Sarah Silverman, the star of Disney’s new movie, chats to about mental health, ill-advised jokes, beauty catastrophes and why she never had children
of friendship and the neuroses the internet infects us with. It centres around Wreck It Ralph and Vannellope — impish renegades from 1990s-era arcade games — who venture out into the information superhighway in search of the same things we all want: cash and affirmation. The animation — at once highly realistic and fantastical — is eye-popping and the mischievous humour in Silverman’s girlish voice was aided, she says, by the freedom the directors gave her and co-star John C Reilly (who voices Ralph) to improvise when the urge took them.
“The directors let us be so loose together. We could really play the scene and react to each other. There are bits that may go above the kids’ heads. The internet kind of happened to us and it brought out things in us that were always there, but maybe it made them even worse than they were. Just take, for example, the fact that the ‘bad guy’ in the film is really Ralph’s own insecurities; that’s the story of the internet — it’s us versus ourselves.”
One of the central messages of the film is that seeking fulfilment in another person — even a platonic friend — is not the way to go. Silverman tells me that her mother taught her early on that she had to be, first and foremost, her own best friend. It was something that sustained her through a sometimes difficult childhood in New Hampshire, where hers was the only Jewish family for miles. As a child, she was a chronic bed wetter — she made it the title of her autobiography — and would have to carry the shameful secret of a spare pampers in her bag to sleepover camps. In her teens, she would suffer from crippling depression — by the age of 14 she was taking 16 Xanax a day. When her stepfather asked what it was like to be depressed, she replied: “I feel homesick.” The silver lining to all this was that coming out of the depression, which she finally did in her late teens, gave her a new-found appreciation of the little things in life. “I remember driving in a cab and just feeling appreciative, for instance, of the wind on my face,” she recalls. “I was in Los Angeles and I was on my way to get my eyebrows waxed. My roommate had said, hey, why don’t we get your brows done, so there are, you know, two: one for each eye. And I was like “mmm, I guess, OK” and we went to the place in the cab and there was this lady in the waiting room and she said “Sarah?” and I was following her into the waxing room and she turns around and goes “what are we doing today? Just the moustache?” And I was like “What?! No! My eyebrows!” And inside I was thinking, “what is she talking about? I bleach my moustache, that means it’s completely invisible”. And it was, as in ‘bright yellow invisible’. And she did the wax and when I came out of the salon, I could feel this strange new sensation; the wind on my upper lip. So yeah, maybe it was coming out of depression that made me appreciate it, or maybe it was just not being as hairy any more.”
After school, she enrolled in the drama course at New York University and started doing open-mic nights all over the city. At 22, she got hired as a writer-performer for Saturday Night Live, where she lasted only a season (Bob Odenkirk — Saul from Breaking Bad and a writer on SNL — once said that her voice was too idiosyncratically her own to last at the show). The mental health difficulties would continue to stalk her — she began suffering from panic attacks. She was prescribed medication which helped, she says, and she made her mental health issues a staple of her stand-up. During these years, she says, she spent “many years bombing in clubs and staying in terrifying motels”, but in 2005, her one-woman show, Jesus Is Magic, was made into a film, which won her national attention. On the stand-up tour in support of the film, she uttered the immortal line: “I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.
“There are so many jokes I make that I cringe at, that I would never make today,” she says, ruefully shaking her head. “Comedy ages like nothing else. I see things now I said and I think, yeah, that’s real problematic, but that is the nature of life, and it’s worth it for me if I reflect on it and I acknowledge it and am forever changed by it, which I can say was the case with some of the things I said.”
What about the things that were said to her? One of the more interesting moments in her career came five years ago at the Roast of James Franco, where she and Jonah Hill sparred viciously with each other from the stage. He and Seth Rogen portrayed Silverman as some kind of Hollywood crone. “Sarah [Silverman] is a role model for every little girl who’s ever dreamed of being a 58-year-old, single, stand-up comedian with no romantic prospects on the horizon. They all dream of it, but Sarah did it,” said Hill. “No, but listen, I was brutal to Jonah,” she says, when I remind her. “I defend to the death all those jokes they made about me.”
But surely he was genuinely fat, whereas you weren’t genuinely old, I venture. “Yeah, but really he was bracing himself for fat jokes, whereas I wasn’t bracing myself for old jokes, because I didn’t know I was old. I wasn’t even the oldest one on the raised platform. I think everyone has to go to bed for a few days after a roast and lick their wounds.”
And to say she had no romantic prospects was, itself, so laughably far off the mark, it could hardly have necessitated too long recovering in bed.
From 2002 she dated chat show host Jimmy Kimmel, famously poking fun at him in a video she made with Matt Damon, referencing a mock feud the two men were carrying on. For the last few years, she had been dating Welsh actor Michael Sheen (he of the almost supernatural ability to channel Tony Blair) but they split earlier this year. She