Best known as one of the Smack the Pony trio and as Bridget Jones’ foul-mouthed friend, Sally Phillips has made a name for herself as a comedy actor. She talks to Matthew Hemley about her role in the new Sky1 show Parents and why she would rather have a laugh than play it straight
Sally Phillips’ smiley face and wonderfully comic expressions have been seen in series such as Smack the Pony and films like Bridget Jones, earning her legions of comedy fans along the way. But despite allowing her to earn a healthy living as an actor, Phillips’ naturally happy face can sometimes pose something of a problem for the performer. Like getting a suitable passport picture, for example.
“I did have an issue with trying to get a passport, where, obviously being slightly vain, I spent some time getting the picture right, only to take it in and be told, ‘You can’t have that you’re smiling’,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I am really not smiling’. But it took four times in the booth before they accepted that is what my face is like.”
There are worse things, of course, than being told your face is too happy. And in Phillips’ case, it has obviously paid off. In a successful career, she has appeared in shows such as I’m Alan Partridge and the aforementioned Smack the Pony and the two Bridget Jones films, playing Shazza.
Her most recent offering is the Sky comedy Parents, a six-part series in which Phillips plays Jenny Pope, a married mother of two who, along with her husband and kids, is forced to move back in with her parents after losing her job. The series, which also stars Tom Conti and Susie Blake as Phillips’ parents, has been written by newcomer writers Lloyd Woolf and Joe Tucker. Phillips praises the pair as a writing duo who, in 20 years’ time, will be thought of as one of the “great sitcom writing teams”.
“They are really talented,” she says. “It’s their first thing, and it’s incredibly unusual to write this simply. When I write, I create really absurd situations which become false because I am after the joke. But they have found the absurdity in normal behaviour.”
In their script, Woolf and Tucker, Phillips explains, put in all the “umms and ahhs” of each character.
Having this, the actress says, was useful in understanding her role.
“If you observe the umms and ahhs, it tells you what the character is thinking so you don’t need to do any back story,” she explains. “Obeying umms and ahhs is hard when something is not well written, but this series is so well written, which is why we have so many fabulous people appearing in it, even in small parts.”
One such performer with a small part in the series is Imogen Stubbs, who Phillips admits to “hero worshiping” as a young, aspiring performer.
“I don’t get star-struck at all,” Phillips says. “But I discovered that my teen obsession had lasted when I met her. I could not really speak in her presence.”
While Stubbs left her dumbstruck, other cast members affected her in other ways. For example, Conti gave Phillips some advice, which she wishes she had received some years ago. Phillips reveals this advice when explaining how she knows if something she is doing is funny or not.
“Tom said to me that the only things worth doing are the things where people have to be brave,” she says. “I do some mental things in this show, which are really stupid. Not all the way through, obviously. I am small in some places, but then once or twice an episode…”
She adds: “But, as I say, Tom said that the only things worth doing are courageous things and I think he’s right. I wish someone had said that to me some while ago.”
In addition, Phillips thinks this advice could be taken on by people working in the TV industry today.
“Especially in the current climate where there is so little freedom, it seems, in TV,” she says. “Maybe we are coming out of that now. But we are coming out of a period where there has been very little creative freedom for creative people. That is my feeling – people should take risks. The minute you start being frightened, it becomes very boring.”
You can’t accuse Phillips of being boring, however. She has a mischievous streak, she says – a natural leaning towards comedy and being silly, which she even calls a “disability”.
“I have a lack of gravitas and a desire to muck something up and be an idiot,” she says. “You can have a really beautiful dramatic moment and I will desperately want to blow a raspberry all over it. It’s almost impossible not to. In that sense it’s a disability.”
Clearly, however, this naughtiness is the reason audiences and casting companies alike love Phillips, and why her career, particularly in comedy, continues to go from strength to strength. That said, parts aren’t ever written for her, she insists. Her role in Parents came about through a standard audition process. And having done so many auditions, she does not get too nervous any more.
“I have been on the other side of auditions and I know so often it’s to do with looks or branding or whether you are hot or not at the moment, in terms of getting investment,” she says. “It feels as though it has so little to do with what’s going on in the room.”
But are there some things Phillips, who is a Christian, wouldn’t do?
“I was offered a job for a drama documentary, a re-enactment of a real life situation where I felt it was morally wrong to do it,” she explains. “I thought it was wrong it was being made, and it was not particularly well written. And I could think of 4,000 people who could do it better than me.”
She adds: “I was offered a child killer role when I did not know I was pregnant and I felt physically sick when I read the script. That wasn’t to do with thinking child killers should not be portrayed, it was to do with knowing I could not do that role. But there are some things I would think are exploitative and generally unhelpful to the human condition and I would not do those.”
Most viewers, of course, will remember Phillips as one third of the Smack the Pony trio, whose show ran on Channel 4 from 1999 until 2003. In this, Phillips appeared alongside Fiona Allen and Doon Mackichan, two performers who she is hoping to reunite with on a comedy about divorce, called Stick or Twist. Phillips is writing this comedy, adding that writing is something she has always done.
“Doon is improvisation Smack, Fiona is accent Smack and I am writing Smack,” she laughs, adding that the comedy is currently being developed with the BBC in mind.
“But even if it doesn’t go on the BBC, I think we will make it anyway,” she says.
Fans of Smack the Pony will undoubtedly be delighted to see the three performers together again on screen. And for Phillips, it will be an opportunity to blow countless raspberries on anything that gets too serious. Having a laugh, it seems, will always be her preference.
She recalls a particular role in the ITV drama Harley Street, in which she had to play a woman whose child had cancer, which she labels “bleak”.
“I just really like pissing about,” she laughs. “Given the choice of pretending a character’s child has cancer or pissing about – for me it’s a no brainer.”
* Parents begins on July 6 at 8.30pm on Sky1