Me and Ali G
Aussie actress Isla Fisher is famously coy about her fabulously semi-normal family life with Sacha Baron Cohen. But we had to ask…
In an elegant corner of one of Hollywood’s most lavish dining rooms, Isla Fisher is wondering if she’ll ever be allowed back to the Oscars. A year ago this month the Australian actress helped her husband, Sacha Baron Cohen, to defy the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by introducing a nominated film on the night not as himself, as agreed, but as Ali G, the idiotic wannabe rapper he’s played since the ’90s.
Tackling the highly charged debate about the Oscars’ lack of diversity head-on, he declared to the watching millions that he was there to represent actors of colour who hadn’t been nominated, such as “Will Smith, Idris Elbow and, of course, the amazing black bloke from Star Wars, Darth Vader”. He wondered aloud why “dem very hardworking little yellow people with tiny dongs” had been snubbed – “You know, the Minions” – and raised a gloved fist in a black-power salute.
It was a typically divisive Baron Cohen stunt. The British comedian has made a fortune out of exposing prejudice and the enduring popularity of really offensive jokes while disguised as the hapless Kazakhstani reporter Borat, as the gay Austrian fashionista Brüno, or as Ali G. However, he was already a marked man at the Academy, having first antagonised them back in 2012 by turning up in character to promote The Dictator, his film about a Gaddafi-esque despot, and tipping what he claimed were the ashes of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il all over celebrity red carpet interviewer Ryan Seacrest.
To outwit Oscar security he needed his wife, who is far less comfortable with subterfuge than he is. “I’m just not a rule-breaker,” she explains. “I sweat if I start to lie.” But she also “totally trusts” her husband’s comic instincts, and looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. So she stuffed Ali G’s beard, glove, hat and glasses into her Spanx and smuggled them into Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre. “Then we had to go to the toilet together and I had to put on his beard and do the hair and everything. But he couldn’t come out as Ali G until it was time to go on stage. So they were banging the door down, and then I would go out and say, ‘Oh, he’s not feeling very well.’ They were giving me Tums [antacid] and all these pills, and Jennifer Garner’s trying to get to the loo. I was just feeling so awful, and his publicist was texting me saying, ‘Where’s Sacha? You know they’re freaking out.’ Then at the last minute, he came out and walked very quickly on stage before anyone could stop him.” Fisher “went straight to the bar and had a gin and tonic”. She unwound once people started laughing, but before that it had been “very tense for a long time”.
At first, the former Home and Away actress is not much calmer when we meet at noon in the restaurant at Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. Perching on the edge of a gold brocade sofa she offers a nervous smile, a handshake and a profuse apology for ordering her own coffee already. She’s only 160cm tall and when she scoops up the cup it looks huge cradled in her delicate hands.
In the first five minutes, Fisher goes on to tell me that she hates interviews because she tends to “panic”, describes herself as “sartorially ignorant” and tries half a dozen ways to describe Tom Ford, the fashion designer turned film-maker who recently directed her in the lurid psychological thriller Nocturnal Animals, before settling on the surprising discovery that “he eats Twinkies the whole time on set”. They are apparently “disgusting sweets, like floury doughnuts”, far removed from the “alkaline water with egg whites and organic whatever” that she imagined the dapper Ford might consume. Then Fisher spills her coffee over herself, bursts out laughing and we’re up and running. “Oh shit, that was epic,” she wheezes, dabbing at the damage with a napkin. Suddenly, there’s no hint of either nerves or A-list restraint. “I don’t mind,” she says, stretching her legs above the table to show off her coffee-spattered Timberlands. “These are my rain boots.”
Fisher, it turns out, is as down to earth as anyone who stars in Hollywood blockbusters, holidays with Bono and lives in a big pile off Mulholland Drive can be. “My sensibilities are very Australian,” she says at one point. “I wouldn’t really wear shoes if I didn’t have to. I’m not a big fashion person,” she adds, although she enjoys dressing up for the red carpet occasionally. “You have a team of people who spend hours polishing the turd, and then you get to be rolled in glitter.”
Today, her distinctive red hair is swept over her shoulder and she’s wearing a dark Bella Freud sweater over ripped black Paige jeans. She talks fast in a sing-song voice, revealing a keen eye for gossipy details and a strong sense of the absurd. Her thoughts race ahead, with words tumbling over words until they are engulfed in gusts of laughter, usually at her own expense. Later, I notice that Fisher has draped a napkin carefully over her lap while she sips her replacement coffee. I point it out. “Well, it’s in case I spill it again,” she hoots. “I’m such a schmuck.”
When I ask who her heroes are, she talks about her grandmother, who radiated positivity despite being quadriplegic, her “total rock star” mother, and Goldie Hawn. Have you met her? “I danced up to her once at a party.” How did that go? “She sort of danced back to me and then I was so excited I got a bit too ebullient and kind of knocked her. She moved off and I lost her for ever.”
We talk about her experience playing the doomed mistress Myrtle Wilson in Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. Fisher auditioned for that part in the very room where we are sitting – “maybe at this table” – and she remembers being so desperate to land it that she banned herself from talking. “I didn’t say anything. I was like, ‘Just don’t f..k this up, Isla.’ That’s all I kept saying to myself. ‘If you speak, you’ll definitely sabotage yourself,’ because, as I said, I get quite cognitively impaired when I’m nervous.” She pauses for a beat. “But according to [Luhrmann], I was quite chatty and he couldn’t shut me up.”
Gatsby is one of numerous films that Fisher’s bravura comic skills have threatened to hijack, beginning with what remains her most recognised role, as the sexually aggressive Gloria Cleary in 2005’s Wedding Crashers. Vince Vaughn’s character memorably terms her a “stage five clinger”; Fisher thinks Gloria stood out because “bipolar nymphomaniacs are few and far between”, but there’s much more to it than that. The handbrake-off gusto with which she attacked the role established an enduring bond with audiences.
She takes her work seriously, but not herself. I only have to mention last year’s Keeping Up With The Joneses, in which she stars with Jon Hamm and Zach Galifianakis, and she’s volunteering another embarrassing anecdote. The spy comedy was actually filmed a while ago, when her son was still very small, Fisher says. “I was still breastfeeding. I had to be in underwear and I just felt terrible because I was so engorged that the whole set was just silent. No one could speak. My poor boobs. I think I referred to them as ‘Frankentits’.”
She has had lead roles, but prefers playing standout supporting parts. Now, at 41, and having “surpassed my wildest imagination when it comes to my own career”, the mother of three has branched out as a children’s book author. Marge In Charge, about an anarchic babysitter and aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, came out in July last year and became a bestseller. A follow-up, Marge and the Pirate Baby, appeared last month and Fisher is working busily on the next instalments.
Both of my daughters really enjoyed the books, I say. “Aww, that’s huge,” Fisher says, breaking into an instant grin. Children, she says, are the toughest reviewers because “they just walk away when they’re bored”. The Marge books began because Fisher found a frustrating shortage of inspiring, fun things to read for younger children. “I felt that once you get to eight, there’s David Walliams, Roald Dahl, Jeff Kinney… the world opens up. There’s so much great humour. You can go inside a peach; you can go to the moon; you can go through a looking glass. You can escape your life as a tiny person through these wonderful stories. Now, when you’re little, you can’t… It’s all learning to read, repetition, sight words.”
It would be fascinating to learn more about how Fisher’s own experiences as a parent shaped the stories, but at this point the excitable rush of her conversation suddenly sputters to a halt. “I don’t want to talk about the kids unfortunately, but I will say that I trialled… I tested Marge out with all the kids that I know, and they’re such honest critics.” Later she ventures, “I’m home with tiny people all day, so I’m able to tap into them.” And that’s all she will say on the matter.
This is, in fairness, something that was flagged before we met. Her publisher explained that Fisher’s home life was “off limits”. In person, the pushback is delivered with a sympathetic look, but is no less firm. Security is partly a consideration, Fisher says – Baron Cohen has had death threats from some of the targets of his comedy – but mostly it’s the principle. “Motherhood is my favourite topic off the record, and I would bore you with so many anecdotes. But I strongly believe that my children deserve anonymity. If I use them to promote a book I would never forgive myself; they deserve to choose if and when they want to be out in the media.” Then there’s their father, who cultivates an air of public mystery (“Like the yeti,” he said in a rare interview as himself last year). He is, she promises, even funnier off screen than on it.
So she understands why people want to know what their life is actually like? “Yeah, of course,” Fisher says. “There’s natural curiosity. I’m curious about everything.” And then she smiles sweetly and stops herself from saying anything more.
Fisher was born in Oman, to Scottish parents. Her banker father, Brian, worked for the United Nations and Save the Children so the family travelled “the whole time”; she went to a different school every year until she was 13. Her parents divorced when she was nine, after which she and her two brothers lived in Perth with their mother, Elspeth Reid, a romance writer who was in amateur dramatics. At 12 Fisher remembers watching her mother step on stage in an “incredible black dress” and then begging her, successfully, for a small part in her next show. “When every other kid was going to bed on a school night, I was getting to go on stage with my mum. Once you’ve been bitten by the bug like that, it’s just too exciting.”
At her all-girls’ schools she used humour as a survival mechanism, but she never got bullied – she suspects because she was “so short that I wasn’t even on their radar”. It was as if “a grade-three person had snuck into the school, so they ignored me”. While a teenager, she wrote two young adult novels with her mother. The sex scenes were particularly awkward, she recalls. More recently they wrote a thriller that never went anywhere, although this time, “we had so much fun. It involved a lot of gin and tonic”.
If she had never become an actor, she thinks she might have stuck at the writing. Or become a doctor, because “I just love reading about illnesses”. Instead Fisher started playing the bisexual student Shannon Reed in Home and Away when she was 18, and stayed for three years. She moved on to Paris to study clowning, but it wasn’t until after she met Baron Cohen at a party in Sydney in 2001 that she developed the confidence to take comedy seriously. They got engaged in 2004. Wedding Crashers came out in 2005, followed by Baron Cohen’s Borat film the next year, cementing their status as one of Hollywood’s new hot couples. Fisher converted to Judaism – her husband’s religion – and they married in Paris in 2010.
They’ve always taken their privacy seriously, but occasionally she offers a glimpse of their extraordinary life. “I remember with one of the kids going to visit the set when they were shooting Brüno,” she says. “I’d flown in from wherever and I was just in the van waiting, and over the walkie-talkie I heard the assistant director going, ‘Can someone let Sacha know his wife’s here.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, Sacha’s on the run right now. There are three police cars chasing him.’
“He’d just gone into a mall with no clothes on, chained to another man. That was just so anxiety- provoking. All of those situations. He’d come home bleeding from being beaten up by the S&M girl [for Brüno again], and after the naked fight in Borat I had to pick him up in Santa Monica and he was just totally naked in the lobby of a hotel.”
His work is less alarming now. He has become too recognisable to continue with the guerrilla satires that made his name, and for that Fisher is visibly grateful. They have three children, Olive, Elula and Montgomery, and typically spend half of the year in Europe, where both of their extended families are, and the other half in Los Angeles.
I confess to her that I have taken one of the open-top bus tours through the Hollywood Hills past the homes of the rich and famous, including theirs. She says they come past her place about “one thousand times a day”, mispronouncing her name as “Iz-la” through their megaphones every time. “Once I was coming out of the driveway and I was really grumpy and they said, ‘And this is the house of Borat and Iz-la Fisher, star of Wedding Crashers.’ I was like, ‘You know, it’s Isla. It’s actually Isla.’ And the guy was like, ‘Well, when is she home?’ I’m like, ‘Oy vey, it’s me.’”
When not being confused with domestic staff, Fisher is also frequently mistaken for her friend Amy Adams, who starred with her in Nocturnal Animals. It happens so often that Fisher and Baron Cohen cut and pasted Adams’ head over Fisher’s on their annual Christmas card one year, to see if any of their friends would notice. No one did.
Who are her other famous friends? She reels off Naomi Watts, Courteney Cox, Reese Witherspoon and “a wonderful new friend called Gal Gadot”, the former Miss Israel who’ll hit screens this year as Wonder Woman and, at 178cm, “turns me into a circus freak when I stand next to her”.
On a 2015 break in St Tropez, Fisher and Baron Cohen were photographed hanging out with Bono, Oasis star Noel Gallagher and their wives. “Oh God,” she says. “The Bono trip was an amazing, surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Bono’s obviously just so… My husband’s very politically minded and… I don’t want to talk about my husband. I’m not talking about my husband, sorry.”
No, you’re talking about the singer of U2, I say gently. “It’s very interesting politically to be around someone like Bono,” she says after some consideration. Someone who is “not only funny, charming and very bright, but knows everything… and is doing good in the world”. It’s an aspiration she and her husband share. Working with Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, they recently donated $1 million to help Syrian refugees.
Fisher wouldn’t want readers to think her life is all global philanthropy, Oscar appearances and A-list get-togethers in the south of France, though. Her friends are “mainly school mums”, and she strives to keep life as normal as possible for her children. In December, the family toured New Zealand in a campervan. I wouldn’t have expected to see you there, I say. “I don’t think anyone did,” she says. Eventually a star-struck fan spotted her. “I was in Queenstown and a friendly lady and her young daughter came over and congratulated me on my performance in Enchanted [a 2007 comedy that starred Amy Adams, not her]. Her daughter then asked me to sing one of the songs from the film. I was too embarrassed to correct her and I managed to warble out a few verses. I could tell by their faces that they had realised, based on my cat-dying-in-an-alley singing voice, that I was not Amy Adams, and beat a hasty retreat.”
I’m sure that story has gone down a storm behind closed doors since Fisher returned. It’s what she’s always been about, she says. “All I’ve ever done is take the piss out of myself to make my friends laugh.”