Baltimore native Anna Faris is smart to act dumb

August 29, 2008|By Sam Adams | Sam Adams,Special to The Los Angeles Times

The weeks before Labor Day at movie theaters tend to be a dumping ground for critical duds. But when it opened last week, The House Bunny won surprisingly strong notices for star Anna Faris. Although reviews of the movie were mixed overall, critics singled out Faris' turn as a bubble-headed Playboy bunny, praising her as a worthy heir to such dizzy dames as Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday.

For the Baltimore native, playing dumb has been a smart move. Best known for her recurring role in the Scary Movie franchise, Faris has established herself as an expert in the art of blissful ignorance, whether she's playing a vacuous pop star in Just Friends or bringing a rare moment of comic relief to Brokeback Mountain.

Outside of the Scary Movie series, Faris, 31, has usually been relegated to character parts. But with The House Bunny, she takes center stage as Shelley, a Playmate who is booted from the Playboy Mansion for being too old - 27, or as she's told, "59 in bunny years."

Shelley finds a home at Zeta Alpha Zeta, a misfit college sorority on the verge of losing its charter. Charging herself with turning the dowdy Zetas into the hottest girls on campus, Shelley coaches them in the fine art of jiggling and giggling.

Long confined to supporting roles - where, as critics often noted, she frequently outshone the stars - Faris was inspired by comedians such as Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, her co-star in the coming Observe and Report, who write and develop much of their own material. "The boys have been doing it for so long," Faris says, "it just felt like it was time to take the steering wheel."

The character of Shelley was Faris' own invention, obliquely inspired by the dearth of roles for middle-aged women. "I thought, we know what happens to actresses in their 40s and 50s," she said. "But what happens when you're a model or a Playboy bunny and you're too old? What skills do you have?"

Faris brought the character to writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, whose Legally Blonde catapulted Reese Witherspoon into the top rank of Hollywood actresses. Her original conception of Shelley was, she admits, "much darker": a hardened drug addict returning home to her conservative small town. The reaction, fortunately, was skeptical. "When I told the writers, they were like, 'Hmmm. Or she could become a house mom!' " Faris says.

Faris pitched the character to several studios before making a deal with Sandler's Happy Madison productions. The result was her first leading role in a studio movie, as well as her first executive producer credit.

Faris got her first taste of being in the front seat in 2007's Smiley Face. As a stoned-to-the-gills actress, she dominates the movie's every scene, wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a bong-smoke haze. When Smiley Face premiered at Sundance, critics hailed Faris' performance. But the movie's distributor gave it the scantest of token releases, opening it in a handful of theaters in the thick of the holiday season.

The bubbly, bodacious Shelley is a world away from Smiley Face's disheveled slacker, but they share a certain wide-eyed innocence, a quality Faris has specialized in since the first Scary Movie, directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. "I remember asking Keenen why he cast me," Faris says. "He said, 'Because you had no idea what you were doing.' I've thought about that answer a lot, and I totally agree with him. I was just willing - the nerdy girl in class who always raises her hand. ... 'Call on me!' "

The can-do attitude persists, which is how, during filming of The House Bunny, Faris found herself atop the hood of a wet, soapy car in a bikini and platform shoes. "It was really unsafe," she says with a laugh. "But I'll do just about anything for the character."

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