks, a suburban mother in the throes of mental illness and addiction. Her husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), thinks they have the perfect life. But Laney’s having an affair, and increasingly she’s plagued by demons that no amount of sex, drugs, or alcohol can silence.

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“I don’t see why anybody bothers loving anything,” Laney complains after Bruce brings home a dog. For him, it’s one more piece of the American dream. For her, it’s just another thing she’s sure she’ll screw up eventually.

Silverman came by this role — her first opportunity to carry a big-screen drama — when Koppelman heard her on the radio, talking with Howard Stern about her depression. The author reached out, and the actress agreed to consider attaching herself if the screenplay measured up. Collaborating with Paige Dylan (wife of Jakob, daughter-in-law of Bob), Koppelman later delivered a script that Silverman not only loved, but that presented the kind of acting challenge she’d never anticipated being offered.

“It’s always so exciting when somebody can imagine you in a way that you haven’t already been,” Silverman says.

Feeling flattered, she signed on eagerly but with few expectations, the way one buys a lottery ticket to go with a box of wine. “I didn’t even have to think about it, because it didn’t occur to me that this [movie] would get made,” she admits. “I’m not jaded but I’ve been around.”

Fast forward a couple of years. Silverman says she was at home in her bathroom when she got an e-mail saying that the movie was a go. She recalls the joy, followed closely by the fear.

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“I remember writing ‘Yay!’ and pressing send, and then just kind of collapsing on the bathmat in a full shaking, trembling panic attack of what have I done?”

Revisiting the moment brings to mind the advice of her mother, New Hampshire theater director Beth Ann O’Hara, the revered founder of the New Thalian Players, who died in August at 73.

“Because we all had depression — me and my mom battled it — she would say, ‘Sometimes all you have to do is be brave,’” Silverman says. “And what she meant was: Just existing through it is brave. So I just kind of existed through it.”

Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles in “I Smile Back.”
TIFF
Sarah Silverman and Josh Charles in “I Smile Back.”

The actress also convinced herself that filming would be fun, even if the script was overwhelmingly dark. “That didn’t prove to be the case,” she admits now. “It’s very heavy and you end up kind of carrying it around. But I’m so glad I didn’t know that going into it because I would have found a way to worm out of it out of fear.”

It’s hard for most of us to envision Sarah Silverman being afraid of anything. This is the woman who worked Boston comedy clubs as a teenager (“I think what makes you a comedian is that you bomb and want to do nothing else the next day but go back”), then built a varied resume that includes “Saturday Night Live,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Masters of Sex,” and many other credits, maybe none more infamous than the hilarious music video she made for then-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel, titled “I’m [Expletive] Matt Damon.”

She regularly takes on opponents of gay marriage and abortion rights. She’s been branded a racist for telling jokes that, she argues, satirize racism. Her 2013 HBO special, “We Are Miracles,” prompted Variety critic Brian Lowry to complain (in the most sexist way possible) that she was out to be “as dirty and distasteful as the boys.”

“Sarah is a fearless performer,” says “I Smile Back” director Adam Salky by phone. “She just goes for it in everything she does.”

And yet, Silverman will tell you that fearlessness onstage or in front of a camera should not be confused with real-life toughness. For her, performing is actually the safest of places: “That’s just life. It’s breathing. It’s my joy.” The next best thing is watching television at home, preferably “Law & Order” or some other crime procedural. Where boyfriend Michael Sheen fits in is anybody’s guess, but they’re still together after the better part of two years.

It’s neither outrageous nor unwelcome to suggest that Silverman is the Joan Rivers of her generation. The two were friends, and the comparison resonates even more deeply for Silverman these days because, she says of the late comedian, “One of her biggest sadnesses was that she was never seen as an actress, and she saw herself as an actress.

“I think a lot of comedians are not seen as actors. But when you’re going onstage every night saying material like it’s new and being in a moment that you might not be actually in in your personal life, it is acting.”

Silverman laments that Rivers had to fight so hard for the recognition she deserved. But she acknowledges that such struggles fueled the current microburst of empowered female comics calling their own shots, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kaling.

If only that were the norm, Silverman says. Without being asked, the actress segues naturally from show business to everyday life in the United States, where “we’re having a whole resurgence of a war on women, as the right hates to hear and scoffs at but, you know, our rights are not the same as men’s, where we don’t have decisions over our own bodies.”

While many would agree with her politics, many more, especially in Hollywood, would never say such things out loud, never mind to a journalist. Is she just hardwired to provoke?

“I don’t like making people mad, but I also think it’s important to remember you have a right to express yourself in any way you see fit and not everyone will agree and that’s OK for them, too. . . . I keep my overhead very low, so I don’t need everyone to love me.”

Listen to Sarah Silverman talk about what it was like doing stand-up in Boston as a teenager:

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.