Sydney Australia (2004)
Interview with Toni Collette
August 2004
Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths lip-synching ABBA's 'Waterloo' is one of those triumphantly joyous moments you never forget. In practical terms, it ignited their careers as well as that of writer-director PJ Hogan. Toni Collette has successfully inhabited dozens of different characters in the decade since Muriel, but many of them have been troubled and grief-stricken. Connie and Carla breaks that cycle, putting her back with the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. Among other things, it's a love letter to the world of cabaret where Toni gets to strut her stuff and sing very loud, only this time in her own voice…

Not far into Connie and Carla, the two friends fulfil a childhood dream of headlining their own show in a dinner restaurant that quickly becomes the toast of West Hollywood. The twist is that they have to pretend to be drag queens to do it.

TONI COLLETTE: "Playing a very simple kind of naïve, mid-Western cute little girl, who then goes on to find her womanly power through becoming a drag queen, running around in tiaras and way too much make up - it was fantastic."

Connie and Carla was conceived by and co-stars Nia Vardalos who made show business history when My Big Fat Greek Wedding smashed all records for independently produced movies.

NIA VARDALOS: "I wanted to write another movie where I made the boy call me pretty. That was my first goal. And my second goal was, I wanted to sing in a movie!"

Nia Vardalos steals shamelessly from such classics as Some Like It Hot and Victor/Victoria to create a framework for Connie and Carla in which they find their true identities pretending to be men pretending to be women.

But maintaining their disguises gets complicated when Connie falls in love with the straight brother of one of her new gay friends and Carla starts to miss her old life.

But Behind the Scenes, they relished the freedom of outrageous costumes and makeup and the challenge of convincing their peers they were the real thing.

TONI COLLETTE: "There's a very healthy drag community in Vancouver so we got to know all of those guys and they came in and rehearsed. And just, the family just, it was a seed and it grew and it grew and it grew and then it flourished."

A case of finding your inner drag queen…

TONI COLLETTE: "The thing that these girls have in common with the drag queens is that, to a certain extend they are both ostracised and they have to find a niche that allows them to actually live the way they feel internally."

It's all a long way from the searingly emotional role of Sandy in Japanese Story which took her to an edge that few performers reach.

TONI COLLETTE: "Um, I do know that I love it most, and it doesn't happen all the time, when I really am not aware of what I'm doing, I mean you know you've got an idea of what you're gonna go in an do, but when they say cut, it's almost like you weren't in control, it's like I like being out of control or something, it's like something else happens and, I have likened it to meditation in that you kind of do go beyond yourself without trying to hone it in, without judging it you know? I don't know, I find it very difficult to talk about, which is probably why I do it, I articulate it through doing it."

Toni Collette discovered early on the power of fully committing to the task at hand. She gained nearly 20 kilos to play Muriel Heslop and she was so convincing that it took years for some to comprehend she was acting.

TONI COLLETTE: "I think for a long time people actually thought that was actually me, which I guess on one hand is a great compliment, but on the other it can be quite frustrating, but, anyway, I'm not complaining, I've had a great run."

It's included characters as far removed from Muriel as it's possible to go. Recently, there was her widely praised cameo appearance in The Hours, the film that won fellow Australian Nicole Kidman her Best Actress Oscar. In Changing Lanes she was Ben Affleck's tough-minded girlfriend and in About a Boy with Hugh Grant she spent most of her time on screen in tears.

TONI COLLETTE: "Yeah, I did a lot of weeping over the last few years."

When did you actually get the knack of stepping into people, stepping inside characters and becoming them, you know? Just get that?

TONI COLLETTE: "Um, I don't know. If I thought of it as being a knack it would somehow make me complacent in a way to just think, oh well, that's easy, I'm going to be able to do it. But I think, I think I'm kind of lucky because with the characters that I've been offered it's because I've gravitated towards them as well, there's something that I understand so it's almost like it's pulled, pulled out of me."

Connie and Carla is a feelgood romantic comedy with lots of big hair and big songs. It didn't open strongly in the US after getting mixed reviews but it may do better here. Perhaps Australians are more relaxed with gender-bending scenarios - witness the success of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. But the role of Carla is further confirmation of Toni Collette's remarkable versatility. Seems there's nothing she can't do except this: she never fails to surprise us.