Three Great Things: Sally Phillips

The comedian, actress and writer, currently starring in How to Please a Woman, on a trio of things that are deeply meaningful to her.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current theatrical release and July 29 VOD release of the sex-positive comedy How to Please a Woman, starring Sally Phillips, the beloved British comedian, actress and writer shared some of the things that mean the most to her. — N.D.

The Smells and Sounds of the Middle East
My first thing is a whole load of sensory things from the Middle East. I went to primary school in Beirut, which was the Paris of the Middle East. I went to the ballet school there and learned to ski in the mountains. I have strong childhood memories of the sounds of the city, of the smell of hot Arabic bread from the souk, of the famous cedars, and of baklava, spicy sausages, tabbouleh and mint.

I’ve been thinking recently how incredibly important my memories of those childhood experiences are to me and how upset I am that I can’t really go back, because the Middle East that existed when I was a child no longer exists. It’s not easy for a woman to travel in the Middle East, and apart from the odd family holiday to Dubai, I’ve not been back there. It almost feels like a part of me is missing. I’ve got part of my childhood that I am unable to connect with, and I don’t know what to do about that. I love Lebanese cinema and Middle Eastern food. I’m writing a film with a Kurdish-Swedish producer and performer, and I find that when I work with Middle Eastern actors and artists, we get on fantastically well. But I feel like it’s an important part of me, that I am not as English as I look.

The brilliant Turkish writer Elif Shafak wrote a book called How to Stay Sane in the Age of Division. She explains how she has lived in Paris, the United States and now England, but in her land of story, in her internal landscape, she finds she has most in common with writers from the Eastern Bloc, which she’s very much not from. She makes the case that identity politics is reductive and contributes to division – we all contain many different identities, not least the ones we have built from the stories that have been important to us, and each of these identities will have points of contact with others. The more identities we acknowledge inside ourselves, the more points of contact we have, and the less divided we feel. It’s a way of reconnecting, and our imaginative landscape also connects with other people who might surprise us.

I absolutely love clowning in all its forms – except the form it takes in It! But I love the grand comedians of the silent screen. Marion Davies was hilarious. If you go back and watch Show People, she’s so, so funny. I love Giulietta Masina from Fellini’s La Strada and Le Notte di Cabiria. She’s a great European clown. People always say she had a face like an artichoke. And she did!

Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La Strada.

People say the clown is a persona, but I think it’s the opposite of that. It’s you stripped and naked. I believe all human beings are stupid on some level, and it’s all a question of how much you recognize your own stupidity. There’s something so beautiful about a human being, who’s probably in trouble, but still hopeful. That innocence swells your heart; it’s a really joyous thing. You can wear a red nose, but it’s just there to make you look ridiculous, so you feel slightly off balance. The more off balance you are, the more your humanity shines through.

People confuse clowning with pretending to be a child, but a clown can play Coriolanus or Ophelia and it will be heartbreaking. That said, children are good clown teachers as they are so open and unaffected. My son Olly, who is seventeen and has Down’s syndrome, makes a great clown – not because he’s stupid, but because he’s so transparently delighted by surprising things. He and his peer group are so, so funny. Olly has such an unerring aim for the hilarious in every situation and it’s a constant artistic challenge to me, because it’s so authentic. It moves people. Whatever mood he’s in, he draws powerful reactions out of other people, both good and bad. The other night, we went for a drink down by the river and there was a very average busker singing. Ollie just started to dance on his own. I wish I could do that. I wish I had the courage to let myself go, to dance to this average tune, and enjoy myself in this golden light on this beautiful day. I envy it. It brings me so much joy.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
I first watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when I was about 13. I was at boarding school in England, my parents lived in Australia, and it was a bleak time in my life. Occasionally, the school would put up a big screen in the school gym and show a film. The one I really remember is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was an awakening on every level! After seeing it, I was desperately in love with Robert Redford, and also wished that I looked like him! I just loved the film. I loved the music, I loved the bicycle scene, I loved the humor, I loved the rapport between the actors, I loved the anarchy, I loved the colors. At that time, I was in a system of strict rules, and was thrilled by the idea of being an outlaw who broke the rules and had fun and sat on the handlebars of bikes and had complex, grown-up, confused relationships, and who was inevitably going to die with their best friend in a shootout. All three of the lead actors – Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Katherine Ross – are absolute favorites. My middle child is called Luke, mainly after Cool Hand Luke, even though that film didn’t end so well …

Katherine Ross, Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

I think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has had an effect on my work. British comedy has had a major flirtation with darkness, but there’s love at the center of that film – the outsider and the rule-breaker working out their own honor system. It leaves you feeling profoundly moved, and there’s just so much joy in it. At one point in my work, I consciously turned from the comedy of hate to the comedy of love, the comedy of goof. And I think the jokes look really similar, but they’re inspired by different things. The comedy of hate is born of standing in a checkout queue behind someone really annoying and then doing an impression of that person because you were so irritated by them. And comedy of love and goof comes from noticing the ridiculous things you do, or the bad things you do. And it makes you write those jokes in a very different way.

Featured image by David Dare Parker shows Sally Phillips in How to Please a Woman.

Award-winning actor, writer, and comedian-presenter Sally Phillips is currently starring in the comedy How to Please a Woman, which opens in theaters on July 29. She is known for her roles in I’m Alan Partridge, Smack the Pony, Green Wing and Miranda. She is also Clare in Radio 4’s Sony Award-winning Clare in the Community, Shazzer in the Bridget Jones trilogy and Minna Hakkinen, former Finnish PM in Veep. In 2016, she fronted the BBC2 documentary A World Without Down’s Syndrome?, exploring the UK screening policy’s ethical implications. It won the Radio Times Readers Awards and Sandord St Martin Awards for Best Single Documentary and was shown worldwide. In 2019 Sally and Ronni Ancona founded the production company Captain Dolly, a subsidiary of Film Soho, and they have scripts in development for both film and TV. Sally is currently writing The Wedding with Nisti Sterk and Nick Hornby for the Swedish Production company, Jarowski. Most recently Sally became the host of Sunday Morning Live, co-presenting with Sean Fletcher. (Photo by David Dare Parker.)