ON A hot summer afternoon in the Valley, "American Idol" finalist Katharine McPhee talks about her recent switch from singing to acting and boils down her role in "The House Bunny," which opens Friday, to two words: preggie suit.
"That's what they call it," she says, laughing at the memory of playing Harmony, a very pregnant hippie throwback who totes around a tub of peanut butter, spoon at the ready, and wears flower-child dresses.
Directed by Fred Wolf, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer, the movie stars Anna Faris as Shelley Darlingson, a Playboy bunny who gets kicked out of the mansion, left with her tan and the platform shoes on her feet, and becomes "house mother" to the un-cool Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority.
"It's kind of like 'Revenge of the Nerds,' but we're not really nerds," McPhee says. Characters are more in the slacker mold. "We just don't really care that much; my character is pregnant, so I really don't feel like doing anything."
Three years ago, McPhee was belting her way through her "American Idol" audition in San Francisco and was brought to tears as Simon Cowell told her, "You are sailing through to Hollywood, young lady." She finished the fifth season of the Fox TV talent competition as runner-up, signed with RCA and recorded an album that debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. Sipping a mint lemonade and nibbling at her tuna on triangle toast at Le Pain Quotidien on Ventura Boulevard, the 24-year-old now says acting was the goal all along, even though she still is making music.
The transition, she says, comes with unique challenges. Though "Idol" offers enormous exposure for finalists, it does cement contestants in people's minds solely as singers. "There's still a lot of proving to do on my part," she says. "I just came from an audition with a big director," she adds, though she won't drop names so as not to jinx her chances.
Made by Adam Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, "The House Bunny" is the company's first female-driven comedy, with an ensemble cast that includes up-and-coming actresses Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), "Superbad" star Emma Stone, Kat Dennings ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and the upcoming "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist") and actor Colin Hanks.
McPhee may not have many lines, but she does sing twice -- once in a very un-"Idol"-like karaoke performance, and once doing a modified cover of the Waitresses' 1982 hit "I Know What Boys Like," which plays over the credits.
On set, McPhee was able to improvise and came up with some funny moments that stayed in the movie, including one in which she squeegees her character's pregnant belly during a sexy carwash scene.
"Surprisingly, Katharine could throw down and was excellent at throwing in improv stuff," Wolf says. "She was riffing for a good five minutes with the squeegee in hand."
In a summer of male-driven comedies like "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder" where the language is vulgar and the humor is broad and raunchy, the laughs in "House Bunny" arise from the gentler, deadpan awkwardness when the girls try to talk to boys -- including one who will communicate only via text messaging.
Through it all, McPhee never made her "Idol" stardom a big deal to anyone, says Wolf, who was impressed by her composure. "I had to be reminded that she's a big star in her world," he says, adding that he would often see paparazzi lurking behind craft services hoping for shots of McPhee.
In a few weeks, McPhee begins shooting "The Storyteller," a psychological drama in which she stars alongside Wes Bentley ("American Beauty"), and from there it's off to more auditions. "I'm not going to say this business is easy because it's not, but I'm definitely grateful that I'm a part of it -- if that's because of 'Idol,' then that's because of 'Idol,' " she says. "I'm not afraid to look back to where I got my start. Everyone needs to get their start somewhere."
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Where you've seen her
Los Angeles native Katharine McPhee has been singing since she was 2, winning a spot on the fifth season of Fox television's "American Idol" with her performance of "God Bless the Child" at her audition. Her rendition of "(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow / My Destiny" became the second highest-selling single of 2006. McPhee was also named one of the 100 most beautiful people of 2007 by People magazine. Her self-titled first album entered with Billboard charts at No. 2, with the hit single "Over It." She is currently working on her second album with producer David Foster.
-- Nicky Loomis