Isla Fisher plumbs the depths of comedy

After being fired by her agent, Isla Fisher played for laughs and made it big in Hollywood

Actress Isla Fisher enjoyed filming Now You See Me, in which she has to escape from chains and handcuffs underwater (above). -- PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, SHAW ORGANISATION

Isla Fisher had a nice little career as a television soap actress in her native Australia. But when she tried to make it big in Hollywood, the pint-sized actress did so badly that she was fired by her agent.

On the advice of then husband-to-be Sacha Baron Cohen, 41, the professional funnyman who created Borat (2006), she changed tack and began looking for work in comedy.

The 37-year-old tells Life! that this was a turning point in her trajectory as an actress, which led to her carving out a niche for herself playing a string of hilariously unhinged characters.

Fisher was speaking to reporters at a New Orleans press event for her latest film, Now You See Me, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

The movie opened in North America over the weekend at No. 2 at the box office, behind Fast & Furious 6 and ahead of Will Smith's sci-fi epic After Earth.

Fisher is best known for her scene-stealing turns in hit comedies such as Wedding Crashers (2005) and Bachelorette (2012), so the new film - a fast-paced caper about a team of magicians who rob a bank - is a bit of a departure, as was her other big project this year, director Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.

Both are supporting roles in ensemble casts boasting far bigger stars, but they are the sort of jobs that Fisher could only dream of landing when she first ventured into Hollywood.

The redhead had had a good run playing a bisexual teenager on the popular Australian soap Home And Away from 1994 to 1997.

But after being cast in the 2002 Hollywood film Scooby-Doo, she hit a prolonged dry spell in which she was first fired by her own agent and then turned down by Baron Cohen's when she asked him to represent her.

She says: "There was a period of endless auditioning before Wedding Crashers, with no luck, not even a callback, not even positive feedback, just 'she's too short, too small, too funny', or 'she's not funny enough, she's not sexy enough, she's whatever...'."

Then in 2002, Fisher began dating Baron Cohen, a British comedian who had won acclaim for his outrageous alter ego Ali G, the politically incorrect host of a spoof television interview show.

"It was actually my husband who, after I was getting rejected for yet another movie, said, 'You should do comedy, you know. You're so funny, you're the funniest lady I know.'

"I thought he was biased because he was my boyfriend at the time. But I listened to him and I told my manager maybe we should focus on the comedy world. She was really surprised by that, but then I got Wedding Crashers."

That film, which starred Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, saw Fisher play a sweet but sex-starved sister of the bride, unveiling an adorable battiness that would become something of a trademark.

And although she had not originally tried out for such roles, the actress clearly had the makings of a comedienne early on.

"I grew up in a house with a lot of siblings," says Fisher, who has four brothers. "We also hosted a lot of exchange students, so to get your parents' attention, you do what you need to do, which in my case was to make my mum laugh.

"I also went to a new primary school almost every year. I think I must've gone to seven different schools before I was 12. So I'm pretty sure that in order to make friends, I learnt to be funny, to ingratiate myself with my peers."


Once she decided she wanted to be an actress, the films she looked to were comedies rather than dramas. And her taste in comedies veered towards the fast-talking, rib-tickling end of the spectrum.

"I didn't grow up thinking, 'I want to star in Roman Holiday,'" she says, referring to the 1953 romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. "As a teenager, I was obsessed with the Beverly Hills Cop films and fantasised about doing a movie with Eddie Murphy, where I got to riff with him and we were both really funny. That was my dream," she says.

After she left the cast of Home And Away, she attended the prestigious Lecoq theatre school in Paris, where she studied clowning and mime.

But although she states that she will always love tapping into her "inner idiot" on screen, she has relished the chance to do the crime thriller Now You See Me, which was directed by Louis Leterrier, the Frenchman behind movies such as The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Clash Of The Titans (2010).

"I really enjoy doing this type of movie," she says, proudly describing the months she spent learning to do magic tricks and preparing for a scene where she has to escape from handcuffs and chains underwater.

"It's different technically because it's not really character-based or a war of words," says Fisher, who also appears in this year's revival of the cult television comedy series Arrested Development, in which she plays a struggling actress/musician.

"A lot of it was just about the style in which it was shot. Sometimes you would say a line and do what felt like a thousand takes because the camera had to capture every single moment from every different angle.

"You started to think the director was actually a sadist who enjoyed torturing us, but when we watched it back, you see it adds an incredible pace to the movie.

"It feels to me like a very stylish, cool movie. I really enjoyed watching it and I was surprised to see myself in it, you know?"

Now You See Me is showing in cinemas. This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 5, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.