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Isla Fisher taps into high fashion

How do you make a superficial spendthrift likable? The star of 'Confessions of a Shopaholic' says she focused on keeping it real.

February 08, 2009|Monica Corcoran

Isla Fisher, who stars in "Confessions of a Shopaholic," has a secret of her own: It was all method acting.

"I'm not anti-shopping, but I shop rarely and poorly," says the actress, who's been handed the Herculean task of making a hero out of a woman who can't say "no" to a splurge while in real life the economy is imploding.

In the film, which opens Friday, Fisher plays a financial journalist named Rebecca Bloomwood who will stop at nothing to satisfy her retail addiction. Getting her fix lands her in debt to the tune of $16,200. Ultimately, however, it's a Hollywood redemption tale and, without giving away too much plot, the character comes to realize that accumulation of the material is immaterial. (You might be buried in that Prada frock, but you still can't take it with you.) En route to that epiphany, she schemes, splurges and even spars over a pair of Gucci red suede boots at a sample sale.

"It's difficult because someone who is seen as very superficial and drawn to bright, shiny objects is not necessarily a likable person," says Fisher, 33. "For me, it was about keeping the character real and then trusting that the audience and sympathy would follow."

The movie's producer Jerry Bruckheimer agrees: "Isla has to play a despicable character and get the audience to still like her."

Bestselling ladies

Luckily for everyone involved, the film has a built-in following because it's based on Sophie Kinsella's bestselling 2001 book. Since then, the British author has expanded the franchise to include "Shopaholic & Baby" and "Shopaholic & Sister," among others. (Could "Shopaholic & Second Cousin" be next?)

Fisher may not be much of a shopper, but she understands the appeal of chick lit. At 17, she wrote two bestselling novels -- "Bewitched" and "Seduced by Fame." At that time, she was successful as a young soap star in Perth, Australia. On one show, "Paradise Beach," her entire wardrobe could fit in a clutch. "I wore a bikini throughout," she recalls, with a laugh. "If there was a funeral, I was there in a bikini." She went on to study drama in Paris at the Jacques Lecoq stage school and acted in London before landing her first Hollywood role, playing Shaggy's love interest in 2002's "Scooby Doo." Three years later, she made a critical dent in "Wedding Crashers" as a neurotic nympho with a shriek that could shatter a Champagne flute. She not only held her own against Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, but she also hijacked many of her scenes.

To tap into the psyche of a label fiend, Fisher didn't trawl Rodeo Drive or Fred Segal for overzealous shoppers. Instead, she chose to view Bloomwood as a deranged woman who assumes that her selfish actions are for the greater good. Fisher even developed a mantra: "I kept thinking of how in 'Streetcar Named Desire' Blanche DuBois says, 'I just wanted to make the world more beautiful.' " More often than not, as a woman, you don't get the opportunity to play someone who's flawed and carries the story."

Rather than complain about the ways of Hollywood, Fisher has been developing her own scripts such as "Cookie Queen," the story of a woman whose record as the top cookie-selling Girl Scout is threatened by an up-and-comer. Or "Groupies," a female-driven comedy about backstage bimbos that she's cultivating with Amy Poehler.

And though "Confessions" is more of a comedy than a cautionary tale, Fisher attended local meetings for overspenders. (In the movie, Bloomwood drops in on a Shopaholics Anonymous gathering and rhapsodizes about how spending makes her feel "confident, alive and happy." The addicts quickly unravel, and the scene is played for yuks.) "It was not funny. It was very depressing," she recalls of her research. "There are bulimic spenders who shop a lot and then return everything. Or image spenders who will do visible things like pick up the tab for 40 people. You realize that shopping has devastated lives."

Fisher looks stricken for a moment and then steers the conversation away from the deflating topic of debt and addiction. "The movie is supposed to be fun," she says, brightly but firmly. And it is, thanks to her expressive features and pratfall prowess.

"She reminds me of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett because of her great timing," says Bruckheimer, who cast her after they met at an awards show. "She can do physical comedy, but she has dramatic skills too."

"I was trying for dramatic roles and getting rejected and getting disheartened," she says of her not-so-long-ago career shift from aspiring ingenue to wisecracking waif. Her fiance, Sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a Borat, nudged her to switch genres. "He said I should go and do comedy, and it was such high praise coming from him that I listened."

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