Interview: Isla Fisher, actress
TEETERING into the London hotel room on six-inch heels, Isla Fisher is in full glamorous mode as she grips my hand: a gesture that combines warmth with a pressing need for something to hang on to.
This is day two of a European tour to promote her new film Rango, and the tight schedule of TV and press leaves her no time to change between interviews – hence her plunging neckline, some Weimar-era eye make-up and the vertiginous footwear. Yet underneath it all, a rising comedy star is still recognisable as she wobbles towards a chair.
“I’m definitely at my most comfortable tapping into my inner idiot,” she confirms. “I mean, I love dramatic actors and actresses but I’ve never personally aspired to have an Oscar. I’m just a comedy fan.” Up until now however, in films such as Wedding Crashers, Confessions Of A Shopaholic and Wedding Daze, she’s been able to rely on her physical gift for slapstick. In Rango, her performance concentrates on a deadpan vocal performance as a sceptical frontier lizard called Beans, who doesn’t even have Fisher’s Australian accent. “The director wanted Beans to sound like Holly Hunter – so I watched Raising Arizona a million times and practised until I got the pitch nice and low.”
Gore Verbinski’s animated animal western is about Rango (Johnny Depp), a chameleon who manages to blend into the old west world of gunshooting rattlesnakes (Bill Nighy), bar-room rats (Ray Winstone) and a precocious desert mouse (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin). Fisher’s character is the only one who suspects that Rango is an imposter rather than a real gunslinger.
Verbinski’s film comes across as an affectionate pastiche of the spaghetti, tortilla and refried westerns of his youth, but the way he recorded the vocal performances was completely original. Shooting over 21 days, he assembled the entire cast on a sound stage and made them act out the story in costumes.
“Normally you’re isolated in a sterile booth, one at a time, but Gore had us perform the film from beginning to end,” confirms Fisher. “It’s more rewarding because you can react to other performers, and he encouraged us to actually act out scenes. So we had Abigail Breslin, who was only 12 then, carrying a massive gun around that was almost as big as her, while Johnny Depp developed a lizard walk and Billy Nighy was sliding around the floor.” It sounds like a panto. “It was like bad rep theatre,” she agrees. “I loved it.”
Born in Oman to Scottish parents, Fisher began appearing in TV commercials at the age of nine, and became a tabloid staple after starring in the Australian soap Home And Away as troubled teen Shannon Reed. Wary of being typecast, she enrolled in Paris’s prestigious acting school, Ecole Jacques Lecoq, a few years later and, among other things, became a bona fide clown, studying mime and juggling. In London she worked with various repertory companies and did a stint in panto, which also led to a brief engagement to Darren Day, something of an occupational hazard for stage actresses in the 1990s.
By the time she had made her Hollywood debut as Shaggy’s love interest in Scooby-Doo (2002), she had already met her future husband Sacha Baron-Cohen, who gently encouraged her to persevere with comic roles. “At that point I was auditioning for all these dramas and taking it very seriously and getting rejected. It was Sacha who said, ‘You’re so funny, you should be going for comedy.’?”
Her big break came just as Baron-Cohen had found global recognition with Borat. In Wedding Crashers the part of a nymphomaniac bridesmaid, Gloria, who terrified Vince Vaughn with her obsessive squeal of “I’ll find yoouuu!”, launched her into a new level of fame. Baron-Cohen famously refuses to give interviews unless he has a film to promote, and even then he will only appear in character. Fisher is much more approachable, but still clams up when the discussion veers towards her husband or her home life, mouthing “I’m sorry” and pulling a helpless face.
After Fisher converted to Judaism, the Baron-Cohens wed quietly last year in Paris and now split their time between a home in central London and Los Angeles. In both cities, it’s 35-year-old Fisher who tends to get recognised rather than her husband, 39.
Yet Fisher has been relatively quiet in the past few years, apart from Rango and a role as an 18th-century wannabe actress in John Landis’s Burke And Hare. That film was something of a comedy misfire, largely because there’s not much fun to be had from two real-life serial killers who specialised in murdering the young and the vulnerable. But for once Fisher also attracted some poor notices, largely aimed at her Scots accent. “Some people thought it wasn’t authentic,” she says, her face clouding briefly. “But my father has a very thick Scottish accent, so that was just me copying my dad completely.”
The other reason for Fisher’s long absences from film recently has been her off-screen duties as the mother of two young children. Three-year-old Olive was joined by a sister six months ago, although the parents have not released her name publicly. True to form, Fisher told no-one of her pregnancy during Burke And Hare. “I had severe morning sickness so I didn’t eat anything and just vomited all the time. Simon Pegg must be the least observant actor on the planet because he didn’t notice. I think he presumed I was just a typical Hollywood bulimic.”
Her children were one reason why she agreed to do Rango, with Rise Of The Guardians, another 3D animation, in the pipeline. “Yes, one of them is only six months old – but they are very advanced, light years ahead of all other children, so they shouldn’t have any problem following what’s going on,” she hams. “But really, now I’m a mum I don’t want to be away from the kids, so I only work if I really love the script or the character or the director.”
The scripts, she admits, aren’t always up to much. “After Wedding Crashers I was surprised by the lack of comedic material for women. A lot of them are really disappointing,” she says. “I get offered a lot of ‘girlfriend’ roles where the women roll their eyes while the guys get all the good lines.”
Out of frustration, Fisher has decided to take control by penning her own material. This is not her first foray into writing; at 17 she wrote two bestselling teen novels with her mother, a romantic novelist. Now she has two collaborative scripts about to go into development.
The first is Groupies, which she co-wrote with Amy Poehler, best known here for the comedy Baby Mama and in America for her impersonations of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live. A riposte to Spinal Tap, the film is set to feature Poehler and Fisher as two women who worship a rock band and follow them around on every tour. “And, since then, I developed another project called Cookie Queen – not with Amy, but a couple of male writers – about a girl who sold the most Girl Scout cookies and built her entire adult life round that until a nine-year-old girl overtakes her record. So, I’m making sure I have a little bit more power and control over my career.”
Even so, she has no plans to go full-time into writing; “It’s a bit isolating being alone in a room. Ultimately, I’m too gregarious for writing.” On the other hand, having recently shadowed the director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow, she confides brightly: “I’d love to direct!”
• Rango is on general release from Friday