No joke

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Once Anna was given a toy tea-cart set. "She would have a little pad of paper and an apron, and she would come out and take orders for food and she would scribble on the pad, long before she could read and write," he recalls. "The really striking thing was that all of this had to be treated with absolute seriousness. Any levity was cause for absolute fury on her part."

How ironic then, that Anna Faris' greatest fame springs from some of the decade's silliest movies. Since director Keenen Ivory Wayans cast her as Cindy in the first Scary Movie, she's also played the foil to Rob Schneider as a friend's girlfriend in 2002's The Hot Chick and helped strike a blow for put-upon food servers everywhere in 2005's waiting-on-tables spoof, Waiting.

Last year, she stole the show from stars Ryan Reynolds and Amy Smart in Just Friends, playing a pampered and riotously irrepressible pop princess. Even her dramatic turns in Lost In Translation and Brokeback Mountain -- in which her clueless ditzes counterbalance the more serious, more thoughtful main characters -- leave her providing what is essentially comic relief.

"I'm not naturally much of a jokester," says Faris, adding that what comes across as comic acting is more her trying to find the essence, the emotional center, of her characters. "I think I'm good at going to places that maybe other actresses would be a little nervous. But as for being truly funny, as my college roommate said, when I got the role in Scary Movie: 'Oh, you're not funny.' "

Her directors, at least her comedy directors, see that as Faris' strength. She doesn't try to be funny, and audiences appreciate that.

"There are only a few people who could pull it off," Wayans told People magazine upon the release of Scary Movie 2 in 2001. "Drew Barrymore is one, and Cameron (Diaz) is another. Anna, in her own time, will be in that league."

"She can play a naive, rather dim character without ever trying to be in on the joke, or let the audience know she's in on the joke," says David Zucker, her director in both Scary Movie 4 and 2003's Scary Movie 3. "She's so convincing, and that's what we need. We need that character to be very sincere and to not realize that there's comedy swirling around her. She has that down pat."

Faris' wholesome good looks -- expressive, dark blue eyes (made to look even bigger, thanks to make-up and the black wig she wears in the first two Scary Movie films) atop a heart-shaped face -- don't hurt either.

"She is very beautiful, not a cold, distant kind of beauty," says Zucker. "Maybe Uma Thurman is that type, not someone that you think you could hang around with. But Anna, both her character and her real-life persona, she's not actress-y."

Making the jump

Hollywood is littered with the careers of actors and actresses who started out in broad comedies or formulaic horror films, yearned to be taken seriously, but were never able to move past their initial successes. Neve Campbell graduated from the Scream movies, a series of intelligently crafted slasher films that were among the genre's most admired and most profitable, to moderate success in a series of independent dramas (including Robert Altman's The Company and James Toback's When Will I Be Loved). But for every Campbell, there's a Jaime Pressly, who's still struggling to make the jump (she's most recently found success playing Jason Lee's shrewish ex-wife on the NBC series My Name Is Earl).

Anna Faris is confident that she'll be a success in all fields. She's grateful for the success of the Scary Movie franchise, and despite initial reservations, is glad she signed on for the fourth film. "It's still silly, it's still goofy," she says of Scary Movie 4, "but in a cool way, I think."

But she's ready to move on. Last week, she finished work in Los Angeles on Smiley Face, a comedy in which she plays "a girl who has no passions in life, but then she accidentally eats 12 pot cupcakes, and ends up having this horrible couple of days. It's very comedic, but to me, it's also very much a character piece. ... She's very complicated. She's not just a pot-head, she's also an economics major. She finds a copy of Marx's Communist Manifesto. It's been really fun."

Her real strength, Faris believes, is her willingness to try anything.

"I am always willing to take the risk of looking like my characters are idiots," she says. "Maybe some actors aren't."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

ANNA FARIS

Born:

Nov. 29, 1976

Hometown:

Baltimore; moved with family to Seattle when she was 5.

Education:

University of Washington, majored in English. Began as a theater major, "then I decided I probably wasn't very good at acting. ... Theater programs, they can be very discouraging."

On "Lovers Lane" (1999):

"I read the script, it was terrible. I went to the audition wearing a big padded bra. I was supposed to be this cheerleader who got gutted ... I got the role. I think the padded bra was instrumental."

Upcoming films:

Scary Movie 4, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Smiley Face.

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