Isla Fisher on living with Borat and Ali G, and Keeping up with the Joneses
She stars in Hollywood blockbusters, holidays with Bono and has an A-list husband by the name of Borat (or Brüno, or Ali G…). Yet Isla Fisher can walk down the street to barely a second glance. She tells Stella the secret of her extraordinary ordinary life
Nobody seems to notice Isla Fisher, who is browsing the fiction section at Waterstones in Hampstead.
It’s surprising, considering that the Australian actress has starred in global hits ranging from Wedding Crashers to The Great Gatsby, and is married to Sacha Baron Cohen, one of the most recognisable figures in television and film.
Both successfully remain under the radar, despite their high-profile careers.
Isla and Sacha, 45, split their time between Los Angeles and north London. I’m meeting Isla today to discuss her latest comedy, Keeping Up With the Joneses – and she admits few projects can lure her from their daughters Olive, eight, and Elula, six, and their eighteen-month-old son Monty.
“I’m lucky enough to be able to stay at home and be with my family,” she says. “I used to devour every script, but now I’m focused on my family life, which has brought me so much satisfaction in a deep way.”
Isla, petite and beautiful, is 40 but could pass for 25. Summery and stylish, she’s wearing a blue, batique-print, off-the-shoulder dress by Michael Kors.
Despite the redhead’s distinctive appearance, she says she manages to be incognito much of the time, which is the way she prefers it.
And there is good reason for the Fisher-Baron Cohens to keep a low profile: to protect their children. Sacha has received death threats in response to his portrayal of satirical characters Borat (a Kazakh reporter) and Brüno (a gay fashionista), and announced at the beginning of this year that he was retiring both.
It’s telling that Isla has picked a bookshop for our interview. “I used to knock out a couple of books a week but now there isn’t much time for reading.” In her teens, she co-authored, with her mother, two young adult novels, Seduced by Fame and Bewitched.
More recently, she published a charming, funny children’s book, Marge in Charge – the first in a series about an anarchic, ebullient babysitter.
“I was able to share the stories with a whole litany of tiny editors: all my friends’ kids. And what’s great about children,” she smiles, “is that they leave the room when they’re bored. It’s brutal.”
She talks in a musical Australian lilt, even after two decades away from the country in which she was raised.
Isla has been acting professionally since her teenage stint on the soap Home and Away, playing the bisexual Shannon Reed.
After studying mime in Paris, she relocated to Los Angeles and appeared in films including Scooby-Doo (2002). Then, in the comic role that made her name – sex-obsessed bridesmaid Gloria in Wedding Crashers (2005), with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn – she stole the film.
Her latest project, Keeping Up With the Joneses, is a stylish spy caper. Isla describes it as “Mr & Mrs Smith [the 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie hit] from the point of view of the neighbours”, with a nod to [Alfred Hitchcock’s classic] Rear Window, adding that it “was too good to turn down”.
She plays Karen Gaffney – “a suburban housewife caught up in the car-pool grind” – married to Jeff (Zach Galifianakis), a human resources executive. The self-consciously parochial pair live on a gossipy cul-de-sac, when impossibly glamorous couple Tim and Natalie Jones (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and Miss Israel-turned-Wonder Woman Gal Gadot) move in next door.
“The genetically blessed Joneses are perfect in every sense – the proverbial Joneses,” explains Isla. “Karen is suspicious of them – she’s pretty good at snooping and turns into a nosy neighbour.” It emerges that the Joneses are spies and the Gaffneys duly become embroiled in high-stakes espionage.
I visited the set in Atlanta, at The Original Pancake House, an all-American diner. Director Greg Mottola – whose comedies include 2007’s Superbad and 2011’s Paul – and most of the leading actors had brought their offspring to the location, which meant that, at lunchtime, the diner transformed into a playground.
Toddlers bawled and children skidded across the floor eating ice cream. The scene being filmed involved a comedic showdown between the two couples over bacon and eggs.
“What makes Karen funny is the contrast of this housewife acting like a Mossad agent,” Isla told me, costumed in a checked shirt, a turquoise cardigan and cut-off jeans.
“Isla is like Lucille Ball,” Mottola observed. “She’s adorable and cute, but also funny and fearless. And she’s willing to look ridiculous.”
Today, in Waterstones, Isla orders a latte and wanders over to the cookbook display.
“I love cooking. My absolute new favourite [cookbook] is [the Israeli chef Einat Admony’s] Balaboosta. I love her harissa-spiced Morrocan fish.” She confesses to “a terrible sweet tooth”.
“When I was a kid, my mum grew fruits and vegetables and we didn’t have any sugar in the house. As a result, I’m a sugar fiend.” Are desserts banned at home? “Not completely. I try to just keep it moderate.”
Born in Oman, Isla was raised in Perth with her brothers Daniel and Edward (she also has two stepbrothers) and her Scottish parents. Her mother, Elspeth Reid, a writer, now runs youth hostels in Athens and an ecotourism business on the Greek island Syros.
Her father, Brian Fisher, worked for the UN, then Save the Children. (Last year Fisher and Baron Cohen donated a total of £750,000 to Save the Children and David Miliband’s International Rescue Committee, for refugees.)
The actress says her comic skills are rooted in her peripatetic early childhood. “We moved a lot. I went to a different primary school every year and, to make friends quickly, I was funny and made up jokes. So that defined who I am, being able to tap into my inner idiot.
“The downside was that I wasn’t able to form deeper relationships with people when I was younger, because I was frightened I was just going to move on again.”
When she was nine, her parents divorced. “I remember feeling really sad,” she says, “but the parents of most of the kids in my class that year were divorced, so I was not an anomaly.”
She saw her father regularly. “We went between their houses as we wanted. It [the divorce] was handled very nicely. I don’t remember ever hearing my parents fight.”
Behind us is the Jewish history section – interesting in light of Isla’s conversion to Judaism. This entailed two years of intense and “fascinating” study before her 2005 wedding to Sacha, who is Jewish and whose mother is Israeli.
“I love the traditions that emphasise family. Every Friday night you sit together for dinner and light candles and reflect on your week and show gratitude. And it’s actually been good for my cooking. I can do a good roast chicken or matzo ball soup.”
Isla evidently relishes the simple pleasures of family life. “My husband only makes a movie every three years, so we’re together all the time.”
What has she learned about relationships in the 15 years since they met at a party in Sydney?
“Someone early on told me you have to have a date night every week and that is the best bit of advice I was ever given. I think it’s really important on that date night to talk about things other than the kids… It’s really hard,” she laughs. “Honestly, I think communication is everything.”
She says family takes up so much of her time that “it’s hard to find the time to be social. But I have a mix of friends from school-run mums to hiking friends and actors. Most are Australian.
“I think it’s natural to revert to friends with the same background. I try to catch up with Naomi [Watts, the actress whose career began in Australia] when I can”.
Last summer she and Sacha were photographed holidaying with Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, and Noel Gallagher and his wife Sara McDonald.
Isla is naturally funny but says her husband “is much, much funnier”. Does he bring his outrageous characters home? “Oh my gosh, no,” she exclaims.
“That would make life challenging. But he brings them home visually. I’ll see a handlebar moustache when he’s doing Borat, or he’ll have the blonde streaks from Brüno, his gay fashionista character.”
Earlier in their relationship, when Sacha was engaged in guerrilla-style film-making for [2009’s] Brüno and [2006’s] Borat, “Instead of asking, ‘Are you going to pick up the dry cleaning?’, I’d ask, ‘Are we getting sued by somebody? Is there a warrant out for your arrest?’
“Luckily, when he started to make fictional films like [Larry Charles’ 2012 comedy] The Dictator, there were no legal implications.”
Working together for the first time, this year the couple appeared in Louis Leterrier’s outrageous comedy Grimsby. Alongside Penélope Cruz and Mark Strong, Sacha plays Nobby, a loutish football fan.
Isla, playing an MI6 operative, received no special treatment: “I arrived on set and Penélope had this massive trailer. I said, ‘Where’s my trailer, honey?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, you can share with me.'”
At this point, we are interrupted by an elderly man who professes to be a fan. “He probably thinks I’m Amy Adams,” Isla says, referring to the redheaded American actress. “People often confuse us. I know Amy socially. She’s a phenomenal actress and a wonderful person.”
Isla and Amy both star in the gripping new thriller Nocturnal Animals, from director and fashion designer Tom Ford.
It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and opens here in November. In its double narratives, Amy plays Susan –successful and privileged but unfulfilled – who is sent a disturbing manuscript by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Its gruesome plot is played out on screen with Isla, in an impressive supporting role as (fictional) wife Laura. “A suburban Texan mother travelling across the desert with our 16-year-old daughter,” she explains.
“We meet some unsavoury folk… and something happens.” She enthusiastically describes Ford as “a genius with great panache, who is unflappable. Everyone who works with him falls in love with him”.
The designer-cum-director, she adds with a smile, “has promised to dress me for the premiere”.
Isla says that while she’s limiting her career to one film a year, she won’t be staying at home full-time. “I still love acting. It’s the greatest form of escapism,” she says.
She feels positive about the future of the industry and women’s roles in particular. “I’m very optimistic,” she says.
“Things are changing for women – but it feels like every time there’s a female-driven piece of material that does well, everybody acts surprised.”
She mentions Paul Feig’s 2011 comedy, Bridesmaids. “I can’t compute why, when 50 per cent of the population is female, studios wouldn’t want to actively try to get that audience.”
Isla credits her late grandmother Anna Lang for her positive approach to life. “She was an amazing woman. She was a quadriplegic for 15 years but she never complained.
“She was endlessly full of grace and she said, ‘To be of service and to have gratitude is the secret of happiness.’ I think you can take that into your marriage, into your mothering, into everything.”
Given her devotion to motherhood, are there plans to expand the family? “I definitely feel like I’d love to have more… I love babies, that’s the thing, so I can’t say no. And if I were blessed enough to be given another one… well, never say never!”
‘Keeping Up With The Joneses’ is released on October 28