Among the things that make Anna Faris laugh: The word “squeakquel”; chubby ponies; the miniature campsite murder diorama she’s been working on for six months; the idea of one errant boob, if handled properly.
Of the comedic potential of that last item, the actress is intimately familiar. She, more than most, straddles the line separating sexiness and comedy. Over lunch at Cheebo, a Sunset Boulevard cafe, Faris, in overalls, a t-shirt, just a hint of makeup, and big round sunglasses, embodies the definitive answer as to whether the two are mutually exclusive. (The answer is no, they are not.) Nevertheless, she says, “It’s really hard to incorporate sexuality with comedy.” In fact, it’s hard even to find the language to do so. “You show tits in a comedic scene—I should say boobs, not tits. Who likes that word? If you show a woman’s breasts in a comedic scene—” Nope, not right either. Faris pauses, then decides to go with the clinical. “If you show a woman’s mammary glands, if it’s done poorly, it instantly takes away from the comedic element of the scene. It’s too jarring. But [my husband] Chris [Pratt] and I were pitching around a character, a Hollywood-mess character on the red carpet at the opening of a movie. She’s talking to these journalists and she’s wasted. One boob is completely out, and she’s talking on and on, like, [Faris slurs] ‘I’m so excited to be here.’ If you held it long enough and kept it going, just the one boob, it would be so funny.”
Though Faris demurs when asked if the errant-breasted starlet is based on a real person, she’s walked the red carpet quite a few times herself—without a wardrobe malfunction to date. She’s the star of the four movies in the Scary Movie franchise, romantic comedies like The House Bunny and What’s Your Number?, and family comic fare Yogi Bear. She’s made a career of playing approachability hot, guileless naïfs floating in a sea of absurdity.
Her new project, Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, brings the absurdity to a higher and more overtly political level. Baron Cohen, the king of a certain genre of fact/fiction–bending satire, plays the bearded dictator of a fictional, Libya-esque country called Wadiya, who flees to America after being deposed. At the Oscars, he was the one who spilled Kim Jong-il’s ashes on Ryan Seacrest. Faris plays Zoë, an activist who, in her words, “runs a co-op grocery store in Brooklyn that has an organic farm on the roof. She’s very well-intentioned.” But like all Baron Cohen enterprises (or authoritarian dictatorships), secrecy is tantamount. “I think that’s all I’m allowed to say,” Faris apologizes.
Even if Faris had carte blanche to discuss the film, it wouldn’t matter. She is only vaguely certain the course the plot will take anyway. “We shot a lot,” she says, “it’ll be a surprise to me what storylines they keep in and what they don’t.” Even how she got the role baffles her. “When it comes down to it, I think I got the role because I’m willing to just make an ass out of myself.”
Unlike The House Bunny or Yogi Bear, much of The Dictator was improvised. “You have to really be on your toes be very malleable,” says Faris. “Sacha definitely thrives on making people uncomfortable. He’s like a bulldog that way. When he senses he’s making someone mildly uncomfortable, he just clenches on and won’t let go. It’s fun for an actor to be able to play off that. You just had to be alert. There was a lot of Red Bull-drinking on my part.” For the first time at brunch, Faris takes off her sunglasses, revealing her big, slate-blue eyes. Looking up at the waiter, she orders a bacon, avocado and egg white scramble— with one adjustment. “I don’t do egg whites,” she says. The shades go back on.
If things had gone differently, Faris might be nursing a whisky and discussing Stanislavski. As a burgeoning young actor in Seattle, she took her craft very seriously, getting her start at the age of nine playing Young Clara in Arthur Miller’s Danger Memory at a local Seattle community center. “I got $200 for the run of the show and I bought myself a piano phone. That was my first big purchase,” Faris says wistfully. She continued with hefty fare. “I was cast in all dramatic stuff: a play about the Holocaust, Heidi, To Kill a Mockingbird, and these plays that my parents just loved and were very—whatever the opposite of Scary Movie is.”
But when she wasn’t befriending Boo Radley or bearing witness, Faris was studying the matriarchs of American comedy. “I would come home every day, and if my mom wasn’t home—because she didn’t let us watch TV—I would watch The Carol Burnett Show religiously, and Golden Girls. I was crazy about those women. And then later on, Goldie Hawn in Overboard. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but they became big influences in my life.”
Faris came to comedy accidentally and at the tail–end of her stage career. Dispirited after a string of disappointing grades, she had dropped out of the University of Washington’s theater program, and graduated instead with a degree in English. But she continued to work, starring in local commercials (for the restaurant Red Robin and as a cancer-stricken girl for a local medical center), voiceovers, and human resource training videos. Her big break came in 1999, when she was cast in Lovers Lane, a horror film shot in Seattle. (“I played a cheerleader that got gutted,” she says.) On the strength of that role, she was asked to submit an audition tape for a parody film, tentatively titled Scream If You Know What I Did Last Halloween.
Within weeks of her audition, Faris found herself on a Vancouver film set. “I was scared shitless,” she says. “First of all, I don’t do comedy. Second of all, I have no idea what I’m doing on a set, like, having a trailer? I’d also never worked that hard, those kinds of hours. I was just in college—I took naps every day!”
Ironically, her dramatic training may have been the unforeseen key to Faris’s comedic success. “Keenan [Ivory Wayans, the director of Scary Movie] would laugh whenever I was trying to be dramatic, so I learned what he found amusing was that sincere quality.” What might have pierced the ego of a lesser actor has, instead, buoyed Faris. “I do think that’s sort of my weird place in the comedic world. I’m comfortable with people laughing at me.”
That sincerity has become Faris’ trademark. No matter how ridiculous the scenario in the Scary Movie or subsequent films, including Gregg Araki’s stoner trip Smiley Face, no matter how outsized her own characters are, as in the essentially quiet Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation, Faris’ endlessly expressive face reads as totally open. There’s no hint of a wink. She’s the straight man, except that she’s a beautiful woman.
Encouraged by films like Bridesmaids that have demonstrated the earning potential of raunchy, female-driven comedies, Faris is blazing ahead with a series of projects that upend prevailing storylines. The first is tentatively titled Besties, written by Deanna Kizis, which is “loosely based on my own life,” says Faris. “It’s inspired by a stalker roommate. My agent wants me to be the girl who is getting stalked, but I really want to be the stalker girl, I really do. It would be so fun. I think I’m going to have to put my foot down. It would kill me to work with another actress who is having all the fun.” The other project is Gold Diggers, a script about a titular pair of money-grubbing sisters, Faris likened to a female Wedding Crashers. “We are trying to find our other sister,” Faris says, “She must be out there somewhere.”