The Sydney Morning Herald (1998)
Home Girl
May 01, 1998 | Written by Ruth Hessey
For Toni Collette, The Boys is an uneasy return to an old stamping ground, as she tells RUTH HESSEY.

Interesting thing about The Boys. It's full of girls. Festering in a shabby brick bungalow with walls as thin as toilet paper, and cubbyhole bedrooms that echo the sound of the fridge door slamming and the TV, four women run the track from kitchen to front door like mice fretting on an endless treadmill. Lynette Curran, one of the gold nuggets of Australian theatre, TV and film, is the boys' frazzled mum, Sandra. Jeanette Cronin, who's built a cult following with her stage and screen work, plays girlfriend Jackie. In the role of the pregnant lamb-like Nola, Anna Lise makes her screen debut. But for many people it's the presence of Toni Collette, whose portrayal of the braveheart chubster in Muriel's Wedding made her an international star, that provides the key bait for a film with a pretty heavy story-line. It's a return to home territory for Collette, the kid from the West who admitted she wanted to be an actress for the first time in the family swimming pool one long hot summer when she was 16.

"It was the first adult conversation I ever had with Dad," she recalls. "I'd realised school just wasn't for me and I told him I wanted to be an actor. I never had a doubt, and he said he would totally support me in any way. I was so lucky to have that." Collette's career took off so fast, she was an experienced screen actress (appearing in Spotswood opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins) before she'd even been to acting school. She left halfway through her NIDA course to take up professional offers. Appearances in films such as Cosi, Lilian's Story and most recently Diana and Me, have kept her busy, but The Boys has given her a role worthy of her sexiness, her guts and her intelligence. The film's subject matter may well scare off punters with epic candy like Titanic to choose from. But The Boys is not a graphic doco-style expose of gang rape and murder. It's a powerful, even zen meditation on the calm before a storm.

Director Rowan Woods's feature debut, is, in Collette's words "about a way of life, and what a lack of communication can do to people". Looking tall, immaculate, pretty sharp and completely self-assured after her early tumultuous years in show business (the trip from Blacktown to Hollywood must have been as much a wobble as a blast), Collette says the women in The Boys "could have been played as weak and submissive, but they're absolutely not". On the contrary, the women lay down the law, even while the boys stretch it.

Collette's Michelle is sharp as a tack with a tongue to match. Most people seem to be afraid of the eldest brother, Brett (David Wenham), but when he gets out of jail, Michelle comes round "to see where they stand". "Daisy is such a sweet man," Collette says of David Wenham, whose nickname belies the typecasting he has endured since he first played Brett in the stage play of The Boys seven years ago. "(But) there were times when I just couldn't look at him. He was so powerfully transformed. We were standing in the hall for a take and he was doing this thing with his eyes. I had to leave the set. I was crying. I had to go outside and get a grip." In Berlin, after the film had screened at the prestigious annual film festival, she says people clammed up "as soon as poor Daisy entered the room".

In contrast the vibes on set during the shoot were "very light", Collette recalls with a lopsided smile. "That was the only way to deal with it. To deal with the violence." There was a stunt co-ordinator for Michelle's big scene where she goads Brett into a fight, "but it was quite restrictive, so I had to say to Daisy, 'just go for it'. I ended up with quite a few bruises."

While Collette says she, and everyone else felt completely safe in the working environment created by Woods: "It was the first time I've worked on a film where I didn't know what I was going to do. I just looked up into the sky and thought, God help me, whatever!" The film cuts close to home. Being a "Westie", Collette knows how people generalise about the suburbs, and her own Blacktown background "was actually terrific. It provided very solid ground for me. But that other way of life" - the reality of unemployment and long-term despair - "was always there on the periphery. I didn't have to research that."

Collette admits she felt sick when she first read the script. "To Michelle that house is like a cage," Collette explains. "She has an opportunity to walk away. And she does. That's why I wanted to do this film."