Pint-sized funny girl Isla Fisher doing big things
Picture Isla Fisher as one of those ace mums at the school gate or a cool colleague you’d like to get to know more. She’s easy company and seems every bit as funny as her husband, Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of the outrageous comic characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno.
There aren’t many Hollywood A-listers who’d send themselves up as she does in her faux-diva TV commercials for ING Direct or, when collecting an award for acting, thank US President Donald Trump for “showing the world that unqualified orange people can win things”.
And when Weekend chats with her from her home base of Los Angeles, in the midst of coming and going from one awards night to the next, she’s quick to explain why the Golden Globes are the most fun: “Because you get to sit there at a table and drink booze.”
Despite living overseas for many years, Fisher has retained her Aussie accent — albeit with a slight English tilt from time spent in her husband’s homeland — and her conversation is still peppered with a few “no worries”.
Fresh from a three-week holiday Down Under with Baron Cohen and their three children, Fisher feels recharged and ready to take on the new year. She’s just released Marge and the Pirate Baby, her second book in her Marge in Charge series under a three-book deal with Allen & Unwin.
The books — aimed at five to eight-years-olds — are dedicated to her daughters Olive, 9, and Elula, 6, and son Montgomery, nearly 2.
“My favourite small people on the planet and the best editors a writer could wish for,” reads the dedication.
Fisher says she’s been making up stories at bedtime for her kids every night since they were born, but that’s as much as she’ll speak about them. She says she’s been litigious in the past with publications that have run pictures of her kids, so anything about them is off-limits.
She says her book’s eccentric babysitter protagonist Marge is a combination of two of her childhood friends.
“Marge would be their love child — one is the eternal Peter Pan and is in total denial about reality and the other one tells amazing, magical stories,” Fisher says.
“I can hear both of their voices in my head when I think of Marge, but honestly neither of them know it’s them. It’s one of those things where I think it’s a compliment, but they’re both sensitive and I’ve never brought it up.”
Fisher, 41, joins a long list of celebrity children’s authors that includes Little Britain funnyman David Walliams abroad, radio fave Andy Lee locally, as well as the likes of Madonna, Jim Carrey and Tori Spelling.
She’s in the throes of penning the third instalment — Marge and the Great Train Rescue — between school runs. If successful, more Marge is likely to follow. If not, Fisher has other ideas for books for older children on the boil.
It’s not Fisher’s first foray into writing. She co-authored two books for young adults, Seduced by Fame and Bewitched, with her mum Elspeth Reid, an artist who was a romance novelist.
“It’s always a fun thing to do — not — writing a sex scene with your mother when you’re a teenager. Nothing awkward,” Fisher laughs. “It was actually a fun experience but she did carry the lion’s share of that work. I do feel super proud of the books, though.
“The ideas were all mine and I did learn so much about structure, the beginning and middle and end, and how to put your heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her until she meets the man of her dreams; the ins and outs of the writing process.
“I love writing, and reading was such a fun part of my childhood. We moved around a lot. I was born in Oman, moved to Australia when I was six and kind of hid in books. I moved school every year until I was in eighth grade.
“My grandma was an avid reader; my mum, too. I’ve really loved moving into that world.”
Fisher has often said she probably would have been a fulltime writer had she not found success as an actor. After making her name playing Shannon Reed in soap Home and Away in the mid ’90s, Hollywood beckoned — but only after two years at a prestigious clown school in France, where she soon learnt that juggling wasn’t her forte.
“I was one of the last people in the whole class to really be able to get three balls in the air,” she told The Project last year. She also realised there probably weren’t many jobs that called for miming “the wall”.
After some years auditioning for dramatic roles with little luck, it was Baron Cohen — whom she met in 2001 at a party in Sydney — who encouraged her to chase comedy gigs.
“He was the one who said I was funny,” she recalls. “I sort of knew I was because I used to make my friends laugh at school and I was always getting kicked out of class for it, but I never knew you could parlay that into an actual job.
“I always thought of comedy as proper comedians who wrote material and performed it. I never realised you could improvise your own silly jokes and people would tap into your inner idiot and (you could) make a living.
“It was my husband who kept saying it so then finally I had the courage to say to my agent, ‘Do you think I could do a funny role?’”
In 2005, she landed Wedding Crashers. Playing memorable sexed-up “stage-five clinger” Gloria opposite Vince Vaughn would be her breakout.
(A sequel has been mooted only recently, but Fisher hasn’t heard anything directly.)
She went on to star in Definitely, Maybe; Confessions of a Shopaholic; Grimsby alongside Baron Cohen and Rebel Wilson; and most recently Keeping Up with the Joneses, in which The Hangover star Zach Galifianakis plays her husband. But she’s also shone in character roles in Now You See Me, The Great Gatsby and Nocturnal Animals, which played on her flame-haired likeness to Amy Adams.
With big films, of course, comes publicity. Given she and Baron Cohen are one of the entertainment industry’s most private couples, does she enjoy the red carpet?
“It depends on the day,” Fisher says. “After a break, I’m super excited. It’s the fun of the makeover — you sit in the chair looking something and you’re spun into something else.
“I can find it quite corporate, too, in that there’s a lot of pressure on people to look a certain way and wear certain designers. Sometimes I feel like (people’s) own character or creativity isn’t necessarily out there like it should be. That’s why I love someone like Helena Bonham Carter on the red carpet because she has her own unique style that’s great to see.”
The demands of a young family means Fisher chooses her roles carefully — the planets must align on timing, location, role and filmmaker.
“I do one job a year, which doesn’t sound like much … It’s not that I don’t love to act, I’m crazy about it, but there are just so many other human beings I need to ensure are happy. You also want to find a character whose emotional landscape you can inhabit and you feel you can identify with or not identify with but know the journey will be entertaining for you in some way as an artist or help you grow.”
Like her hubby, Fisher hopes to get into producing or directing movies one day.
“I catch myself being so bossy I think it’s a waste to not utilise that bossiness. But I know it’s such an intense workload. The director is the first one there and last to leave, is in the edit and the final cut.
“From developing the material to casting actors, it’s full on — like giving birth to a baby. I don’t have the space right now with my responsibilities to attempt that, but one day I hope to have the opportunity.”
Her dream project?
“This is going to sound cheesy, but some kind of romance with a female lead involving the Australian Outback. The countryside in Australia is breathtaking. I love it.”
FISHER, Baron Cohen and their brood were back in Australia late last year for the AACTA Awards in Sydney, where Fisher made the Trump quip collecting the Trailblazer Award, a gong that celebrates an “Australian screen practitioner who inspires others with their portfolio of work”.
The awards coincided with the 15th anniversary of the couple meeting. They married in 2010 in Paris — their favourite city.
Prior to that visit, Fisher hadn’t been to Australia since 2012, when she was in Sydney to film her role as mistress Myrtle Wilson in Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby.
The absence comes down to the fact she and Baron Cohen had spent any down time travelling to see family — to Greece where Fisher’s mother and two of her four brothers live, Germany to see her father, Brian, or London and Israel to catch up with Baron Cohen’s relatives. They also said their goodbyes to Baron Cohen’s father, Gerald, who died in London last May, aged 83.
“With tiny people and the flying situation, every time we had a window off work we went to England or Israel or Germany or Greece, so it’s not been easy getting home,” Fisher says.
“This time was really nice; for three weeks we got to properly chill out — we had no work to do, I wasn’t promoting anything. It was amazing — at the beach every day.
“There’s also the sensorial stuff (about being home) — like the smells and the feeling of being in the sea and the taste of the sea. All the childhood memories are reignited when you’re in that space again.
“The people, too. There’s something about Australians. Obviously because I am one, I feel very comfortable. Everybody’s so friendly and calm and relaxed and happy to be there. I miss that. People just want to connect. I’m very calm when I come back. I’m back to the Isla I was as a kid.”
Fisher’s mother is Australian, her father a Scot who worked for the United Nations, the World Bank and Save the Children — jobs that meant a lot of moving around.
She was born in Oman but when her parents divorced, she, her mother and two of her brothers moved to Perth where they lived in the beach suburb of Cottesloe. They also had a small property in Darlington, in Perth’s hilly outskirts, where Fisher had a rescue pony called Fancy Pants, who had been badly burnt in a fire.
“My childhood felt dreamy,” she reminisces. “Riding my pony with my friends, being at the beach … I was always very close to my brothers and my family. We were naughty children, I’m not going to lie. We got up to mischief, but I have nothing but great memories from home.”
Fisher doesn’t picture herself growing old particularly gracefully in a business obsessed with the perfect image.
“When I’m older I’m going to be, ‘Hmm, who’s a small redhead?’ I’ll be short because I’m already about the size of six packets of biscuits stacked on top of each other. Basically, I’ll be Cousin Itt one day. I’ll have a lot of red hair and be very small. I’d like to think I’m still going to be making jokes.”
Marge and the Pirate Baby is out now (RRP $14.99, Allen & Unwin)