Paper Magazine (2000)
Toni Collette takes center stage in "The Wild Party"
March 2000 | Written by Peter Davis
One night actress Parker Posey brought me to a wild party high in the Hollywood Hills. After a dinner feast, a dozen guests ended up by the hot tub, perched dramatically on a steep cliff overlooking the lights of Los Angeles. That's when I was introduced to Australian starlet Toni Collette, who was laughing and frolicking buck-naked in the center of the tub. With her pale skin glistening and flame-red hair spiked up, that vision was hard to forget.

Fast-forward a few years, and Collette is still on a wild ride - only this time it's on Broadway, with Eartha Kitt and Mandy Patinkin in director-producer George C. Wolfe's musical adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's decadent 1920's jazz opus, The Wild Party. (It begins previews March 10 and opens April 13.) Collette landed the role of Queenie, an untamed but self-critical party girl, after Vanessa Williams, who workshopped the part, dropped out when she discovered she was pregnant. "I met George [Wolfe] and thought he was the most insane, fascinating person," Collette gushes. "I hadn't been in a theater in so long. I got goose bumps being there and listening to the music." And, apparently, from the prospect of performing live - Collette, who began acting in Australia in her teens, hasn't done theater in years. "I'm petrified," she confesses with a mock shudder. "But that excites me."

Wolfe doesn't share her qualms. He first considered casting her because word around town had it that her singing voice was so strong that director Sam Mendes had wanted her to star in Cabaret. "It was so instantaneous," Wolfe says of the audition. "Toni came in, sang and it was perfect. It was like one of those bad movie moments. Toni has the edge, the charm, the intelligence, the style and the sexiness that this role requires."

Queenie hoofs it in a sleazy Bowery strip joint posing as a vaudeville theater. Until the climactic soirée, she lives solely in a cloud of drink, drugs and tabletop dances. "The party really changes people," Collette says. "Everyone is wearing these masks. They get more and more off their faces [drunk], and the masks drop. You see all the hideous and beautiful qualities underneath. Someone's personal truth is the most frightening thing, and that's what Queenie faces." The grueling rehearsals have taken a toll on Collette - she says she's exhausted. "You work so hard in theater," she sighs. "In film, you focus on moments, and in theater, I guess, you work more holistically."

Collette's cinematic moments, though, are what people remember her for. She shot her film breakthrough, P.J. Hogan's Aussie sleeper Muriel's Wedding, when she was just 21. For the title role - the chubby, awkward, ABBA-loving Muriel - she pulled a Robert De Niro and gained 45 pounds. The film's surprise international success put her on the star map, but it also made her reevaluate her life. "When Muriel's Wedding broke, I flipped out," she admits, her powder-blue eyes widening. "I wanted to give up acting because suddenly I realized it was a product and a business. It became money and ugly." She took some time off to mull things over. "I decided not to let the negative side overweigh the positive and the gold it gave me. I guess I just grew up and became more comfortable with myself."

Since Muriel, Collette has appeared in a succession of films - from co-starring with Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma (1996) to a turn as the over-the-top glam queen Mandy Slade in Todd Haynes' ode to glitter rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998). Forming a bridge, perhaps, between Goldmine and Party is the theme of the reckless, excessive hunt for the ultimate high. "The 1970's are quite similar to the 1920's," Collette says. "It's a weird bracket of time that's bookended by repression. There are no rules. It's "Let's go crazy!'" Collette, who fancies outfits as outlandish as Mandy Slade's, says shooting Goldmine was like cinema verité - the cast attempted to re-create the Ziggy Stardust era. "I had the time of my life," she remembers with a loud hoot. "We partied so hard. We lived that film. It was out-fucking-rageous. I would do it again." Although she now cites the project as "the most satisfying job I've done," Collette suffered heavy anxiety attacks during rehearsals. "I wanted to quit," she confesses. "I thought I couldn't do it. I remember lying in bed in London. . . There was an actual moment where I said, 'You have to leave your spiritual self behind and jump.' I know that sounds wonky, but I went so far away from myself that it took quite a while to come back."

But Collette's most acclaimed work is her heart-wrenching portrayal of an overwrought mother of a psychically gifted son in last year's spooky blockbuster The Sixth Sense - a film so successful it comes as a bit of a surprise that she initially shied away from reading the script. "Part of the reason was because of who was making it and who was attached to star," she explains, referring to director M. Night Shyamalan and marquee man Bruce Willis. "I just assumed it was going to be like every other film coming out of the formulated studio method, but it wasn't. It's a fucking brilliant story. It's a studio's wet dream, because it's commercial, yet it has integrity." Her performance has been generating award buzz, which makes the actress shift in her seat. "It makes me nervous that people give it all so much weight - the adornments and adulation," she complains. "It's nice to be recognized, but in the scheme of it all, [I'd rather] just go stand on a mountain and look at the stars. Everything falls into place."

Collette is particularly disdainful of Hollywood's current craze for young actors. "The entertainment industry over here is about youth culture all of a sudden," the 27-year-old actress laments. "I feel really badly for anyone considered old. . . I'm probably considered old. You don't get to a certain point and then fade out and stop learning; you continue to grow and learn right up until your last breath. I don't believe in age - it's irrelevant. You are how you feel.

When not working (she just finished playing an on-the-lam waitress­wannabe actress from Brooklyn who witnesses a murder in John Singleton's update of Shaft), Collette is a serious global trekker. She's logged numerous trips to Mexico, Nepal and Tibet, and received a private audience with the Dalai Lama. Excursions to unfamiliar turf have opened up the starlet's spiritual awareness. "After I finished The Sixth Sense, I went to India and did a retreat and found yoga," she enthuses. "Now, when I don't do it, I think, how can I possibly live without it? I don't know how people get through the day without moving their body and recharging themselves. People must be walking around in a lot of pain."

The daughter of a truck-driver father, Collette credits her family for her centeredness. "I've romanticized my childhood a lot," she says of growing up in Sydney. "But we did have this huge extended family on our street, which was so wonderful." She 86'd school as a teenager to study at a drama academy, but she dropped out when she was 19 to act in a play and work in television. Although she still maintains a place in Bondi Beach, Sydney's infamous surfer paradise, she lives mostly outside Dublin, where she is fixing up an old house she discovered while dating her ex-boyfriend, the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. "That country is in my soul," she says with gusto. "They have fought so hard for their freedom that they really know how to have fun. There's a lot of shit there, but they rise above it."

For the next year, Collette, who is currently single, will be ensconced in downtown Manhattan during her run in Party. But she claims she would never consider moving permanently to the States. "I think this place is deteriorating," she muses. "People will eat what they're fed. It takes a strong soul to actually live the life they really want to live." Then, relating her theory to the situation faced by her Party character, she adds: "The masks that society holds up for people in this country are out of control. The shit that's bubbling underneath these masks is the interesting stuff. That shit is actually the fertilizer for this country, but it's being covered up and hidden with Astroturf."

A country girl at heart, Collette dreams of one day retiring to the natural paradise of Oz. "I have this fantasy of being this old woman with dreadlocks, growing my own herbs and vegetables near the rain forest and beach, with kids running around the place," she says with a far-off expression. A sudden call to a photo shoot interrupts her idyllic vision. "It will be a reality one day," she declares, "but I have a lot to do first."