Isla Fisher finds comedy difficult, despite being engaged to Borat
She’s Borat’s fiancee but Isla Fisher still finds comedy tricky. The Aussie actress gives her take on Hollywood glamour, motherhood and why her wedding won’t be in Staines.
You may know Isla Fisher for a number of things: for playing Shannon Reed in the Australian soap Home & Away; for starring opposite a cartoon dog in Scooby-Doo; or perhaps for being engaged to, and recently bearing the baby of, Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, aka Ali G. Fisher has been around, in cinemas and on TV and lately on Baron Cohen’s arm on the red carpet, for more than half of her 32 years. But today, in her hotel suite in New York, she wants to be known for the romcom role that is tipped to be her big break: that of April, one of three love interests in Definitely, Maybe, a film “from the makers of Notting Hill and Love, Actually”, as they say, which tells you all you need to know about its style and content.
It’s a charming film, and Fisher is charming in it. She’s easy on the eye, and she can act: she won an MTV award for her role as Vince Vaughn’s nymphomaniac girlfriend in Wedding Crashers; not bad given she says she finds comedy harder to do than drama.
Fisher is sweet and probably great fun with her friends, but she’s seemingly unsure how to handle her new-found status. Thanks in large part to her relationship with Baron Cohen, who is huge in America (he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Borat), interest in her has risen exponentially. She met him six years ago and last October gave birth to a baby girl, Olive. The couple are based in London “and always will be”, but rent in Los Angeles as and when. They manage to lead a normal life, she says, and if she puts her trademark red hair up in a baseball cap, the paparazzi don’t notice her.
While Baron Cohen has managed never to give interviews other than in character, Fisher, as an up-and-coming actress with big-budget films to promote, has little choice. Tiny – she’s only 5ft 2in – and swaddled in layers of black woolly cardigans and sheepskin boots, she removes a multi-coloured baby toy from the sofa, sits down on an unnoticed bra and looks apprehensive. She is sporting a hefty engagement ring and is desperate not to talk about anything other than Definitely, Maybe, but those adept at squeezing small amounts of blood out of stones will nonetheless learn that no date has yet been set, that she is “still learning about Judaism” (Baron Cohen is a practising Jew), and that she hopes, once she converts, that they will marry.
Fisher has put in many years of hard graft to get where she is, and it hasn’t all been plain sailing. She was five when she saw fellow redhead Ann-Margret in an Elvis film and decided that she’d like to be a redhead in an Elvis movie, too. “When you’re younger, being a redhead is… well, my two brothers teased me no end,” she says. “So I was really excited to see a redhead on film. But also my mum was in amateur dramatics and I would go every night and sit in the wings and watch her on stage, so… I saw practically what it was like – the excitement and exhilaration of being on stage, backstage, watching make-up being put on, the costume changes.”
Fisher was born in Oman but spent most of her childhood in Australia after moving there with her family when she was six. Mum wrote romantic novels, dad was a banker for the UN. They divorced when she was nine and her mother now lives in Greece, her father Germany. None of her immediate family is left in Australia. “It’s totally bizarre,” she wails. “I miss Tim Tams and Bondi Beach and the smell of suncream. I think if you were to generalise about an Aussie then I’m an example of one.”
She was nine when she started acting and 18 when she joined Home & Away, which was either grippingly awful or awfully gripping depending on your point of view. Parlaying that into a film career was never going to be easy; she thinks, slightly disingenuously, that it’s all down to luck, but hard work and steely ambition must surely play a part. “The good thing about coming from a soap background is that you do your work experience in the most difficult conditions,” she says. “You work long hours, the dialogue is difficult to say in an honest way, you have to cry on cue and you have two minutes to prepare for an emotional scene. That’s a great foundation for other stuff.” The downside was that it was “acting from the neck up”, so she enrolled at the Jacques Lecoq stage school in Paris, alma mater of Geoffrey Rush, to learn how to use the rest of her body. She toyed with Rada, “where you study the greats – Chekhov or Shakespeare or whatever – but that didn’t feel like me”.
The cash from Home & Away bought her a flat in Sydney and the rental income from that saw her through the bad times when she couldn’t even get a commercial, or was in rep at New End Theatre, Hampstead, London, in front of 40 people. She remembers auditioning for one advert “where they wanted me to strip to my bra and knickers and mime answering a seashell. I didn’t do it. Even though I had to pay the rent, I still couldn’t do that.”
Apart from a low patch in her early twenties when she wondered whether she should have studied psychology, she never thought about jacking it in. “I love acting,” she says gleefully, “love it. It’s the greatest fun in the world. I’ve always had no trouble feeling extremely grateful. So even though, comparatively, I wasn’t doing so well, I thought I was on top of the world.”
Landing Scooby-Doo meant that she managed to avoid the pilot-season, knocking-on-doors hell that most wannabes have to endure, though she didn’t escape playing the game entirely. “You have to put on the good Aspiring Actress role, which is that you read everything and you know a lot about every up and coming director. I’d really rather be on the beach with a good book.”
Motherhood seems to have softened her and she says that she’s no longer as ambitious as she once was. Certainly she had no qualms about becoming pregnant just as her career was taking off. “I think your heart dances to the beat of your own drum, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” is all she will say. Being pregnant was “the most amazing thing in the world”, but she doesn’t know yet how she will juggle work and motherhood “because it’s really early days. But something huge in your life like becoming a mother definitely changes your priorities.”
When pregnant she was photographed at a premiere looking undeniably huge, but also beautiful and blooming. She was outraged to discover that people were criticising her for the 55lb she gained. “And they were women!” she says. “That shocked me. That something so beautiful and natural as pregnancy and weight gain during pregnancy were completely unacceptable was beyond me.”
Perhaps because of this, she has little time for the red carpet scene. She’d rather be in jeans and a T-shirt. “I’m not someone who really gets off on the whole red carpet shebang. You have to pick a frock, and it has to be the right frock, and you have to pick the right shoes – there’s this unspoken pressure now on young women to get it right. It’s no longer an expression of what you felt like wearing that day – it’s become an industry. Somebody shows up in your room and prods and pokes you with lashes and wands, and your hair’s curled, and you’re shunted out on to the carpet in front of 100 flashbulbs and you think, ‘What is the meaning behind this?’”
Perhaps she’ll seek meaning in a return to the London stage? Lady Macbeth maybe? She laughs raucously at the idea. “I would love to play Lady Macbeth. It’s the greatest role in the world – ‘Out down spot!’ I mean, ‘Out damn spot!’ Doing theatre in London is a dream of mine, but I’m enjoying doing comedy right now.”
Ah yes, back to the romcom, for which we have her other half to thank: he told her she was funny and should try comedy. “Coming from him, obviously that was hugely flattering. I guess I was going for all these dramatic roles and I’d been reading the lines aloud and it had never really resonated with who I was. And when the funniest man in the world thinks you’re funny, it’s a huge compliment.”
Does he give her tips on comic timing? “I think in all relationships you hear each other out when it comes to work.”
Is it a relationship that will be heading up the aisle soon? “I hope so. I’ve had a lot on. I get these questions from my mum all the time.”
Will it be in Staines? “Oh my gosh,” she says, laughing hysterically. “No!”
And on that note the future Mrs Ali G stands up, non-chalantly picks up her bra and departs.
Definitely, Maybe is in cinemas nationwide.