At five-foot-three with her heels kicked off, Isla Fisher knows how to embrace her shortcomings. On the set of our photo shoot, she emerges from the dressing room in an ice-pink Chanel suit that swamps her tiny frame. But no matter for the star, who smiles coyly, crosses her arms and cinches in the blazer at her waist, swaying to the beat of Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” as the camera clicks away.
It’s a trick, she tells me with a raspy laugh, that she picked up at clown school. “I studied at Jacques Lecoq theatre school in Paris and one of the things we worked on was embracing our [so-called flaws],” says Fisher. “Because I’m short, I’d wear very big clothes that would drag on the floor – and I turned that into a side gag. I learnt to embrace my size. The things I once tried to hide have ended up being the things that differentiate me.”
Years later, on the set of 2005’s Wedding Crashers, she shunned suggestions to stand on a box next to her co-star Vince Vaughn, who towered over her at six-foot-four. The ridiculous height gap proved part of the gag and, together with Fisher’s bubbly energy and sharp comic timing, it cemented her big break into Hollywood. Since then the Australian actor – who first graced our screens on Home and Away in the mid-’90s – has worked widely and steadily, filling her résumé with romcoms (Definitely, Maybe and Confessions of a Shopaholic), period dramas (The Great Gatsby), thrillers (Nocturnal Animals) and action-comedies (Keeping Up with the Joneses and The Brothers Grimsby). In Grimsby she shared the screen with her husband, actor and satirist Sacha Baron Cohen; together they’ve been dubbed a Hollywood power couple, a label that Fisher laughs off shyly.
This month sees the 45-year-old flex her comedy muscle once more in Blithe Spirit, a film adaptation of the classic 1941 Noël Coward play. It’s a fizzy farce set in 1930s Britain, all slapstick, screwball fun with a side of the supernatural. Fisher plays Ruth, housewife of screenwriter Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens), who accidentally summons his ex-wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), back from the dead – and hilarity ensues.
“It was so nice to read a script where the language was rich, layered and witty, especially given the fact we all communicate in emoticons these days,” says Fisher. Being cast alongside “our greatest living actress”, Dame Judi Dench – who plays an eccentric clairvoyant – was also a major drawcard. Fisher deadpans that Dench is actually a big fan of Home and Away and took on the project to work with her, then erupts into giggles. “I had to film two really big scenes with her and I kept saying to myself, ‘Fisher, don’t you forget your lines!’” she remembers. “And it was almost like she picked up on that energy, and she made a really funny dirty joke that put me right at ease. She’s got the most fantastic sense of humour. From that moment on I just relaxed and it was a masterclass, watching Dame Judi Dench perform.”
While the film is largely loyal to the original, Fisher points out that it’s had a subtle feminist rewrite. “With a 1941 text and two women fighting over a man, some 2020 updates were needed,” she says. “There’s a twist to ensure that the women are empowered and have a bigger impact on the outcome – they’re not just victims of circumstance.”
Shot in London in mid-2019, the movie’s sumptuous glamour and easy escapism couldn’t come at a better time. This time last year, Fisher was locked down with her family in Los Angeles. She’s quick to note that she doesn’t want to complain about her position, though being holed up at home with three young children had its challenges. “Homeschooling,” she muses. “Let’s just say I found grade four long division very hard!”
The fact that her husband was away for 70 days filming Borat Subsequent Moviefilm put double the pressure on Fisher’s mathematical nous. Baron Cohen revived his controversial character for the political mockumentary, reportedly rushing to get it made and released before the 2020 US election.
“It was hard for me [while he was away], but Sacha was very kind in not sharing what he intended to shoot each day,” Fisher says of her husband’s outrageous pranks, designed to expose prejudice in modern America. “He’d wait until he was back home safely and then say, ‘Oh, I was at a pro-gun rally, everyone was carrying guns.’ I’m so grateful I didn’t know before, so I didn’t have to worry.” Later, footage emerged of Baron Cohen leading a racist singalong at that event, then racing into a getaway car in a bulletproof vest after armed protesters realised his identity. But the dangerous endeavour proved worth it – some speculate that the film helped topple Trump, and it picked up two Golden Globe awards.
The couple first met at a showbiz party in Sydney in 2002. Baron Cohen told The New York Times that they bonded over “taking the mick” out of other, pretentious guests. They married in a tiny ceremony in Paris in 2010 – after Fisher converted to Judaism – and next year they’ll celebrate 20 years together, a lifetime by Hollywood standards. Is there a secret to their lasting relationship? “I wish I had an answer. I’m very lucky to have met him,” Fisher says, suddenly bashful. “I definitely think humour helps.”
Fisher is famously guarded about her personal life, and before this interview she politely requests that we don’t name her children. “I think all parents are trying to protect their kids, especially in the social media age,” she explains. “I want our children to have a normal childhood – being able to play outside without pressure or scrutiny. All kids have the right to just be kids, and I would never sell a film or magazine by speaking about [mine]. Motherhood is actually my favourite topic – but I keep it private.”
Fisher’s own childhood was filled with stories and adventure. Born in Oman, in the Middle East, to Scottish parents (her dad was a United Nations banker and her mum was a novelist), she moved to Perth at age six and quickly started honing her humour. “I was short with big ears and had an English accent,” she recalls. “I went to a different school every year from elementary through middle and I had to learn to be funny to make friends.” Growing up with two brothers and two step-brothers prepared her for the rejection she’d inevitably face in her career. “As an actor you’re told you’re not sporty enough to play a superhero, or you’re not tall enough to play a siren,” she says. “Whatever the excuse they gave me, my brothers had already prepared me by pointing out my failings during adolescence! I had a thicker skin when I got into show business and that may have helped with the longevity of my career.”
Despite now moving in A-list circles – she counts Courteney Cox as a close friend and once rented Jennifer Aniston’s LA home – Fisher insists she doesn’t feel, nor succumb to, typical Hollywood beauty pressures. “I think it’s because I often work in comedy where there’s more space for me to be [different]. But I’m also very good at tuning out those voices if I don’t agree with them.”
The place where she can truly tune out and switch off is on the white sand beaches of her homeland, where she has temporarily relocated with her family. “I feel like I can be myself in Australia,” she says. “I love the people. I love the colours and the sights and the taste and the smells. And there’s something about being home which is just … it feels very magical. I miss it so much when I’m away and I have a very Australian sensibility. Whenever I meet another Aussie, I always think, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re twins!’”
Today, Australia has been dubbed Aussiewood, swarming with stars who’ve made the move Down Under to work on film and TV productions. So how does Fisher think the big-name celebrities will find us Aussie bogans? “Hollywood actors just feel so lucky to be in Australia right now,” she says, laughing. “Americans always comment on how hard-working Aussie crews are. The government and people handled COVID brilliantly, and Australia is reaping the benefits of that now.”
Politics is untrodden territory for Fisher, often prodded to share her opinions given her husband’s strong stance. “I’ve always been outspoken personally, but I’ve steered away from politics publicly. I don’t know that anyone wants to hear me talk about it,” she says. That said, certain events in 2020 left her with no choice but to use her platform and her voice, and she regularly took to Instagram to campaign for democracy.
“It’s something that we all need to be as proactive as possible about right now,” she says emphatically. “It was clearly the spread of online conspiracy theories that led to the storming of Capitol Hill. And people like Mark Zuckerberg are making money off lies that cost lives, and these social media companies should be creating jobs that save lives.
No account on social media should incite violence, or spread hate or false information. I think these companies can afford to hire moderators to prevent misinformation being spread, and to save lives.”
The usually sunny star admits that the issue gets her fired up, but that she tempers her fury by striving to live life with her glass half full. “I’m always surprised that I’m employed, married and have my family – everything else feels like a bonus,” says Fisher. “Now, I’m optimistic about the future. That the vaccine will mean I can see my parents [overseas] and that we can all hug each other again. Until then, I just want to concentrate on keeping positive.”
For her, that means soaking up time with her family (her “number-one priority”), watching hilarious women-led comedy (“You have to see Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar with Kristen Wiig – it’s the funniest movie, you won’t regret it!”) and, whenever the moment calls, kicking off her shoes and tapping into her inner clown.
Blithe Spirit is screening on Amazon Prime now.