Isla Fisher tells Tara Brady that redheads do the funniest things,
After her early career in Aussie soap Home and Away, Isla Fisher pursued an academic interest in buffoonery and comedy work. She tells fellow redhead Tara Brady why gingers are funnier, what it was like to work with Johnny Depp and how she learned to keep
DAINTY, beaming and sniffing apologetically, Isla Fisher looks far more radiant than someone with a cold has any right to. Where mere mortals might bark and splutter she emits an adorable, raspy exclamation.
“Hmmm,” she purrs. “We know we’re special in other ways. We know that redheads have better hand-to-eye co-ordination. Because when you have to make do with bows and arrows in the Scottish Highlands for generations, you’re bound to have an advantage in tennis. But there is something about red hair and comedy that goes right back to Lucille Ball.”
She’s right, you know. Isla Fisher, a woman crowned with shimmering ginger locks, belongs to a fine lineage of kooky silver-screen sirens. Whether it’s Ball or the sublime pratfalls of Madeline Khan, there’s something about comedy and those who prefer Factor 50 sunblock that just works. Think of Katharine Hepburn, who put in plenty of fine dramatic turns during her decades in the biz, yet never looked more comfortable than she did when falling off ladders or chasing wayward panthers. Think of Alyson Hannigan, who near single-handedly rescued the first three American Pie movies from the straight-to-DVD shelf.
Born in Oman to Scottish parents, Fisher suspects the red comedy gene has a good deal to do with being different.
“We moved around a lot,” says Fisher, whose father is a former banker for the UN. “So from years one to eight I was in a new place and a new school every year. I figured out early on that the quickest way to make friends and get accepted was to take the piss out of yourself. That was how I acclimatised each time, until it became a kind of in-built mechanism. And it was good practice for eventually living in the UK.”
Raised mostly in Perth, her childhood was, she says, “outdoorsy”, not privileged. “We weren’t posh. There is a class structure of sorts in Australia. But it’s not like it is in Britain, where it’s all about bloodlines and being in line for the throne. We Aussies don’t do posh.” Acting snuck up on her. “Weirdly enough, even my parents weren’t at all worried when I got into it. Like me, they had no experience of the business and just presumed if you wanted to act for a living you’d sign up somewhere and it would happen for you. Nobody tells you about the lean years in Paris or London.”
She came to prominence in this part of the world as a regular on Aussie soap imports Paradise Beach and Home and Away. At a time when Aussie soaps still meant hysteria, Jason and Kylie, it was a good spot to be in. At heart, however, she longed for shenanigans. Waving goodbye to her career as a soap starlet, she travelled to Paris to study at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, where she specialised in clowning and commedia dell’arte.
“I love being a
“I figured out early on that the quickest way to make friends and get accepted was to take the piss out of yourself”
clown. It’s harder than it looks. I honestly find it easier to watch a bad drama than a bad comedy. Every time you can pull off comedy, it’s like a little miracle. So many elements have to come together. You have to work so hard for a line to be funny or to come up with a funny little physical piece, and then you can blow it with bad timing. There’s a rhythm to being a goofy redhead.”
What was her favourite lesson from clown school? “Playing it real,” she says. “Drama and comedy are not all that dissimilar. They come from the same place. You have to play comedy real. That’s not necessarily the same as playing it straight.
“You can see the difference when you see a great dramatic actor take on a comedic role. It’s never the same as watching someone who
really loves falling over. My favourite actors come from comedy for that reason. Look at Peter Sellers; he’s so moving in Being There but so broad in the Pink Panther series. And look at the way Goldie Hawn can slip between genres.”
Her keen interest and academic training in buffoonery has, to date, served Fisher well. The star of box office hits The Wedding
Crashers, Hot Rod and Definitely, Maybe is equally at home in the indie sector, where she has worked on I Heart Huckabees and The
Lookout. A “very laid-back Aussie” by her own account, she dismisses her glittering resumé with a self-deprecating shrug.
“I’ve fallen in and out of love with acting over the years. I’ve definitely been more ambitious than I am now. It’s like anything you do for a long time. I love what I do but I’m not always passionate about it. When I first had success I was excited, but now I’m a mother my priorities have completely changed. I have to really love, love, love the part I’ve been offered in order for me to leave my family.”
She often finds herself saying no when LA comes a-courting. “I’ve turned down a lot of nagging, boring girlfriend roles,” she says. “I don’t see the point in doing a film where the guys get to be funny and the girlfriend is just this annoying voice of reason.
“You can do wonderful things with a straight guy – look at Ben Stiller in There’s
Something About Mary – but there isn’t a lot of room for zipping up your wiener as the nagging girlfriend. There’s often no material there you can really score with. And people don’t walk out of those movies thinking ‘that character was meant to be the straight man’. They walk away thinking ‘she wasn’t very funny’.”
She’s much happier about Rango, an animation from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski. An eccentric familyfriendly mash-up of The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly, Hunter S Thompson and Chinatown, it features Fisher and Verbinski regular Johnny Depp as embattled frontier lizards.
“We didn’t use sound booths,” she says. “We acted it all out on a stage. It was a creative, fun way to work. Johnny Depp was attached. No brainer, really. And I love Beans, my character. She has the wide-apart eyes. She’s smart and feisty and slowblinking. I think she’s beautiful.”
Away from the wonderfully maggoty roadkill critters of Rango, Fisher and her famous husband, Sacha Baron Cohen, maintain a fiercely private home. The name of their second daughter has, tellingly, never been released to the press, and their whereabouts are, at any given moment, uncertain.
“We’re settled here, but we’re often on the move. We’re lucky. We don’t have to leave the UK. It’s a good base. Whenever Sacha and I are working we’ll go over to the States, but come straight back again. My family are in Greece at the minute and dad is in Germany. Sacha has a lot of family in Israel. It probably sounds very jet-set but in practice you just spend a lot of time in airports.”
Away from the cameras, she relishes the role of quiet Jewish housewife. She completed her conversion to her husband’s faith in 2007 following three years of study.
“You know what? I speak a tiny bit of Hebrew from going to Israel a bunch to visit Sacha’s family. But most of my studying was about keeping a kosher home and getting all the festivals straight in my head. There are a lot of Jewish festivals.”
So who gets the best lines in that household, we wonder? “I think it’s an even split. He’s a pretty funny guy but I’ve got the red hair, remember?”