The Daily Telegraph (2004)
Toni's still going song
August 2004 | Written by Michael BodeyToni Collette needed lightening up. After the emotional pull of the award-winning dramas, Japanese Story and The Hours, it was time for a comedy. Along came My Big Fat Greek Wedding's star and writer, Nia Vardalos, and a script in which two women pretend to be drag queens. Of course Connie & Carla was a comedy. "It really came along at the right time," Collette admits. "I'd been doing so much heavy emotional work and this is just so light and so joyous. If I think of the soul of this film, it's like looking at the Luna Park face."
And Collette lights it up, displaying a carefree attitude in the film that makes even the perky Vardalos seem a little staid. "I needed to go to work and just have a real life experience and not be weighed down by it," she says. "But I certainly wasn't looking for a musical. "I just thought it was very, very funny and clever and I did get to sing and dance. I got to laugh at work." And revisit her early music theatre experience, from the Australian Theatre for Young People and Sydney Theatre Company and Broadway, which she'd since shunned. In fact, the music theatre-friendly film, with its references to everything from Cats to Cabaret restored Collette's enthusiasm for the "cheesy" genre.
"I got into acting through musicals, through singing," Collette says. "This is a chance to go back and revisit where I came from and make fun of it and revel in it." And continue the tradition of Australian actors dressing in drag. "Absolutely. I'm quite proud to join the bandwagon," she laughs. Collette plays Carla, an enthusiastic American singer whose double act with Connie (Vardalos) hasn't taken them further than cheap airport lounge gigs.
But after being caught up in a friend's gang rumble, they flee to the city without culture, where they can sing unnoticed - Los Angeles. But in trying to create new identities for themselves, the duo become a successful drag act. In this sense, Collette shines, her singing and dancing a class above Vardalos's. Not that Collette has been an actor who foists their singing upon us. "Well, I think that may be about to change, not that I've been putting myself out there but I've been writing music for more than ten years and I think if I don't actually record it, I'll go insane.
"But I don't want to be one of those crass actors turned singers or indeed singers turned actors," she adds quickly. "There are two sides to the coin, the notion that if you're a creative person why should it be funnelled through one avenue, why shouldn't you leap over into other areas? "Then there's the idea you stick to what you do because you're an embarrassment. "But I certainly won't be baring my midriff," she grins. "I won't be purring, there'll be no little sex kitten thing going on, it's just music that is part of me and I want to get it out."
While it's been long in gestation, Collette's album will come at the right time, having just completed two US movies in quick succession - the drama In Her Shoes, by L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson, and the crime comedy The Last Shot, with Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Calista Flockhart and Ray Liotta. In Her Shoes stars Collette and Cameron Diaz as co-dependant sisters whose mother died when they were younger. Shirley MacLaine co-stars as their grandmother, the second screen icon in a row Collette has starred with. Debbie Reynolds is wheeled out during Connie & Carla. "They're both very different," Collette says of Reynolds and MacLaine. "Debbie, I didn't really get to know her, she came in and strutted her stuff. But Shirley, there are basically three lead parts so we spent a lot of time together. She's beautiful, I adore her, she's very vital and honest and straightforward and funny and loves to gasbag. She's very political and so interested in so many things."
Which is how one might describe Collette - political. "If you call caring about the world you live in political, sure," she says. She spoke out against mining after the release of Japanese Story, for which she won an AFI Award, a comment that didn't go down very well in some quarters. "I arrived in Western Australia the day that it said 'Toni Collette not welcome in WA' on the front of the paper," she laughs. "All these people kept coming up and apologising to me and I kept thinking what were they talking about? Then I realised what had happened." But in an industry where most younger actors are meek about everything other than the promotion of their latest movie, Collette is a rarity.
"It's so weird because being an actor is somehow determined by how people receive you, it has nothing to do with you as an actor," she says. "You can be a great actor and not work. So I think some people dull themselves down and don't step out of line so they don't offend people." So criticism of her comments is water off a duck's back? "It has to be because I'm not going to appease other people by bending over backwards. I have to speak my mind, I have to be who I am. If I offend people, well, you can't please everyone." Which is why she notes she only heard "a vague murmur" about Bruce Beresford's recent criticism of her performance in Japanese Story. She didn't chase it.
"Why investigate it?" she asks. "Why open up that can of worms?"