The Interview: the actress and author Isla Fisher on clown school — and marrying Sacha Baron Cohen, the biggest clown of all
“I’ve worked with a ton of comedians — but nobody is funnier than my husband”
Isla Fisher is doubled over with laughter as she describes the time she took her father and stepmother to visit Sacha Baron Cohen on set in Cape Town, where he was shooting a movie. “We walked on set and my husband’s head popped out of an elephant’s vagina and he said, ‘Hi, honey’.” She shakes her head as she wipes away the tears. “I just thought, ‘Why didn’t I read the call sheet or text to say we were on our way?’ ”
The scene is typical of his brand of humour — a level of almost unthinkable provocation and absurdity that has underscored his performances as multiple fictional characters — most notably Ali G, Borat and Brüno. In the 2016 movie in question, Grimsby, he played Nobby, who takes refuge from a hitman inside an elephant. The animal he was emerging from, Fisher explains hastily, was animatronic — “but I didn’t realise at first as there were so many real elephants around”.
Life with Baron Cohen is anything but predictable, but Fisher — who starred as Myrtle Wilson in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby — is more than a match for him. Also specialising in comedy, she played Vince Vaughn’s crazed lover in Wedding Crashers in 2005 and had a role in Grimsby — the first time she and Baron Cohen had worked together.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a ton of comedians and actors,” says Fisher, 41, sitting in her kitchen in Atlanta, where she is living temporarily while shooting the comedy movie Tag. “Everyone from Vince Vaughn to Dustin Hoffman — but nobody is funnier than my husband. And when he improvises, he has such joy of performance. There is a reason he’s so brilliantly funny: when he’s in the moment, he’s just so committed in his character.”
Ask her if their home life is as funny, though, and the conversation stutters to a halt. “Is it a laugh a minute? It’s not a laugh a minute until…” She trails off and starts again. “Is it a laugh a minute? Yes, definitely. But I don’t want to talk about that. I’m so sorry.”
She tries to explain: “I’m so nervous to talk about my personal life. We live in this age of iPhones and tablets and Instagram and Twitter, and all privacy seems to be gone. My relationship is so important to me — it’s been 17 years [since we met] — so as much as I’d love to disclose more …” She smiles apologetically.
Fisher has a point. In an age when almost everyone, celebrity or otherwise, overshares intimate details about themselves and splashes pictures of their children over social media, Fisher and Baron Cohen stand out in their determination to keep their private lives hermetically sealed. The only person I have ever interviewed who was more guarded was the actress Holly Hunter, who does not even like to confirm she has any children, let alone talk about them.
Fisher and Baron Cohen admit to three children — Olive, 9, Elula, 7, and Montgomery, 2 — but during almost two hours of conversation, Fisher does not use their names, referencing them only as “my little people”. “I would feel sick to my stomach if I thought that I needed to talk about my family to sell my books or movies. It would feel like I had no integrity.”
Which makes one wonder what she thinks of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, who share everything on social media. “I honestly think that everyone is on their own journey,” she replies diplomatically.
Of course, the irony is that Baron Cohen owes his fame partly to his characters’ interaction with unsuspecting people who do not realise they are being set up. And Fisher has written a series of books about children and motherhood, chronicling the adventures of a family with a madcap rainbow-haired babysitter called Marge.
She sighs: “Motherhood is my favourite subject personally … but I feel the kids really deserve their anonymity. They didn’t choose to be born into a family of actors, so, as their parent, I’m fiercely protective.”
The children are out at a summer day camp and there are few traces of family life in her kitchen — except the yellow plastic fishing rod that Fisher plays with as we chat. “It’s for tiny magnetic fish,” she explains. “I was thinking I should possibly have cleaned the kitchen before the interview,” she laughs, “but it’s too late now.” The kitchen is immaculate, fruit piled high in bowls on every surface. Fisher is sipping a glass of iced tea and snacking on a bag of lentil crisps. She apologises for her outfit: a white, low-cut T-shirt and denim shorts embroidered with flowers. “I mispacked for Atlanta, so I just went out and bought a bunch of new clothes that I now realise would look more appropriate on a 20-year-old.” She chortles like a drain, an infectious laugh that dominates much of the interview.
Discussing the fictional Marge, Fisher gives an insight into how much motherhood has changed her: “In real life, I have to be a sensible mummy and to model a certain type of behaviour. But as Marge I get to live vicariously through this ebullient, anarchic character. Before having a family we went on all sorts of adventures, but now we try as much as possible — given our line of work — to stay grounded and to provide a secure base.”
In that spirit, her three children have accompanied her to Atlanta. I ask her to describe her character’s arc in the upcoming Tag, which she is shooting with Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm. It is about five highly competitive adult friends (she plays one of their wives) who risk their lives, jobs and relationships to organise an elaborate game of tag. She giggles: “Arc is a strong word for what I’m doing in this movie — let’s just say it fell on the school holidays.”
Fisher says that acting was her safety net during a peripatetic childhood: “I moved school every year and used to tap into my inner idiot — I had extra-large ears and red hair, and would pull faces or do funny voices or characters to make my new friends laugh.”
She was born in Oman to Scottish parents (her father worked in the Middle East as a United Nations banker). The family moved back to West Lothian when Fisher was young, before settling in Perth, Australia, when she was six. The second of three siblings, her parents divorced when she was nine. “It was very amicable and loving, as far as I can remember.”
Like so many successful Australian actors, she cut her acting teeth on the soap Home and Away, playing Shannon Reed, a bisexual anorexic, for three years. “The dialogue was so atrocious that I learnt a really important skill: how to polish a turd line.”
In those days, she was far less guarded in interviews: “I’ve a long history of idiotic quotes. When you’re a teenager and a journalist takes you to a bar and gives you two beers [you talk]. Nobody takes you aside on a soap opera and gives you any media training.”
She never thought she could make it as a comedy actor until she met Baron Cohen at an awards party in Sydney, and he later told her she was the funniest person he knew. “He continued to compliment me and inspired me to have the courage to ask my agent to send me for comedic work. I [auditioned] for Wedding Crashers and was lucky enough to get the gig.”
A shared sense of humour underpins their partnership. “We both went to clown school. I went to Jacques Lecoq and he studied with Philippe Gaulier, then we both studied bouffon, white mask and commedia dell’arte. That definitely attracted me to him.” They got engaged — apparently over milk and cookies in the garden of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles in 2004 — before eventually marrying at a tiny sunset ceremony in Paris in 2010.
When Baron Cohen is in character, Fisher doesn’t even recognise him. But the moment the camera stops rolling, he drops the mask. “He’s not a method actor,” she says with relief. “I only have to live with the facial hair.”
Before marrying, Fisher converted to Judaism, saying at the time: “I would do anything — move into any religion — to be united in marriage with him.” They clearly have their serious side, last year quietly donating $1m to Syrian refugees (made public later by the charity): “It was the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War,” says Fisher, “and I was so surprised by the lack of empathy to their plight.”
Now the family lives in a large house in the Hollywood Hills, where Fisher spends much of her time writing. “I’ve got access to all these tiny people who I can pitch ideas and jokes to … I really appreciate little editors because they’re incredibly honest, they don’t pretend to laugh — they just walk out of the room.”
She is self-deprecating about her books. “I’m not exactly writing Ulysses. I just wanted to engage kids through humour … and I think the bedrock of humour is stupidity, no matter what age you are.” Pitched at five- to eight-year-olds, she knows her books are competing with a plethora of gadgets: “But in the world of emojis and hashtags, there has to be room left for the word. A smiling poop emoticon does not cover everything: books take children to places — pirate ships, an island — they cannot reach any other way.”
As a child, she read AA Milne and Enid Blyton — a love for books inspired by her grandmother, who was a quadriplegic for the last 10 years of her life. “She had a little stand made [for books] and a wooden stick with a sort of thimble on the end, so she could turn the pages. She told us not to be sorry for her because she was very happy.” Her eyes fill with tears at the memory.
Mid-anecdote, there is a sound outside the front door and Fisher springs into mummy mode: “Coming,” she calls, leaping from her chair. A mop-haired toddler runs in, arms outstretched. She turns back to me momentarily. “I have to go, is that all right?” It is a rhetorical question, of course: before I can answer she has gone, returning to the only role that really matters to her.
Marge and the Great Train Rescue is out now (Piccadilly Press £6)