In line with the great tradition of American screwball-comedy actresses, Anna Faris is blonde.
So bright and brassy that, when she walks into the dark lobby of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood, it’s as if a spotlight has followed her in.
Equally remarkable are the guileless blue eyes, the enviable figure, the air of vulnerability. Turn back the clock and it could be Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield or Goldie Hawn negotiating the coffee table and being indecisive over where to sit.
But looks are not everything. Especially in comedy.
Playing the dumb blonde is a fiercely competitive business in Hollywood these days and intellectual dexterity, however well disguised by ditzy pratfalls and sexual innuendo, is as much a part of the job description as the hair.
Anna Faris modestly denies it. ‘If I was a very serious dramatic actress with black hair and glasses, people might say, “She’s not quite as bright as I thought she was going to be,”’ she says with a laugh.
Her latest role is in The Dictator, opposite Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who created Ali G, Borat and Brüno. ‘I was absolutely terrified meeting him,’ she says. ‘He’s kind of a crazy genius.’
Faris, 35, is herself far from a conventional Hollywood star.
She was hailed as ‘Hollywood’s most original comic actress’ by The New Yorker and is considered to be one of that rare breed of actresses who can open a film without the help of a well-known male co-star – yet she remains largely unknown to more mature audiences.
She is regarded as something of a feminist who is changing the face of comedy for women, even though she has long endured a camera lens trained mercilessly on her chest and rear.
These contradictions can be traced back to her appearance in Scary Movie (2000). Several actresses had turned down the role Faris took, unimpressed by the script’s tasteless humour.
An unknown at the time, Faris, however, wowed the critics and the horror parody became so successful it spawned three sequels (she stars in all of them) and grossed $500 million.
Keen to prove her more serious dramatic credentials, Faris then took roles in Lost in Translation (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), but bawdy comedy has proved her true calling.
Her most recent films have seen her playing a Playboy Bunny exiled for growing old (The House Bunny ) and, last year, a hard-partying thirty-something who’s worried she’s slept with too many people (What’s Your Number?)
‘The comedic climate is shifting in Hollywood,’ Faris says, wrestling a sweater over her head to reveal well-worn denim dungarees beneath.
‘When I first came [to LA] there was this very rusty mentality that assumed that women only wanted to see a certain kind of woman at the movies. A woman who is successful, beautiful and just missing this one element in their life – a baby or a man.
But now films like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher are proving that women are hungry to see a different kind of woman, a flawed kind of woman, a messier kind of woman than we’ve seen before, with less emphasis on the role model. I love that.’
We meet several months before The Dictator’s release but Hollywood is already buzzing with anticipation. A series of 150ft-high posters have gone up depicting Sacha Baron Cohen as a fictional Middle Eastern dictator.
In February he turned up at the Oscars as Admiral General Aladeen of the invented country, Wadiyah, carrying a jar of ashes that he claimed to be the remains of Kim Jong-il, which he spilled over a TV presenter before being marched out of the event.
‘I thought Sacha was incredibly brave doing that,’ says Faris, giggling at the memory. ‘I saw the stunt because I went to the Oscars with my husband [Chris Pratt] who was in Moneyball [which was nominated for six awards].
‘This huge stretch Bentley pulled up at the red carpet. When I saw all the Wadiyah flags all over it, I thought, “Oh no, what’s he going to do?” Sacha definitely finds it interesting to make people feel uncomfortable. He likes to push boundaries.’
He also likes to keep everyone guessing. ‘They’ve been very strict with me,’ she says. ‘I can tell you it’s about a dictator who comes to America and is stripped of all his resources.
‘I play a young woman who runs a hippy grocery store in Brooklyn, who thinks he’s a refugee. She sort of takes him under her wing and they end up having a friendship.’
Is that a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of friendship? She lets out a big sigh, ‘Yes… oh, this is so difficult, because they’ve told me they want to keep that a secret.’
Working with Baron Cohen was a challenge in many ways. ‘He’s still a bit of a mystery to me – even after working with him for months. He’s someone who holds his cards very close to his chest,’ she says.
And then there was the improvisation. Ninety per cent of the scenes were unscripted. Her character, Faris says, ‘is kind of ridiculous, but she believes that this guy is a good man with a good heart, when he patently isn’t.
‘So when he says something really wrong to her, I have to say, “You know, in America we don’t use words like that.”’
‘Or when he asks me to masturbate, I have to stay in character and say, “We’re not going to do that now,” and speak to him like a child. She’s a very sweet character. Naive is a kind word for the characters I usually play.’
Where other actresses might be frustrated by being typecast, Faris seems to relish it. (Although there is, at least, a change of hair colour in The Dictator, which sees Faris sport a brunette crop.)
‘For a while I was tired of people assuming that maybe I was not very intelligent,’ she says. ‘I felt I had to do dramatic roles to prove them wrong. But as I get older I’m not sure I need to do that. The truth is I love comedy.
‘I enjoy playing these kinds of characters, and actually’ – she pauses and runs her hand through her hair – ‘I love being blonde.’
Raised in middle-class Seattle, she was still living at home with her parents, a teacher and a sociologist, when she auditioned and was given the part in Scary Movie, aged 22.
‘I was very insecure. Very short. Very angry about lots of things. I remember in high school wanting my world to be bigger. Acting was my outlet.’
David Zucker, the director of Scary Movie, called her ‘a director’s dream’. ‘He calls me a dream because I do whatever anyone tells me,’ she says with a laugh.
‘Scary Movie was such a great education for me. I learnt everything from how to fall to how to throw vanity aside and trust the people you work with.
‘Did I know what I was getting into in Scary Movie?’ – Faris’s character suffers all manner of indignities – ‘No. I was completely naive. But I don’t regret it for a second.’
Not even when it possibly ended her first marriage to the actor Ben Indra, whose career had stalled while hers took off? The couple were married in 2004 and divorced three years later. (As part of their settlement, she paid $900,000 to Indra.)
‘This industry is really difficult for relationships because you do spend so much time away from home,’ she explains with a heavy sigh. ‘I think we just grew apart.’
After the divorce came some hard partying. ‘I felt like a crazy person,’ she explains. ‘It was a huge shift in my life. I had some very sweet friends who were patient enough to stick by me.’
Not that the partying lasted long. Faris is a self-proclaimed home bird and badly suited to late nights. A year after her divorce she became engaged to Pratt, with whom she says she’d like to have a large family.
Her next film, I Give It a Year, is a romantic comedy about two couples’ first year of marriage. Faris and Rose Byrne take the lead roles. It will be shot in London this spring.
‘Too bad I’m married, because I could have found my British man there,’ she announces. A British man? ‘I always thought I’d marry a British man. I think I fell in love with Hugh Grant: that moppy hair, the sheepish smile,’ she says, laughing.
There are rumours of a Scary Movie 5 being made in the future, but if Faris knows anything about it, she’s not letting on.
Meanwhile, as a producer, she’s developing roles for herself, such as the woman who knows nothing about babies – but has one.
‘There’s this assumption that women know how to hold babies, how to be a mother. And we don’t. Or at least I don’t,’ she says.
Many of her films highlight sexism in one guise or another – What’s Your Number? was about the double standard that men can sleep with as many partners as they like, but women are considered cheap if they do the same.
The House Bunny highlighted the absurdity of sexy glamour girls (sample quote: ‘Making centrefold is the highest honour. It means you’re naked in a magazine’).
Is she a feminist? ‘Unfortunately, I think the word “feminist” has become demonised, but I am passionate about equality for women.’
And how about ageism in Hollywood? At 35 she’s luckier than most actresses still to be getting roles. ‘I’m very grateful still to be working,’ she says.
‘But when you’ve got someone like Meryl Streep, who is one of the biggest names at the box office, then there’s hope. And I love the idea that maybe there can be a shift in mentality, so that I don’t have to have a face-lift. But ask me again in 10 years.’
Then the bright-blonde hair, that portable spotlight, disappears, leaving the lobby in gloom again.