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Funny Girlby Andrew Myers | Manhattan magazine | April 20, 2012
Ask an actress to define comedy and be ready to hear an Aristotelian discourse, some Woody Allen-esque or Cowardian prose, or even a Shakespearean line of poetry. Ask Anna Faris to describe it, and you’ll get a personal story, one that inadvertently reflects her personality and point of view, and one in which she’s the butt of the joke.
“In college one of my jobs was as a receptionist, and during my lunch breaks I’d wander around the city,” says Faris, who graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in English. “So, on this particularly beautiful day, I was out walking in a dress, wearing my backpack, feeling great. But then I realized I was attracting a lot of looks, really getting checked out, which really made me angry, although I bet I loved it, even if I wouldn’t admit it. So, I’m scowling and stomping around when an older lady in a van pulls over and yells, ‘Hey girlie, your ass is showing!’ My dress had gotten hiked up under my backpack, giving full view of my Costco granny panties. My ass is showing, and I’m condemning a city full of lecherous men! That’s what I think [of] when I think about comedy and what it is.”
Faris is not standard silver-screen funny or silent-film funny. You need to hear her signature voice and her punctuation of pauses, both reminiscent of comediennes from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, and see the way Faris’ face conveys her thoughts and emotions—each widening of her ingénue blue eyes, lip contortion or eyebrow lift is as sensitive to nuance as a Geiger counter is to radiation.
Her full corporal arsenal will be deployed in this month’s The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest cut-to-the-cultural-and-political-quick comedy in which Faris stars alongside Baron Cohen, playing deadpan to his manic Middle Eastern dictator, Admiral General Aladeen. “I’m American, living in Brooklyn, a grocery co-op manager, the voice of reason who’s earthy, passionate and liberal,” says the 35-year-old actress, divulging as many details as she can about the film, the hype for which is inversely proportionate to specifics currently available for media consumption. But then she relents; leans in; flashes a quick, mock-paranoid glance at a waiter passing through the Chateau Marmont lobby; and downshifts to a lower volume to add, “Let’s just say I find the dictator at a protest, think he’s a refugee and take him in.”
Hailed last spring in a New Yorker profile as “Hollywood’s most original comic actress,” Faris began her comedy career in 2000 with the horror spoof Scary Movie, in which she played the naïve, good-intentioned and accident-prone protagonist with a Rasputin-like gift for endurance, paired with a cat’s nine lives. With a worldwide gross of $278 million, the parody spawned a franchise that includes Scary Movie 2, 3 and 4, with Scary Movie 5 scheduled for a January 2013 release. All of the films star Faris, who between bouts as Cindy Campbell (her Scary character) also had a recurring role on Friends, captivating cameos in Lost in Translation and Brokeback Mountain, and starred in The House Bunny in 2008, which grossed more than $70 million and elevated Faris to that most exclusive pantheon of actresses: those who can open a movie. Along the way, she has secured not only mainstream success, but also accolades, even reverence, from fellow comedians—old-school, new-school, male and female alike.
Not bad for a woman who only recently accepted—or kinda sorta accepted—the fact that she is funny. “I’m getting a better handle on it,” she says. When asked when she began to think she might be funny, Faris answers, “Uuuum,” stretching the vowel to its breaking point, “maybe four years ago?”
Anna (pronounced “Ah-na”) Kay Faris was born a Sagittarius in the Year of the Dragon, and, perhaps most importantly, in Baltimore, Md., where something in the water seems to foster eccentric brilliance from a long line of creatives, from Edgar Allan Poe to John Waters. Growing up in Edmonds, Wash., with an older brother, Robert, and raised by “very attentive, loving parents who were in no hurry for me to grow up,” Faris says she was sparky but respectful, sweet, very proud and independent, and physically tiny until junior high. She was angry about the double standards and restrictions imposed upon her for being a girl, and unathletic in terms of team sports (Pacific Northwest musts, including hiking, climbing and playing in the woods, notwithstanding). She was also seriously unfunny and earnest as a heart attack—especially when it came to acting, the after-school activity her parents enrolled her in at age 6 and the only one that stuck.
Faris wrote plays; enlisted neighborhood kids as ensemble actors; casts and audiences; conducted news-like interviews; imitated talk-show babble; and even recreated scenes from her first movie-going experience, Annie, playing “Miss Hannigan”—never with so much as a smile, always completely straight. “I needed to be heard and taken seriously; I didn’t know how to laugh at myself at all,” says Faris, adding that if any of her performances were met with so much as a smile, she would storm off. “I might be playing a waitress, then suddenly start to dance or sing, but if Granny or Grandpa even smirked, my brother would get a kick in the shins.”
And Faris found serious amateur success in acting, first as leads at the Village Theatre in Washington, playing “Scout” and “Heidi,” and later at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where she made her début at age 9 as “Clara,” the young murder victim in Arthur Miller’s Danger: Memory! “All the graphic stuff happened when I wasn’t onstage—my parents shielded me from all that,” she says.
Her dramatic run continued in a high-school drama club and expanded to paying gigs, but hit a roadblock in college. “Acting had always been my thing, but I didn’t shine in the drama department, which was very jarring,” she says. Faris questioned her abilities, enrolled in a study-abroad program in Siena, and disdained drama as an impractical major and career choice. Still, she found the wherewithal to continue commercial work, and to audition for—and land—her first important film role: as an ill-fated cheerleader in Lovers Lane, a small, independent horror flick. “My competitive instincts kicked in,” she says about overcoming self-doubts concerning her talent.
Still, with the film wrapped and graduation looming, Faris had lined up a job at an ad agency in London. That was when love—for a boy, and later for acting—intervened. “In Lovers Lane, I found the L.A. actors really inspiring; they’d all moved here from somewhere else and were making it work. I thought, ‘Give it a year,’” she remembers. But while the boy faded out, Los Angeles faded in.
Luck is the nicest, and one of the most necessary, four-letter words in Hollywood, and Faris was a fast recipient. Before her actual move, she flew to L.A. and met with Manager Doug Wald. “I wore Goth-y clothes; I guess I had a dirt smudge on my cheek; I flashed him accidentally—everything went wrong,” she says.
Apparently not, because Wald signed Faris, and within a month Keenen Ivory Wayans had cast her in Scary Movie. “I’ve asked Keenen why he cast me, and he said, ‘Because you didn’t know what you were doing.’ Does that mean I was malleable? Willing to fall down a hundred times and get hit in the head more? I don’t know.” A long pause. “The real answer is, it’s because I took myself so seriously.”
Faris explains that she was confused about the tonality of Scary Movie, that she thought the script conveyed real thriller elements, and played them accordingly. In so doing, she became something unique and entirely her own: seriously funny. The straighter she went, the more hysterically twisted the result; the more committed she became to her character, the more outlandish the effect. “It’s always been my instinct to double-down, to jump off the deep end, as long as it’s consistent with the character,” she says.
Her performances are often quite layered. Grafted onto Faris’ own ingenious somethin’-somethin’ are madcap elements conjuring Goldie Hawn, a voice as unmistakable as Judy Holliday’s and a robustness similar to Lucille Ball’s. But to understand the full extent of Faris’ hopes and ambitions, it’s necessary to look earlier than what’s perceived as the golden era for comediennes on-screen—the big-shoulder-pad 1940s—to the five years from 1929 to July 1934, after “talkies” were widely accepted and before the Hays Code was fully implemented and industry-wide censorship imposed.
During these years, as San Francisco film critic and historian Mick LaSalle wrote in his book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, women on-screen had full lives, free of Victorian-era vamp/ingénue clichés: “Before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency.” In short, they were allowed to act like guys—even, as Mae West illustrates, in raunchy comedies. “That’s what I would love to play!” says Faris. “A woman who is unambitious, has no maternal instinct, is liberated from vanity, relishes porn and is pretty much the female version of the comic male mess.”
It’s a goal, Faris acknowledges, that studios find scary (after all, males in their late teens to mid-20s are the target audience for comedies). But although Faris’ What’s Your Number?, in which she played a hot slacker-ish mess, fell short of expectations, last summer’s mega-hits Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher showed that women behaving badly can bring big box-office returns. In that vein, Faris, an executive producer for both The House Bunny and What’s Your Number?, is focusing on developing material, such as Gold Diggers, an idea she conceived with screenwriter and friend Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, and co-starring Kate Hudson. First, however, she’ll be on-screen in the romantic comedy produced by Working Title called, I Give It a Year, starring alongside Rose Byrne.
Still, Faris, who is married to actor Chris Pratt (currently on the NBC series Parks and Recreation), envisions a day in the not-too-distant future when funny girls can behave like funny guys on-screen, and also collaborate extensively on funny fare—much like the coterie of male talent marshaled by writer, producer and director Judd Apatow. “I really think there’s a change happening, where instead of viewing every female as competition, which is exhausting and futile, comedic actresses are now comradely. It feels really nice,” says Faris. “And there’s nothing funny about that.” Seriously.