Isla Fisher: ‘In the middle of the night, I have those “I can’t quite breathe” moments’
The star of a new film adaptation of Blithe Spirit talks about life with Sacha Baron Cohen and having to cancel work due to Covid worries
In a low-key bakery not far from the Hollywood home she shares with her British actor/comedian husband Sacha Baron Cohen and their three young children, Isla Fisher is telling me about her latest role in a new film adaptation of Blithe Spirit, one of Noël Coward’s best-loved plays.
‘I was so nervous,’ she confesses, dipping a buttered baguette into a bowl of chicken soup. ‘Being an Australian in a British period drama! I was working with my dialect coach and I just thought, “If I get this accent wrong, I’m going to be in so much trouble.”’
It’s an unseasonably cold day when we meet – prior to the pandemic – and wrapped up in a brown coat complementing her trademark long red hair, wearing minimal make-up, she looks a decade younger than her 44 years. Having made an enviable career starring in popular Hollywood comedies – from playing the obsessive Gloria in Wedding Crashers (2005) to the lead role of Becky Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) – her facial expressions and deadpan humour have got her where she is today. And they’re front and centre in Blithe Spirit.
Directed by Edward Hall (son of former National Theatre director Sir Peter), this lively adaptation of the 1941 comedy classic tells the story of a crime novelist (Dan Stevens) visiting an eccentric mystic, Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), in search of inspiration. She then accidentally summons the spirit of his first wife (Leslie Mann), who becomes embroiled in a hilarious love triangle with his current wife (played by Fisher). ‘Judi Dench is the greatest living actress on the planet and I was in a scene with her. I mean, that’s pretty amazing.’
Fisher’s stylish, slapstick role is the latest in a collection of memorable comedy parts she has been quietly curating. In 2019, she reprised a guest role in cult US sitcom Arrested Development and appeared in Michael Winterbottom’s satire Greed. Much of the film, in which she starred opposite Steve Coogan as the ‘entitled and revolting’ ex-wife of a fashion magnate (loosely based on Sir Philip Green), was improvised. ‘Michael keeps the cameras rolling and you almost don’t know where he is; it gives you this creative licence to play around.’
At the beginning of this year she fulfilled a long-standing ambition to star in an episode of Larry David’s semi-fictionalised comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, now in its 20th year. Fisher played Carol, a ‘professional crier’. ‘I’ve dropped hints over the years to anyone who’ll listen,’ she laughs. ‘One of the show’s directors, Jeff Schaffer, wrote with Sacha on The Dictator [the 2012 political satire]. I’ve just been sort of begging everyone for years.’
This month, Fisher should have started filming Guilty Party, a new dark comedy TV series, but dropped out because of Covid. ‘I don’t feel ready, personally. I still feel scared,’ she says, when we catch up on the phone some time later. ‘It would be challenging every time I came home, thinking, “Could I be exposing somebody in my family?”’
Los Angeles is currently under a ‘Safer at Home’ order and face coverings are mandatory on leaving the house. But while she acknowledges she’s lucky to be able to put work on hold indefinitely, life under lockdown – and homeschooling three children aged between five and 12 – has not been without its anxiety. ‘It’s in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep that I have those “I can’t quite breathe” moments.’
The arrival of a 13-week-old Old English sheepdog puppy, Maisy, in July certainly helped. But has she learnt anything about herself in the last few months? ‘It does appear that no matter how much cooking I do, I don’t improve,’ she deadpans.
Fisher first broke into the movie industry with a role in the big-screen adaptation of Scooby-Doo in 2002. She met Baron Cohen at a party that same year. She was 25 and had just left Australia and her soap-star career (playing Shannon Reed in Home and Away from 1994 to 1997) to work in Hollywood, and he was becoming a household name thanks to Ali G.
The pair hit it off immediately. According to Baron Cohen in a recent interview with The New York Times, they ‘bonded over taking the mick out of the other people in the party. I knew instantly.’ A wry sense of humour wasn’t the only thing they had in common – they had both attended clown school. Fisher studied at Jacques Lecoq in Paris; Baron Cohen went to nearby Philippe Gaulier. ‘I heard one of the actors on Home and Away talking about it,’ she recalls. ‘And I just thought, “I absolutely have to go. There is no place I belong more than clown school!”’
The couple starred together in the 2016 action comedy Grimsby (which Baron Cohen co-wrote) and are open to working together again in the future, but remain fiercely private when it comes to their family life. ‘I want my kids to have a normal life and grow up without scrutiny,’ explains Fisher, who converted to Judaism before marrying Baron Cohen in 2010. ‘I want them to be free to be who they want to be, and to choose, one day, if and when they want to be in the circus. I don’t want to be the one who ever speaks about them. It would be so disgusting – particularly to sell a movie – I would feel like the worst person ever.’
In the past, to protect the family from death threats, Baron Cohen has been forced to retire his characters. But this year he made the decision to reprise the role of the fictitious yet controversial Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev in the recently released Borat Subsequent Moviefilm –though this time Baron Cohen chose to wear a bulletproof vest for the filming.
‘He doesn’t tell me if he’s going to be doing something dangerous,’ explains Fisher. ‘I mean, he called me once after he’d attended a gun rally. I’m always better to know after the event if possible.’
Fisher simply feels safer not knowing how far her husband is going to go in setting up his unsuspecting subjects for ridicule. In this case, crashing Mike Pence’s Conservative Political Action Conference speech wearing a Donald Trump fat suit and trying to capture Rudy Giuliani getting handsy in a hotel room.
It can’t have been easy when Baron Cohen left home for 70 days at the peak of lockdown to film all over the country, yet far from feeling at risk, Fisher brims with pride. ‘There’s no acting job that’s harder or requires more skill,’ she says, ‘I think it was incredibly brave. I personally couldn’t have done it in a million years.’
I’m curious about the couple’s family set-up, does she run a tight ship? Is she a neat freak? ‘No, I need to do Marie Kondo. But once I heard, “You’ve got to ask yourself, does it make your heart sing?” I just couldn’t quite…’ Take her seriously? ‘I just don’t know if anything material can make your heart sing. I definitely enjoy cleaning and tidying. I love listening to my fellow ginger Ed Sheeran to keep me motivated.’
Their home is adorned with mementos collected from a career that’s taken the couple – who regularly work with the charities Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and Comic Relief – all over the world. ‘We’ve got some stuff,’ she says. ‘Sacha shot The Spy in Casablanca and Budapest and now we’ve got a wonderful rug. We’ve got some fun hats. And I collect old tea sets.’
Fisher’s upbringing was similarly mobile. Born in Oman in the Middle East to Scottish parents (her father was a banker for the United Nations) before settling in Perth, Western Australia, when she was six, Fisher attended multiple schools. ‘Being a redhead with large ears and having an English accent going to school in Australia, I had to really embrace comedy as my way of connecting with people,’ she recalls. ‘I used to tell jokes to make friends.’
Hers is a large family – she has two brothers and gained two stepbrothers following her parents’ divorce when she was nine – in which ‘comedy was a currency’, she says. ‘My mum’s an easy cook and very inclusive, so we were always allowed to have friends over for dinner. It was an open house, with lots of people, so we all wanted to be funny to get attention.’
While her own family are currently very much at home in Los Angeles, they relished moving back to London (where they still own a property) in June last year for the summer when Fisher was filming Blithe Spirit. ‘London’s a sexy city because everyone’s really funny and kind of eccentric and not afraid to be themselves. It has this energy to it that’s very addictive,’ she says. ‘My dad now lives in Germany and my mother is in Greece, and my husband’s family are in Europe, too, so there’s no way we wouldn’t spend as much time as possible there.’
Covid permitting, of course. How is she coping with the current travel restrictions? ‘I try to ring my parents every day,’ she sighs. ‘It’s hard not to google numbers [of cases and where they are] and panic, obviously, but the point is that we will see each other again and it’s going to be so much sweeter than ever before because we’ll really appreciate each other.’
In the meantime, it sounds like Fisher lives her Los Angeles life to the full. ‘I order lattes with oat milk, which is pretty sad but I draw the line at alkaline water,’ she laughs, when I ask what’s the most ‘LA’ thing she does. She’s also a fan of a hike and meditates when she can, using the apps Headspace and Breathe.
Talk turns to the scrutiny of Hollywood; something Fisher’s had to contend with for almost two decades. ‘I definitely feel ageism and body fascism to some degree, but equally, I tend to not go for those kinds of roles or be critical of myself because there’s not really much I can do about it,’ she shrugs.
‘I’m not somebody who at this point of my life, wants to do Botox. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now, I’m just trying to go the graceful route. I feel like being an actor means using your face and having expressions, so if you start fiddling around…’
While Fisher’s Instagram (with a bio that reads: ‘small ginger ninja’) gives a hilarious glimpse behind the scenes – often poking fun at her resemblance to fellow Hollywood star Amy Adams (‘Just received these clothes from Beyoncé?! Surely this must be a mistake… They must be meant for Amy Adams?!’) – she is a master at not giving away too many details.
And, unsurprisingly, she came to social media late – in 2016 – when she began using it to promote her range of children’s books, Marge in Charge, about a mischievous rainbow-haired nanny. There are now four books in the series, which her own kids still enjoy to this day. ‘There were requests last night to hear Marge,’ she smiles. ‘I’m incredibly proud I’m not that uncool yet. It’s a ticking clock though. I hear right away if something is not funny. They just walk out of the room or pretend to yawn.’
She is self-deprecating about her writing career, viewing herself as an actor who enjoys writing kids’ books, when in fact she’s been putting pen to paper since she was a teenager. When she was 18 she published two young-adult books, Seduced by Fame and Bewitched, with a bit of help from her mother, who also writes.
‘It was my concept and characters but Mum really taught me the craft of it,’ she recalls. ‘Not, obviously, writing sex scenes. Like, “What? Mum!” There is nothing more awkward. Particularly when I didn’t even have a boyfriend. My mum is a riot.’
Prompted by a screenwriting course she attended a decade ago, Fisher has since attempted scripts – one with the actor and comedian Amy Poehler, famous for her work on Saturday Night Live, and another with her mother – but plays down any ambitions to be the next, say, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. ‘I’ve never been lucky enough to have anything made,’ she ponders. ‘In some ways I don’t feel very confident… it’s just not there yet.’
Right now – pandemic or no pandemic – Fisher has one priority: ‘That everybody is happy and healthy and that I’m present for my kids,’ she says, as our time together draws to a close. ‘I never really have a plan. I’m not particularly goal-orientated in terms of my ambition.’
She hasn’t, as yet, thought as far as Christmas or Hanukkah (they celebrate both). ‘Who knows this year? I’m sure it will involve a lot of Zoom. A virtual dinner of sorts,’ she says. ‘My favourite thing is to ring my mum and download whatever recipes she’s using. I pretend I’m doing something different, but actually I’m just copying her completely and then I get competitive even though she’s an amazing chef and I’m not!’
Fisher may not be ready to go back to work, but that could be a great idea for a comedy show – if she really is as bad in the kitchen as she makes out. ‘I’m not that bad! I’ll have you know, I just made some croissants this morning,’ she says, unable to resist one final quip, ‘they’ll probably look like a prolapsed dog’s anus by the time I’m finished.’
Blithe Spirit is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 15 January