Sally Phillips: ‘I gave myself a headache doing fake laughter on Alan Partridge’

With How to Please a Woman now showing, the actor and writer answers your questions on clown school, pouring sheep’s blood over her head and the worst sex scene of all time

Your new film, How to Please a Woman, looks great. Along with Emma Thompson’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, isn’t it about time women’s pleasure is discussed on screen? VickyTupper

Women’s pleasure has been discussed endlessly on screen, although usually it’s just: which angle is 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 porn films, which is a massive blow for womankind; people were hoping for more women running news corporations.

Women’s desire is a constant fascination. There have been some great films, such as by [the French film-maker] Catherine Breillat; and Gloria, Sebastián Lelio’s 2013 Chilean Spanish drama about a middle-aged woman who is balancing desire with household chores, but can’t find a man with the equivalent life force. It was remade in 2018 as Gloria Bell, with Julianne Moore, so our more repressed nations are catching up.

Sally Phillips holding a bottle of wine and her shoes, on a boat by the beach, in How to Please a Woman.
Sally Phillips in How to Please a Woman. Photograph: David Dare Parker/Such Feisty Dames, Screenwest (Australia) and Screen Australia

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 authored by women. Men can write about female desire, but women also should be allowed to write about female desire. Then again, have you seen Ammonite? Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play 19th-century lesbian fossil hunters, which makes you wish French and Saunders were still doing parodies. They dig up a massive dinosaur head on the beach, go home and give each other head. The male director [Francis Lee] said they could direct the scene themselves, and it’s the worst sex scene of all time. So women can definitely get it wrong.

What are your memories of writing and performing Benedetta: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy TopTramp

I co-wrote it with a writer called Richard Canning, who found this book by Judith C Brown. When parents couldn’t afford to pay the dowries, they’d ship their daughters off to a convent. Our take [a one-woman theatrical show] was very different to Paul Verhoeven’s film Benedetta, which was mainly about the sex. We were more interested in this girl who had been sent to a nunnery, age five, and put up with it all until she was about 20. She starts doing ventriloquism, going into a trance and claiming she’s surrounded by angels called Splenditello and Tesauriello Fiorito. Then Jesus turns up and wants to marry her. Eventually, the Pope’s envoy arrives, by which time she’s faking her own stigmata and having a lesbian affair with a younger nun, claiming she’s been embodied by a male angel.

I played all 50 nuns, leaping around in a leotard in a basement theatre in Oxford. The stage manager, Stevie Lee – now a successful film producer – made me mime everything. I said: “Can we have real blood?” – meaning: “Can we have stage blood for the stigma bleeding?” So, Stevie went to the local abattoir and got a load of sheep’s blood. I emptied this thing over me, and it stank so much that – and can I put this in the Guardian? – the next time I had a period, I retched.

Any future plans to go back and do that PhD on the spaghetti western? Amongmasterswords

No plans! I was pretty obsessed with Italian cinema, but the spaghetti westerns, such as A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo, were glorious. They would make three versions of each film: not too violent for the US, slightly more violent for Europe and incredibly violent for Africa. They ran for about 15 years, then morphed into comedy westerns – fagioli, which means beans – birthing the career of Ennio Morricone.

The University of Reading had the best Italian cinema department, with a guy called Zygmunt Barański. I was interested in studying for a PhD, but, on the train home from the interview, I realised that I wasn’t that interested. I thought: “I’ll be 27 and a world expert in spaghetti westerns. What’s the point of that?” So I ran away to clown school – which didn’t impress my parents.

Philippe Gaulier [founder of the clown school] has taught Emma Thompson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. He’s the opposite to [Russian theatre practitioner] Konstantin Stanislavski. Rather than building an alternate character in your head, you just play. His thinking was: you’ve got to be enjoying it, else it’s unwatchable. I was 22/23, and thinking I was this great intellectual actor. He spent the whole time saying [in French accent]: “You think you’re so clever? You are so stupid.” I was fantastically upset at the time, but now I see what he means.

Fiona Allen, Sally Phillips & Doon Mackichan in Smack the Pony.
Fiona Allen, Sally Phillips & Doon Mackichan in Smack the Pony. Photograph: Channel 4

Smack the Pony was wonderfully silly. Should there be more silliness in television? 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 pitch silly. 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 it feels more like you’re buying something important than if it says “mucks about with a pair of Spanx and a kettle”.

How would Minna Häkkinen – the Finnish prime minister you play in Veep – do a better job of running the UK? Fussyandhonest

Minna has got no boundaries and is very, very honest. She’s the exact opposite of the type we’ve got in. Frankly, my 10-year-old would do a better job because he’s deceitful – “Did you steal those sweets?” “No” – but at least he gives in when challenged: “Did you steal those sweets?” “Yes.”

Do you feel pressured into taming your curls as most curlies in the public eye? Freedom for curls!

It’s fine to be curly if you’re a classical musician, but not if you’re an actor. There’s an unspoken rule that women in the same show can’t have the same hair colour. If the lead is blond, the number two has to have brown, red or black hair. As number two, I normally have the opposite colour hair to the lead character. In [2021 comedy drama] Off the Rails, I went dark because everybody else was blond. I’ve just done a film in Aberystwyth with Andie MacDowell, where I went white blond. Smack the Pony wouldn’t have cast a third dark head. They had Doon [Mackichan] and Fi [Allen], but there did have to be a blond.

Sally Phillips and Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Baby.
Phillips and Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Baby. Photograph: Universal Pictures/Allstar

Do people confuse you with Renée Zellweger? MrBlancmange

It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone thought I was Renée Zellweger, but people have followed me into toilets and asked me to sign photos of Renée. I’ve signed a lot of photos of Miranda Hart as well. I don’t think I look like Renée Zellweger, so I’m enormously flattered by that question. If they ever do a fourth Bridget Jones, I’d have to play her mother because, compared to Renée, I’m ageing in dog years.

You always look as if you’re on the verge of laughing. Is that your default look or is there something perpetually amusing going on in your head? slobberfest

Alan Partridge was definitely faked. I was enormously put out, age 26 or 27, that people thought I was just laughing. I gave myself a headache trying to fake it – you have to really shake your shoulders – because real laughter doesn’t read on camera. But, when I played Gibby, the Swiss au pair in Friday Night Dinner, I was about to cry all the time, so that was the opposite.

You’ve done amazing things to highlight how children with Down’s syndrome should be included in society. As a parent with a SEN child myself, is the future bright or is there more work to be done? Ladyxxmacbeth

On the back of so much more research, we’ve got better ideas of how to educate and facilitate semi-independent life. But our welfare state has collapsed. So things are both brighter – but also much darker: screening can now identify many kinds of difference before birth, not just Down’s syndrome. Although it’s not really the climate to talk about that because of what is happening in the US.

I’m a patron of the Skylarks charity in Richmond [south-west London], and we are now meeting lots of needs that were previously met by the state. People with disabilities fared much worse under austerity during the pandemic. So it’s difficult. We know how to look after people; we know how to give people equal opportunity in life; but we’re heading into bleak 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 caring responsibilities for your son Olly? He looks like such a happy soul and I hope that some of that happiness has rubbed off on you and your other boys. Drjwcc

All children change your life profoundly, but I do feel that that I’m interacting with parenting as a plough interacts with a field. It has knocked off some of my edges – but they 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’ve worked in comedy, where, you know, you’re allowed to work in comedy if you went to Oxford or Cambridge. It welcomes all types!

But to cross the lake and to embrace life in a much more openhearted perspective has been a happy thing. It’s the polar opposite of utilitarianism. Olly is all about love. I’ve learned to value interdependency over independence and it reminds us all that truthfulness, faithfulness and care are a million times more important than exams such as A-levels. It’s a cliche that those with Down’s syndrome are happy all the time. Olly has all the emotions of my other two children, and there is fighting. But I have such a rich life, and Olly plays a major role. They say the special needs club is one that nobody wants to join, but once you do, you realise you’re in it with the best people in the world.

Who’s your favourite other Sally? Lay Down, Long Tall, Mustang, Sally Cinnamon by the Stone Roses or So, Sally Can Wait from Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis? TopTramp

I don’t like Sally Can Wait, because I want it now!

Are you a planner or do you embrace the chaos? Norman78

Embrace the chaos. You have to improvise. I must say Boris Johnson did wreck the idea of spontaneity by making it look really bad. He’s put us all off that spur-of-the-moment bumble. So now I feel the need to prepare: wear a suit, brush my hair, prepare and show respect.

At what point did you realise you had (deservedly) become a National Treasure? SwindonNick


How to Please a Woman is available on Sky Movies


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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