Toni Collette: Postcards from the edge
Toni Collette tells Paul Whitington about pushing herself to the limit, her grittiest roles and how downing shots in Dublin led to a very embarrassing plane incident
I know they're well paid for their trouble, but sometimes one has to stand back and admire the sheer courage of actors. Toni Collette is well known for her fearlessness, and just six months ago played a catatonic drunk in Gerard Barrett's hard-hitting Irish drama Glassland, but the challenge she faces in Miss You Already is on another scale altogether.
In this comic drama with very dark undercurrents, she stars as a larger-than-life London wife and mother who endures the nightmare of breast cancer, and what really distinguishes her performance and the intent of this flawed but brave little film, is that the ugliness of her disease is never, ever sugar-coated.
As the story progresses we watch her lose her hair, both her breasts and her reason, quotidian horrors all frankly depicted by a gaunt and haggard-looking Collette.
She looks like a million dollars when I meet her, slim and elegant in a stylish black dress, her hair cropped short, dyed blonde and primed for an appearance on the Late Late Show. Was she, I wonder, at all daunted by the demands Miss You Already would impose on her?
"Not for a moment," she says. "I look for films and roles that feel important, and if I read something that's really good it's just like this compulsion, it calls me and I'm sucked in no matter what - it's almost like I have no choice in the matter. And that's exactly what happened with Miss You Already."
It is not, she insists, merely a film about suffering. "I know it's intense and gets very moving, but it's also really funny, and my character, Milly, is outrageous; she's a tornado, a force of nature, so that was a lot of fun to play with."
In the company of her best friend Jess, played by Drew Barrymore, Milly raises hell across London, raging spectacularly against the dying of the light.
"I just thought Morweena Banks' script was the most profound, beautiful study of female friendship," she says, "and ultimately it's a love story, it's about platonic love.
"Even though my character gets breast cancer, it's not just about her, it's about how her disease affects everyone around her, her family, her children, her work colleagues, her best friend."
In one of the film's most harrowing scenes, Milly shrinks in a corner hiding her mutilated body from her husband after enduring a double mastectomy.
"We did a lot of research," Collette tells me, "and spoke to a lot of people, because we absolutely did not want to misrepresent the experience, and if we'd made some soapy, glossy, hairspray commercial-style version of it, it would have been an insult. Above all, we wanted it to seem real."
What Collette and her director Catherine Hardwicke didn't want was a remake of Beaches. "At times it's difficult when you're working with material like this, because it can become personally quite moving even while you're doing it.
"And if Drew and I started to get emotional in a scene when it wasn't appropriate, Catherine was very quick to just pull us up and go 'no sentimentality - that is not what this film is!' So I think it hopefully avoids any kind of hand-wringing self-indulgence."
It's hard-hitting stuff all right, and I wonder now if Collette could bear to watch it back herself. "I did - I always do. I mean I have my moments, but I can't understand actors who can't watch themselves, because I want to see that I've done what I intended to do, I like to see how it's been put together, and see everyone else's work as well.
"But when I watch my films I tend to relive the emotion of it, I've always done that. If I really connect with the character I can't help it. So I've seen Miss You Already three times and I've cried every time, which is a bit sad but I mean I think I'd be made of cardboard if I didn't. It's too powerful."
Since breaking through internationally in the early 90s, the 42-year-old Australian has come to specialise in playing gritty, marginalised and harried women with absolute commitment and heart.
When I ask her which is her favourite of her films she names five: "Let's see, I loved Velvet Goldmine, there's In Her Shoes, Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine, and Muriel's Wedding of course".
She's very proud of the 1993 PJ Hogan black comedy that became an unlikely international hit and make her and Rachel Griffiths stars. "You know I just had to do an interview about Muriel's Wedding the other day, and I don't often talk about it, not because I don't want to, just because it's all so long ago. I think I was talking to this gentleman for about 25 minutes, and I actually started crying because I'm so thankful for that experience, it gave me a life I never could have imagined.
"I wouldn't be sitting here without that film, and I think it set the tone for everything good I've done since."
She's not fond of the term 'character actor', but says "I like to play complex parts that feel like real people, and that have a pulse".
Although she's recently branched out into episodic television on shows like Hostages and United States of Tara, her natural home is independent cinema, and quirky, demanding roles.
She likes to disappear into parts completely, and "would rather that people not recognise me at all in them". She bores easily, and constantly seeks challenges, like Miss You Already.
"What's the point of being an actor if you're going to do the same thing over and over again?" she shrugs. "You might as well go and sit in an office and do the same thing over and over again."
She was posed a huge challenge last year by up-and-coming Irish director Gerard Barrett. "When my agent sent me the script for Glassland," she says, "it blew me away. And when I spoke to Gerard on Skype, I was sold."
In this grim but impressive drama, Jack Reynor co-starred as a young taxi driver struggling to cope with his mother's chronic alcoholism and despair. Collette knows Ireland well, and spent a lot of time here in the 1990s, but this latest visit tested her to the bitter limit.
"Glassland was like a cannonball," she tells me. "We shot it in one week, and it was non-stop, and beforehand I was kind of petrified - I'd spent a lot of time in Ireland but this woman's accent really messed with my head.
"The week just kind of exploded, and all of a sudden it was over. I remember having a shot of whiskey with Jack in a bar, and then it was straight to the airport and on to a plane.
"It had been so intense, and when I got on the plane I was shivering and covering myself up - they must have thought I was a junkie!
"And after we took off I just got sick, it was one of those scenarios where I didn't even make it to the toilet, I couldn't close the door and I had to clean it up, it was just embarrassing. I think it was like a weird emotional reaction to everything that had gone down."