Sally Phillips on daring to star in a sex comedy film

By Helen Bushby
Entertainment and arts reporter

  • Published
Sally PhillipsImage source, Such Feisty Dames Pty Ltd, Screenwest (Australia)
Image caption,
Sally Phillips' previous work includes writing and starring in award-winning sketch show Smack the Pony

Older women may finally be having the last laugh at the cinema this summer - Sally Phillips is starring in the second film in a matter of weeks about middle-aged women enjoying sex.

"You wait for a mature woman's sex movie your whole life, and then two come along," she grins.

In her film, How to Please a Woman, she plays Gina, who loses her thankless office job and realises her marriage is not much better.

After a surprising turn of events, she starts an all-male house-cleaning business, with the employees doubling up as sex workers.

It follows Emma Thompson's film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, about an older woman who hires a sex worker in his early 20s.

Both films are very much journeys of sexual discovery for the women, and of personal growth for the men. They are also written and directed by women.

Image source, Such Feisty Dames Pty Ltd, Screenwest (Australia)
Image caption,
Tom (Alex England) offers his services to Claudia (Roz Hammond)

"The thing I dreaded most about making this film was doing these interviews, because the film is going to be fine," admits Phillips.

"I Googled Emma Thompson talking about Leo Grande," she says, adding that she came across some risque if hilarious comments about female body hair. "And I was like 'argh!'" she says.

Phillips feels honoured to be following on from Dame Emma though, saying: "She's just like the head girl," and jokes about following her lead.

In fact, Phillips easily takes centre stage.

Image source, Such Feisty Dames Pty Ltd, Screenwest (Australia)
Image caption,
Phillips: "We haven't given up on sex and we're tired of cleaning the house"

She's previously played many ensemble parts, including in Emmy-winning all-female sketch show Smack the Pony, which she co-wrote, plus roles in TV's Friday Night Dinner, Miranda and the Bridget Jones films.

Gina is a serious role, despite many comedic moments in the film. She feels unseen and unappreciated - is this something Phillips thinks will resonate with women?

"Completely, yes, I mean, I've experienced that and I'm on telly!" she says.

Phillips recently tweeted: "'Contrary to appearances, we haven't given up on sex and we're tired of cleaning the house.' Married heterosexual women still do 60% of the housework and have fewer orgasms than any other group. Are these facts related??"

'Refreshing' seeing real women

The film also features older women with bodies and faces which reflect their age (much like the Leo Grande film), and the actress is clearly delighted.

"It's refreshing, when people are so curated on screen," she says, referring to the plastic surgery "look" which some actors have adopted.

"We've got this awful sort of replicant face thing - people need to get used to seeing us as we actually are."

She's a big fan of Harriet Walter in Succession, saying: "She's famously done nothing at all. Looks amazing. She can do so many different things with this painting of a face."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Harriet Walter in Succession: Phillips says she looks "amazing"

Phillips was initially unsure about starring in the movie, but became convinced after speaking to director and writer Renee Webster, and producers Tania Chambers and Judi Levine.

"I initially thought - this is going to be great or terrible. I was like, 'is this just a film bigging up prostitution?' and then [after talking to them] I decided it was worth a shot.

"I decided it's a good thing that the story is told. And I basically I trust them."

Levine produced the 2013 film The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, about a disabled man who wants to lose his virginity, and contacts a professional sex surrogate.

"Judi's just got a really interesting take on paying for sex," Phillips says.

"I have dipped my toe in the disabled community occasionally, and this is a really interesting question.

"Denmark has provided sex workers for disabled people as part of its state care, so there's definitely ways in which you're allowed to be regarded as being sexually healthy."

She goes on to talk about the difference an active sex life has on a woman's health, saying: "There's very few things it negatively impacts - it helps your immune system."

The main problem, she says, is that it's "very awkward to talk about".

Image source, Such Feisty Dames Pty Ltd, Screenwest (Australia)
Image caption,
Ryan Johnson (left), Josh Thomson (centre), Alex England (right) and Erik Thomson (standing) are employed by Gina

What about some of the intimate scenes, were they awkward too?

"The sex was made a lot easier by the fact that we had an intimacy co-ordinator for the first time, because there is something embarrassing about it," she says.

"It was fantastic. She completely took all the sexuality out of it. She said pick an animal having sex and do that.

"So Ryan Johnson got to be a bonobo monkey, and I was a slug. So that was great.

"It didn't feel like anyone's getting a view into what I might look like having an orgasm. I was being a slug and we all knew that - I think it's fine!"

Image source, Such Feisty Dames Pty Ltd, Screenwest (Australia)
Image caption,
The film stars (left to right) Hayley McElhinney, Tasma Walton, Sally Phillips and Caroline Brazier

The film sees Gina learn to navigate discussing sexual pleasure, along with the cleaners and sex workers she employs. It is quite a learning curve for all.

Phillips says that since the start of #MeToo, the social movement against sexual violence, the film was also careful to put consent front and centre.

"Male or female, you don't want anyone exploited or doing it against their will, or anyone having to do it to survive," she adds.

The film is set in Australia and has already been released there.

It's had positive reviews, with the Sydney Morning Herald's Sandra Hall giving it 3.5 stars, saying: "It's imbued with the same spirit as Calendar Girls, The Full Monty and all the other British comedies known for their cosy good humour, modest intentions and likeable characters down on their luck."

Image source, Such Feisty Dames Pty Ltd, Screenwest (Australia)
Image caption,
Gina's swimming club is initially one of her only pleasures in life

The Guardian's Leslie Felperin gave it three stars, and added: "Phillips has always been a charmer on-screen and, like Leo Grande's Emma Thompson, she's more than willing to use her talent here to make a case for women learning to manage and take charge of their own pleasure."

Phillips says that after the film was screened in Australia, some women filed for divorce, while others started visiting a website teaching them how to have better sex.

"There's lots of guys logging on to that too. I genuinely hope the film is going to improve people's sex lives, because it will be a starting point for discussion," she adds.

"If it improves one person's sex life, that is a good thing."

Whether it has had the same effect on housework may be another matter.

'Kick-ass characters'

Phillips is also keen to discuss roles and representation of older women in film and TV.

"When you have women involved, you have better representations of women on screen because you've got your lived experience, you know what it's really like, and you're not afraid to say certain things."

She points to "more vulnerable representations of women on screen when women are writing", adding she knows younger actresses who "lament the fact that they're always playing kick-ass characters".

"Women aren't always kick-ass, they're sometimes idiots."

Phillips goes on: "I personally find it fascinating the way in early cinema, women were allowed to be the leads and allowed to be goofy."

"And then it all changes - we lose all power and all reasonable representation, and we become mad, beautiful and broken," adds Phillips.

"I think it is time for these stories to be told."

How to Please a Woman is available on Sky Cinema

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