Isla Fisher: view from the top
Stylist talks to The Great Gatsby star
She proved her comedy credentials long ago. But with a role in this year’s most anticipated film Isla Fisher’s career is, quite rightly, set to skyrocket
Question: who would be on your dream dinner party list? Mine had been laminated for a while. Michael Fassbender (for obvious reasons), Jay-Z and Beyoncé (who would then adopt me), Russell Brand (provides the laughs), Nigel Slater (the food) and Kate Moss (the drama). But I have found a new spot for a miniature redhead with a fabulously filthy mouth, who takes the mickey out of herself every three minutes, adores Kylie Minogue and loves her husband and children so fiercely it pains her not to talk about them (which she doesn’t for privacy reasons). Indeed, one day shooting with actress Isla Fisher in a palatial mansion in LA and she’s almost bumped Beyoncé down to Sunday brunch.
Everything is set up to be a totally LA day. Our photographer Brian has recently shot Paris Jackson (at Grandma Jackson’s actual house) and is running late because he is being interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. The owner of the location house spends the morning telling us about her daughter’s Sweet Sixteen party, which MTV has just filmed there, and how ‘Little’ (Lil) Wayne has just shot his video in the pool. And then 37-year-old Isla turns up with wet hair, says “Cor blimey guv’nor, how are you?” to our photography director in her best Dick Van Dyke accent and tells me that she loves me for actually daring to eat a bagel in LA. And suddenly everyone in the room relaxes.
We have flown to Hollywood to shoot and interview Isla for her latest role as Myrtle in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby; his first film in five years. Despite the bulk of filming on the spectacle wrapping in 2011, the film’s original release date of Christmas 2012 was pushed back to this Thursday while Baz worked his creative magic, leading to inevitable rumours that it would not live up to the hype. When we meet, even Isla has yet to see it. “The only actors who’ve seen the movie so far are Leo and Tobey. Leo said he really liked it.” I’ve since been to a screening and it’s brilliant. Beautiful, opulent, dramatic – everything that The Great Gatsby should be. And Isla’s portrayal of Myrtle is surprising, original and a total departure for her.
Despite a career which started on the sunny shores of Summer Bay in Home And Away back in 1994, to date Isla’s film path has tended towards romantic comedy roles in films like Scooby Doo, Wedding Crashers and Confessions Of A Shopaholic. Auditioning for the role of mistress Myrtle, a dramatic scene stealer in the Twenties love story, therefore came with a serving of angst. “I was really lucky because my agent called me on a Friday and I was to meet Baz on Saturday so I didn’t have time to overthink it. If I’d had a week, I’d have reread The Great Gatsby three times and studied the cliff notes, then got a PhD in the book before I met him, which would have probably made the audition pressurised and worked against me getting the job. Instead, we had a chat, I pulled a few Myrtle poses, we talked about the character and then I had to wait a very long time to find out. There was a lot of me calling my agent saying, ‘Hey, have you heard anything?’ and her saying no and me cursing loudly. Then, of course, I got the call.”
Before filming began in Australia – a highlight for native Isla who got to “see family and friends, eat Tim Tams and swim on the beach every day” – Isla, Carey Mulligan (who plays Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby) and Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) went to New York to study the book. “I was a huge fan already so for me to do a two-week acting workshop in New York with the actors, the music, really immerse myself in the world and study everything about the writer, the text, the flapper movement, the prohibition era, the dialect… that was just the most fun. It was like taking your favourite subject at school and wanting to do it every day.”
It was also, as Isla admits, “a long way from Summer Bay!” Did it give her the bug for more dramatic acting? “In a little way, yes, because the good thing about a drama is that everyone takes it seriously so you do feel like you can lose yourself in a scene. With comedy I can never do that because I’m always thinking what’s something funny I could do now, how can I improvise, how can I make people laugh?”
A few hours in Isla’s company and it’s pretty obvious she has a talent for making people laugh. She has the typical self-deprecating humour of an Australian who spends most of her time in England, asking the photographer to “Please, god, retouch those pictures”. “It took Sacha saying ‘You’re really funny, you should be doing comedy’ for me to move my career in that direction and ask my agent to consider me for those roles. Then I got Wedding Crashers,” she explains. I’m with her husband, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (they married in Paris in 2010) on this one; she’s completely without the typical vanity of many actresses which makes comedy a natural fit.
“When I first came to Hollywood, I went with Sacha to a very big Hollywood party for Lost In Translation,” she remembers. “When we pulled up, everyone you could imagine was in this room, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman… This lady came straight up to me, introduced herself as Colleen and then turned to me and said ‘Come with me, I’ve got something to show you.’ I’m thinking oh my god, I’m so excited. So she takes me away from Sacha and opens this door and there’s this giant pink room covered in kids’ posters and there in the middle is a group of 14-year-old girls and she said, ‘Everybody, this is Sacha’s daughter’ and asked me if I wanted a soft drink. Clearly I should have worn more make up!”
It was that combination of wide-eyed innocence (she honestly looks about 22) and her lack of self-consciousness that made her portrayal of the sex starved Gloria in 2005’s Wedding Crashers so brilliant and made Hollywood really take notice. It’s a skill she’d been honing for a while, though. “My dad just brought my report cards over and they all say she was always making jokes in class and she’s a class clown. I just don’t think I ever really knew that you could have a job where you could get paid for making people laugh. I was just not that self-aware.”
Isla’s childhood was a million miles away from that of her own daughters with Sacha, Olive, five and Elula, two. She was born in Oman to Scottish parents, but their jobs kept them moving around (her dad worked for the UN, while her mum was a romantic novelist) and by the early Eighties she was living with them and her four brothers in Perth, Australia. She landed her first role aged nine on an Australian commercial, before bagging every Aussie actor’s rite of passage in Home And Away at 18. When I bring up the subject, she winces. “I wouldn’t say that I had the greatest experience on Home And Away. I learnt a lot, but I was very exhausted because the hours that they work you are very, very long and you’re away from your family and you’re expected, after shooting incredibly long days, to work at the weekend doing photoshoots for magazines. My abiding memory is just being exhausted and sleeping whenever I could. Learn your lines, shoot all day, go to sleep. But it was an excellent training ground and I’m still in touch with Tempany Deckert who played Selina and Kate Ritchie who played Sally.”
While Isla may not have consciously planned for her future career, she does have some formal training in the art of making people laugh. After finishing Home And Away in 1997 she moved to Paris and spent a year at Lecoq clown school. “I had done a lot of television up until that point and I didn’t really know much about performing on stage. After shooting Home And Away for so long I wasn’t in love with acting anymore so it was great to go to clown school and fall in love with the art of it. It just seemed like a more exciting way to approach acting as opposed to a traditional drama school route. I can juggle, do mime and basic clowning and I’ve used a lot of what I learnt in my job.”
And of course, she just happens to eat her morning cornflakes with one of the most talented and controversial comedians of our generation; the man responsible for Ali G, Borat, Bruno and a million teenage boys saying “Wagwaan” and “Booyakashan”. Although she has a strict ‘no husband or children questions’ (which she’s very polite and apologetic about), she has spoken in the past about what it’s like to actually live with him saying, “The fallout from Sacha’s ability to cause chaos means that, unlike most wives who can say, ‘How was your day at work, darling?’ I have to say, ‘Are you getting sued? Have you been arrested? Are you in jail? Are all your limbs still attached?’ Sacha has more lawsuits than the Baldwin brothers.” Today the most she will give away is how much of a fan of his she is: “Bruno is my favourite comedy movie of all time, I think Sacha is hilarious in all of his movies, he’s utterly original and brilliantly funny.” Does she have any input into the characters he creates? “Of course, in all partnerships you end up discussing work at home.”
Then there’s her favourite topic – her two children. When I tell her I’m four months pregnant, she quizzes me all day about how I’m feeling and informs me I’m definitely having a boy as girls make you look terrible, telling me she had such bad morning sickness with hers that she could only eat massive bowls of white pasta. In fact, she’s so passionate about babies that she nearly gives me a heart attack when she spots me drinking a diet cola later on in the day, lecturing me (pretty sternly!) about how many chemicals are in it. She does genuinely seem to care though and you get the feeling she’s not only a brilliant mum but friend too.
“I think the most romantic thing you can ever do is to make a family with someone. I love being a mum and it’s my favourite topic personally, but professionally I hate talking about it. In England it’s wonderful actually because they pixelate kids’ faces and they’re quite good at respecting the rights of children because they didn’t choose to have famous parents so they deserve to have a normal childhood like we all have. I don’t mention them because I really want them to have safe, normal lives and be treated like individuals away from what we do.”
Despite now picking projects based on how they’ll fit around her young family, Isla still has plenty of drive left, admitting she’s “full of unfulfilled ambitions”. She’s just co-written a screenplay with her mum (she previously wrote a comedy script called Groupies with Amy Poehler and had two novels published when she was a teenager). “I think it’s always nice to be creatively challenged and tackle new projects, it keeps you alive and excited and I’ve always loved writing, I read a lot of books as a kid and it’s something you can do from home which functions well for my family. But to be honest I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day! I slightly regret that I ever brought it up at all. It’s more of a hobby than a career move. I love people who are good with words and there’s nothing better than reading. I’m fond of books written 50 years ago when people used language in such a romantic way.
“My favourite author is Emily Brontë. At the moment, I’m reading a book called Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman. You should really read it – it’s all about brain chemistry and how you make a decision. I read everything from trash to biographies and I love finding new writers. I’m not a snob when it comes to books.” I get the feeling Isla doesn’t find it easy relaxing. Despite having just finished filming Now You See Me, about a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances (out this summer, the trailer looks brilliant), she’s already moved on to writing another comedy and wants to be a great gardener, painter and one day, director. “I’d love to see more women in comedy. And more women directors. I think Rebel Wilson did a sublime job hosting the MTV Awards this year and I just love Chelsea Handler. I think it’s irrelevant whether they have a vagina or not, they’re just funny.”
The Great Gatsby is in cinemas nationwide from 16 May