Sunday 17 December 2017

The many faces of Toni Collette

Toni Collette took on the role of a breast cancer victim because it felt important to her. She talks about her love of Ireland and the power of positive thinking

Being positive: Toni Collette spent so much time in the early part of her acting career that she ended up buying a house in Roundwood, Co Wicklow. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Being positive: Toni Collette spent so much time in the early part of her acting career that she ended up buying a house in Roundwood, Co Wicklow. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

Hilary A White

When probed, most interviewees will show a thin enthusiasm for the venue of that particular stage of promo duties. Toni Collette, however, looks genuinely thrilled with herself to be back in Dublin.

"Yes!" she squeals like a giddy child. "And it's apparently the most incredible day to be here because it's… what's it called? The Creative Festival?

"Culture Night," I correct.

"Culture Night! How brilliant is that! I'm going to do The Late Late Show and hit the town for that," she gushes with the first of many smiles, each a large-scale event that her whole head happily gets involved in.

Collette may be one of the finest actresses of her generation, but there is nothing arch about the 42-year-old's apparent familiarity with Ireland and its capital. During her mid-twenties, the Australian was ascending the Hollywood ladder thanks to a breakout performance in the 1994 comedy classic Muriel's Wedding.

The US and Europe was where a lot of the work was coming from, so instead of slogging back down under after wrapping, she would use Dublin as a decompression chamber. She was spending so much time here she ended up buying a house in Roundwood, Co Wicklow.

"It needed renovation, which I never did, but I spent a lot of time out there," she says.

It all began, she explains, through "a short relationship" with Tudors star Jonathan Rhys Meyers (a year-long outing that Collette would describe in hindsight as "probably dangerous"). The pair had met on the set of Velvet Goldmine (1998).

"Through him I met some really, really wonderful people - I'm actually having drinks tonight with a couple of them - specifically a man called Gordon Campbell, who was an original soul. He passed away a couple of years ago. Coming from Australia, it's just such a schlep to get home if I've finished working in the northern hemisphere, so I would come to Dublin and just camp out at his place.

"So I spent heaps of time here - and my ancestry is half-Irish. I just think there's a real understanding between the Irish and the Australians, a really similar sensibility."

In 2014 she was announced as Concern's first Official Global Ambassador, but this had little to do with her Irish ties, she insists.

"I know they started here and are based here, but I think what they do goes beyond borders. The work they do is so profound and they left such an impression on me, they could have been based on the moon and I would have jumped in."

A short film by the charity showed Collette on the ground in Haiti and the effect of the experience is visible on her face. To this day, she speaks about the devastation she witnessed and how it inspired her to do anything she could to highlight Concern's work.

"People are so disconnected from reality and we're all so ostracised. It's something we don't contemplate, that there are fellow humans on the other side of the world who have lost everything. When I went there it left a massive, gaping hole in my heart."

Collette grew up in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, the daughter of a truck driver and a customer service rep. A story persists today that she faked appendicitis at the age of 11 to the point of surgery, indicating a career on stage and screen beckoned. At 16 she enrolled in Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Arts, delivering pizzas to pay the bills.

Jump forward to 2015 and Collette is not only one of the most recognisable and distinct faces in cinema, but also a highly respected performer, known for her striking transformative abilities and range.

An Oscar nod came for her turn as the worried mother in The Sixth Sense (1999) and she is warmly regarded for strong supporting roles in The Hours (2002), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), About a Boy (2002) and The Way Way Back (2013). If she looks familiar it's because she has made some 54 films since she and a young Russell Crowe made their feature debut in 1992's Spotswood.

This visit to the fair city is in aid of Miss You Already, a savvy and dexterous UK drama about a close friendship put through the wringer following a breast cancer diagnosis. It is an admirable film, full of comedy and keen observation, but one that also airs discussions about topics rarely encountered on the cancer radar - victim selfishness, for instance, or the toll taken on a marriage.

Collette plays Milly, a successful London PR executive who has it all until a lump is discovered, while Drew Barrymore plays her slightly dowdier pal, Jess. Life imitated art and the pair struck up a strong friendship on set.

"I loved the relationship these girls have," Toni trills. "I found it incredibly funny. And despite the fact it looks at the experience of cancer very truthfully and realistically, it's f***ing fun, man!

"This woman is so complicated, and as an actor that's what you want. But I knew it was important, and I try to work on films that feel important. This disease is everywhere and I think the film will unify people."

She researched thoroughly to tackle the physical and emotional toll of treatment.

"This film is lifelike, and I think it would have been an insult to anyone who'd been touched by cancer to make it any other way," she says.

Would it have been harder had she not bonded with Barrymore so effortlessly?

"Oh, it could have been a nightmare," she hoots. "And you never know with actors. I wrote a letter to Drew explaining why I thought the movie was important and why I thought she was right to play Jess, but that was only from an idea I had of her from her previous work. When she turned up, she exceeded expectations.

"She exudes warmth. We knew we had magical material and we had mutual friends. It was very easy and very quick, so thank God."

The same sentiment is offered of Jack Reynor, the young Dublin actor Collette appeared alongside last year in the Irish drama Glassland.

In ways, that film says the most about the kind of person Collette is, in that she parachuted into Dublin in January to work with an unknown quantity in the gifted, but largely untested, young Kerry director Gerard Barrett. The week-long shoot was tough, and undertaken on a "tiny" budget.

"It was challenging, but very satisfying. I don't know what that says about me," she shrugs.

"It was a very impressive film, and [Barrett] is a very impressive and wise young man. He has such a grasp on what it is to be human.

"I didn't really know Jack's work and he blew me away as well. That boy is… I love him. As an actor, you can only connect if you're willing to be open and vulnerable, and nobody really likes doing vulnerable, it's uncomfortable. When they are, that's when you get that unexplainable energy that audiences feel. It was like that with Jack."

More sunny antipodean expressions light up a chat about music, Collette's first love, and her plans to record more with musician husband Dave Galafassi as well as step behind the camera to direct.

"I have two small kids on top of a film career, so it is a matter of time management," she smiles, before reminiscing on her recent family break in Los Angeles ("lots of swimming and sun and being healthy and having fun").

As if sensing how disarming her optimism is, she adds: "If you tend to ruminate about things negatively, you draw that to you. So if you chose to focus on a positive, you kind of create it. Your mind is so much more powerful than you realise."

'Miss You Already' is showing Nationwide

Sunday Indo Living

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment