Toni Collette: It's really good to feel vulnerable
For Toni Collette, the drive to be an actress emerged in her youth when her 'balls were huge', and nothing daunted her, she tells James Mottram
It's been 20 years since Toni Collette bounded onto our screens as the Abba-loving wannabe bride in Muriel's Wedding. She can still remember the time, even before the film became a hit, that she was flown to Queensland for promotional duties. "They put me in this room – some hotel – and I had a penthouse. It was maybe four times the size of this room. I literally rolled on the carpet. I was giggling to myself. And I still have those moments of 'Oh my God'!" she smiles. "I still pinch myself."
Arriving in a majestic ground-floor meeting room at Berlin's Hotel de Rome, Collette certainly hasn't let two decades in showbiz warp her the way it does some.
"I think some famous people really dig their fame and perpetuate stuff, but I just have a very normal life. I just put one foot in front of the next." Partly, this comes from living in Sydney with her husband, musician Dave Galafassi, and their children – daughter Sage, (6), and son Arlo, (2). And partly it comes through work, with the Australian-born Collette cultivating a CV that keeps Hollywood fluff at arm's length.
Her latest effort is a fine example: A Long Way Down is based on Nick Hornby's 2005 novel about four suicide cases that accidentally meet on a London rooftop on New Year's Eve, each intending to jump off. Co-starring with Pierce Brosnan (as a disgraced TV presenter), Imogen Poots (as a politician's daughter) and Aaron Paul (as an ex-rocker), Collette plays Maureen, a frumpy forty-something whose life is dominated by looking after her severely disabled son.
While this quartet becomes friends after they avert this moment of crisis, it might sound like an odd subject for a comedy. "It's life-affirming," argues Collette, in what is actually her second suicidal mother in a Hornby project – she also played the hippie-like Fiona in 2002's About A Boy. "He's just such a wonderful writer and such a beautiful voice. So many people can relate to him. There's a real casual quality to his writing but there's such hidden depth to it, it knocks you out when you're not expecting it."
In person, bright, blonde and sunny, Collette has an innate knack of playing down her looks. On Muriel's Wedding she gained 40lbs (and suffered with bulimia as a result). Then, playing Cameron Diaz's workaholic sister in In Her Shoes, against her better judgement, she added 25lbs. With A Long Way Down, it was more down to her dowdy apparel and the way she carried herself. "She can transform completely," says the film's French director Pascal Chaumeil. "But it doesn't look like a performance. It looks real."
Again, this comes down to Collette's everyday persona. We switch topics to the Oscars – when Collette was nominated for her role in M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. She has no sympathy for actresses who complain that they're famished through the hours of red carpet events and then the ceremony. "Sort your day out! Eat before!" she trills. That night, she was beaten to an award by Angelina Jolie. "I was just a bit nervous actually. My parents came over and it just blew all our minds."
It was the least her folks, customer services rep Judy and truck driver Bob, deserved. Born in Blacktown, a suburb of Sydney, the eldest of three, Collette was a "headstrong" daughter to deal with.
"My father claims I came out of the womb and there was a spotlight at the end of the tunnel," she laughs. After taking acting classes at school, then starring on stage in a Sydney production of Godspell, Collette demanded she become an actress – at 15. "I made them let me leave school. I told them that I was going to leave school, and I did."
Still, there was no doubting that Collette's instincts were correct. While she made ends meet delivering pizzas and working in a craft store, she soon made her television debut in that perennial Aussie soap A Country Practice, and felt complete. "I was just like, 'I've found it.' It was like finding God. And on a good day, it still is. And also, at that age, my balls were huge. I was so fearless. I had absolutely no doubt. I didn't doubt myself. I didn't doubt anything. It was just a pure compulsion. It was like a magnet."
Collette, who confesses to enduring panic attacks in the past, is not quite so gung-ho now. "Before every job, there's definitely a moment of vulnerability. It's always a whole new group of people. People think actors just walk out and do it. But it's petrifying to have to stand in front of the crew on the first day and bring another person to life. So I think it's really good to feel vulnerable. In those moments of uncertainty, that's when you get the best growth or the most satisfying feelings come about, because you've taken a chance. Risk is good."
Her most recent moment like this came in Dublin, for the forthcoming film Glassland, in which she plays an alcoholic mother from Tallaght whose son (rising star Jack Reynor) helps her into rehab. "I think it's the most emotionally raw character I've ever played," she says, but it wasn't this that frightened her. "I chose to focus on the accent and how problematic it was. I kept saying, 'I think you need to recast! Why don't you get a local girl?'" So traumatic was it, she almost quit the project several times.
Before we get to hear her Dublin lilt, Collette will be in Hollywood comedy Tammy, alongside Bridesmaids' Melissa McCarthy. There's also the Simon Pegg drama Hector and the Search for Happiness and Lucky Them, in which she plays a rock critic. Her own music career, on the other hand, has stalled, after recording an album Beautiful Awkward Pictures in 2006 under the name Toni Collette & The Finish with her husband on drums. "You need to have time to yourself and I've got two small kids," she says. And once again, that normal life takes precedence.
- A Long Way Down opens nationwide today
THE COLLETTE COLLECTIVE:
Muriel's Wedding (1994)
"Muriel, you're terrible!" The catchphrase has followed Collette ever since, but the role as the ugly duckling in PJ Hogan's divine romantic comedy was the perfect breakthrough, winning her a Golden Globe nomination and an AFI award for Best Actress.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
With all the fuss around young Haley Joel Osment's performance in M. Night Shyamalan's twisty tale of a boy who sees dead people, it's easy to forget that Collette played a vital role as his mother, Lynn Sear.
About A Boy (2002)
Her first Nick Hornby adaptation. While co-star Hugh Grant got a sexy new haircut, Collette again proved that she's happy to dress down as the clinically depressed mother Fiona. "Everyone else was a bit funny and I was a bit tragic," she said.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Another mother, this time holding the family together in this brilliant indie that took the Oscars by storm. "It's not dealing with this fantasy life you see in so many movies," she says. "It's actually dealing with some kind of reality."
The Way, Way Back (2013)
Reuniting her with Little Miss Sunshine co-star Steve Carell, Collette gave another nuanced turn as his beleaguered new girlfriend in this tale of the growing pains faced by teenagers and adults.
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