“I still think I should be cleaning the pool – not getting to lie by it”
Fisher and Baron Cohen certainly have all the makings of a celebrity power couple, but the mere mention of the term only makes her feel uneasy.
Despite her three-decade career, Australian actor Isla Fisher remains as awestruck by her success as she does co-stars like Dame Judi Dench, who made her feel like “jelly on legs”.
She’s also mystified about being known as a power couple with husband Sacha Baron Cohen – although she does “adore” Borat.
After a year that found her wearing almost nothing but trackies and sports bras, Isla Fisher finally saw glamour make its return to her wardrobe at the start of March.
On the first day of the month, she put on an Alex Perry couture gown to attend a virtual Golden Globes ceremony alongside her husband Sacha Baron Cohen, who picked up two gongs for his latest Borat film.
“I’ve really enjoyed the feeling after lockdown and COVID to get a dress on and get my hair and make-up done,” Fisher tells Stellar two days later, as she lounges around in a Gucci jumpsuit for our photo shoot. “It felt fun. And what I love about Alex Perry is that for anyone who has given birth, he makes you feel like you stepped off a runway.”
But even when she is all frocked up, there are not many places that Fisher can currently go. She says there was a moment during the virtual Globes event when the absurdity of getting all made up and dressed to the nines only to sit in front of a screen suddenly dawned on her, and all she could do was smile to herself. “You know, there was a moment when I had my gorgeous gold platform shoes on,” she recalls with a laugh. “And I realised: why exactly have I bothered?”
Of course, few can appreciate life’s absurdities quite like Fisher. Years before she became one of Australia’s most successful comedic acting exports, she was switching gears with ease.
First she cut her teeth at the Home And Away training ground, tackling topics like anorexia and bisexuality in her role as Shannon Reed, which she played from 1994-1997. Then? An unexpected foray to France, where she studied at the prestigious Jacques Lecoq physical-theatre (or clown) school.
By the time she landed key roles in big Hollywood films like Wedding Crashers and Confessions Of A Shopaholic, she had sharply honed her comedy chops, which are again on display in a new movie adaptation of the famous Noël Coward play Blithe Spirit.
Coward originally wrote the screwball comedy about a struggling writer haunted by the ghost of his wife as a tonic for the atrocities of World War II. But as Fisher was making the movie in summer 2019 – or, as she calls it, “the summer before everything happened” – she could hardly have imagined the same story could again provide laughter during an equally sombre era.
“It feels really good to have a fun, lighthearted comedy during this time. Hopefully we can bring some nice entertainment to people stuck at home right now,” she says.
Fisher, a mother of three, explains she signed on to the piece because unlike so many movies, Blithe Spirit didn’t feature any explosions. Instead the action comes via an arsenal of witty language and the story’s subtle undertones. “I made a conscious decision a few years back that I would make movies that I’d like to see,” she says. “Aside from all the obvious things I have to take into account when I pick a project, like being a mother first and schedules… I would ideally not work at the same time as my husband. I do feel there have been less movies for someone like me. I miss the good old ’80s fun, screwball rom-coms.”
She pauses, and adds, “I mean, I feel so fortunate to say that: ‘When you are choosing a project…’ Because I was a struggling actor for a very long time. Being able to pick and choose your projects was not a luxury that was available to me.”
It’s well documented that until she was encouraged to try out for comedy roles by her husband, who she met at a Sydney party in 2001, Fisher was getting knockback after knockback. Now the 45-year-old – who was born in Oman to Scottish parents and moved to Perth when she was six – is starring opposite the likes of Dame Judi Dench, who also appears in Blithe Spirit.
“There I was in a scene with one of the greatest living actresses and was just praying to myself, ‘Isla, you can’t forget your lines!’
But Judi must be so used to actors around her becoming jelly on legs, and she put me at ease right away with a dirty joke that we both giggled at. She’s got a fantastic sense of humour.”
Fisher’s career in film and television began when she was 12, though she already had a string of TV commercials under her belt by then. When asked to reflect on all that she’s accomplished so far, she points with pride to her AACTA-nominated role in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 big-screen version of The Great Gatsby. But even that pales in comparison to the fulfilment of motherhood.
“I am most proud of being a mother,” she says, with one caveat. “Although motherhood is my favourite topic, I tend not to discuss it publicly. I feel like I want my kids, like all parents do, to live a normal life. All parents are just trying to protect their kids. And I feel like if they wanted to be in the public eye that’s up to them. If I give any quotes about them, that would haunt them. They will be teenagers one day!”
She also politely declines to discuss her family’s relocation back to Australia near the end of last year. While it is not exactly a secret – paparazzi have snapped her and Baron Cohen in Sydney – for security and privacy reasons she doesn’t want to get into the specifics, saying only that Australia has always beckoned.
“I just feel so safe, I suppose the word is cosy, when I’m in Australia,” she explains. “It’s where I grew up. Even though I went to a different school every year and I kind of had to learn to be funny, to make friends quickly, to shake off the stigma of being a short, red-haired girl with large ears and an English accent, I feel a lot of my happiest moments are in Australia. I’m the happiest when I’m home,” says Fisher, who will shoot a Netflix movie with Toni Collette here later in the year. “I miss it when I’m not here. I don’t feel any pressure when I’m in Australia. I don’t have to say or do or be anything. I mean, I don’t even have to wear shoes.”
Tabloids have speculated Fisher and Baron Cohen’s move to Australia was politically motivated, and that they were uneasy about living in the US under President Donald Trump. Indeed, by rushing to release Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – which featured a notorious scene wherein Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was tricked into a compromising position – before November’s US presidential election, Baron Cohen has been credited as a key player in helping move the needle towards Joe Biden’s eventual victory. And in 2019, at the Anti-Defamation League Leadership Conference, Baron Cohen gave a lauded speech calling on social-media companies to take ownership for the misinformation they spread.
Fisher backs him, telling Stellar, “I believe that one man [Mark Zuckerberg] shouldn’t make the decisions for two billion people. My husband has been working tirelessly on internet reform [through his organisation Stop Hate For Profit] for the past six years and it’s just completely common sense that no accounts on social media should incite violence or spread hate.
The top 10 individuals for the anti-vax industry have a combined 29 million followers on social media. They are pumping out lethal lies. The social-media companies know who these people are and they allow them to spread their lies in order to get rich – profiting, quite literally, off of death. I’m proud of [Baron Cohen’s] work and I was very proud of the Borat sequel. The timing and the way he impacted the election… I think he is formidable.”
Baron Cohen has remarked he can now retire the character and his mankini, but Fisher reckons she will miss her husband’s most famous alter ego. “I’ll never be happy to see the back of Borat,” she admits. “I’m very fond of that handlebar moustache. I adore Borat; I adore all the characters. I’ve lived with all of them for almost 20 years.”
Influencing elections, winning awards, leading the charge as Hollywood’s A-list continues its COVID-prompted march towards Australia – Fisher and Baron Cohen certainly have all the makings of a celebrity power couple, but the mere mention of the term only makes her feel uneasy.
“That’s very flattering, but I can’t give a quote on that because I don’t know how to define that [in terms of] how it apparently refers to us.” She then cracks, “[And] trying to get everyone to school on time? I don’t feel particularly powerful given that no-one seems to listen to me.”
And yet, when she considers the trajectory of her career, Fisher says she still has to pinch herself nearly every day. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years and I’m still absolutely thrilled to be employed and have the opportunity to take on any of these characters,” she says. “I mean, I still can’t believe that we have a house with a swimming pool. I still think I should probably be the one cleaning the leaves out of the bottom of the swimming pool – not the one who gets to lie by it.”
Blithe Spirit will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on April 2.