EXCLUSIVE: “I get nervous talking about it”: Why Isla Fisher keeps her marriage close to her heart
”I have four other human beings [in my life] and I need to keep everybody happy.”
Isla Fisher is searching for her family’s passports, and their frequent flyer numbers. There was a time when they’d have been at her fingertips, but it’s been two whole years now that she, husband Sacha Baron Cohen and their tribe of three have been largely settled in Australia, and she knows those pesky passports are around here somewhere, but where?
You would think there would be someone who could do this for her. You would think that one of Australia’s most successful and gifted actors (and her brilliant, hilarious husband) would have a retinue of people keeping track of passports. But not so. The Baron Cohen/Fisher household seems to be a very hands-on operation.
Perhaps that’s in part because this comedic bombshell (whose box office hits include Wedding Crashers, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and the 2020 Edward Hall remake Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit) insists that the most important role in her life is motherhood. And her favourite aspect of that role – the one that fills her with pure joy – is inventing tall tales, creating characters and funny voices, and acting out classic stories to amuse her children.
“I love to tell stories to my kids,” she tells The Weekly, once the passports have been found. “One of the perks of being an actor is that you have a bunch of silly voices in your back pocket to whip out at bedtime.” Sometimes the stories Isla creates revolve around the minutiae of family life or imagined adventures. Other times they relate to typical childhood concerns.
“I think reading books and telling stories are great ways to connect with your children,” she says, “and there’s often a teachable lesson that leads to interesting discussions. If somebody is having a problem at school, or if there’s a snack that somebody doesn’t like, I’ll tailor the bedtime story a little bit to align with whatever’s going on.”
A series of bedtime tales about a madcap babysitter (the character is a hybrid of two of Isla’s dear friends) turned into her first series of children’s books, Marge in Charge, and its many eccentric, action-packed sequels. Now she has written a book inspired by the family pooch, Maisy.
Isla had always wanted an Old English Sheepdog because she’d fallen in love, as a teen, with the one on the Dulux paint ads. So Maisy, the family pet, is a shaggy and much loved sheep dog. But Mazy the Movie Star, and now literary star, is a mutt of indeterminate breed who learns the hard way to believe in herself.
“Mazy began as a bedtime story,” says Isla, “and she just became a favourite. Our Maisy is definitely a big part of the story – my love for Maisy. She’s the greatest. She’s so rowdy and adorable, outgoing and adventurous. You can take her on a hike, yet she can cuddle, too. She loves Ed Sheeran. If you play Ed Sheeran, she bounces around with her paws. Perhaps it’s a ginger thing. She thinks, ‘My mum’s a ginger, so I’m going to listen to ginger music, too’.”
Maisy was the initial inspiration for the books and then, says Isla, “it was just fun to add all the puns. Who doesn’t like a ‘Hollywoof’ pun? My kids love slapstick and they love physical comedy, but they really love wordplay. So it was a fun excuse to cram them all together.”
The Marge books are also fabulously funny and, says Isla, they were liberating to write.
“I got to live vicariously through Marge because obviously, as a mum, you have to wear your sensible hat. But there was a good lesson in there about letting your freak flag fly. There’s a lot of pressure on girls, in particular, to be good and to follow rules. And if you’re being asked to follow the rules just for the sake of the rules, then sometimes it’s not a bad idea to ask why … to think outside that.”
All three of Isla and Sacha’s children (two girls and a boy) have had input into the Marge and Mazy books.
“Everything I do,” Isla says with a wry smile, “is met by a panel of tiny editors. It’s great to have that open dialogue … And they take such a pride in participating in the creative experience, which makes you feel so much closer to them. You’re constantly putting yourself into the minds of the tiny people that you love.”
Growing up, Isla loved to read. When she was small, her favourite book was Winnie-the-Pooh. Later, she loved the headstrong redhead, Anne of Green Gables. Sometimes, books were her closest friends.
“We travelled a lot,” she explains. “I went to a different primary school every year from Year One all the way through to high school, so I didn’t really make a lot of friends. It takes a while to make friends, so I spent a lot of my recess and lunchtimes just reading.”
Her parents hailed from Scotland (her father was a United Nations economist and her mother a writer) but they spent precious little time there. In a moment of nostalgia, they named their only daughter after the island of Islay in the southern Hebrides. “They make whiskey there,” Isla says cheekily. But she was born far away in Muscat, the portside capital of Oman, a crescent-shaped country at the northernmost edge of the Arabian Sea.
“I have some vivid memories of outdoor markets there, and things like that – more sensorial memories than literal, concrete ones,” she says. “Afterwards we went to Brunei, where my younger brother [Edward] was born. My other brother [Daniel] was born in Iran. Then we were in Cambridge for a period of time before we moved to Australia. So I have beautiful, fragmented snapshot memories of all those early childhood years, but nothing really strong.”
The family landed in Perth when Isla was six and a half years old.
“I remember stopping over at Singapore airport and falling asleep on a yellow chair,” she says, as more vivid memories tumble out. “Then, when we arrived here, I remember the sense of calm, and the light. We were in Western Australia where the sun sets over the ocean in this languid pink and gold. It was dreamlike, surreal. And it was so wonderful to be outside in the sunshine. We had a very outdoorsy life. Before my parents’ divorce [when Isla was nine], we lived in this place called Darlington, which was this beautiful, quiet village surrounded by eucalyptus trees. It was an idyllic upbringing.”
Once she tired of reading at lunchtimes, Isla worked on some skills to make friends, and found she was good at it.
“That’s possibly how I developed the skillset to make people laugh,” she says. “It’s a great way to make friends quickly – tap into your inner idiot. I also had large ears and red hair and an English accent, and I was basically the same height as a first grader, so I think people were ready to have a laugh at me already.
“I’ve sometimes wondered whether, if you move too often, you can make deep friendships. But given that I still have friends now that I had when I was in grade five, I think it’s safe to say my friendships are solid.”
Meanwhile, growing up “in a house of boys” (two brothers and later two step-brothers) helped Isla develop her roll-with-the punches attitude and her comic timing.
“Do I feel like I’m a bit of a tomboy? Possibly, yeah,” she says, laughing. “And comedy was always a currency at home. My dad has a brilliant sense of humour. He’s very Monty Python-esque. And everyone was always trying to be the funniest one. It was a big house with lots of kids. We would sometimes have exchange students and my brothers would bring home their friends and I would bring home my friends. Sometimes there would be 25 people for dinner, and it was a scoring thing – you wanted to win and you wanted to get the biggest laugh. That was definitely how I was raised. My brothers and I communicated through comedy.”
The Fisher kids also grew up on a diet of British TV humour – The Goodies, Blackadder. “And on American movies,” Isla adds. “We watched Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Eddie Murphy, all the ’80s and ’90s movies – even the raunchy comedies. And I watched all those comic actresses – Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn – who were hilarious, had the starring role and carried the movie and jokes.”
Isla especially noticed the redheads.
“Growing up as a redhead, I got my fair share of being teased,” she admits. “I remember feeling quite self-conscious as a teenager, so anyone with red hair inspired me. I remember seeing Julianne Moore in Short Cuts and thinking, ‘You know what? I just need to be proud of being a redhead because she is so beautiful and brilliant and talented.’
“I’ve definitely felt inspired by Lucille Ball, absolutely; Katharine Hepburn – wow, those scenes with Spencer Tracy – the speed, the wit. She is so dry. Definitely, yeah. And Nicole Kidman, my original BMX bandit, who I fell in love with when she was Powder Puff. I remember being so enamoured. I would have been 10 years old when I saw her play Powder Puff. And I remember Windrider. I thought she was just such – and she remains such – an icon.”
When they first arrived in Darlington, Isla’s mother, Elspeth, joined an amateur dramatic group, and Isla was allowed to stay up late to watch the performances.
“Their shows were great,” she says. “She was in Twelfth Night. The costumes were incredible. Then Mum taught dramatics and I would be backstage with all the students when they were putting their face paint on and sewing their costumes and building the sets. It was this electric energy of performers about to express themselves creatively. It was just the most exciting thing, and I was definitely bitten by the bug then.”
Isla earned a writing scholarship in eighth grade and was plainly a talented writer, even then. With the help of her mum, she wrote two young adult novels as a teen. But when it came time to choose a career, there was no competition. “I just always loved acting,” she says.
She started acting professionally when she was nine and got her first break at 18 in Home and Away. After school, she moved to London, and at 21 enrolled at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where she received the grounding in physical theatre that has enlivened all her finest and funniest roles. By the time she arrived in Hollywood, at 25, for the movie Scooby-Doo, Isla already had a wealth of experience, and, most critically, an agent to smooth the way.
Three years later, Wedding Crashers – in which she starred with Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn and Christopher Walken – added rocketfuel to her career. “Wedding Crashers,” she says, “was absolutely a moment where I just got so lucky.”
In 2013, working with director Baz Luhrmann (and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan) on The Great Gatsby was simply dazzling.
“Baz is the greatest,” she says, and it’s not just Hollywood schmooze. “He is just magical. You can’t compare Baz to anyone. He is dressed to the nines at all times, regardless of the weather, carrying a porcelain teacup filled with tea. His grasp of language and story and his visual sensibility – the way he approaches material, the way he uses music, the way he engages you – is so seductive. He is just pure creative talent.
“I’d read the book a thousand times. It was one of those books where, every time I read it, I felt like I learnt something new. Then I showed up on set and I got into my costume and I remember we were putting the wig on my character, Myrtle, and I was thinking, ‘I’m too much, I’m too much’. But then I saw the sets and I was like, ‘No, I’m not too much at all’.”
Baz and his partner in film and life, Catherine Martin, have also inspired Isla more personally. “Baz and his family have embraced the nomadic lifestyle of being in the entertainment business – the way they travel as a troupe, the way they move.” It’s been important, she insists, to see other people manage the juggle between their creative work “and having a great marriage and kids as well. So, on a personal level, he’s also an inspiration, not
There have been other personal highlights in Isla’s 30-year career, too. Meeting Stephen Fry (whose recording of Winnie-the-Pooh had been a favourite of Isla and her kids for years) was a standout.
“I did a movie with him, Greed,” she says, still a little breathlessly. “And I invited him over for dinner, and he said yes, and then he came! You can imagine the fear. I was cooking dinner for, in my opinion, the greatest brain on earth. Have you read his Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold? You must!
I just wanted to impress him, and I was absolutely panicked. In the end, I cooked a sea bass with soy sauce and sake and spring onion, and it was so mediocre, because I just overthought it and got in a muddle.”
Was he kind about the sea bass? “Of course, because he’s Stephen. He’s Oscar Wilde. He’s the most funny, brilliant, eloquent, educated person, and he just lets you ask any question without any judgement. He’s fantastic. And his voice is so, so beautiful.”
Another highlight, unsurprisingly, was working with her husband on The Brothers Grimsby.
“It was actually really fun,” she says with a warm chuckle. “I’d never seen Sacha improvise. We’d been together for 21 years but watching him work as Nobby was … to me Grimsby is one of the funniest comedies ever.”
Isla doesn’t often speak publicly about her marriage or family. Primarily, that’s to protect her children. And no doubt there’s a need to keep some aspect of her world private. There’s also perhaps a little of that timeless superstition that speaking about the things we most treasure can dissipate their magic.
Asked whether it’s their wit that holds she and Sacha together, Isla hesitates, then responds: “I get nervous talking about it because I feel like, by not having my relationship in the public domain and not having spoken about how we met or really talked about our marriage publicly, it’s remained something private and valuable to me. I don’t know if that’s the secret. But having a shared ability to find humour in the sharpness of life is always going to bring connection … And otherwise, I just think it’s nice to keep some things for yourself.”
The Baron Cohen/Fisher family moved back to Australia in 2020 to escape COVID and Trump’s America, and to share a little of the expansive, sunshiny freedom Isla remembered from her childhood.
At the time, she was shooting the first series of the quirky Stan dramedy, Wolf Like Me, which was set in Adelaide and filmed in Sydney.
“It was just the perfect time,” says Isla. “And I honestly feel, like all Aussies – I’m going to generalise here – that we have the most beautiful country and we know it. We get homesick for it. I haven’t met an Aussie anywhere on the planet who hasn’t gone, ‘I just want to go home’. There’s nothing like coming home, eating the snacks you had as a kid, going to the beach. It’s been absolutely fabulous.”
Now, however, Isla is dusting off the family passports because the time has come to move on. As we speak, she’s wrapping the second series of Wolf Like Me and productions beckon from the other side of the globe. Keeping family close, creative work alive and commuting half a world away isn’t realistic forever.
“I’m not just responsible for myself,” she explains. “I have four other human beings [in my life] and I need to keep everybody happy … So sadly, I won’t be staying on here.”
Two new films, The Present and an animated feature with Will Ferrell, Strays, are in post-production. And she’s about to sign onto another. She also has a project of her own in very early development. It’s still top secret but suffice to say, “there is a person in the public domain who I would love to play. I can’t say more than that just yet. Watch this space. Fingers crossed.”
Most exciting of all, there’s another Mazy book brewing, “and I’m developing my Marge books into an animated TV show for Nickelodeon,” she says, and it’s evident there’s a lot of author in this actor after all.
“I’m really excited about my books,” she says finally. “I’m excited about helping kids to accept their own uniqueness, and to see it as something to embrace.”
Mazy the Movie Star by Isla Fisher, with illustrations by Paula Bowles, is published by Welbeck. On sale now.
You can read this story and many others in the December issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.