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The Chicago Sun-Times (2000)
Toni Collette's blockbuster night
July 9, 2000 | Written by Betsy Pickle
Pop-culturally literate Americans expect anyone born before 1970 to recognize the "Shaft" phenomenon-a phenomenon propelled by the significance of its black protagonist and its Oscar- winning theme song. However, Toni Collette, who stars in the new update of the 1971 film, shoots double blanks. "I grew up in Australia, and I was born in '72, so I missed the whole thing," Collette says. "I knew the song and had danced to it often, but I didn't know that it was a theme for, like, a cultural event here." Collette ended up taking a crash course. "The night before my audition I watched part of the original film, and it helped me see what they were aiming for," she tells reporters during interviews for "Shaft" at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel. "Even in reading the script, I couldn't quite understand the tone of it. It's a quite specific genre, I think." In director John Singleton's new version of "Shaft," Collette plays Diane Palmieri, a cocktail waitress who goes into hiding after witnessing a murder. Samuel L. Jackson plays New York police detective John Shaft, who has to leave his job to find the witness and bring the killer (Christian Bale) to justice.

Expectations for "Shaft" had been running high for months. It's a new experience for 27-year-old Collette, whose 1999 summer blockbuster, "The Sixth Sense," seemingly came out of nowhere. "Who could imagine that?" Collette says of that film's success. "I don't remember this, but apparently friends (recall) that during the making of it, I was saying, `This is really special.' " "I think it's beautiful. I'm really proud of it, and I'm really happy for everyone who was involved with it. I try to work on movies that I believe in, and you hope that they'll actually speak to other people as well, but for it to travel so far and affect so many people on such a profound level, I never would have expected it." Neither did Collette expect an Academy Award nomination for her supporting performance as the mother of a boy who sees dead people. "I really didn't see that one coming," says Collette, who also this year was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in "The Wild Party," which she's still performing on Broadway.

In person, Collette looks nothing like her oppressed, working- class "Shaft" and "Sixth Sense" characters. She's svelte and trendy in a filmy, sleeveless orange dress decorated with embroidery and tiny mirrors. Her hair is a short blonde shock. "The Sixth Sense" is one of three films "that have really changed my life either personally or professionally or both," she says. The others were "Velvet Goldmine" (which introduced her to "Shaft" co- star Bale) and a little Australian phenomenon called "Muriel's Wedding." "I'm pretty fortunate to have had that movie, `Muriel's Wedding,' come out at such an early age and to open up so many doors in my career," says Collette, who earned Australia's equivalent of an Oscar for her performance in the 1994 film. "When I was making that movie, I was so in love with working," she recalls. "I mean, I'd been delivering pizzas prior to that. . . . I just fell in love with the project, and I lived and breathed it for a few months. I never actually contemplated the fact that it was gonna be released. "I really didn't have any idea that it was gonna affect people the way that it did. It really changed my life. It turned everything upside-down. I was 21, and it really changed things. I was intimidated by what was happening and kind of wanted to retreat and stop acting for a while. It was a time where I had to sit back and re- evaluate why I was doing what I was doing."

Collette, who left school at 16 to pursue her acting career, recovered from the onslaught of fame and since then has been able to work steadily, appearing in films made in Australia, England and the United States. She stars in another recent release, "8 1/2 Women." Collette plays one of several women who become part of an elaborate sexual fantasy inspired by Fellini's film "8 1/2." She says she loved working with controversial director Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover"). "I really admire people who listen to their gut," she says. "He listens and obeys his own personal truths, and he doesn't give a (hoot) what anybody else thinks, and I think that's pretty rare. I think he's a pioneer in that respect." She also found working with Singleton on "Shaft" refreshing, even though he cast someone else to begin with (she won't name the actress, offering only that "it just didn't work out.") "He is very collaborative, very open to other people's ideas and interpretations and not scared to delegate or share," says Collette, whose next film will be "Talk of the Town," with Glenn Close and Lynn Redgrave, shooting in the fall with director Bill Condon. "I think a lot of directors can be controlling."

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