The Chicago Sun-Times (2004)
Toni Collette rides a steady wave of interesting roles
January 25, 2004 | Written by Cindy Pearlman
On a brilliant summer morning in Australia, Toni Collette dips two toes in the ocean and decides that she's being a sissy. "I'm going to attempt to surf," says the actress, who doesn't appear to have one daredevil bone in her body. Her mind, however, screams that she can do anything. "I've heard that the bigger the board the better, so I'm using my husband's surfboard today," she says. "It's like standing on a deck. If I fall off this thing, then everyone can just assume that I'm a total moron." That's not likely. Collette knows what it takes to get a job done. She gained 40 pounds in seven weeks for "Muriel's Wedding." She put up with Hugh Grant's nonsense in "About a Boy." She even outshafted "Shaft" in the 2000 remake.

Collette isn't planning to sit it out in 2004. She stars in the indie film "Japanese Story," opening Friday, and then teams up with Nia Vardalos of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in "Connie and Carla," due out next spring. Let's start with "Japanese Story," which Collette shot in her native country. "I was immediately drawn to the script, because it's an unusual, simple and powerful story about a man and a woman who are thrown together out in the desert," she says. "It's really a two-hander and it's so rare that you really get to know characters in films these days. In our film, you get to know them as they know each other." The film stars Collette as a geologist in the Pilbara desert who teams up with a Japanese man (Gotaro Tsunashima) who annoys her to death, which makes it unfortunate that they're both stranded in one of the most remote places on the planet.

"These two people bond during a life-threatening experience," Collette says. "They allow themselves to be vulnerable and find the core of what makes the other person tick." Speaking of ticks, Collette found plenty of those during the desert shoot. "It was hot and dirty where we filmed. Very sweaty. But I had never really been out to the desert of Australia to shoot, and I wanted to experience that part of my country. The lucky thing for me is that we shot in the winter because I probably would have passed out if it had been summer. But all in all, it was very beautiful; inspirational, but harsh." Collette decided to live in the wild during the shoot -- wild for a film star, anyway. "Oh, I didn't camp," she says. "But I did have this really sh---- little hotel room. Washing wasn't a big option in this room. The bathroom was pretty bad. I also tried a little bit of camping in a national park to get in the mood, but this isn't like camping in the States. In Australia, we have snakes and big bugs."

Things were hardly more tame on the set of "Connie and Carla," a film starring Vardalos, David Duchovny and Collette. The women play best friends posing as drag queens. Yes, you can call it a romp. "It's really a musical comedy, which was a relief to do after all the crying I've done in movies," Collette says. "It's basically about musical theater enthusiasts who leave their jobs and witness a murder. We're in Los Angeles, but we can't perform or the bad guys will recognize us. "So we're women dressed up as men who then dress as female drag queens."

The interesting part was the hours spent in hair and makeup. "Nia and I both had about 20 wigs," she says. "It was all about corsets, short skirts, fishnets and tiaras." Collette got more from the role than she expected. "It really did give me this confidence," she says. "A couple of the real drag queens even gave me my own tiara at the end." She insists that it is a message film. "It's a subtle message about being yourself. So many people feel out of the loop these days if they're just themselves. We show that you can be anyone as long as you keep your sense of humor."

As for working with Vardalos, she says, "Nia was very sweet and witty. She wrote a great script. Plus, she called and just offered me the role. If I don't have to audition, then I'm really thrilled." Collette grew up in New South Wales, Australia, where she took to the stage as a teenager. "I just felt a natural flow on stage and my entire family supported me," she says. They even sanctioned her leaving school at age 16 to act professionally. "School just seemed pointless to me. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. So I left home to travel overseas with plays, then I'd return to Sydney to do theater. It was a magical life. I was broke, but happy. "I was also so naive," she says with a laugh. "But that worked in my favor. I just wasn't aware of the pitfalls. I was so young that I was fearless. I hadn't had the slap in the face yet."

Her big break came in 1994 as the chunky girl dealing with life in "Muriel's Wedding." Other American films followed, including "The Pallbearer" (1996), "Emma" (1996), "The Sixth Sense" (1999), "Shaft" (2000), "Dinner with Friends" (2001), "About a Boy" (2002) and "The Hours" (2002). "My goal is to mix up the comedy and drama. I don't want to do the same thing over and over again. I guess the luxury of the job is the variety. "It was a bit tough on me after 'Muriel's Wedding.' I was so determined that I wasn't that character. I just wanted to keep changing and proving that actors can do anything. But at the end of the day, it's really about the quality of the script and the fact that I can live with myself."

Living outside Hollywood has helped her in that regard. Collette makes her home in Australia with husband Dave Galafassi. "I don't know life any other way but in Australia," she says. "I also think it's good not to get caught up in the hype of Hollywood. This way when it gets to be too much, I just walk the beaches of Sydney like any other normal person. "You just look at those waves and feel very happy to be alive," she says. "In a few minutes, I'm going to grab my surfboard and just splash in the waves. So much for Hollywood pressure."

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