Anna Faris never dreamed she could make people laugh for a living. Acting? Sure: She's been performing since age 6, when her parents enrolled her in drama lessons in her native Seattle. But comedy? Uh-uh. ''When my college roommate saw 'Scary Movie,' she called me,'' the 26-year-old actress explains over lunch at the posh Los Angeles restaurant the Ivy, in October. ''And she said, 'That's so weird that you were cast, because you are not funny.'''
Oh, how we beg to differ. Since first eliciting chuckles as bumbling Cindy Campbell in the Wayans brothers' $157 million-grossing spoof ''Scary Movie'' in 2000, Faris has become one of Hollywood's most promising young comic actors. Critics greeted her return in 2001's ''Scary Movie 2'' with applause and, a year later, singled her out as the lone bright spot in Rob Schneider's dim teen comedy ''The Hot Chick.'' This fall, she has won praise for her scene-stealing turn as ''Lost in Translation'''s vacuous starlet, Kelly (a character she insists is not based on a certain Charlie's Angel, despite rumors to the contrary: ''I had my own ideas, but they didn't involve Cameron Diaz''). More props are likely to come Oct. 24, when she returns as an older, not-much-wiser Cindy (now an anchorwoman) in ''Scary Movie 3.''
Still, Faris is baffled. ''I auditioned for Lauren Ambrose's role on 'Six Feet Under,''' explains the University of Washington graduate (English degree in hand, she had planned on a career in advertising before landing a starring role in 1999's indie feature ''Lovers Lane''). ''It was a really serious scene: She learns that her dad dies. She's high. And ['SFU' creator] Alan Ball just started cracking up. When I finished, he said, 'Wow, you really are funny.'... It felt good, but still -- what am I doing that's so funny?''
Sitting across from Faris, it's easy to take her bewilderment as sincere. Though vivacious and friendly (she's almost always smiling), she doesn't crack jokes, do impersonations, or display any of those telltale look-at-me-I'm-a-comedian! tics. Dressed in a yellow-and-black mesh tank top and a black miniskirt, she seems more punk rock than punchy. ''Maybe it's because I'm really goofy?'' she wonders, her big blue eyes widening. ''Because I'm animated?''
David Zucker has an explanation. ''Anna has natural comic instinct,'' says the master parodist (''Airplane!,'' ''My Boss's Daughter''), who replaced Keenen Ivory Wayans as ''SM3'' director last November when he and screenwriter brothers Marlon and Shawn dropped out. ''She's subtle -- more the Leslie Nielsen type. Without batting an eyelash, she gets the laughs.''
Understandably, the Wayanses' exit threw Faris for a loop. She had thrived under Keenen, whom she credits with teaching her that ''there's no vanity in comedy.'' (Hence her ease at having her breast groped in ''SM2.'') Although under contract for three films, she assumed Dimension would hire an entirely new cast for the third installment. Instead, the studio promoted her to the lead.
And there were other changes. Where the first two spoofed horror (''Scream,'' ''The Haunting''), ''SM3'' parodies, as Faris puts it, ''anything that makes money'' (''The Ring,'' ''Signs,'' ''8 Mile,'' ''The Matrix''). ''There are some aliens, some crop circles, and an evil little girl,'' she says, smirking. And where its R-rated predecessors were high on raunch, PG-13 ''SM3'' is just good, clean(ish) fun -- a shift Faris welcomed, however challenging the slapstick. Coordinating a scene in which Cindy crashes face-first into a microphone while extolling her ''women's intuition'' proved particularly tricky. ''I kept walking past the microphone or just not hitting it right,'' the actress says. ''Things always work better if you don't use a stunt double, but that stuff is not easy.'' Luckily, veteran spoof-meister Nielsen, who plays a clueless U.S. President, was on hand to lighten the mood: ''He has this fart machine [that] operates with a remote control. It [would] make a farty noise, and people would just look around, smiling.''
After three years of yukking it up, Faris is eager to get serious. And thanks to ''Friends''' Matthew Perry, she might just be on the road to getting her wish. Perry was so impressed with her ''Lost in Translation'' performance that he helped her score a guest-starring spot on the show as the birth mother of a baby that Chandler and Monica hope to adopt. ''It's more of a dramatic part,'' Faris says, beaming. Of course, her fans might disagree.