Anna Faris isn't naturally funny. That's not just my observation after sitting opposite her for two hours while nursing sweaty pints of Guinness in a bar roughly the size of my first Manhattan apartment. Sure, it's a sweltering summer day, the AC's busted, and Anna (pronounced, Thurston Howell — style, as Ahhhnna) has just come off a six-hour photo shoot. She's visibly tired and, as much as she's trying to muster the mojo to answer even softball questions ("Do you Netflix?"), delivers bleached-out answers ("I read a lot") that make for dental-office fare. Her mood picks up after she drains the first beer, but 90 minutes in, I'm still waiting to get zapped with a tight little wisecrack that will confirm why Faris has joined the lean ranks of Hollywood's leading comic actresses, nipping at the pricey heels of Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Kate Hudson.
"I'm not great with stingers at all," Faris, 34, finally concedes. She mentions a particularly painful Tonight Show segment. "I'm not a stand-up, so that kind of banter is really hard for me. I think that for me, my process" — she stops abruptly, and rolls her eyes. Words like process, technique, and artist betray a pretentiousness that undermines Faris' reputation in the business as a good-time gal, the consummate blonde who's game for anything, no matter how tasteless, like incessant pussy jokes (Scary Movie), gratuitous T & A shots (The House Bunny), and even a drug-fueled date-rape scene (Observe and Report). Actresses like this do not refer to their work as a craft.
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But have a beer with Faris (or any drink, really — she is an unabashed tippler), talk to her, and it doesn't take long before the practiced ditz routine dissolves and you're left with a sober, startlingly candid bleach-blonde pixie both starkly aware of and unapologetic about the compromises she's made for stardom. "I was willing to do anything," she says of what won her (after several other actresses declined) the role of Cindy Campbell, the resident bimbo of the popular Scary Movie horror spoof series, which has grossed $429 million to date — more than the Back to the Future, Friday the 13th, and Ocean's 11 franchises each earned domestically. "I was just so malleable. I was like, I gotta be brave and tough, even if it means getting sprayed to the ceiling by my high school boyfriend," she says.
Here's what she artfully omits from that statement: The spray in question is semen, and she's hosed off her feet with it. Faris' lowbrow film credits won't win her an invitation to Inside the Actors Studio anytime soon, but they've nonetheless won her something far more valuable: bankability. In Hollywood, this means everything. Thanks to the overall success of her films — they are cheap to produce and generally turn a profit even if they don't come close to topping the box office — she's considered that rare breed of actress who can actually open a film without the help of a well-known male costar. Case in point: The House Bunny, in which Faris played an exiled Playboy Bunny turned sorority den mother, which cost $25 million to make and generated $70 million at the box office in 2008, besting smart-girl Tina Fey's highly anticipated Baby Mama.
Faris has never had to endure the clichéd dues-paying typical of Hollywood hopefuls. She's never waited tables, has never done summer stock. Raised outside Seattle, she was still living with her parents when Keenen Ivory Wayans cast her in Scary Movie when she was 22 (impressed, he has said, with her sexual naïveté). In short order, she became a go-to girl for casting agents in search of winsome dingbats who are likable, fuckable, and generally unthreatening. Occasionally, she stretches beyond type, as in Lost in Translation and Brokeback Mountain, both of which had her playing parodies of herself: charmingly clueless patsies, the butt of the director's jokes. Faris owned these roles, too, small though they were. "You have to be willing to accept the idea that people may think you're stupid," she says, pulling the brim of her Yankees baseball cap down low.
In 2004, she wed actor Ben Indra. But while her career took off, his stalled. "That kind of destroyed my marriage," she confesses. "The divide became too great." She filed for divorce in 2007. (As part of their divorce settlement, she paid $900,000 to Indra.) Enjoying her first solo apartment in L.A. and the riches of burgeoning celebrity, she splurged on a boob job and partied hard. "I was like, 'Fuck it, I've got nothing to lose, nobody to support.' I wore the same Garfield shirt and jeans for three weeks. I had a running joke with my friend: 'I hope somebody roofies me tonight!' I didn't care what people thought."
But Faris, a self-proclaimed homebody "bordering on agoraphobic," was ill-suited to the Lindsay Lohan routine and quickly abandoned it. A year later, she got engaged to Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt. The pair are tabloid neverminds, rarely photographed at L.A.'s usual paparazzi-flecked hot spots. They prefer, instead, to entertain at their modest three-bedroom home in the Hollywood Hills. There, Faris says, she has a front-row view of the come-one-come-all business model of Hollywood's young comic guns. "Jonah Hill used to be our neighbor. We'd see him all the time," she explains. "He's doing all these projects, and he'd say [to Chris], 'You gotta do this!' All the guys are buddies, everyone's helping each other out and writing roles for each other. But you can't say to a bunch of girls, 'Hey, you're my friend, come join my movie!'"
That's because women lack that level of clout. That small but explosive truth was the thruline of a provocative New Yorker profile of Faris by Tad Friend that ran last April, in which studio execs and directors confirmed just how deeply sexism runs in the business. (Faris acknowledges that the article caused some controversy with New Regency, the studio behind What's Your Number?,but declines to elaborate.) "Hollywood studio executives don't recognize the value of female performers as much as male performers," she adds. But that's not the only reason it's so tough to get a group of actress friends to collaborate on a film together. Roles for women are scarce, so actresses rarely get to network on set with each other, an upside to filmmaking that men take for granted. "When we meet each other, it's always at some fussy event where everyone's, you know, schmoozy and full of shit. So it's difficult," says Faris. "I would love to have more actress friends, but I just don't." To hear Faris describe it, scheduling a casual meet-and-greet coffee date between two actresses in Hollywood is as soul-crushing as having a movie go straight to DVD. "I have to call somebody's agent and be like, 'Hey, I know this is crazy — I don't even have a specific project — but I'd really like to hang out with this girl,'" says Faris, wincing. "It has to be awkwardly coordinated like that."
Faris' goal is to become big enough in the industry that she can retreat from acting, focus solely on developing material, and command a posse of her own, la mega-producer/director Judd Apatow, whose blockbusters (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) typically feature the same round-robin of actors, including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Segel, among others. "I want my group," Faris says coolly, without a whiff of implausibility. "I want my equivalent of the Judd Apatow crew."
This month, she'll star in What's Your Number?, a raunchfest she also executive produced about a hard-partying, plucky 30-something who freaks out after reading in, ahem, Marie Claire that a woman's chances of landing a husband plummet if she's had more than 20 partners. Directed by Entourage vet Mark Mylod, it's already being hailed as a potential game-changer on par with Kristen Wiig's recent bad-girl gut-buster, Bridesmaids, which has to date banked $256 million at the box office worldwide, hard proof that female-driven comedies can actually pack them in. "I would love to think my film gets the same kind of momentum," she says, alluding to a viral e-mail campaign on Bridesmaids' opening weekend urging women to see the movie.
If What's Your Number? succeeds, Faris will easily become one of the industry's unlikeliest power players, influential enough to helm her own movies and dole out invites to costar the way the fellas do. Among the favorite actresses she name checks: Zooey Deschanel, Rashida Jones, Emily Blunt, Emma Stone, and up-and-comers like Saturday Night Live regular Vanessa Bayer and Community's Alison Brie. "I would just love to be able to find young female talent and be like, 'This person is amazing. I want to support her, and I want to take credit for discovering her,'" she adds.
Her interests aren't entirely altruistic. Though on-screen she can easily pass for someone 10 years younger, Faris, who turns 35 next month, is also keenly aware of her shelf life as an actress, especially one whose specialty is playing the wide-eyed nymph. "The hardest thing in my industry is longevity, getting your next job. It's hard to get the first job, but it's so much harder to get the sixth or seventh as a woman," Faris sighs. So having a cadre of loyal actresses with whom she can collaborate is a forward-thinking act of self-preservation. Pretty smart for a woman whose cleavage is an uncredited supporting character in just about every film she's made.
Faris is currently filming The Dictator with Sacha Baron Cohen (she reportedly beat out Kristen Wiig for the lead). She's also producing her own films, including Gold Diggers, which she describes as the female answer to Wedding Crashers. "You have to create your own stuff," she says. "It's really exciting to create something, sell it, and feel like I'm not just a pawn waiting to be cast."
As we settle up, Faris reveals that she's toying with an idea for a movie about a drunk, louche nanny working at a resort in Hawaii. The lead is inspired, she tells me, by Bridget Fonda's character in Jackie Brown. "She's like a big stoner, super-sexy in her bikini top and jean shorts. She smokes pot all day, flops herself down everywhere. I just love that," Faris says, nearly swooning. She's pitched the concept to a couple of producers, who, she says, bristled at mixing up kids with this kind of fecklessness. "I'm like, 'No, no, no, you don't understand, this is kind of like Adventures in Babysitting!'"
She's yet to recruit a writer, and nobody's committed to financing. But if producers need more convincing, she need only remind them: Guess who plays the drunk nanny?