Isla Fisher — or Mrs Borat to the rest of the world — has moved on from anorexic lesbians and girlfriend roles to become a real force in comedy
Published: 17 October 2010, Sunday Times
The late Georgian period had some curious costumes: teetering, Cat-in-the-Hat stovepipe titfers for the men; female cleavages so ridiculously exposed, it’s little wonder the era’s literary heroines had a tendency to succumb to pneumonia. So uplifting is the grey ballgown sported by Isla Fisher, it enforces nervous and vigilant adherence to that unwritten rule observed in communal Scandinavian saunas (and on the shop floor of “art” films) — eye contact at all times.
It’s a February day in the grounds of Osterley House, in west London, and snow flurries swirl. Prudently, once her scene is in the bag, Fisher is bundled up in a parka and hastened away. Film sets are never as glamorous as you would imagine. Burke & Hare is no exception. She apologises for her trailer ponging of chicken tikka masala, her earlier lunch. “Sorry, it’s a bit smelly.” I’ve just been sitting on the crew bus, I say. This is nothing. Petite and beautiful, her red ringlets topped with an ostrich feather, Fisher performs the incongruous manoeuvre of sliding her elegant habillement between a Formica-topped caravan table and what Alan Partridge would call “the old bonkette”. Her character, Ginny, is a bit more exotic than the other wretches still shivering out there. “A showgirl with a past,” as she puts it, “whose dream has been to put on an all-female production of Macbeth, which in itself is funny.”
Even though I’d studied comedy, I didn’t know I could do it for a living. It felt like too much fun
As the romantic interest of William Burke, Ginny remains oblivious to the plot’s goings-on. “It keeps their love story kind of pure and gives the movie a different feeling from when he’s with Hare, committing these heinous crimes.” Heinous crimes indeed.
The film is based on the story of the infamous rippers of 1820s Edinburgh, who slaughtered at least 17 innocents in their under-the-counter business of supplying cadavers to the esteemed anatomist Dr Robert Knox. Apprehended in 1828, Burke was hanged and dismembered; Hare was granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony against his partner. (Knox got off free.)
Starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the titular duo, the film is hardly a docudrama — “less gruesome, more comedic”, as Fisher puts it. “I mean, there are some images of things that seem extreme, but they are shot from a funny angle, or the body’s bent in an amusing way.” It’s been made by John Landis — the American director of Animal House, The Blues Brothers and, most pertinently, for its tragicomic mix and British setting, An American Werewolf in London — so you know where the sensibilities lie. With a cast including Tom Wilkinson (as Knox), Tim Curry, Ronnie Corbett, Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter and Jessica Hynes, much is expected of the £8m production, an output of the resurrected Ealing Studios.
These are interesting times for Fisher, who in recent years has notched up lead roles in Wedding Daze, Definitely, Maybe and, memorably, Wedding Crashers, playing Vince Vaughn’s bipolar nymphomaniac seductress, a “stage five clinger”. She was last seen as the star of The Confessions of a Shopaholic, an ode to spending that had the spectacular misfortune to be released just as real-life credit began crunching — “a cautionary tale”, is her reassessment. Such movies have enabled the 34-year-old to claim her seat at female comedy’s top table, a procedure conducted with no small degree of stealth.
“I didn’t know she was Australian,” shrugs Landis, just one of many in the film business to have been flat-footed by her advance. “I had only seen her in Wedding Crashers and Shopaholic, then I meet her and it’s ‘shrimp on the barbie’.” Despite the accent and the argot, she’s not quite all that, either. Though she grew up in Perth, Fisher was born in Oman, to Scottish parents living in the Middle East. Then there is her other half, one Sacha Baron Cohen, whom she met at a party in Sydney in 2002: the reason, you suspect, for much of the secrecy. As all of Fisher’s films have been American, and with Baron Cohen currently the toast of Hollywood, I had assumed that the couple lived over there, but not so. “We rent a house in LA because of work, really, but our house where our furniture is is in London,” she says. You get the sense that you are straying into forbidden territory. And once you venture whether having a family together (at the time of filming, a two-year-old named Olive) has limited Fisher’s ability to take roles in recent months — perhaps the reason she’s doing a British film? — the shutters are politely closed.
In an era when celebrity lives are hawked ad nauseam, this seems exceptionally refreshing. Professionally, too, it must get tiresome to be constantly linked with another performer. When Fisher was on the David Letterman show, and was introduced as being “engaged to Borat”, you could sense her grinning and bearing it. So, let’s try this. How is it with two comics in the house? Are they constantly trying to outdo each other? “No, but I definitely can’t help myself from trying out new characters on Sacha,” she discloses. “I think in all relationships, particularly if you’re in the same field, you end up bringing work home with you. At the same time, you never want your relationship to be just about work.”
It was he who encouraged her to become a funnywoman, it turns out. “Even though I’d studied comedy, I didn’t know I could do it for a living. It felt like too much fun.” Glad to hear he’s not all maudlin and Jim Carrey away from the spotlight’s glare. “Oh, God, I couldn’t live with one of those,” she chuckles. “No, Sacha’s the funniest man I know, and that’s on and off camera.”
Fisher actually started out as an author. As a teenager, she penned a couple of novels, Seduced by Fame and Bewitched, abetted by her writer mother, Elspeth Reid. On choosing to act, like any Aussie aspirant she served her apprenticeship in the beachside soaps, most notably as Home and Away’s Shannon Reed (a sexually abused, anorexic lesbian). Thus followed her previous spell working in Britain — panto in Tunbridge Wells and the stage musical Summer Holiday, alongside Darren Day.
In 1997, she quit telly altogether — “When you’re acting in television, you’re acting from the neck up. I really wanted to develop my — inverted commas — ‘craft’, without sounding pretentious.” She enrolled in the Parisian school of the late mime artist Jacques Lecoq. She jokes about there being “not much call for ‘the wall’” in any of her films, but physicality has been integral. A supporting role in the first Scooby Doo film (an American production shot in Australia) got her an American agent — “All that acting alongside an animated dog paid off” — and she’s been up and running ever since.
I’ve actually been working on a movie idea my husband came up with, a character for me
It’s still a struggle, though. “After I did Wedding Crashers, I felt really optimistic about my future, but there weren’t the opportunities I’d imagined to follow such a big commercial movie.
"The roles offered were to play the girlfriend of another comedian. They would get to do the joke, and you’d roll your eyes. I was a little disillusioned and ultimately grew more and more frustrated.”
Plus, she says, she keeps running up against the not dissimilar Amy Adams. “We both went for Catch Me If You Can, and she got it. We both went for Wedding Daze, and I got it. Then we both went for this movie Tourists — and we both didn’t get it.”
Inspired, she says, by the new wave of female comics — Tina Fey and her Saturday Night Live sidekick Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Chelsea Handler — Fisher reels off a number of projects she has been proactively developing. There’s Desperadoes, “a female Hangover, quite puerile”, another called Life Coach (about a life coach) and one with Poehler, called Groupies: “The story of two overconfident dum-dums, the king turds of turd mountain. They follow this terrible Christian rock band... Er, I didn’t pitch it very well.”
I’m still trying to get my head round “king turds of turd mountain”. She laughs. And, as she does so, the trailer door is flung open, yielding an Arctic blast and a chap with a walkie-talkie asking if Fisher could get her parka back on. As she leaves, she turns back. She’s a bit concerned about the Amy Adams comment. They’re good friends, not rivals. And so it shall be reported.
Seven months later, Fisher is on the phone. The first interview, she had joked, was “foreplay”. She’s somewhat tardy in her call, and the conversation is chorused by text messages from frantic publicists checking if we’ve made contact, and a dash by Fisher to attend to her daughter. “The wonders of Lego,” she sighs. Except if you tread on it with bare feet, I say. The cloak of mystery still hangs heavily. It turns out — or maybe it doesn’t — that Fisher has since had another child... which would have accounted for the bosomy thing. Yet in the press, not even her agent or publicist has been able to confirm this child’s existence, let alone its gender or name. “You know what, I’m actually not going to discuss my personal life,” she repeats, adding a mischievous chortle. It had been reported that she and Baron Cohen got married in March in a private ceremony in Paris, following Fisher’s conversion to Judaism. Or maybe they didn’t. Baron Cohen is now referred to as “husband”, anyway.
They are definitely still in London. “We’ve been here now for a good two months, and we’re here for another two because Sacha’s doing a Martin Scorsese movie,” she enthuses. (The children’s film Hugo Cabret, currently being shot over here by the old maestro.) “That’s my namedrop for the interview, by the way, which is very exciting. So he’s out at... oh, God, it’s not Pinewood, what’s the other one? Not Ealing...” Shepperton. “Yeah, Shepperton, great. So I’m just here with the family, and it’s been a beautiful summer in London. It’s been very nice.”
She hasn’t yet seen the finished Burke & Hare, but there’s been voice work with Johnny Depp on the animation Rango. Meanwhile, she’s been “working at home”, pushing those pet projects, pitching stuff to the studios via Skype. Sadly, Groupies, the “king turds of turd mountain” one, has been shelved, but there’s a new one to add. “I’ve actually been working on a movie idea my husband came up with, a character for me, which I do around the house.” Great, what’s it called? “I don’t know if I should say.” Oh, Lord.
Fisher has been energised by wearing “the developmental hat” — producing, writing stuff. “Things move a lot slower. It’s definitely more frustrating than being an actor for hire, but it’s a lot more exciting, creating what you’re going to play, thinking about what you do best, what your shtick is.” Comedy, as a trade, should never be underestimated, she insists: “I can sit through a bad dramatic movie and still be engaged, but I can’t sit through a bad comedy, people trying to be funny when they’re not. It has to work.”
Burke & Hare opens on October 29