We catch up with the mum-of-two – who is married to Borat funnyman Sacha Baron Cohen – and discover where her love for acting and comedy all began
You have been acting since childhood. Were you naturally funny as a child?
I don't know where the comedy comes from! But it could be from the fact that I travelled around a lot as a kid. I went to five different primary schools [Isla's dad worked for the United Nations]. We moved around Western Australia, we spent a year in Cambridge, and then we moved back to Australia. I was in four more primary schools before I started high school. My theory is that I learned to play the class idiot because I had to make friends quickly. I had to be adaptable and make friends with the new students and be liked, and an easy way to get people to like you is to make them laugh.
You went to mime school in Paris after leaving Home and Away – what was that like?
I wasn't scared, I was excited. I was always a Francophile - my mum had driven a Citroën! I was 21 and I had already gone to France as an exchange student when I was 16. I lived in Lille for three months. I already spoke French as I'd studied it at school. I was obsessed with clowning and France and the idea was so exciting to me. I only became more of a nervous Nellie with age!
What are your interests outside acting?
I love cooking. One of the recipe books I love at the moment is the recent Ottolenghi Cookbook. I like one recipe in which you grill some winter root veggies, using spices and cinnamon stick. You put really strong, Indian flavours into the oven with these veggies. Then, you do a regular lentil and couscous and mix it up. Oh my God, it's so good. I also love Jamie Oliver's 15 Minute Meals.
How fulfilling is acting?
I am still in love with acting. I'm still in love with that form of expression. I feel so creative when I'm on a set and I'm writing jokes, improvising and tapping into my inner idiot by pulling silly faces. I love it. I also love doing dramatic roles like The Great Gatsby. In that film I got to inhabit the emotional landscape of a person in a fictitious, real world. Acting has been my passion throughout my life, although being a mother takes precedent now. Right now the best thing for me and my family [Isla is mum to daughters Olive, six, and Elula, three] is for me to do smaller, supporting roles, which I enjoy.
You're staring in new movie Now You See Me. What is the story all about?
Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, David Franco and I play four magicians (The Four Horsemen) who are brought together by a secret "fifth horseman", who invites us to join a privileged, private group. The magicians are the best in their field. We have to commit a bunch of robberies. But we are "goodies". We end up like modern Robin Hoods. We rob the rich to distribute the money back to the people who have earned it, through magic, through wonderful shows. We're basically peoples' magicians. We want to delight, bedazzle, excite, wow these crowds but we don't actually know why we're doing it until the very end – so that is interesting to play. Chasing us are Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent.
How would you describe the film?
It is an intelligent thriller with a lot of action, car chases and cops chasing robbers. I think that in Hollywood they call it a "tri quadrant" movie, meaning it appeals to a larger demographic of teenagers and adults, like Ocean's Eleven. It is a slick and fast action heist thriller. There is also a lot of romance and some comedy. We get in some good jokes.
Your character sounds intriguing?
Henley is like a lion tamer. She's a fearless escapologist and I actually based her on Dorothy Dietrich—a wonderful American escapologist who can catch a bullet between her teeth and get out of a straight jacket. She is fabulous. She's such a character, such an anarchist. She could stand on the edge of a cliff and not care. Even though she embraces her femininity, she's happy to be in a masculine world and be one of the boys. Henley doesn't sacrifice her art or her creativity for anyone. She wants to be a magician in her own right. She has to be better to hold her own with the guys. She is feisty but she never acts like a man.
How did you prepare for the role?
We were very fortunate on this movie that we worked with an amazing magician called David Kwong and he was with us the whole time. So if we were on set and we wanted to do a little sleight of hand or something during a scene, he was always there as the greatest consultant ever.
Was it a little daunting?
It was great playing her, I got to do incredible stunts. But I am a bit of a fraidy cat; I am not going to lie. When I first got offered the movie and heard I'd be in a water tank, chained underwater, my first instinct was to decline the role - politely. But I decided to pursue it, because I thought it would be good for me and I really enjoyed doing the stunts. I can understand the allure of an action movie now. I never could before. The greatest thing about acting is that you're not playing yourself; you're playing a character, so you don't actually feel scared. But that was part of the attraction of this role for me. This was such a wonderful character for me to inhabit because I wanted to learn to be braver, and I think I actually did from doing this movie.
What was it like in the tank, even though the piranhas are computerised it must've been challenging?
At first I was obviously very nervous about being chained underwater, so I went over it with the stunt guy. There were metal grids at the bottom of the tank, and my chain got caught underneath. I couldn't get up for air, I had already run out of air at that point. I was very panicked, but I luckily got free at the last minute. Everyone thought I was acting fabulously. No one realised I was actually struggling. But when you're working on a movie, things are safe. You've got stunt people and you've got someone standing by with a tank of oxygen. You've got a quick release water switch so that in the event that heaven forbid, you get trapped under there, they can press a button and in 75 seconds the tank is completely emptied. But I actually got injured on this movie more than I've been injured on any other job I've done. I took the skin off both my knees, which has still not really come back, I hurt my ankle.
How did you train for that scene?
I practiced in a London swimming pool, learning to stay underwater for up to two minutes.
Can you talk about working with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson?
It was really fun working with Woody. He is great; he cares so much about the environment. He's so funny and hilarious. Jesse was also very funny. The two of them would riff and go off at tangents in between scenes and we would be crying with laughter. I have never had as much fun on a movie set as I did on this one.
What was it like being the only female magician?
I was really nervous about being the only girl in the group. You never know what it will be like. It could be a boys' club, but these guys were so inclusive and such gentlemen and it was so much fun. We invented games. One of the games we developed to while away the hours on set is a game called Hands. We all put our hands into the circle, and one of us would mentally pick a finger on someone's hand, while someone else is the chooser. The chooser has to guess what finger the other is thinking of. We became quite obsessed with it. We all became obsessed with our characters. Woody's character is a mentalist and he actually got really good at it. He plants a number in your head. He practiced every single day. Dave Franco can throw a card and cut a banana in half. Jesse became amazing at card tricks. He could do anything with sleight of hand. I got good at my tricks.
How interesting was it working with Michael Caine?
It was so exciting to be on set with Sir. Michael Caine. He lived up to all my expectations. It was a bit like winning the lottery for me. My character is so dismissive and condescending, but secretly I wanted to be bowing to him. I was just so happy to be near him. I became Sir Michael's fluffer-cum-general-gopher. My mission was to ensure Sir Michael was happy. Everybody loves him, but I don't think anyone on the movie loved him quite as much as me. I was always asking the first assistant director: "Have you got Michael Caine's chair?" He's got an incredible body of work and yet he's maintained a wonderful, healthy marriage and is very close to his daughters. I think of Michael as somebody who really has done it right. He's amazing.
Do you have any work goals or ambitions right now?
No, life is an open book and I just turn the page. I feel incredibly blessed and really lucky. I never foresaw any of this. I was on Home and Away when I was younger and I started out doing theatre, where you actually pay to do it. The fact that I've been fortunate enough to work with amazing directors and actors feels very surreal. I don't understand how it quite happened, but I hope no one finds out and stops it!
Now You See Me is out on DVD and Blue-ray now