Time Out New York

Call of the Wild

United States   |   Written by Gia Kourias

Oscar hopeful Toni Collette hosts her own celebration in The Wild Party

Some people pretend they’re wild, but a rare few truly are. The Australian actress Toni Collette, a delightfully genuine kook, falls into the latter category with a vengeance. There’s no reason to pity this 27-year-old actor, whose first foray into New York theater is a starring role on Broadway-in George Wolfe and Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party-but I do. Because the following confession will torment Collette, in interview after interview, for as long as she lives-or at least for the rest of her career. And given her esteemed performances in Muriel’s Wedding, Emma, Velvet Goldmine and The Sixth Sense (for which she’s been nominated for an Academy Award), that promises to be a good long time.

“I told George [Wolfe] something very embarrassing last night. I think it’s the reason why I started acting,” she ventures bravely, her enormous eyes watering slightly and her face turning as pink as her spiky, strawberry-blond hair. “Oh gawd ! I used to lie. When I was really young, my mother told me that at 11, she’d had her appendix taken out. I was like, ‘Well how do you know when you’ve got appendicitis?’ She said, ‘When they push in, it doesn’t hurt. It’s when they let go that it really hurts.’ So, when I was around the same age and I didn’t want to go to school, I said, ‘It really hurts, Mum!’ She took me to the doctor. When he pressed in, I said it didn’t hurt; he let go and I went, ‘Ah!’ I was rushed into the emergency room. My appendix was taken out for no fucking good reason,” she shrieks behind the door of her dressing room at the Virginia Theatre.

After the operation, she remembers, the doctor was a bit confused. “He was like, ‘It was slightly infected,’ but it wasn’t at all,” Collette’s voice drops to a whisper. “I got to watch The Sound of Music over and over on the VCR. Another time, I pretended I got my period. I scratched a scab on my knee . . . .” She rubs her crotch in horror and screams.

Wolfe-who affectionately calls Collette “out of her mind”-says he offered this in response to her admission: “Thank God you became an actor, ’cause otherwise you would be walking around with only a few body parts left!”

But these early acting experiments were important. Not only did they show Collette what she could accomplish in front of an audience, they confirmed in her a certain fearlessness. This is an actor who is not afraid to suffer-or at least bleed-a little for her art. For this reason, Collette is a refreshing alternative to the current bevy of Hollywood beauties; her willingness to take on unglamorous characters sets her apart from the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world. In addition to playing the tawdry Queenie in the Broadway production of The Wild Party (another version, directed by Gabriel Barre, is now at the Manhattan Theatre Club), the wily Collette will soon appear as Griselda, a Norwegian bank cashier in Peter Greenaway’s 8 1/2 Women, as well as in John Singleton’s Shaft, a ’70s remake starring Samuel L. Jackson, that presents her as a waitress who witnesses a murder.

“Someday, I want to play someone really happy,” Collette says with a sigh. “My character in Shaft is pretty heavy-she’s living in fear.”

This sort of role has become a specialty for Collette, who is perhaps most cherished for her portrayal of the pudgy Muriel Heslop (for whom never walking down the aisle would have been a fate far worse than death) in 1994’s hugely successful Muriel’s Wedding. The Australian film sparked a string of Hollywood offers; most recently, she could be seen as the single mother of a psychic boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) in the Philadelphia-based The Sixth Sense. She says everything about the role came naturally: “She believed in love, and I believe in love. There was something magical about that experience. But it was very strange. People kept talking about how good the accent was, but I never worked on it. It just happened. ”

Collette says she’s excited about the Oscars ceremony-but what will she wear? “No fucking clue. I’m tempted to paint myself and go in the nude,” she threatens. This sounds like something The Wild Party’s raunchy hostess, Queenie, might do. Collette’s character, a platinum-haired vaudeville dancer, is at the center of the Jazz Age musical based on a 1926 poem by Joseph Moncure March. (The play also features Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt.) “Basically, she spends her time dancing and drinking and doing drugs-avoiding thoughts of anything important,” Collette explains. “She doesn’t want to take responsibility for her life or her actions, and over the course of the party, she starts to question her existence.” As for the other party guests, the more tipsy they become, the more ugly personal truths seep to the surface. By the end, the mood is dark, but for Queenie, there is light: She decides to face her problems, for a change.

When Vanessa Williams, who was originally cast, got pregnant and decided to drop out of the show, director Wolfe remembered what he’d heard from Sam Mendes, who had auditioned Collette for Cabaret; not only could she act, she could also sing. “Her voice is very human and sensual,” Wolfe says of Collette, who sings ten songs in the production. “It’s very bluesy for an Australian chick! Besides that, she’s a brilliant actress; she has a toughness and a vulnerability that are perfect for this role.”

Collette says that the part of Queenie, which requires her to dance in several numbers, has given her a newfound confidence in her body. For Muriel’s Wedding, she had to put on 40 pounds; a few years later, her Velvet Goldmine role required her to lose even more. After years of ups and downs, she says she started to experience severe panic attacks. “The weight fluctuations gave me a very unhealthy attitude toward my body,” she says. To get herself in shape for the the musical, Collette began taking up to five Pilates classes a week. “It’s only in the last year that I’ve realized that my mind and my body are not separate. If you’ve never had a panic attack, it just sounds like you’re a bit anxious. No, no, no: I thought I was dying. But it was rich. I think you learn most from your shittiest periods. It’s not just gratuitous shit-it’s shit that actually makes you learn and grow as a person.”

Collette was born in Sydney but moved to suburban Blacktown when she was six. “I grew up copping shit because I was from the western suburbs-being a ‘westie’ was not something you talked about,” she says. “We kept rabbits and birds and cats and dogs, and we had trees to climb and bikes to ride and room to run. Now, it’s just very suburban.”

Not long after the appendicitis episode, when she was about 14, Collette was cast in a school performance of Godspell. Two years later, she dropped out of high school and began earning occasional theater roles, most notably that of Sonja in Neil Armfield’s 1992 Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya. In 1991, at 18, she landed her first movie part, as Wendy in Spotswood (also known as The Efficiency Expert), a film that featured fellow Academy Award-nominee (and Aussie) Russell Crowe. “Russell took me out, got me drunk, gave me pot and wiped up the vomit when I couldn’t handle it,” she recalls fondly. “He’s really sweet.”

At the moment, her heavy workload doesn’t leave much room for bar hopping-her life is the exact opposite of Queenie’s or, for that matter, the one she lived during the London shooting of Velvet Goldmine, which is set in the ’70s glam-rock world. “There was a lot of hedonism, a lot of getting into the moment,” she admits. She met her former boyfriend, the five-years-younger actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, on the set, and the new romance-and all the going out they did-gave the entire experience a bit more punch. “It was wonderful, but probably dangerous,” she says. “Now I’m much more quiet. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up. You nurture your internal world, and you realize that getting drunk is just a way of escaping.”

She and Rhys-Meyers broke up two years ago; she hasn’t had a serious relationship since. “I don’t understand the dating thing,” she says. “Going out and testing the waters? You either go for it or you don’t. God! If you get to fall in love once in your life-most people don’t even experience that. I was really lucky.” If it ever happens again, she says, “I doubt it’ll happen in a bar.” Nevertheless, she does know of a drinking establishment where, whether she makes eye contact with a man or not, she can escape after a tough day: Casa La Femme, a Moroccan restaurant in Soho. “That place has my favorite drink!” she exclaims, joyful at the thought. “Laurent-Perrier rosĂ© champagne. It’s the best champagne-it goes straight to your head. If you want to depart, that’s the answer.”

The Wild Party is at the Virginia Theatre.