No joke

Comic actress Anna Faris has starred in four 'Scary Movies,' but the Baltimore native takes her career very seriously

April 09, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

ANNA FARIS WOULD like to be taken seriously. Despite the odds, she may get her wish.

The wholesomely beautiful actress has parlayed an ability to seem cheerfully obtuse into a blossoming career. Fans of broad humor already know her as the star of the Scary Movie franchise, a series of horror-movie spoofs that in its first three installments has earned nearly $338 million at the U.S. box office.

With Friday's scheduled opening of the latest chapter, Scary Movie 4, the Baltimore native will return to the screen once again as the eternally naive, heedlessly happy Cindy Campbell, a literal-minded small-town girl who ends up the butt of some of the most outrageous comedy in the Scary Movies.

While all the other characters crack wise around her, Faris inhabits the often-unenviable role of straight-woman. Without her Cindy to play against, the parodies and over-the-top one-liners in each of the four films would be simply punch lines without anything to punch.

"I definitely know how to play naive and innocent," says Faris, 29, who thinks of herself as a comic actress, rather than a comedian. "I didn't even really quite realize that I was funny in the role, and still don't know if I am."

She is. Over the course of four films, the Scary Movie franchise, initially envisioned in 2000 as a satire of modern horror films (it was originally titled Scream If You Know What I Did Last Halloween), has poked fun at just about every movie cliche imaginable.

Faris has been at the center of some wackily raunchy sex scenes, been one-third of a hilarious Charlie's Angels take-off and been assaulted by a nebbish wearing a Scream mask. She also has gotten drunk while wearing a Viking helmet, been attacked by a possessed cat, done pratfalls and flown through the air. Most importantly, she has done it all without the slightest sign that anything's unusual.

That's enough to typecast any actress, and certainly Faris has seemed destined to be forever trapped in similarly slapstick roles; in the last several years, she has appeared in a half-dozen broad comedies. But she also has managed to land small, but key roles in two of the most honored and critically praised films of the past two years.

In Lost in Translation, the surprise critical hit that won Best Feature at the 2003 Independent Spirit Awards and earned director Sofia Coppola an Oscar for screenwriting, Faris played an actress being photographed (and admired) by lead actress Scarlett Johansson's boyfriend. Last year, in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, she played a loud, brassy bar patron whose husband comes on to Jake Gyllenhaal.

"It was tough to get auditions for dramatic stuff," Faris says over the phone from the Hollywood Hills home she shares with her husband, actor Ben Indra (MTV's Undressed). "I didn't realize that this city divided comedic and dramatic actors so much. I had never thought of it as a division before, I thought it was just about playing a character sincerely and maybe making risky choices. That was really a wake-up call, something I'm still struggling with.

"That's why it's so important for me to be a part of, even in a small degree, movies like Lost In Translation and Brokeback Mountain."

Indeed, she doesn't feel entirely at ease - yet -- when moving in A-list circles. At February's Screen Actors Guild Awards, when the cast of Brokeback was nominated as Best Ensemble (they lost to the cast of Crash), she never really felt comfortable at the awards ceremony, she says. And while she cheerfully worked the arrivals line at March's Independent Spirit Awards, she never felt like she fit in there, either.

"Because I'm very new to being involved in prestigious movies, I didn't feel quite deserving, in a sense," says the 5-foot-5-inch actress, who wore a dark-blue, spaghetti strap gown for the Spirits and looked every inch the star. "I just felt like I didn't have as much of a reason to be there as, you know, Reese Witherspoon. And it's also very overwhelming, all those celebrities. I'm still getting used to that whole side of the business."

Not a laughing matter

As anyone who knew her as a child might have guessed, Anna Faris is not the kind of actress whose sole goal is to leave 'em laughing.

Her father, Jack Faris, will always smile at the image of his then 5-year-old daughter in what he remembers as a Dumbarton Middle School production of The Wizard of Oz, cast as a "Winkie" (a minor character in the play).

"The pictures of her show her taking it all very seriously," says Jack Faris, who was teaching sociology at Towson State University when Anna, his second child, was born in Baltimore in November 1976. "This was adult stuff, not at all to be entered into lightly."

Acting, it seems, always has been serious business for young Anna. "We certainly didn't imagine her career, but her dramatic flair was evident from her very early years, as in age 2," says her father, now 59 and president of the Seattle-based Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

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