– March 16th 2008

Hollywood hears Isla Fisher

YOU may know Isla Fisher for a number of reasons: for playing Shannon Reed in Home and Away; for starring opposite a cartoon dog in Scooby-Doo; or most probably for being engaged to, and bearing the baby of, Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, aka Ali G.

But today, in her hotel suite in New York, Fisher wants to be known for her own burgeoning film career, thank you very much.

That’s understandable. For since that outing in Scooby-Doo, the 32-year-old has been steadily making a name for herself in Hollywood.

After a break-out role as Vince Vaughn’s nymphomaniac girlfriend in Wedding Crashers – for which she won an MTV Movie Award – Fisher has made her presence felt in increasingly bigger roles, the most high-profile of which, the rom-com Definitely, Maybe, hit cinema screens last month.

It’s a charming film, and Fisher is charming in it as April, one of the three love interests of Ryan Reynolds’ divorcee dad, Will.

And if that isn’t enough proof that Fisher’s ‘made it’, she’s also lent her vocal talents to the much-anticipated animated Dr Seuss movie Horton Hears A Who!, which is due in cinemas this week.

Fisher is sweet and probably great fun with her friends, but she’s seemingly unsure how to handle her new-found status.

Thanks, in part, to her relationship with Baron Cohen, who’s huge in the US (he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Borat), interest in her has risen exponentially.

She met him six years ago and last October gave birth to their daughter, Olive. The couple are based in London “and always will be”, but rent in LA when necessary.

They manage to lead a normal life, she says, and if she puts her trademark red hair up in a baseball cap, the paparazzi don’t notice her.

While Baron Cohen has managed never to give interviews other than in character, Fisher, as an up-and-coming actor with big-budget films to promote, has little choice.

Tiny – she’s only 160cm – and swaddled in layers of black woolly cardigans and sheepskin boots, she removes a multi-coloured baby toy from the sofa, sits down on a discarded bra and looks apprehensive.

She’s sporting a hefty engagement ring and is desperate not to talk about anything other than her upcoming film projects, but those adept at squeezing small amounts of blood out of stones will nonetheless learn that no nuptial date has yet been set, that she’s “still learning about Judaism” (Baron Cohen is a practising Jew), and she hopes, once she converts, that they’ll marry.
Fisher has put in many years of hard graft to get where she is. She was five when she saw fellow redhead Ann-Margret in an Elvis film and decided she’d like to be a redhead in an Elvis movie, too. “When you’re younger, being a redhead is… Well, my two brothers teased me no end,” she says.

“So I was really excited to see a redhead on film. But, also, my mum was in amateur dramatics and I’d go and sit in the wings and watch her onstage.

I saw what it was like – the excitement and exhilaration of being onstage, backstage, watching make-up being put on, the costume changes.”

Born in Oman, Fisher spent most of her childhood in Perth, after moving there with her family when she was six. Mum wrote romantic novels; Dad was a banker for the UN.

They divorced when she was nine and her mother now lives in Greece, her father, Germany. None of her immediate family members is left in Australia, but Fisher says she’ll always think of herself as Australian.

“It’s totally bizarre,” she wails.

“I miss Tim Tams and Bondi and the smell of sunscreen. If you were to generalise about an Aussie, then I’m an example of one.”

She was nine when she started acting and 18 when she joined Home and Away, which was either grippingly awful or awfully gripping, depending on your point of view.

Parlaying that into a film career was never going to be easy; she thinks, slightly disingenuously, that it’s all down to luck, but hard work and steely ambition must surely play a part.

“The good thing about coming from a soap background is that you do your work experience in the most difficult conditions,” she says.

“You work long hours, the dialogue is difficult to say in an honest way, you have to cry on cue and you have two minutes to prepare for an emotional scene. That’s a great foundation for other stuff.”

The downside was that it was “acting from the neck up”, so she enrolled at the Jacques Lecoq stage school in Paris, alma mater of Geoffrey Rush, to learn how to use the rest of her body.

She toyed with auditioning for London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), “where you study the greats – Chekhov or Shakespeare or whatever – but that didn’t feel like me”.

The cash from Home and Away bought her a flat in Sydney and the rental income from that saw her through the bad times, when she couldn’t even get a commercial.

She remembers auditioning for one advert “where they wanted me to strip to my bra and knickers and mime answering a seashell. I didn’t do it. Even though I had to pay the rent, I still couldn’t do that.”

Apart from a low patch in her early 20s, when she wondered whether she should have studied psychology, she never thought about chucking it in. “I love acting,” she says gleefully, “love it. It’s the greatest fun in the world. I’ve never had trouble feeling extremely grateful. So, even though, comparatively, I wasn’t doing so well, I thought I was on top of the world.”

Landing Scooby-Doo meant that she managed to avoid the knocking-on-doors hell of the US pilot-season that most wannabes have to endure, though she didn’t escape playing the game entirely.

“You have to put on the ‘good aspiring actor’ role, which is that you read everything and you know a lot about every up-and-coming director. I’d really rather be on the beach with a good book.”

Motherhood seems to have softened her and she says she’s no longer as ambitious as she once was. Certainly, she had no qualms about becoming pregnant just as her career was taking off.

“I think your heart dances to the beat of your own drum, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” she says.