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Urban Cinefile (1999)
The Sense of Stardom
October 1999 | Written by Andre L. Urban
She wanted the Scorsese job, but the Bruce Willis job came in, Toni Collette tells Andrew L. Urban. Stars give actors a bad name, she says, but Bruce Willis was a pleasant surprise.

Toni Collette was coming out of the Virgin bookstore on Times Square in New York, accompanied by Velvet Goldmine co-star Christian Bale, both with a new book under their arm, hoping to hear about a Martin Scorsese film ("I was really keen to work with him. . . ") when her mobile phone rang. (They were doing publicity for Velvet Goldmine, and her mind was on that subject.) It was her agent, who sounded excited but the good news was not what Collette expected: the role she had landed was not with Scorcese but with a 28 year old young US based, Indian born director, M. Night Shyamalan, and co-starring with Bruce Willis, in The Sixth Sense.

"dense, complex work..."

Her first reaction was mooted - despite the fact that she was aware that the script had stayed with her since first reading, a "dense, complex work." Collette had already been surprised by the script, and she was about to be surprised by everything else: The Sixth Sense has catapulted her into the major league. Or, to be more precise, her performance in such a high profile film, has done it. But standing in Times Square at that moment, she didn't have an inkling. Not even with Bruce Willis attached. And Willis starts us talking about stars and stardom. "Stars give actors a bad name," she says, "and I found it quite admirable that someone like Bruce Willis who's very definitely a star is still interested in acting. It's too easy to be complacent when the money is there and you're guaranteed work. But he's dealt with it all, and he's really quite gracious." And on the larger subject of stardom, Collette is refreshingly lucid: "I like to surround myself with people who inspire me. And I think the reason stars exist is because a lot of people don't have inspirational surroundings and it's easier for them to project all their hope and wishes onto somebody who fulfils their dreams for them. . . which is kind of sad ?" The week before the film's Australian release, Collette is in Sydney on a publicity tour, and we're sitting in a swank new hotel overlooking Sydney's Circular Quay, a bottle of champagne chilling in the ice bucket (for later) and publicists shepherding media in and out. She is at ease, her smile warm, her handshake real, her vibes cool.

"I'm overwhelmed"

Picking at a plate of fresh fruit for sustenance - her schedule has been put out by a magazine photo shoot and we're now talking when she should be eating - this Toni Collette is not the same one who was lifted out of obscurity by P.J. Hogan's super-successful film of an ugly duckling who becomes a swan. This is a mature, self confident yet down to earth 26 year old woman. With the world at her feet. And she can hardly believe it. "I'm overwhelmed - I never would've dreamt… I mean I'm quite successful at what I do," she says, managing to sound factual and vaguely surprised. Even her reddish blonde hair is surprised, it seems, caught in little clumps like explosions of delight. The inner corners of her eyes are bright yellow, a splendid contrast to her red lippy. Half an hour ago, she was in a funny costume and a dark hat for the Juice magazine photos. But she's taking it all in her stride these days, a far cry from just four years ago, when the briefest interview would send her into a panic for half a day. "I absolutely hated doing interviews," she recalls matter of factly. Not any more. She has dealt with some of the demons that jumped into her life on the completion of Muriel's Wedding, the success of which became a dreadful curse for a while. "I hated it when people looked at me and knew who I was," she explains, "and that people thought they knew what I was. And told me - but they were wrong." It got so bad she was about to give up acting. But then she turned it round and promised herself to keep focused on her love of the profession, on her love of the process. Her role opposite Ewan McGregor as the glam rock superstar Curt Slade's wife, Mandy, in Velvet Goldmine, was a significant turn-around for her; she knew she had it in her to play the role, but it took a while to figure out how. Once she found it, she was free of much of the torment she had been going through.

"It opens a greater range of roles"

This time, she almost didn't bother reading the script of The Sixth Sense, fearing some formulaic Hollywood action drama with Bruce Willis fighting his way through 100 pages of dross. When she did read it, it stayed with her. It surprised her that Willis "would want to do something like that…" to take the role of the child psychologist - but then she was in for another surprise on set, to find Willis keen to talk to her about the work, about acting. He was more than she had anticipated. (No doubt, so was she more than Willis anticipated.) And of the young Haley Joel Osment, who plays her son, Collette simply says, "Extraordinary - he's not like a child actor at all, but like a seasoned pro." Collette was not the only one in the running for the role; Marisa Tomei was another, but there were others, and they had higher profiles - as well as being 10 years older, so closer to the character's age. And that's something that Collette is happy about: she is now seen performing in a role that stretches her - physically and emotionally - and shows she has Range (capital R). "It means people don't so easily pigeon hole me and so it opens a greater range of roles - which for an actor is perfect." We joke that maybe now she'll get to choose from a wider selection that may even include a male serial killer. In fact, she can't yet talk about her next film, but she is adamant that she doesn't want to end up out of work because no-one dares to offer her work on the assumption she is too busy. Or too expensive. "I don't make decisions on that business basis . . . it's still very much about the story, the script, the character." If asked, she nods eagerly that yes, she wants to work in Australian films with the modest budgets of Muriel's Wedding. "Absolutely."

"He's very personable" on director M. Night Shyamalan

As for her disappointment over the Scrocese project not coming off, Collette displays a philosophical attitude: "I believe we're given what we need at any given moment - and it turned out okay." When she met writer/director Shyalaman, her first question was not, 'what does the M stand for' - because she already knew the answer. "It's Manoj, because he's Indian, and Night is his nickname - and it stuck. He's 28, tall, dark skin, wavy hair, softly spoken, beautiful eyes. . . . and unbelievably focused. He'd made a couple of small films and a heap of shorts, and had become unbelievably pissed off at being fucked over by companies like XXXXXXX who sometimes don't allow you to make the films you set out to make. During the post production of his last film, Wide Awake, he turned to Andrew Mondshein, the editor, and said, 'I'm going to make a film called The Sixth Sense, it's going to star Bruce Willis and it's going to cost this amount of money, it's going to out in this amount of time…he just has an amazing ability to listen to himself. He's very personable, I like him a lot…he's more like a mate." He's also a black belt in karate and all round a surprising guy, "who you wouldn't imagine has all this stuff running around inside him…" meaning the 'stuff' in The Sixth Sense, about award winning child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who was once unable to help a scared youngster face down his demons. Sometime later, an eight year old boy's terrible, terrifying secret challenges him to make good where he failed before. The boy, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), is not a regular case, and his mother Lynn (Toni Collette) is a single mother battling guilt, trying to survive and understands little about her unique son. Once Cole reveals his extraordinary secret - only he knows it, only he sees them, only he knows they're dead - to Crowe, the healing begins - but Crowe has a profound shock in store when he discovers the link between the boy's 'gift' and his own redemption. Astonishing for its sensitivity, The Sixth Sense plays both as scary ghost story and as intimate human drama, through the veracity of its characters - and Collette is riveting as the battling single mum, whose relationship with Cole is that of a friend as much as a parent. "That was something Night insisted on - that she never talk down to Cole," says Collette.

"I tend to look up to directors sometimes"

On set, Shymalan, became an ageless figure to Collette. "I tend to look up to directors sometimes - and I don't like that. I used to do it a lot when I was younger when I wouldn't speak my mind. But he's very open and he really trusted us. He's able to laugh and it's a really a light atmosphere but at the same time very focused - and he makes you feel very safe and as an actor that's really important." Collette can indeed feel safe as an actor - both creatively and professionally. But with a house in Ireland (on the shore of a lake, opposite John Hurt's house), Collette is not settling in Hollywood. No need; her managers are there.