Pleased with just playing it straight

Isla Fisher says she did not know that doing comedy was an option for her when she was a young actress.
Isla Fisher says she did not know that doing comedy was an option for her when she was a young actress.PHOTO: REUTERS

For all The Brothers Grimsby's bawdiness, writer and star Sacha Baron Cohen insists that there is plenty in it for women to enjoy.

"We have some brilliant female actors in this film," he says, naming the actresses in the cast such as Penelope Cruz, Rebel Wilson, Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis and his wife, Isla Fisher.

Returning the compliment, Fisher says she has learnt a lot from her husband.

"Watching him is an education in how to be hilarious," says the 40-year-old Australian, who did not work on Cohen's previous movies he wrote and starred in - Borat (2006), Bruno (2009) and The Dictator (2012).

She and Cohen met in Australia in 2002 and got married in 2010 after a six-year engagement. They now have three children.

When she began work on The Brothers Grimsby, she felt left out because she had to play it straight, as a secret service worker, while Cohen goofed about.

She says: "Sacha's character is so heightened that we needed the rest of the world on screen to feel very real."

The film sees Cohen add to his array of outrageous characters, taking on the role of Nobby Butcher, an unemployed football fan from the northern British town of Grimsby, whose haplessness throws him into a series of misadventures with his long-lost secret agent brother (Mark Strong).

Eventually, Fisher came to see the bright side of playing it straight.

"It is a really expanding experience to do something that I have never done before, which is to ground a movie in a real way and play someone grown up who is very unemotional and so different from other characters I have taken on," she says.

"When I'd watched the movie I was pleasantly surprised with my performance compared to how I thought I might come across."

The Australian actress, who was born in Oman to Scottish parents, is well-versed in screen comedy, flourishing in films such as I Heart Huckabees (2004), Wedding Crashers (2005), Confessions Of A Shopaholic (2009) and Bachelorette (2012).

While studying at L'Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, she had also learnt clowning and mime.

"Clowning is my true love," she says with a beam.

Can she do any tricks? "I never did anything in the circus or on the streets. At kids' parties, I have been known to whip out a trick or two. I always get a bit of love when I do that."

Her interest in the art form was born in childhood from a need for self-preservation.

"I have always been comfortable tapping into my inner idiot and being the clown," she explains. "My parents travelled around with us when we were little and we went to new schools every year until I was 13 years old.

"I was already short with red hair and big ears, so I had all the credentials to be a clown. Plus, I had to be willing to make fun of myself, to make sure I could fit in."

Fisher, who was a child actress in Australia on shows such as Bay City and Paradise Beach, adds: "For me, it began as more of an aversion to classical training and the kind of people I would meet had gone to certain dramatic institutions and would approach their work in a certain kind of way which I didn't.

"Looking back, I was obviously more comfortable with comedy. But I didn't know that comedy was even an option because there were no comedic roles that I could audition for when I was a young actress.

"Because I looked a certain way, I always had to be a leading lady or the heroine. I never got to be the best friend who gets the jokes. Then I discovered the school of Jacques Lecoq because (Australian actor) Geoffrey Rush had gone there. Emma Thompson studied there as well."

The Brothers Grimsby's Nobby is her favourite comedy character among those Cohen has created for the big screen - and she does not seem to be saying it just to plug the new movie.

"I'm really lucky with this character because Sacha wore a wig," she says. "I had to sleep with someone with a handlebar moustache when he was Borat. I had a blond mohawked manorexic in my bed when he was Bruno.

"So Nobby was my favourite of all his alter egos to bring home. Despite the Northern accent that he never shook off, at least he looked like himself."

Will Lawrence

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Pleased with just playing it straight'. Print Edition | Subscribe