Sally Phillips opens up about being cast as a cougar – and her “feral” maternal instincts

‘I’m not doing that again.'
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When British actress Sally Phillips was young, she sounded like an Australian. That’s because she’d spent time living in Sydney, due to her father’s job with British Airways.

“I had a really strong Australian accent until I was about 12 and everyone used to take the mick and I couldn’t hear it,” Sally, 54, tells TV WEEK via Zoom from London. “And when I became an actress, the one accent I couldn’t do was Australian. But I loved being out there.”

Sally grew up in Australia.
(Image: Supplied)

Nineteen years ago, when Sally son’s Olly was born with Down syndrome, she went to Australia again – this time, to star in the comedy movie BoyTown.

“One way of regrouping was I took this job with Mick Molloy,” she remembers. “I thought it was hilarious. Forty-year-old Aussie blokes with hairy chests, sitting on Shetland ponies, singing about the menopause… I couldn’t have picked a better pick-me-up after the shock of diagnosis.”

More recently, Sally returned to Australia to film Austin, the comedy series co-created by British actor Ben Miller and starring Love On The Spectrum’s Michael Theo. Sally was asked to be involved from the beginning because all three of her sons with her shipping director ex-husband, Andrew Bermejo – Olly, Luke and Tom – are neurodivergent.

“My eldest I’m public about,” she explains. “He loves the limelight. He’s got Down syndrome and autism. And so Ben got in touch with me.”

All three of Sally's sons are neurodivergent.
All three of Sally’s sons are neurodivergent.
(Image: Instagram)

Ben asked Sally if she wanted to be involved with writing Austin.

“I said, ‘No, because I’m just terrible with deadlines, so if you want it to happen, it’s best to get someone else to write it,’” she remembers. “And then he screen proposed to me instead, and I said, ‘Great,’ because we’d known each other since we were 20, but we hadn’t actually worked together much. So then we started talking about the plot.”

Sally plays Ingrid, the wife of Ben’s character, Julian, who discovers that her husband has a grown-up Australian son, Austin (Michael), who was conceived while he was cheating on her. Ingrid decides to have an affair and goes home with a hot, young bartender, played by Tai Hara. Sally wasn’t keen on the storyline – until a little twist was added. 

“It was just Ingrid cougaring with a younger man and I was like, ‘I’m not doing that again. It’s just not realistic.’ And then Kala Ellis, one of the writers, came back with a genius solution.”

Sally says she doesn’t tend to take roles where her character is a cougar. 

Sally shot Austin in Canberra.
(Image: Supplied)

“You’ll get a script through that’s maybe been written by a spotty 27-year-old comedian in which all the women over 45 are crazy to jump his bones. And you go, ‘Like, no! In what universe?’”

While shooting Austin in Canberra, Sally spent a lot of time hanging out with Michael, going for walks together around Lake Burley Griffin.

“It was the first time I’d been away from my kids for a long time, so my maternal instincts had gone kind of feral,” she explains. “Michael wasn’t opposed to that.”

After Canberra, the shoot moved to London. Sally says it was “pure joy” having Michael there. 

“We killed ourselves laughing,” she says. “He stayed with me for a bit. My son Olly calls him ‘brother’. Loves him.”

Sally, who has played Shazza in all the Bridget Jones movies, is currently shooting Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy with Renée Zellweger.

“We all feel a lot of pressure, because nobody wanted to do it just for the money – everyone cares about Bridget,” she explains. “And people ask me, ‘How’s Shaz?’, like she’s real. ‘What’s she doing?’ You see them all getting older and hitting life’s road bumps.”

Just as Bridget Jones holds a special place in Sally’s heart, so too does Austin.

“I always say the really special jobs are tattoo jobs,” she explains. “It’s a tattoo job.”

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