‘I just love characters with a secret’: Isla Fisher mixes mystery and romance
In the first episode of Wolf Like Me, Josh Gad’s Gary asks Isla Fisher’s Mary a question asked by many people throughout history: “Why choose Adelaide?” It’s a question that might be posed to the show itself: precious few television programs have chosen the South Australian capital for their setting, especially those with this calibre of Hollywood firepower.
“I think it was the most isolated city they could think of to put these two human beings who are carrying all this baggage,” says Fisher, which makes sense, given the answer to Gary’s question is that Mary has run as far away from her previous life as possible. If you’re looking to leave the world behind, Adelaide seems like an ideal choice. Ironically, it was too far even for the production to go.“I must confess I have never been to Adelaide,” Fisher reveals. “We shot it in Sydney!”
Sydney’s impersonation is an admirable one, but the specifics of the city hardly matter: what shines through in Wolf Like Me – as one might expect from a show written and directed by local boy Abe Forsythe – is the pure Australianness of the setting.
While Australian film and television history is rich with picturesque rural locales and stylish inner-city settings, the people who live here know that most of life in this country takes place in the sprawling suburbs, a truth recognised in Wolf Like Me.
Every Aussie will find striking familiarity in the humble suburban streets and slightly faded old houses in which much of the story takes place – while perhaps allowing themselves a swell of patriotic pride when the series finally broadens its horizons to the spectacular deserts at the continent’s heart.
For Fisher, even though she’s playing an American, the chance to return to her homeland to work was a gift. “It’s so nice, and I think it’s really important that we don’t just shoot in Australia for other places – we do all these big films in Australia, but they’re set everywhere around the world.
“When you shoot something and you cast actual Australians and they’re doing their accent – I’m not, but the rest of the cast is – you give an opportunity to show the rest of the world what Australia looks like. Obviously the outback is so legendary, but there’s something about just showing a regular life in Australia that I think audiences will really connect to.”
Of course, “ordinary” is a relative term. Wolf Like Me’s lead characters may dwell humbly on quiet South Australian streets, but their lives are anything but average. Gary is a widower still crushed by grief and in despair at his inability to help his troubled daughter when he runs – literally – into Mary, a mysterious woman hiding a big secret that will make the couple’s blossoming relationship complicated, to say the least.
It was Mary’s mystery that first attracted Fisher to the role. “I read it and I thought wow, this is so weird and funny and cool and compelling. Anyone who knows me knows that I just love characters with a secret. It’s just so much fun to play someone hiding something.” In Mary she found a woman with a lot to hide: beneath a vibrant exterior, she carries around a wealth of pain, shame and regret.
Wolf Like Me doesn’t only examine the difficulties of a relationship between two people with loads of baggage, but also the question of how a person can live in the world when weighed down with guilt over past actions. There’s a depth to Mary that perhaps sets her apart from some of Fisher’s better-known comedic roles.
“I think drama and comedy kind of come from the same place from a performance perspective, because you’re kind of trying to keep it real and grounded and present in the moment so you have access to your emotions. But I do feel like Mary is someone who’s really grappling with shame in a really interesting way – and fear.
“I just really enjoyed playing someone who is so, so lonely – because that’s the opposite of my personality. I’m very gregarious, I love to socialise, I love to hang out with people. Mary’s someone who, because she’s not really accepted herself and she’s got all this shame and baggage, she has all these crazy eccentric hobbies that she’s developed, but she’s unable to communicate and be emotionally vulnerable and intimate.”
It’s their respective baggage that first binds Gary and Mary together: the shared experience of living with the tragedy of their pasts leads the pair to recognise kindred spirits in one another, even if Gary has no idea just how different Mary’s traumatic history will turn out to be from his own.
“That guilt and shame is this heavy, heavy weight that she carries with her, that is in a way mirrored in Gary’s emotional baggage,” says Fisher, who revelled in the fact that for all its mystery and strangeness, her role allowed her to portray something deeply relatable.
“I love that it’s a story that explores these modern messy relationships, and we all bring baggage into whatever relationship – whether it be romantic, a work relationship, friendships … we all come with our own experience. It’s a romantic exploration of love and shame and fear – and then this really great crazy genre element. I hope people connect with it as much as I did because it was very creatively challenging working on this, and I loved it.”
When Forsythe flicks the switch, the show becomes much more than the sweet relationship drama. It’s a white-knuckle ride for viewers.
Forsythe has a deft touch when it comes to the show’s tonal shifts; there’s plenty of sadness and angst in Wolf Like Me, but there’s also a lot of light let in through the cracks. In the show’s comic moments, it’s clear why Fisher was the perfect choice for the role: in other hands Mary could have been a drag, but she sparkles. She’s a lonely woman with a secret sorrow who’s also vibrant, bubbly and just a little goofy.
“It was very hard to walk that line,” Fisher says. “I felt like in order for it to work, it was important that Josh and I both played the scenes in an incredibly real and truthful and straight-up manner for the humour to land. But I wanted to make sure that there was a twinkle in Mary’s eyes – that people know they’re being entertained.”
Wolf Like Me is now streaming on Stan. Stan is owned by Nine, the owner of this masthead.