The Daily Mail – July 10th 2016

‘I wish I had the secret to balancing it all as a mum’: Actress Isla Fisher on juggling movies with motherhood and writing her way out of a midlife crisis

When Great Gatsby actress Isla Fisher (aka Mrs Sacha Baron Cohen) came to a crossroads in her life, she shook things up by making bedtime more interesting – both for her children and herself. In the process she found a new career, as Miranda Thompson discovers

When your films are Oscar-winning and you’re half of one of Hollywood’s hottest couples, what’s left to achieve? For The Great Gatsby’s Isla Fisher, it was simply a case of returning to a long-held passion: writing.

Away from the LA stardust, the actress, who turned 40 this year, is a self-confessed bibliophile who devoured two books a week before the arrival of her children with A-list husband Sacha Baron Cohen (the man behind Borat and Ali G). At 18, long before Hollywood came calling, she also published two young adult novels (co-written with her mum) in between stints on Aussie soap Home and Away.

This summer, Isla will be back in the bookshop with her comic children’s novel, Marge in Charge, which stars the eponymous Marge – a pint-sized babysitter with rainbow hair and a penchant for causing mayhem. Isla invented the character as a bedtime story and was inspired to put pen to paper after her brood kept requesting more of her.

The wellbeing of children is clearly important to Isla. In December last year, she and Sacha made the headlines for their £670,000 donation to charities working with victims of the conflict in Syria. ‘There are 8.4 million children in need in Syria and its neighbouring countries,’ she says. ‘We are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War Two.’ Their donation paid for measles vaccinations for more than 250,000 children.

In between more movie roles – this year she appears alongside Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal in Tom Ford’s thriller Nocturnal Animals and with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in spy comedy Keeping Up with the Joneses – Isla has managed to produce three Marge masterpieces, each containing three short stories, with the follow-up to Marge in Charge set for a late summer release.

‘If the books are terrible,’ she jokes, ‘at least I can still act for a living!’

I started writing again because I didn’t want to have a midlife crisis. I was pregnant and couldn’t work. I could have developed an obsession with gardening, got into pilates or had a midlife crisis. I considered all three, then decided to write.

Stories were a fun part of my childhood. We moved around a lot [Isla was born in Oman to Scottish parents, moving to Australia when she was six], so I hid in books. My grandmother was an avid reader and so was my mum.

Reading is the best kind of escapism. I think books take tiny people to places they can’t go – on a pirate ship, inside a peach, through a looking glass. They help children find quiet time, provoke thoughts and discussions, and educate them.

Winnie-the-Pooh is my favourite book character. He is adorable – a lovable idiot. I still laugh when I read his lines to my kids, no matter how many times I’ve heard them. A A Milne is one of my favourite children’s authors, along with Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Dr Seuss – the usual suspects.

There is nothing more awkward than co-writing a love scene with a parent. When I was 18, my mum [author Elspeth Reid] encouraged me to try young adult fiction. We wrote two books together [Seduced By Fame and Bewitched]. It was a lot of fun – until we got to collaborating on the love scenes… I haven’t seen either of those books in 19 years. And that’s a relief!

Marge was conceived as a way to get my children to bed. She became this larger-than-life character who they wanted to hear more about before they went to sleep. Storytelling is a great opportunity for parents to connect and discuss ideas with their children.

If two of my best friends had a love child, it would be Marge. One of them is the eternal Peter Pan who is in total denial about reality, and the other tells magical, amazing stories. The stories are a bit like The Cat in the Hat meets My Naughty Little Sister, which are books I love to read with young children. I find kids are used to other kids misbehaving, but when grown-ups do it they find it hilarious.

I wish I had the secret to balancing it all as a mum, but I don’t have a clue. ‘Don’t worry about being perfect or you’ll miss out on the fun!’ – that’s the message from Marge in Charge and I try to keep it in mind myself when I am juggling life.

I write in a bookshop. I sneak away at 10am every morning, shove pastries into my mouth and type away. It’s never quiet there and I chat to people, which gives me the perfect excuse to take breaks.

I am the worst procrastinator. I can make up the most amazing excuses of ‘urgent’ stuff that needs to be done: reorganising cupboards, or Googling a potential ailment I may develop in old age (or already have), or online shopping for something obscure. But the thing that always sparks my creativity is fear of a deadline.

I think a lot of people in my position would have hired a ghostwriter. But I loved the characters I created, and I wanted to put them on the page exactly as I heard them in my mind. I may come to regret that decision!

David Walliams is my literary inspiration. I sent him the first story and he was so supportive – and kind enough to give me a quote for the back cover.

If my books are successful, I owe it all to the kids who have heard the stories. They were my secret editors. I emailed all the stories to my mum, and she claims to have enjoyed them, but the children I’ve read them to are brutally honest – when moments in the story become boring they make it all too clear!

Seeing my name on a book jacket for the first time was terrifying – but thrilling, too. It’s embarrassing to put something I’ve poured my heart into out in the world.

It saddens me when I think about how vocabularies are shrinking. Literacy is so important for both children and adults. It’s almost impossible to get employment or enjoy huge swathes of culture without being able to read. And words and books stimulate imagination, which helps creative thought, which in turn leads to innovation.

I used to read two books a week before I had children. Now I have to read a lot of scripts, so unfortunately books become a luxury that I don’t get to indulge in as often as I’d like.

The best place to read is in bed with a cup of tea. I’ve just finished Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and On Writing by Stephen King.

I love acting and writing equally. I get lost in both experiences – and I act out all the parts in my head as I am writing.

When it comes to picking films, the director comes first. In Keeping Up with the Joneses – in which I play a bored suburban housewife married to Zach Galifianakis – I got to work with the wonderful Greg Mottola of Superbad fame.

And Tom Ford, who I worked with on Nocturnal Animals, is the ideal director – collaborative, fiercely intelligent and a brilliant storyteller. He is so special. He’s one of those people who you meet and feel instantly like an underachiever.

I would love to play Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. If only height wasn’t an issue! Or Lady Macbeth…but I think I would be more likely to be cast as Pippi Longstocking’s mother.

I celebrated my 40th birthday with my friends, family – and Katy Perry. My husband asked her to sing for me and she kindly obliged. I had to pretend that I didn’t know the words to every single song so she wouldn’t realise how big a fan I am! #BestHusbandEver.

Ageing isn’t easy. But for me, I think it’s just a matter of reframing how you think about the new ‘old’ you. One of my friends recently described me as the ‘oldest young person I know’ – which is kind, because I’m now middle-aged. All I’ve got left to achieve is learning to think before I speak and getting tall enough to be a supermodel.

I never realised what a puerile sense of humour I had until I joined Instagram. I dragged myself on there because it’s now a part of our business and I had to control myself from writing filth next to every picture I posted.

I am completely bamboozled by the world of social media. I’m not on Twitter. I don’t know what I’m doing.

My biggest aim is to be considered cool by my kids. I’d also like to write more children’s books and, on the acting side, work with the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Adam McKay – preferably not as their assistant.

My five-year plan? To sleep through the night.


Isla’s icons

WHAT DO YOU HAVE FOR BREAKFAST? A pretzel, or oatmeal with coffee, or a green juice.

LAST BOOK YOU READ? Bossypants by Tina Fey.

DREAM DINNER PARTY GUESTS? Stephen Fry, Clive James, Winston Churchill and Germaine Greer.

ON YOUR IPOD? Katy Perry, Prince and David Bowie.

MUST-HAVE ACCESSORY? My wedding ring.

MOST TREASURED POSSESSION? My laptop full of photos.

IN THREE WORDS, I’M… Small, ginger, hairy.

FAVOURITE BEAUTY PRODUCT? Olay eye make-up remover.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS? Universal adapter, eye mask, kids’ sticker books, snacks, nappies and wipes, antibacterial wipes.

WARDROBE STAPLE? White T-shirt and jeans.

CAN’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT? Sunglasses and wallet.

SECRET AMBITION? It’s not so secret any more! To become a children’s author.

MOTTO? My grandmother always said the secret to happiness is to be of service and have gratitude.