Sally Phillips: ‘I gave myself a headache pretending to laugh at Alan Partridge’ | Movies
Your new movie, How to Pleasure a Woman, looks great. With Good Luck to You, Emma Thompson’s Leo Grande, isn’t it time to talk about the pleasure of women on screen? Vicky Tupper
The pleasure of women has been discussed non-stop on the screen, although generally it’s just: which angle is the best? The only area in the media where women are now better represented is in pornography. Women are allowed to write and direct their own pornographic films, which is a blow to femininity; people hoped that more women would run newspaper companies.
The desire of women is a constant fascination. There have been great films, such as [the French film-maker] Catherine Breillat; and Gloria, Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 Chilean-Spanish drama about a middle-aged woman who balances desire and household chores, but can’t find a man with the equivalent life force. It was remade in 2018 as Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore, So Our Most Repressed Nations are catch up.
How to please a woman [written and directed by Renée Webster] and good luck to you, Leo Grande [written by Katy Brand and directed by Sophie Hyde] are directed and written by women. Men can write about female desire, but women should be allowed to write about female desire as well. And then, have you seen Ammonite? Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play 19th-century lesbian fossil hunters, which makes you want French and Saunders to do more parodies. They dig up a huge dinosaur head on the beach, go home and give each other heads. The male director [Francis Lee] said they could do the scene themselves, and it’s the worst sex scene ever. So women can definitely be wrong.
What are your memories of writing and performing Benedetta: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy Top Tramp
I co-wrote it with a writer called Richard Canning, who found this book by Judith C Brown. When the parents could not afford the dowry, they sent their daughters to a convent. Our point of view [a one-woman theatrical show] was very different from Paul Verhoeven’s film Benedetta, which was mostly about sex. We were more interested in this girl who had been sent to a convent at the age of five and who endured everything until she was about 20 years old. She begins doing ventriloquism, goes into a trance, and claims she is surrounded by angels called Splenditello and Tesauriello Fiorito. . Then Jesus presents himself and wants to marry her. Eventually, the Pope’s envoy arrives, at which point she fakes her own stigmata and has a lesbian affair with a younger nun, claiming she was incarnated by a male angel.
I played the 50 nuns, jumping in a leotard in a theater basement in Oxford. The stage manager, Stevie Lee – now a producer of successful films – made me mime it all. I said, “Can we have real blood?” – which means: “Can we have stage blood for the stigma bleed?” So Stevie went to the local slaughterhouse and got a load of sheep’s blood. I emptied this thing on myself, and it stank so much that – and can I put that in the Guardian? – the next time I had my period, I threw up.
Do you intend to go back and do this doctorate on the spaghetti western? Among the key words
No project! I was quite obsessed with Italian cinema, but spaghetti westerns, like A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo, were glorious. They would make three versions of each film: not too violent for the United States, a little more violent for Europe, and incredibly violent for Africa. They lasted around 15 years, then turned into comedy westerns – fagioli, which means beans – giving birth to Ennio Morricone’s career.
The University of Reading had the best Italian film department, with a guy called Zygmunt Barański. I was interested in studying for a PhD, but, on the train home from the interview, I realized that I was not this interested. I thought, “I’ll be 27 and I’ll be a world spaghetti western expert.” What’s the point of that? So I ran off to clown school – which didn’t impress my parents.
Philippe Gaulier [founder of the clown school] taught Emma Thompson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. He is the opposite of [Russian theatre practitioner] Konstantin Stanislavsky. Rather than creating an alternate character in your head, you simply play. His thought was: you have to enjoy it, otherwise it’s unwatchable. I was 22/23 and I thought I was this great intellectual actor. He spent all his time saying [in French accent]”You think you’re that smart? You are then stupid.” I was incredibly upset at the time, but now I see what he means.
Smack the Pony was wonderfully silly. Should there be more nonsense on TV? Stoatboy
We have such a strong tradition of surreal comedy – Spike Milligan, the Goons, the Goodies, Monty Python – so I don’t know why it’s so hard to kick some idiots out. Maybe it’s because it looks so little on the page. If the script says “an intersectional comedy with a dark seam about gender relations in the role of the refugee” then you feel more like you’re buying something big than if it says “fuck off with a pair of Spanx and a kettle”.
How would Minna Häkkinen – the Finnish Prime Minister you play in Veep – better lead the UK? Thorough and honest
Minna has no boundaries and is very, very honest. She is the exact opposite of the type we have. Frankly, my 10 year old son would do a better job because he’s deceptive – “Did you steal that candy?” “No” – but at least he gives in when challenged: “Did are you stealing those sweets? “Yes.”
Do you feel pressured to tame your curls like most curls in the public eye? Freedom for curls! MomDoc
It’s okay to be buckled up if you’re a classical musician, but not if you’re an actor. There’s an unspoken rule that women on the same show can’t have the same hair color. If lead is blond, number two must have brown, red, or black hair. As number two, I normally have the opposite hair color to the main character. In [2021 comedy drama] Off the Rails, I went dark because everyone was blonde. I just did a film in Aberystwyth with Andie MacDowell, where I went white blond. Smack the Pony would not have thrown a third black head. They had Doon [Mackichan] and fi [Allen]but there had to be a blonde.
Do people confuse you with Renee Zellweger? Mr. Blancmange
It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone thought I was Renée Zellweger, but people have followed me into the bathroom and asked me to sign pictures of Renee. I also signed many photos of Miranda Hart. I don’t think I look like Renée Zellweger, so I’m hugely flattered by this question. If they ever do a fourth Bridget Jones, I’ll have to play her mother because, compared to Renee, I’m getting old in dog age.
You always seem to be on the verge of laughter. Is this your default look or is there something perpetually fun going on in your head? slime party
Alan Partridge was definitely rigged. I was hugely upset, at 26 or 27, that people thought I was laughing. I gave myself a headache trying to pretend – you really have to shake your shoulders – because real laughter is not read on camera. But, when I played Gibby, the Swiss au pair in Friday Night Dinner, I was about to cry the whole time, so it was the opposite.
You have done incredible things to show how affected children Down syndrome should be included in society. As a parent of a SEN child, is the future bright or is there still work to be done? ladyxxmacbeth
Thanks to so much additional research, we have better ideas on how to educate and facilitate semi-independent living. But our welfare state has collapsed. So things are both brighter – but also much darker: Screening can now identify many kinds of prenatal differences, not just Down syndrome. Although it’s not really the climate to talk about it because of what’s going on in the United States.
I am a patron of the Skylarks charity in Richmond [south-west London], and we now meet many needs that were previously met by the state. People with disabilities have fared far less under austerity during the pandemic. So it’s difficult. We know how to take care of people; we know how to give people equal chances in life; but we are heading into tough economic times, and people with disabilities are always the first to suffer. So I don’t know what to say.
How has your life been changed by your family responsibilities to your son Olly? He looks like such a happy soul and I hope some of that happiness has rubbed off on you and your other boys. Drjwcc
All children profoundly change your life, but I feel like I interact with parenthood like a plow interacts with a field. It knocked out some of my edges – but those were edges that needed to come off. I had a very privileged upbringing. My dad worked for British Airways so I was brought up overseas and got to see all kinds of different things. I went to Oxford, and I worked in comedy, where, you know, you’re allowed to work in comedy if you go to Oxford. Where Cambridge. It welcomes all types!
But crossing the lake and embracing life from a much more open perspective has been a happy thing. It is the polar opposite of utilitarianism. Olly is all about love. I learned to value interdependence over independence and it reminds us all that sincerity, faithfulness and caring are a million times more important than exams such as A levels. cliche that people with Down syndrome are happy all the time. Olly has all the emotions of my other two children, and there are fights. But I have such a rich life, and Olly plays a major role. They say the special needs club is the one no one wants to join, but once you do, you realize you’re in it with the best people in the world.
Who is your other favorite Sally? Lie Down, Long Tall, Mustang, Sally Cinnamon by the Stone Roses or so, Sally can wait from Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis? Top Tramp
I don’t like Sally Can Wait, because I want it now!
Are you a planner or do you embrace chaos? Normand78
Embrace the chaos. You have to improvise. I have to say Boris Johnson destroyed the idea of spontaneity by making it look really bad. It has discouraged us all from this impulsive buzz. So now I feel the need to prepare: wear a costume, brush my hair, prepare, and show respect.
When did you realize you had (rightly) become a national treasure? SwindonNick