Actress Eliza Scanlen On What Makes Her Laugh: Irony, Toilet Humour & Her Dad

30 July 2019 | 9:51 am | Hannah Story

Gagging For It picks apart the things that make us laugh. This week Hannah Story talks to 'Sharp Objects' actress Eliza Scanlen.

Twenty-year-old Sydney actress Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects, the upcoming Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig) blames her family – especially her dad – for her sense of humour. 

Though her sense of humour is “pretty dry considering I’m Australian”, she says that her family err towards the “goofy” side of things. 

Her dad is funny “but in the most dad-ish, childish way”: “I think he was a comedian in another life. I think he likes to think he's a comedian as well,” Scanlen says. 

She describes him, a businessman working in storage for over 20 years, as a man who maintains his goofiness even in front of his colleagues: “He's never pulled back on the humour when there are other people around.”

That playful style of humour is part of the fabric of their normal family life. “It's that shorthand or that secret language you have with your parents,” Scanlen says.  

Scanlen and her dad share what she calls the “‘cool bananas’ dance move” – a shimmy that functions as a way of saying hello and goodbye and see you later. 

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“I remember being in I think Year One and my dad had dropped me to school, and he was just about to go away and travel for work. And I still remember him standing – from outside the classroom, through the window – and, you know, performing this cool bananas shimmy. And I'd do the shimmy back. And everyone in the classroom stared at me like I was a lunatic, and stared at my dad thinking the same thing. 

“It was one of those things that's so silly, but to have that memory and for it to still today be that same relationship—that a silly dance move like that can mean something so dear to me, and remind me of a very wonderful, special, exciting, creative, formative time in my childhood is awesome.” 

Even though they have a critically acclaimed actress for a daughter, Scanlen’s parents still aim to embarrass her when her friends come over. “But they can't, because I'm not really fazed by it,” she shrugs.

“I'm quite close with my family, especially my twin sister, and it's always hard to leave her."

The things that make her family laugh generally boil down to the simple things, like silly voices and toilet humour. “Toilet humour is usually the way to go,” she admits. “It doesn’t take much to make us laugh.”

“[Dad’s] schtick right now is calling everyone 'chicken butt' – that seems to be the phrase that he's using mostly right now. He goes from 'chicken butt' to 'monkey' to all sorts of things that can get quite inappropriate.”

As Scanlen’s career has escalated, she’s spent more and more travelling for roles. “I'm quite close with my family, especially my twin sister, and it's always hard to leave her,” Scanlen says.

But a surprising relief from homesickness has come from FaceTime. It’s not a cure, but, Scanlen says, “it did make me laugh”. “I guess those FaceTimes have gotten me through those really intense bouts of homesickness.

“I think there's something about that odd kind of disconnection while at the same time being connected through a screen that is really funny.”

The way FaceTime lags over long distances – we’ve all got obnoxious screengrabs of friends, family and partners taken during a frozen video call – or a perfectly placed filter can be uproariously funny when you’re away from home. She admits to mucking around with them for almost an hour with a friend while on the phone to her sister the day before we speak. 

“I have like a whole album of screenshots of my sister's face, and it's hilarious. One look at that and it'll put you in a good mood for the rest of the day.

“It's just one of those things that you can do that's so mindless, but can really get you into a much better mood. I think I'm still so young and travelling will always be hard because Australia has always been home and it's such a great place to live. Being able to still connect with people back at home through that has been really helpful, and, yeah, to be able to laugh at how [FaceTime] can a lot of the time go wrong.” 

Attending Catholic school for her entire education – including an all-girls private school in high school – fostered a certain blue aspect to her sense of humour. “Anything mildly sexual I’m sure was hilarious to me,” she concedes. 

In the years since graduating from high school, Scanlen hopes that what makes her laugh has become a little more refined than that. She’s currently starring as Eric in Lord Of The Flies at Sydney Theatre Company, and seeing a lot more theatre in the lead-up has definitely fed into what she finds funny. 

“I guess my sense of humour leans more towards irony and tongue-in-cheek performance," Scanlen says. "I've always loved absurdism and plays of that genre. I think that my humour is very much rooted in theatre and drama.

“As an actor, we look for those delicious moments in a play or a film or a TV show – it's not the overtly funny things that I gravitate towards, it's the humour in certain interactions and the writing.”

She says the things that make her laugh shift and change depending on what she’s watching at the moment, or the things that are inspiring her. A recent example is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cult hit Fleabag, a black comedy that never fails to subvert your expectations.

“[Fleabag] preempts everything you're thinking in that moment, whether or not you've been in that moment before. Being caught out as an audience member in that way is confronting, but at the same time, [it’s] so amusing that we're all so predictable.” 

While Scanlen has taken on some darker roles in the past year or so – we won’t spoil the ending of Sharp Objects for you – she acknowledges that it’s “really important to find the lightness in a role”. 

“Even if your character might not find it funny, usually I could find the lightness in a character's reliance on another or, you know, the unfortunate nature of a situation. Even if it's just employing my physicality a bit more in a scene to, I guess, just feel like I'm contributing to it in a way that's not just dark and horrible and sad.” 

Performing opposite Mark Paguio, as her twin brother Sam, in Lord Of The Flies, Scanlen points to a scene where they grapple with the idea of a ‘beast’ on the island as the source of some ‘lightness’ in an otherwise dark play. 

“The scene is centred around the beast and whether or not it is real, and the back and forth between the twins is totally sincere. And its sincerity makes it funny. Because this is essentially the first time in the play where the audience have an unbiased look in on the boys' experience on the island. And they're bickering and on top of that, their unwavering belief in the beast is funny in its own way. I think that the humour leads us to think about more darker topics.”

Scanlen is ashamed to admit that one thing she finds hilarious at the moment is the Instagram account, Kids Getting Hurt. But that’s not all her own doing – she was sent the account by her agent.

“It's so inherently wrong that it's actually been taken down from Instagram a few times – it gets reported quite a lot. 

“It's basically these short clips that you know, parents or siblings send in of children falling over and hurting themselves. I find it fucking hilarious, I'm quite embarrassed to say.” 

Lord Of The Flies plays until 24 Aug at Roslyn Packer Theatre.