When a Hollywood actress tells you that she doesn’t want to be the star of a film, you might want to be liberal with the pinch of salt. Unless that actress is Isla Fisher.
Curled up on a sofa, surrounded by cushions, in the air-conditioned cool of a hotel suite, Fisher is absolutely clear that landing the starring role in a movie is not what she’s after.
“I definitely don’t want to do the lead role in a movie,” she says simply. “That doesn’t interest me. The hours, being away from my young family, the pressure of having to open a movie. Once you go down that road it feels creatively and emotionally and mentally and physically way too challenging for me.”
My face obviously betrays the fact that I am not exactly used to hearing this version of what it’s like to be an actress in Hollywood, so Fisher offers a clarification.
“I’m not saying that maybe in a few years when everybody is older [she’s referring to her two children, Olive, 5, and Elula, 2, with husband Sacha Baron Cohen] I couldn’t do it. But I had that experience with Confessions of a Shopaholic – you’re the first one on set everyday, the last one home. They put your head on a poster – it’s a lot. For me, motherhood comes first and so I loved the experience of that but doing these ensembles like The Great Gatsby and Now You See Me and working on Arrested Development, you get all the perks of your job, the actual job – you get to do great work, you get to carry the emotional arc of the movie, you can take more risks creatively because it’s a smaller role so you can really push yourself to try new things.” And when it’s put like that, you’ve got to admit Fisher has got a point. And maybe the reason she can bring herself to cast this kind of unflinching eye on her professional life is because she knows it from both sides. She knows what it’s like to be fired by your agent when things aren’t going well (this is what happened to Fisher after her first attempt to conquer Hollywood) and she knows what it’s like to see your face blown 30ft high and plastered all over billboards. I think that’s what you call perspective.
“I really don’t have a plan for better or worse,” she says, smiling. “I don’t have that luxury. There must be an echelon of actresses who get to carve out their careers but I’m still at that level where it’s like, ‘oh, you want me to be in that movie? Great’”
Fisher is tiny which makes it look like the cushions are keeping her anchored in the middle of the huge settee. My seat is miles away over a coffee table and an expanse of thick carpet. I try to move it a bit nearer, but it’s so heavy it’s going nowhere. “Can you move that?” she asks, looking a little concerned. “If you can’t, I can help you.” I can do it, I tell her, going red in the face. “I’ve got terrible jet lag,” she says as I wrestle with the upholstery. “I was doing really well but I’ve just hit a wall.” Right enough, her eyes are rolling a bit. “I’ve gone under. I was doing so well.” She flew in from Los Angeles, where she lives with her family, the day before we meet, went to bed at 11pm but woke up at 4am. “Looking back I should’ve forced myself to go to sleep instead of watching Barry Lyndon, the Kubrick movie. It was three hours and 10 minutes long. Bad decision.” She props her eyes open with her fingers and smiles.
From the moment Fisher stole the movie, Wedding Crashers (2005) from under the noses of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, Hollywood seemed to recognise that Fisher could do funny. It being Hollywood, the machinery then kicked in to create vehicles in which Fisher could do it again. Confessions of a Shopaholic soon followed. But Fisher isn’t just someone who knows how to sell a gag. She’s an actor who served her time in the world of the Aussie soaps (she was Shannon in Home and Away for three years). Then, at the age of 21, she took herself to Paris and enrolled at the Lecoq Theatre School which focuses on clowning and mime. There followed a spate treading the boards in the UK and then her first, ill-fated, assault on Hollywood.
It was her husband (Fisher met Baron Cohen in 2002 and they got married in 2010) who told her, after watching her lose out on one role after another, that she should try to go for funny roles because she was the funniest person that he knew. But on the evidence of Fisher’s latest roles – the doomed Myrtle Wilson in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and the illusionist and escapologist, Henley, in Now You See Me – Fisher has a serious side too.
Now You See Me is on a different scale to Luhrmann’s all-singing, all-dancing adaptation but it has a slickness of its own. Directed by Louis Leterrier, the French director behind The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Clash of the Titans (2010), Fisher plays one of a group of magicians known as the four horsemen, alongside Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco. They play arenas like rock stars and blur the lines between entertainment and Robin Hood-style wealth redistribution. Being part of an ensemble cast, along with Mark Ruffalo, Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, couldn’t have suited Fisher better. It was, she says, fun.
“At any moment, you could look around the set and see Dave Franco cutting a banana in half with a card, Jesse just constantly shuffling and working on his dexterity and Woody Harrelson attempting mentalism on everyone which was hilarious. One day he hypnotised Mark, or at least he thought he had, into believing that he was seeing everything in only one colour – I think it was blue, or maybe green – anyway it transpired Mark was pulling his leg.”
Fisher’s character is an escapologist so she didn’t have to do as much of the dexterity stuff as the others. She says that she is glad about that because although she enjoyed researching magic thoroughly and studying Dorothy Dietrich, an American illusionist who could catch a bullet in her teeth, and working with David Kwong, the movie’s magic consultant who came up with a lot of ideas, she’s not quite got the attention span required to perfect sleight of hand.
“I realised very early on that to be a really good magician – aside from the misdirection and connection with the audience, which was relatively easy for me to do because I’m already trained as an actor – there’s the actual attention that’s required, repeating an action again and again until you’re flawless, I do not have that kind of will power.
“These guys do it for 10 years, the same thing, again and again. It’s amazing. I’d give up after a week. I also never improve at things. I get to a certain point and then as soon as I feel I’m vaguely good at anything I just give up. I can’t push myself on to become an expert.”
The film pivots on the tension between being a sceptic and being a believer. Although Fisher says she knows which side she thinks that she’s on, her friends would tell you something different.
“I definitely see myself as a believer but I know my friends see me as a sceptic,” she says. “I know they do because I sometimes get told off for being, you know, apocalyptic.” She laughs sheepishly. “I’m a ‘fraidy cat. I’m the person with the earthquake kit at home. I think it’s getting worse as I get older. Someone finds a crowbar – ‘what’s this Isla?’ It’s to lever the furniture up to get out from the door frame.”
I tell her she’s reminded me of some short stories I read in which a character hid a generator in his back garden for when the world ends. She starts laughing. “I have got a generator,” she says, eyes going wide. “When avian flu started to be talked about I was the first one to buy a mask.” She laughs more. “I’m slightly exaggerating but I am definitely ‘fraidy cat. If I’m in my car and I have to make a decision between taking the freeway and taking a side road, I’ll take the side road.”
A Diet Coke arrives for Fisher – much-needed caffeine to keep the jet lag at bay. ‘I love you,’ she says to the nice young woman delivering it. Then she takes a sip and her face twists up and the glass is placed back on the table never to be touched again. Not that she complains, though. In fact, jet-lagged Isla Fisher is perfectly lovely company. Legs tucked up beneath her, in her den of cushions, she runs her fingers through her long, red hair and tries hard to keep her eyes from rolling in her head. I feel a bit bad for putting her through a question-and-answer session, I tell her, when obviously all she wants to do is pass out. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I was feeling really great and actually I was feeling pretty smug about it, so it serves me right.”
And to be fair, it’s not exactly an interrogation. There’s nothing to interrogate Fisher about. Her story is impressive, but not in the slightest bit salacious (unless you count that episode when she was engaged to Darren Day back in the 1990s.) She grew up the daughter of Scottish parents. Her dad worked for the UN and the World Bank, so the family travelled a lot. Starting a new school every year was a good way to learn how to be funny since that was the easiest way to fit in as the new girl. Nowadays she’s happily married with two young daughters. She doesn’t talk about any of them in interviews but doesn’t make a fuss about that either. The family lives between London and Los Angeles.
“I think London feels like a base,” she says. “Although I think I have spent more time in LA recently. Maybe I live in LA now. Do you know what, I do live in LA because for the last two years that’s where I’ve been.”
I tell her that it must suit her, if she hasn’t really noticed that she’s moved. She nods.
“My upbringing was very nomadic and I’ve been an actor my whole life, I started when I was 11, so it’s been well over 20 years.” She rolls her eyes. “Actually, let’s not put a number on it,” she hams. Fisher is 37 and doesn’t look anything like it.”
Fisher proudly tells me that her dad is from Bathgate and her mum is from Stranraer. “We did our family tree and we’re Scottish as far back as it’s possible to be Scottish,” she says, grinning. As well as meaning that she knows all about the “little rituals and cultural differences” that are part of being Scottish – she names Hogmanay and our food as particular areas of expertise – it also means that Fisher’s comedic background is British. She grew up on The Goodies and Blackadder. She loves Monty Python. Now her tastes extend to what you’d expect from any smart woman who’s already written several scripts for development. “I love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Rebel Wilson,” she says. “I love Sarah Silverman’s stand-up and I love Chelsea Handler. I am a fan of funny women.” Ask her what her favourite comedy film is, though, and she doesn’t hesitate for a second. “My all-time favourite funny movie is still Bruno. I love it. It’s just so good.”
It makes me laugh that Fisher’s choice is the movie in which her husband plays a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista, often wearing very short leather shorts. There can’t be many people who you could say that about.
With two major releases in almost as many weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Fisher’s career is bumping along at a fair pace, but she says it’s deceptive and really she doesn’t work very often. And despite how comfortable she seems being holed up in hotels speaking into dictaphones, it’s not how she usually spends her time. “The Valentino leather skirt and Valentino fancy lace sweater is probably two percent of my life and the sweatpants and dirty ponytail is 98 percent of my life,” she says and laughs.
Sounds like a pretty good balance to me.
• Now You See Me is released on Wednesday