‘It’s a wonderful time to be a woman…’: Isla Fisher on fame, family and making time for love (and how Sacha Baron Cohen only attracts overweight men)
But we need men to support us, says actress ISLA FISHER. She tells Elaine Lipworth how she juggles fame and family with husband Sacha Baron Cohen…and why love is when he empties the dishwasher
Isla Fisher is a woman of many talents. Apart from her stellar film career, she is the author of a bestselling children’s book series featuring anarchic babysitter Marge. But some of Isla’s gifts are of a more practical nature: the 42-year-old Australian actress is an organisational whiz, making sure everything is shipshape at the family home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Sacha Baron Cohen and their three young children.
‘I love colour-coding a family schedule chart – I put everybody’s name in a different colour,’ enthuses the star of Wedding Crashers, The Great Gatsby, Now You See Me and the new comedy Tag. ‘This week I’ve organised my pantry and sorted out my wardrobe,’ she says, when we chat over coffee in LA, telling me gleefully that she has also ‘gutted the garage and cleaned the closets’.
‘I love acting,’ she says, but film roles ‘have to fit into the logistics of my life because I can’t pull the children out of school on a whim’. When Isla does work, ‘it has to be meaningful creatively, playing a type of character I haven’t portrayed before’.
She was temporarily lured away from the family cocoon to film her latest comedy Tag, a madcap romp based on a true story about a group of men who were childhood friends and still play tag (or ‘it’) every year during the month of May. The middle-aged pals dress up in bizarre costumes and chase each other around the globe in a cutthroat version of the playground game – with hilarious and hazardous consequences. ‘What’s great about the film is that this childish game was inspired by a real group of friends,’ says Isla. ‘We mine specific plot lines from their experiences, for example, tagging someone even at their own father’s funeral.’ Mad Men’s Jon Hamm stars alongside Jeremy Renner (The Avengers). ‘Jon is great at comedy in my opinion because he takes it seriously,’ says Isla of the actor, with whom she co-starred in Keeping Up With The Joneses. Isla’s character Anna, married to Hoagie (Ed Helms), has multiple personality disorder. She is desperate to join in the high jinks ‘but because it’s the boys’ game I’m not allowed to play. When I do get involved, I get carried away and people get hurt.’
The theme of Tag ‘is friendship and the things we did together when we were young that connected us, whether it was video games, Barbie dolls or playing tag’. Isla’s own favourite children’s game is pass the parcel. ‘I put a small gift in each layer and always ensure the music stops on every kid once,’ she says. ‘None of the children at the party ever seem to twig when the birthday girl or boy wins the final big present!’
Like the protagonists of Tag, Isla has a group of friends from her childhood in Australia and other newer ones living in the US, including the actress Naomi Watts. ‘One friend is an entertainment lawyer in London, one is in Melbourne, another is in Perth. I’m always drawn to Aussies – the koala mafia. I love nothing more than cheering up my friends by taking the p*** out of myself!’
A keen cook, Isla is currently experimenting with Asian fusion recipes: ‘I make a pretty delicious sea bass with garlic, olive oil, a tiny bit of soy sauce and herbs.’ Sacha, she says, ‘makes the greatest tomato pasta sauce you will ever taste’. She talks about the value of regular family dinners. ‘Even though my parents divorced, we always ate as a family together, whether I was at my dad’s or my mum’s house. I think it’s really important for families to have that time to connect. It’s a special time.’
Born in the Gulf state of Oman, Isla and her brothers Daniel and Edward were raised mostly in Perth, also spending time in England with her mother Elspeth Reid, who now runs an ecotourism business on the Greek island of Syros (where Isla’s brothers also live), and her father, Brian Fisher, who worked for the United Nations and then the World Bank. Perhaps because of her peripatetic childhood and the nomadic nature of acting, Isla treasures the stability of home life: ‘If you want to stay at home with your family and you can afford it, that’s fine.’ She doesn’t take her own privileged position lightly. ‘Some people don’t have the luxury to do that.’ She pauses. ‘The heart of feminism is being able to choose what’s best for you.’
She goes on to share her views on the Me Too movement. ‘I think it is a wonderful time for women right now. We need men to support the movement.’ Like almost every woman in Hollywood, Isla has experienced sexism: ‘I think it’s pervasive.’ While still in her teens, ‘I did an audition for an advert and had to wear a bikini; there were 15 men in the room, which was just absurd. And there have been inappropriate questions asked during auditions.’ The actress recalls the seminal feminist book she read as a teenager: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. ‘My first thought was how much work it takes to be a woman: the exfoliating, the bleaching, the plucking, the starving, the shopping. The entire thing is so unfair because men have to do absolutely nothing,’ says Isla. ‘I remember that book was my first proper wake-up call about the role women play and feel compelled to play.’ As to how male attitudes can change in Hollywood and beyond, ‘It’s all about both parents setting a good example,’ says Isla. ‘Boys watch their fathers; kids look at what you do, not what you say.’
We go on to discuss the pros and cons of social media in relation to bringing up healthy children. ‘You can use it to promote positive messages and you can be inclusive but, on the other hand, vocabularies are shrinking and people have fewer words to articulate their thoughts clearly, so there’s more room for miscommunication. It feels as though our attention spans are shortening, and emoticons can only reflect a limited range of emotions.’
Isla is invested in trying to get young people reading literature. When children are engrossed in the lives of imaginary characters, she says, ‘not only does it teach us how to go into the character of a person from a different race or time period, but it teaches tolerance’. Isla wrote two young adult novels in her teens and has produced three books in her Marge children’s series. The latest, which is out in September, finds Marge ‘up to the same shenanigans with Jemima and Jake Button’, the children she takes care of. The stories have taken off with young readers, says Isla, because ‘kids love it when grown-ups misbehave. Children are given a million rules and Marge subverts them all. I think humour is the best way to connect to children from the time they’re babies and you blow a raspberry.’
Does Isla have anything in common with her colourful protagonist? ‘No, because I have to be “sensible mummy”. I wish I could be like Marge,’ she laughs, revealing that her stories were inspired by ‘two really dear friends’, one of whom ‘speaks in hyperbole and tells crazy stories’.
Are there any thoughts of writing an adult book? ‘Absolutely not!’ she exclaims. ‘I admire writers too much to dip my toe in that pond. I love words elegantly put together, nothing makes me happier.’ (She mentions the ‘amazing and so articulate’ Stephen Fry as an example of a novelist whose work she admires.) Isla is, however, trying her hand at screenplays. ‘I could probably attempt a romcom,’ she says. Romcoms, of course, convey universal truths about love amid the one-liners. What has Isla herself observed about successful long-term twosomes? ‘Embrace each other’s differences. It’s about finding romance in the details,’ she says. ‘When someone makes coffee in the morning or takes the rubbish out. They sound like mundane chores, but they are thoughtful and show that the person’s got your back.’ Date nights are important, too. ‘As with many mums, when I’m home it’s hard for me to switch off – I’ll end up tidying the playroom.’
Isla certainly has enough experience starring in romantic comedies – from Confessions of a Shopaholic to Bachelorette. As well as Tag, this year Isla is appearing in The Beach Bum with Matthew McConaughey. She describes the actor as ‘a good soul. He’s incredibly chivalrous. He’s the first one to ask you if you need a drink.’
Isla’s dream role? ‘A part that is not defined by the character’s gender, such as Angelina Jolie’s character in Salt [the 2010 drama starring Jolie as a CIA agent] which was written for a man but they flipped the gender.’ Has the Me Too movement led to greater opportunities for women in Hollywood? She gives a shrug. ‘A third of all film roles are played by women, which is ridiculous considering we make up half the population.’
Isla worked with her husband (whose comic creations famously include Ali G, Borat and Brüno) for the first time in Grimsby in 2016 and ‘would love to work with him again. He is hilarious.’ Sacha, who is about to star as the Israeli spy Eli Cohen in the Netflix series The Spy, based on true events, has given his wife cause for concern over the years by putting himself in harm’s way during filming. When he was on location for Brüno (featuring his gay fashionista alter ego) a decade ago, ‘He jumped out of a window in high heels and broke his heel. He is willing to go so far for his craft. My husband is incredibly brave; he’s fearless. It’s his best quality.’ Do the comic couple ever get jealous of each other’s on-screen romances? ‘No, and I feel as though my husband only has sex scenes with overweight men,’ says Isla.
A shared sense of humour is key to any successful marriage. ‘Healthy relationships are also about compromise,’ says Isla. One area where she and Sacha differ: ‘I’m into staycations. I like barbecues, having friends over, because I’m less inclined to pack all the bags and drive to the airport. I’m less adventurous than my husband – for example, when we went to French Polynesia, I was sunbathing on the beach while he was 60 feet under the sea in a shark-feeding frenzy. But I go with the flow because we always have fun.’ An example she cites is a recent camping trip the family took to New Zealand, driving up the coast from Queenstown in a camper van. ‘Everyone loved it. New Zealand has so much natural beauty,’ says Isla.
‘Camping is physically demanding because you arrive at the campsite, often late at night, and then have to connect your electricity and water,’ she says. ‘There are always jobs to do and you’re like one big team.’ Did she miss the luxury of five-star hotels? ‘Not at all, but it felt as though all I did at every stop was laundry. Then you’re queuing up to do the dishes in a sink in the crowded campsite and later you’ll be in the public showers.’ Isla says she’s used to roughing it. ‘As a kid my dad would take us and our campsite was always on the edge of a mini golf or a trampoline park. We would play and bounce all day. I have so many happy memories. So this trip was a nice return to my childhood and was super fun.’
Were people surprised to see the famous couple pegging out laundry? ‘We did get recognised, but people in New Zealand are very respectful. They would just say hello.’
This summer’s holiday will be spent in France. ‘My dad turns 80 and my mother turns 70, so I’m throwing a party for her in France. I’ve invited all our family, on both sides, to stay in a big house. I’m really excited to get all the cousins together because we’re dispersed around the world. We’ve never all come together other than for a lunch, so this could either be amazing or turn into Family Feud!’ She erupts into peals of laughter. ‘On the other hand,’ says Isla, ‘the holiday could be the inspiration for my next comedy!’
What do you have for breakfast?
Porridge. I add a tiny bit of cinnamon and honey.
Teen celebrity crush
Michael J Fox in Family Ties.
Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth.
Favourite famous couple
I respect and admire Amal and George Clooney, and they’re both lovely.
My grandma said: ‘The secret to happiness is to be of service and to be kind to people.’ I try to do that but the LA traffic makes it hard!
Where are you happiest?
Cottesloe Beach in Perth.
I’m a sugar junkie. I blame my mum – every time we get together we have cake and coffee.
What makes you laugh?
Anything inappropriate – the more obnoxious the better. I love Larry David’s humour in Curb Your Enthusiasm. I crack up at The Simpsons and adore South Park.
TV binge-watching. I got sucked into The Bachelorette last season and have almost finished The Bachelor.
Tag will be in cinemas nationwide from Friday