Wild Girl Sarah Silverman Waltzes Brilliantly Into Dramatic Role

The bawdy American comedian talks to Haaretz about her dramatic debut in 'Take This Waltz,' which opens in Israeli cinemas tomorrow.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

She's wild, she's funny, she lashes out at everyone. She is not afraid to poke fun at Jews, church people or tycoons, breaking every possible taboo, including the Holocaust. In her stand-up performances and on her television shows she seems to derive great pleasure from flouting any red line. The combination of her blunt, uninhibited and consensus-crushing humor and her innocent girl-next-door looks with the ponytail and the sweatpants is what in recent years has made her one of the most famous comedians in the world. So when Sarah Silverman appears in the film "Take This Waltz" in a dramatic, nearly serene role without uttering a single witty remark, it takes time to get used to the fact that this is really her. Though it is a minor role - the character she plays appears only in a few scenes - it quickly becomes clear that the decision to cast Silverman in a dramatic role in which she plays the sister-in-law of the heroine of the film was a stroke of casting brilliance.

"Take This Waltz" (the title is taken from Leonard Cohen's song and has been infelicitously translated into Hebrew by the local distributors as "The Last Waltz" ) opens in Israel tomorrow. It tells the story of Margot, played by Michelle Williams, a Canadian woman whose life is shaken up by a sexually charged encounter with a man on a flight home. When she discovers that the man is a neighbor of hers she has difficulty suppressing her attraction to him and jeopardizes the great, if passionless, love between her and her husband Lou, a chef who publishes cook books (played by Seth Rogen ).

Silverman plays Geraldine, Lou's sister, and one of the people closest to Margot. The two have heart-to-heart talks, support each other and sometimes find momentary respite from the chaos of their respective lives in each other's homes.

The image Silverman the comedian brings to the film, of human dynamite that could explode at any minute, leaving witty observations in her wake, affords the character of Geraldine a valuable dramatic charge: It is she who manages to draw the most illuminating conclusions in the film, despite her alcoholic tendencies which threaten her stability. In the few scenes at her disposal Silverman succeeds in portraying this character with a believability that is not only surprising but also convincing.

"Sarah Polley actually wrote it with me in mind if you can believe that!," clarifies Silverman when asked in an email interview about how she got the part.

Until now, Silverman had appeared in films only in comic roles. When Polley contacted her to offer her the part of Geraldine, Silverman admits she was surprised that somebody believed she could play a dramatic role.

"And relieved, and so thankful," she adds. "But the truth is, it's just words that you say as if it were true for you, so, what's the difference?"

Fantasizing about a dinner with Sarah

Polley is a Canadian actress who in recent years has turned to directing. In 2006 she made her beautiful film "Away from Her" starring Julie Christie (and which won her an Oscar nomination for best writing, adapted screenplay ). In interviews in advance of the release of "Take This Waltz" Polley said that for many years Silverman has been her favorite performer. "You know the 'If you could have dinner with one person in the world, who would that be?' question? For the last five years," she told an interviewer, "the answer has always been Sarah Silverman. The moment her name was suggested by John Buchan, it was all hands on deck to get her. As much as I knew she was going to be fantastic in this part, nothing could have prepared me for how complicated and nuanced and strange and beautiful her work was. It was such a joy to watch her work."

Silverman, in turn, showers compliments on the director and screenwriter of "Take This Waltz" when she is asked about working with her. "It was so fun. Sarah (Polley ) happens to be hilarious and very fun. She knows what she wants and how to get it from you in the loveliest, most gentle way."

The shower scene

In one of the most memorable scenes in the film a group of women, among them Margot and Geraldine, shower together in a public shower, right after finishing an aerobics class at the swimming pool. Among them are old women and young, shapely and plump, dark and fair and all of them are completely nude on camera, sometimes frontally, taking their showers with complete naturalness. There aren't any walls that hide things, there aren't any camera angles that try to protect certain body parts and there is also no attempt to exploit the nudity for erotic purposes or to use it to stimulate and arouse. Within this setting, the women hold frank conversations.

Geraldine wonders aloud whether there is any justification for shaving her legs, while she is doing just that. She says she is almost certain that James, her husband, wouldn't notice the difference. "Married life," smiles a woman who is showering next to her.

"It's depressing," sighs Silverman's character, and goes on to wonder why anyone would even care whether or not she shaves her legs because what is important after all this time is that she is still fond of James. Would it be worth it, she muses, to exchange this for an exciting fling with someone whom she might not love 10 years from now, unwittingly providing food for thought to her sister-in-law, who observes her silently, torn between her polite love for her husband and the passion burning in her for the new man she has met.

What was your first reaction when you read the nude shower scene in the script?

"I didn't realize there would be nudity until Sarah called me and told me and was very kind about if I would be uncomfortable about it, but she also told me why it was important to her and I wanted to be a part of her vision. This was her movie and I felt lucky to be in it and wanted to do my part to fulfill her plan. And I loved that it was this experiment with sexuality and the total absence of sexuality in this particular nudity and how jarring that is for us as an audience to see - despite the fact that is such an everyday occurrence with women - to be naked around each other. It's peculiar that it's so peculiar, and I like that stuff."

In previous interviews you said you had deliberately gained weight for the part, but then you denied it. Why?

"I was kidding - that I had gained weight for the part. I was saying it jokingly to cover for the fact that I do not have a Hollywood body. I'm real American-woman thin. I'm Hollywood fat. It's brutal. But then I abandoned that bit because I don't want young women to think I'm ashamed of my body. It's healthy and strong and vital and good."

Even though she enjoyed playing a character that is not comic, Silverman is not prepared to say what kind of films she'll appear in in the future. "I love doing anything that's interesting to me no matter the genre or medium. I have no master plan. Like our people, I'm a nomad," she comments.

No girl next door

But if anyone feared that a successful performance in a dramatic movie role would transform Silverman into the good girl next door, she put paid to that about a month ago when she uploaded a new Internet video - every bit as blunt insolent, funny - and some would say vulgar - as her past ones. In her newest clip, Silverman propositions American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, urging him switch his promised $100 million campaign donation from Mitt Romney to Barack Obama. In return, Silverman promises to perform a lesbian sex act on the businessman.

Silverman has already proven both her ability to create YouTube hits and her political commitment to Obama through past videos.

Four years ago the Internet was aflame with a video the Jewish comedian had made with Hollywood star Matt Damon, a clip of a song called "I'm fucking Matt Damon." It was first screened on the entertainment show moderated by her boyfriend at the time, Jimmy Kimmel, in which she and Damon sang a duet about the secret affair they were supposedly having behind Kimmel's back. The clip immediately went viral on the Internet and ultimately netted her an Emmy award. A few months later Silverman uploaded "The Great Schlep," a video she made during the run-up to the last U.S. presidential election in which she called on young American Jews not to be slackers, but to rush out to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama.

Her newest effort has chalked up more than 2.1 million views on Youtube. "You'll be the only elderly billionaire on the block," she tells Adelson in the clip "to have traditional lesbian sex through to climax with a girl who had her own show on Comedy Central."

Then Silverman is seen lying on her back clasping between her legs a small Chihuahua dog that does not look especially pleased, in an attempt to demonstrate the act she is proposing to the American billionaire. While doing this she urges viewers to go to a special Internet site she has set up where they will be able to "help cut Mitt Romney free from his sugar daddy."

Silverman says the video was her idea: "It's just a silly little video to scare up some awareness and get people talking about shit. I only just tweeted it once, but I'm so tickled it got around."

What are you going to do if Adelson calls you and says he accepts your proposal? "I'm a woman of my word. Oh God ... drugs may have to be involved. But I don't think he will."

Did the poor Chihuahua dog survive the shooting? Why does he look so miserable, instead of ecstatic?

"That is my beloved dog Duck who just turned 18. He looked miserable because he was napping but I kept it to two takes and then he went back to sleep."

You visited Israel for the first time last year. What was your main impression of this place and the people living in it?

"I loved it. Loved Jerusalem, loved the people, loved the gay neighborhood in Tel Aviv - I felt most at home there. My sister and her family live in Jerusalem and that was a blast and so fun to see their lives. Besides the occasional suicide bomb it's the safest place in the world. The kids walk from one thing to another on their own. There doesn't seem to be crime. But of course, it was just one visit. People always say, 'Oh you will feel so connected to Judaism when you go to Israel' but I didn't really. I was grossed out by the Western Wall. The tiny space for women and the giant space for men - that may be how it always was but it's unacceptable now. To me anyhow. It's like if there were still segregated water fountains here in America and we just said, 'I know it's fucked up but, you know, it's just how it is."

Sarah Silverman is suprisingly brilliant in her first dramatic film role in Sarah Polley’s 'Take This Waltz.'Credit: Michael Gibson / Lev Cinema



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