The key to serious acting? Snot and dribble | How Sally Phillips learned to forget her comedy instincts

The key to serious acting? Snot and dribble

How Sally Phillips learned to forget her comedy instincts

As one third of the Smack The Pony team, Sally Phillips is known for her broad comedy, cruel parodies and over-the-top physical gags. But for a new BBC1 comedy-drama, Rescue Me, she's had to reign in some of her instincts for a straighter role as a breezy magazine writer whose marriage is on the rocks after admitting to a drunken fling with her husband's best friend.

"She is going through a kind of nervous breakdown, which was a bit of a challenge for me," Phillips admits. "I'm much more used to playing for laughs. I'd come up with loads of 'helpful' suggestions like 'Why don't I staple myself to the desk in this scene? Don't worry, I'11 cry as well but it will be really funny!'

"I had it explained to me that comedy isn't always the most important thing."

But although a straight acting role marks a return to her roots ­ she spent several years after leaving Oxford with touring theatre shows "playing syphilitic whores in dreadful fringe productions" ­ she did find it a shock to the system.

"It was like trying to showjump on a donkey," she said. "Sketch comedy is very cerebral, you stand outside something and devalue the situation you're in.

"I couldn't do that in Rescue Me ­ I had to go through the same emotions as the character goes through."

Phillips's first steps in comedy were with Lee and Herring, which quickly led to gigs with Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan.

"l thought I was doing very well for myself," says 31-year-old Phillips, "and then along came I'm Alan Partridge. That was the turning point for me. I played Sophie, the giggling receptionist. I didn't have a great deal to do, but it got me noticed."

It raised her profile enough to persuade Channel 4 to commission a pilot of Smack The Pony with Doon McKichan and Fiona Allen. That was five years ago and Phillips has tackled few drama roles since.

"When I went to the audition for Rescue Me, I came straight off the set for Smack The Pony I was knackered and covered in wig glue," she said. "I'd spent the day playing three different policewomen and a bearded lesbian in Wapping. I was all over the place but, fortunately, Katie is all over the place as well and, quite by accident, I gave the impression of being some kind of Method actor."

True to her new-found Method, Phillips immersed herself in research by visiting the offices of a handful of glossy magazines. "I spent some time at Red, seeing how a magazine works, and I met a very funny features editor there, who joked that her job was the art of being shallow, which is a lot harder than people realise.

"That's such a rich seam of comedy. If they take themselves seriously, they become hilarious: 'On page 100, we interview Bangladeshi prostitutes about their terrible lives, and on page 111 we take inspiration from their colourful knitwear."'

"We were looking for someone who could handle the drama and the comedy with equal skill," says producer Christine Langan. "We saw a lot of actresses for the role, but their take on Katie was usually too dark and melancholy, but Sally has pushed it away from that. She's vulnerable and funny and very sympathetic."

Phillips did learn one very useful acting tip for crying scenes. "The aim is to cry so hard that snot comes out of your nose," she said. "If you manage to get snotty, everyone thinks you're a really good actress. If you can't get snot, dribble. I think I may have got there in episode five. I'm looking forward to great reviews that week."

Rescue Me starts on BBC1 next month, at a date and time yet to be confirmed. This is an edited verssion of anterview syndicated by the BBC.

First published: February 18, 2002

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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