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The Boston Globe (2004)
Toni Collette's joruney in the Outback
January 25, 2004 | Written by Jean Tang
Much ado is made of actors who can stay in character for the entire length of a film shoot. Toni Collette is not among them. Instead the actress -- one of the premier screen performers of her generation -- strives for empathy like a sharpshooter hitting a target: quickly, and with precision. Collette's starring turn in "Japanese Story," which opens Friday, is no different. "It's a very intense journey my character takes," says the lead of her role as Australian geologist Sandy Edwards. A workaholic nursing a start-up company, Sandy undergoes a life transformation when she meets a potential software client from Japan. But the extremity of Sandy's journey did not absorb Collette.

"[Collette] has this incredible capacity to drop into character and then come out of it straight away," says director Sue Brooks. "She's 100 percent there in the role, then once I say I'm happy with the cut, she comes out." The catalyst of Sandy's awakening is her polar opposite, Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), in Australia for a geological tour of the outback. Sandy is unstructured to the point of being haphazard; Tachibana is more tightly strung than a piano. She's decidedly on her own; he's been taught that women are second-class citizens. She couldn't be bothered; he is excruciatingly uncool. She's strident and direct; he's soft-spoken. Both are chauvinistic about their origins. Each encapsulates a cultural identity seemingly irreconcilable with the other. Neither can relate emotionally -- to themselves or the world at large. It's a clash of atomic proportions. Needless to say, the two fall in love.

While neither the concept nor the format (a road trip) are anything new, the film is finely executed, and gifted with earthly substance by two things: uncompromising emotional integrity and the raw force behind Collette's performance. According to Brooks, Collette was an "early choice" of the three-woman creative team consisting of herself, screenwriter Allison Tilson, and producer Sue Maslin. "We thought she'd be smart enough to recognize that this was a rare, phenomenal role for a woman," says Brooks. "She read it quickly and says it brought her to tears."

Collette -- who most recently appeared in "The Hours" as Kitty Barlowe, a splendid vision of 1950s domesticity -- fell for Sandy's tomboy immediately. "On a very basic level it's a great part for a female actress," she says. "It pretty much runs the gamut in terms of emotional depth." The film had been hovering in prefinancing, but funding closed as soon as Collette had been brought on board. Then Brooks broke her foot and the production got shelved again. "I almost didn't do it," says Collette of the timing. By the time "Japanese Story" finally got underway, the filmmakers had made the difficult decision to move shooting from South Australia to the ancient outback of Pilbara, in Western Australia.

"It's so different from anywhere else in Australia," says Brooks, a native Australian. "It's got the reddest earth that goes forever, without windmills or castles or other civilization. We thought the characters needed that." Collette couldn't have been happier. "Pilbara is very powerful, very inspirational, very beautiful, and very hard," she says. On the last item she points out simple things, like "keeping clean" and "surviving the heat." The setting clearly touched a chord in the actress, a dedicated yoga practitioner who views herself as part of the ecosystem. It was a four-hour drive from Collette's hotel to the location, and she was treated to many a sunrise. "The colors made you feel fortunate to be alive," the cheery Australian says enthusiastically. "One time, there must have been a flock of thousands of cockatoos screeching overhead, and I thought, `How lucky am I to be seeing this?' "

The region is idyllic for one important reason aside from visual beauty. Its purity and isolation lend credence to a pivotal idea: that stranding the mutually repellent Sandy and Tachibana together with nothing and nobody for miles can lead to radical behavior -- and growth. They get "bogged," meaning their vehicle gets stuck in sand. Ironically, this was something that happened regularly to cast and crew. "Quite a few people got bogged, including the director," the director says with a laugh. "It's very easy to get bogged out there. You have to find someone to get you out."

For Collette, the eight-week shoot was far from facile: Sandy has a minefield of hurdles to overcome. "She's ignorant and self-absorbed," says Collette. "Her addiction is work, and, like all addictions, it helps her avoid reality and feeling." As can be expected of a lengthy road trip shared by characters at odds with each other, action and dialogue are sparse. A particularly vivid take shows Sandy going through the motions of her dull workaholic's life, eating a can of beans. "She's not even aware of putting nourishing things into her body," the actress scoffs lightly. This is the antithesis of Collette herself, a longtime vegetarian who turned vegan to tone her physique for a role that demanded heavy lifting and a love scene.

The scene, in which a naked Collette dons Tachibana's pants before climbing into bed, is memorably unusual. To Collette, it all makes sense. "In a healthy ideal, sex is the most profound form of intimacy. This is where Sandy and Tachibana really connect. And wearing the pants is a great metaphor for her stepping into his world." The movie doesn't culminate with the impossible affair (Tachibana turns out to be married) but in the events to follow, which change Sandy for life. "This whole journey is like a big slap in the face, and then she wakes up," notes Collette. "All of the pain she's ever stored comes flooding out, and it gives her a much richer life." Collette raves about Tsunashima, her costar. "He's nothing like the character. He's cool, he's funny, women come flocking to him." Tsunashima required a translator for the shoot, although, says the actress, smiling, "He's very fluent when he's drunk."

The cast and crew liked to let their hair down in the Australian outback. Not so Collette: " I needed to be very disciplined, so I was doing yoga and eating soup." "Japanese Story" heads a run of headliner roles for the actress, who will also appear in two comedies this year. In "Connie & Carla," Collette costars with actress-screenwriter Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"); they play two dinner theater singers who witness a Mafia murder and disguise themselves as drag queens to escape. The performance will be followed by "The Last Shot," in which Collette plays an English bombshell making a comeback after drug rehab and shares top billing with Alec Baldwin and Matthew Broderick. Collette credits her range to unusual empathy. Even if she can't draw on a character's experiences firsthand, "I can feel things while I'm reading them. If it affects me that way straight up -- initially -- it's never going to go away."

Jean Tang can be reached at jeandelinstang@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.