Female comedy is arguably Hollywood’s most unforgiving métier, but Isla Fisher has come out laughing.
Nobody does ditzy quite like Isla Fisher. Whether it’s throwing herself bodily at towering Vince Vaughn like a sex-crazed marmoset in 2005’s Wedding Crashers or diving into a rubbish bag in her most recent comedy Bachelorette, Fisher holds nothing back; her comic timing is matched by her fearlessness. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how it is that I’m on all fours with my head in a black plastic bag at 4am outside Scores nightclub?’?” she says of her latest role.
The embarrassing, the excessive and the downright idiotic: this is Isla Fisher’s comic stamping ground. Not for nothing have critics compared her to Lucille Ball, another comedienne who could send up female insecurities in a big ball of fluff while remaining whip-smart herself. Most of those critics probably don’t know 36-year-old Fisher is Australian, despite the fact her normal speaking voice has a twang that still says “sandgroper” to anyone listening hard enough.
We meet in Cannes to discuss Rise of the Guardians, a sort of animated Avengers-for-children in which the superheroic figures of early childhood – Santa Claus, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy – unite against the resurgent threat of Pitch, creator of children’s nightmares. Fisher is the voice of the Tooth Fairy. She had some small hope of being able to play that in something like her own voice, but Hugh Jackman had already bagged the part of the Easter Bunny and was playing it in broad Strine. Two Aussie accents would have started to look like a conspiracy.
Fortunately, after nine years in Hollywood, generic American has become second nature to her. “There’s never a call for an Australian accent,” Fisher says, sighing. “I used one in a little indie [film] 15 years ago, but that’s it. And it’s such a shame because, as an Australian, I really like the sound of it. It’s very relaxed.”
Fisher grew up in Perth as “an outdoorsy girl”, daughter of a United Nations banker and a romantic novelist, attending the prestigious Methodist Ladies’ College and acting on the side; you may remember her as bisexual bad girl Shannon Reed on Home and Away, a role she played for three years from the age of 18. She cracked Hollywood much later as the sister of the bride in Wedding Crashers, opposite Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn; it won her the MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Performance in 2005 and led to a string of parts in rom-coms, including several involving weddings.
In person, Isla Fisher is even tinier than she seems on screen or in pictures next to her husband Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian better known as Borat. He is around 30 centimetres taller than she is, which she will cheerfully say makes them look like a circus act. Fisher met Baron Cohen at a party in Sydney in 2002. They had their first child, Olive, in 2007, while she was still studying Judaism as preparation for conversion; they married in 2010 and now have a second child, Elula Lottie Miriam. Fisher has also taken a Hebrew name, Ayala, meaning doe.
They live in Hollywood in a house they bought from their friend Jennifer Aniston and have a circle of showbiz friends. Otherwise, their lives are private: no paparazzi shots, no gossip spreads, no wedding pictures in a celebrity glossy. Not that Fisher is a closed book, by any means: every interview she gives includes a few tidbits about her “addiction to breastfeeding” or her eagerness to make muffins.
So she puts it out there. What she puts out, however, isn’t the kind of juice that fills supermarket magazines. “I’m neck deep in motherhood,” she tells a British glossy. “It’s like your life is wiped clean and you have to begin again. You’re in a maelstrom, a huge learning curve. It’s mind-blowing, but there’s nothing very sexy about any of it.” It’s not exactly celebrity lifestyle, either.
It was Baron Cohen who inspired her to try to break into comedy. Her part in Home and Away had been relentlessly dramatic, in the manner of soaps: her cavalcade of disasters included a scandalous flirtation with her foster brother, anorexia, recovered memories of sexual abuse, attempted adultery with her best friend’s husband and a strange plot involving literary plagiarism, all before the character had got as far as university. Then, after her three-year stint on the show, she went to Paris to study mime at the renowned Lecoq school.
But when she first came to Hollywood, she struggled to find serious roles. “I was going for all these dramatic roles and I was bombing at auditions,” she says. “I was that person who was just terrible. My husband said, ‘I think you should do comedy; you’re really funny.’ Which was so sweet, but he was sleeping with me, so he was biased. So I said, ‘I’ll try.’ And my first audition was for Wedding Crashers and I got it, so now I get to do comedy.”
It’s true: she is funny. Whether any of her subsequent roles have measured up to her ability is another matter. After Wedding Crashers came Wedding Daze in 2006 with Jason Biggs, an amiable but patently silly rom-com about a bereaved man who proposes out of the blue to the waitress serving him lunch. Lookout, her next film, was an excellent thriller in which she played a pivotal but only small role; Hot Rod made her the object of someone else’s adoration.
Definitely, Maybe (2008) was a superior example of rom-com-by-the-numbers but obliged her, as the office girl in a Democrat campaign office who can’t stand politics, to say things like, “What do I know about social security?” The ditzy girl again, taken to a comic extreme of empty-headedness: you wonder why she bothers, apart from the fact there are few humorous roles for women in American films. Fisher herself has spoken cogently on this subject. “I realised after Wedding Crashers there aren’t many comic opportunities for women in Hollywood. All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’.”
Confessions of a Shopaholic promised more; adapted from British chick-lit queen Sophie Kinsella’s novel, it relates the travails of Rebecca, who lives for sales, store cards and super spending and has to talk herself into the kind of job that will finance her habit. Director P. J. Hogan trowelled on the slapstick, sending Fisher’s Rebecca skating from one pratfall to the next; the film did well at the box office, but got the critical pasting it deserved. That said, reviewers reserved honourable mentions for Fisher; even the trade magazine Variety’s unforgiving Todd McCarthy ring-fenced her performance, saying she was able to “overcome the script’s silly implausibilities and artificiality by dint of her own resourcefulness and will power”.
Now there is Bachelorette, about three former schoolmates who are summoned to be bridesmaids to their fat school friend – played by Aussie Rebel Wilson – who, inexplicably, is the first to find true love. Propelled by drugs and envy, the three supposed friends – played by Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Fisher – almost ruin the wedding when two of them decide to get into the bride’s dress together. Bachelorette is written and directed by a woman, Leslye Headland, based on her own play. Inevitably, it has attracted comparisons with Kristen Wiig’s hit 2011 film Bridesmaids.
Bachelorette, however, comes from a much darker place. Take Fisher’s character, Katie. She’s the wrong side of 30 but still living for big weekends stoked with coke and casual sex; once again, she is at the excruciating end of character comedy. It’s fun to play, Fisher insists. “Particularly if you knew the contrast between myself and Katie in my everyday life. I’m usually a Gymboree mum, super organised and with the kids, and there I was pretending to be high on cocaine and alcohol at 4am on a New York street saying the stupidest thing I could possibly think of.”
On the other hand, unlike most actors, who are inclined to defend their characters, she clearly holds Katie in a certain amount of contempt. At one point in the night she asks her friends if they think she’s stupid. Fisher improvised that line. “I think Katie is actually stupid,” she told The Huffington Post. “She has not bothered to get educated. She feels like the world owes her something. She’s part of that Peter Pan generation who are just rich, white, entitled, still stuck in a high-school mentality. When she says that, it’s so poignant and tragic. I’m sure if she’d applied herself she could be smart, but she’s just let herself go with drugs and alcohol.”
This is Fisher’s territory, of course. Even as an animated character, voicing the Tooth Fairy in Rise of the Guardians, she manages to push her role to the frontier of madness, prising open a child’s mouth to wonder at the teeth she may find in there, giggling as she admits she got a little carried away by the sight of flawless enamel. “It’s hard in this structure, when there are so many characters – you know, if you’re improvising a line, then someone else has to respond to it, so you’re limited to some degree,” she says. “But I just keep trying to bring the comedy to the movie because I feel I want to laugh as well. I want to experience everything in a movie.”
She loves her work; before she had Olive, she imagined she would return to a set within weeks of the birth. She soon realised that was expecting way too much. “Putting pressure on yourself to be able to do everything is not a kind and loving way to treat yourself. I’m focused on the kids now. They’re very small and as they get bigger, I’ll jump back in.” Her next role is a rare return to drama – as Myrtle Wilson in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Primarily, however, she sees herself as a comedienne. As such, she says her greatest fear is that a joke won’t land. “And maybe the director not noticing, keeping it in the movie and just leaving you out there doing a really long set piece where it’s not working, but you’re really committed to it. Like I’ve seen in so many movies!” She starts to laugh. “That gives me shivers down my spine.”
HOLLYWOOD’S COMEDY QUEENS
A vaudeville and Broadway performer, she came to movies in 1933 when she was nearly 40, starring in films such as I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong, in which she insisted on writing her own dialogue. Famous for her double entendres and racy song and dance routines, West found her wings severely clipped by Hollywood’s notorious Hays Production Code in the late ’30s.
A fast-talking dame who became the greatest of the screwball comediennes and the highest-paid female star of her day, a favourite of director Howard Hawks and critic Graham Greene. Lombard died at just 33 in a plane crash before her arguably greatest film, Ernst Lubitsch’s satire on Nazism, To Be or Not to Be (1942), was released.
Although she was much admired in solid fare such as Tennessee Williams’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Russell was always identified with her comic role as flamboyant eccentric Auntie Mame, both on stage and screen, and the 1940 Hawks screwball comedy His Girl Friday, in which she played a determined reporter. As one of the few actresses who regularly played professional women, she often got to crack the best lines.
Famous first as a singer – and voted the most popular entertainer by US troops in Korea in 1950 – she played both dramatic and comic roles, but really made her mark in Calamity Jane (1953) and innocent bedroom farces such as Pillow Talk (1959) with her lifelong friend Rock Hudson. The sexual revolution of the ’60s, however, made Day’s fresh-faced glee seem old hat.
Dubbed “Queen of the Bs” in the ’30s, Ball’s on- and off-screen partnership with Cuban actor Desi Arnaz from 1940 proved comedy gold on film, radio and long-running TV series I Love Lucy and Here’s Lucy, which were produced by her own studio. “You cannot teach someone comedy,” she reputedly told students. “Either they have it or they don’t.”
An alumnus of iconic US television sketch show Saturday Night Live – which also nurtured 30 Rock’s Tina Fey – Wiig made her first big-screen impression as Katherine Heigl’s manipulative boss in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007). Last year, Bridesmaids, written by Wiig and also starring Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne, was a not only a box-office hit, it was nominated for two Oscars.