The Sydney Morning Herald (2006)
Little Drummer Girl
November 30, 2006 | Written by Mark MordueToni Collette has added recording artist to an already impressive acting CV. But despite the accolades, she's still a Blacktown girl at heart, she tells Mark Mordue. Toni Collette remembers going fishing with family and friends when she was about 12, "everyone sitting around a table later shelling prawns and me wanting to sing but being too embarrassed". To get over her first case of stage fright, the Blacktown girl would step into the hall, "make them turn off all the lights" and sing Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. It would become a regular family event, her little lullabies in the hallway darkness. Now, two decades later, the 34-year-old actress seems to be doing much the same thing - but on a far bigger scale. On her debut album, Beautiful Awkward Pictures, Collette says she tried to avoid "a big loud statement". "It's like there are people who talk a lot and need a lot of attention and then there is someone who is really quiet," she says. "I want my record to be like that quiet person. The more you get to know it, the more you like it." Acting and singing are often intertwined but for the most part it's a matter of entertainment skills that sometimes translate into pop success (a la Kylie Minogue) or embarrassing indulgences destined for the pop graveyard. Seldom do we get something lyrically confessional and musically convincing, which is what Collette has achieved. By the time you read this, Collette and her band, the Finish, will have wrapped up a tour in preparation for Homebake on December 2 in the Domain. Collette admits to nerves about such a big show "but I don't think you will ever fall on your arse if you are being true to yourself," she says.
Every song has been written by Collette and her "true to yourself" philosophy permeates the album, which details everything from her disastrous relationship with actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers during the making of 1997's Velvet Goldmine to her intense love for her husband of three and a half years, drummer Dave Galafassi. Her evolving interest in Buddhism, reincarnation ("some proof of something would make me so happy") and eastern philosophy also dominate. The fact that the album is good comes as a surprise; her voice similar to Fiona Apple without the anger and with a hint of Deborah Conway. It's not exactly a Jenny-from-the-block effort, I say. Collette cocks her eye at the backhanded compliment. "That," she says dryly, "wouldn't really be me." Collette got the name for her album courtesy of art curator Ray Hughes, whose gallery in Surry Hills she often visits. "He was showing me all these lovely little French paintings," Collette explains, holding her hand as if she were waving an invisible cigar around. "Ray says, 'Look at them! Look at them! Such beautiful awkward pictures' as the ash is falling on his chest." Her take-off of Hughes, a titanic figure, could easily veer towards caricature. But she pulls back from anything overblown, getting the gravel and groan in the curator's voice just right. It's a subtle performance - and all in a few moments. My mind flicks back to the kitchen scene in The Sixth Sense, when the mother she plays first realises her son's psychic abilities. It was her idea to shuffle her sandals on the floor, adding to the film's intensity. She got the idea from her grandmother, she says. Earlier, as she was photographed for this cover, she morphed into someone else again. This Toni Collette was highly sensual - all lips, eyes, lashes and lush physicality, draped over a bass drum, leaning forward from a bar stool, her hair teased in some imaginary breeze. It made me wonder whatever happened to the ugly duckling from Muriel's Wedding, that desperately lonely hippie in About A Boy, the solid suburban mum in Little Miss Sunshine? But as she walks from the over-sexed studio set-up, her ordinariness - which has become her stock in trade - once again asserts itself. In person, Collette seems taller than her 1.68 metres, exuding an easy confidence. As we meet, she offers a big, breaking smile and slings an over-sized black leather kit bag over her shoulder, all the while talking enthusiastically about the Australian singer Bob Evans. Her musical tastes now run to the likes of Ryan Adams's Heartbreaker and the late Jeff Buckley's Grace. ("It genuinely pains me I never got to see him live.") Her last big night out was seeing the Dirty Three at the Metro. She met Galafassi at the CD launch for his then very hip Sydney band Gelbison. They selected Nick Cave's Into My Arms for their bridal waltz and chose to walk down the aisle to the sound of chanting Buddhist monks. Collette credits Galafassi with giving her the motivation to actually make her record instead of just dreaming about it. Apart from a property in Berry, the couple own a $5 million Spanish-style mansion in Bellevue Hill. They both love the water - Collette likes to go snorkelling and Galafassi has been teaching her to surf. "I need the right kind of wave but it does feel like freedom when you are up there." You get a strong sense of how Collette feels about her husband - five years her junior - from the way she speaks about him. The day they met was "like a long slow dance"; when she creates songs, she "whispers them to him". Galafassi is no longer with Gelbison, instead developing his own musical projects - and playing drums for his wife. "It's funny," she says, toying with a bowl of steamed brussels sprouts and a salad nicoise at a cafe in Fox Studios, "sometimes I look around at him and he has this slightly glazed look on his face that reads as, 'I'm here, baby, I'm here. But I'm busy, baby, I'm busy.'"
Collette spent the first six years of her life in Glebe. Back in the early '70s, it was a tough, inner-city suburb - so tough, in fact, that her father, Bob, moved the family out to Blacktown, which was semi-rural at the time. Collette was surrounded by a backyard menagerie of dogs, cats, rabbits and ducks and would spend her days playing basketball and soccer with her brothers, Chris, now 30, and Ben, now 26. She's still more of a boy's girl than a girly girl, she says, "although I am becoming more feminine as I get older". Bob was a truck driver; her mother, Judy, was a sales rep for a courier company. They've only recently moved from the family home, something that saddens Collette. Incredibly protective of her family, she refuses to give any detail of their lives, although she does say her brothers still live in Blacktown. "It's where I grew up. It means a lot. It's part of me and always will be." Born Antonia Collett, she decided to add the extra "e" back into her name at age 14 - her grandfather had removed it - because she thought it looked better as a stage name. That same year, her version of Whitney Houston's Saving All My Love For You would net her a role in Godspell at Blacktown Girls' High. It was musical theatre - "I had a big voice, was a bit of a belter" - that led her into acting. You can nonetheless still chart her "other" talent in everything from her version of Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over during the credits of 1996's Cosi to her Tony-nominated role in the 2000 Broadway musical The Wild Party. By the time Collette was 16 she was telling her parents she wanted to leave school to pursue an acting career. Within six months she was accepted into NIDA, only to leave after 18 months when director Neil Armfield asked her to perform on stage in Checkhov's Uncle Vanya. Although she was forced to support herself by flogging jeans at General Pants and delivering pizzas, the jobs dribbled in, including a plum role opposite Anthony Hopkins in Spotswood. "I remember the first time I saw her on stage straight out of drama school in Uncle Vanya," recalls actor Richard Roxburgh. "She had so much texture, a really mature depth of consideration in her work even then, to say nothing of an electric presence. It's always seemed to me that in an industry so wildly preoccupied with appearance that Toni is one of those rare actors who has rather tied herself to the mast of her gift instead." Actor Rachel Griffiths, an old friend, beams in on this in an email to me. "Toni can play working class without comment and without an 'idea' of it," she writes. "So many actresses come from the middle class and find it hard to play out of it. She reminds me of Hilary Swank in that way. She just plays the role with a directness and emotional honesty that rings so true. In certain roles it gives her an unbeatable power. She really can inhabit the little Aussie battler from within. Cate Blanchett is a genius and can bring a natural poise, power, intelligence and grace to play a queen but would I believe her shucking oysters on a wharf in rubber boots? Toni's trump card is you can stick her in a Jane Austen tale and she can also fit in."
Collette has just returned from LA, where she filmed Evening opposite Vanessa Redgrave. She'll follow that up with an as-yet-untitled film, in which she portrays the pregnant neighbour to a 13-year-old girl struggling with her identity in a sea of sexualised cultural imagery. This last role has a familiar ring. It's no secret that Collette shot to international stardom in 1994, at age 21, as the star of Muriel's Wedding, a role she put on 18 kilograms to play (and then had to lose). She has often described that film as both a fantastic ticket to ride and a long shadow to escape from. The frumpy image it painted "took a decade to lift", she says, alluding vaguely to an extended period of bulimia and anxiety attacks that dogged her well into her late twenties. Whenever she's been asked in previous interviews what was happening to her, she has consistently referred to it as "feeling like I was dying". She now tends to brush all this away as yesterday's news and hates to make her twenties sound melodramatic and miserable. "I was just unprepared for such a big life change. Away from home, friends, family, trying to get comfortable with who I was and trying to fit in." Her one-year relationship with Rhys Meyers, which she once described as "dangerous", was undoubtedly part of that turbulence. In her song Jonny's Lips, she documents the way he "left his kisses on my window last night" and deserted her. Collette is amused by the suggestion that Galafassi seems to hit his drums "particularly hard" on that track. All she'll say about Rhys Meyers is, "I'm sure he is a lot of things to a lot of people." The main point she wants to make now, she says, is not so much the drama of her twenties as the fun she had. "Too much fun." She rolls her eyes. "I'm a woman of extremes. I've only learnt the meaning of moderation in the last five years." This comes as less of a confession from the more spiritually developed Collette of today than a slight brag that she still knows how to have a good time. Especially if it involves tequila - a drink that has apparently inspired her to shave her head on at least two occasions. But there's no doubting a seriousness at work in Collette's vision of the world. In talking about a song like Beautiful Awkward Pictures, she elaborates on her use of the Ray Hughes phrase to explain how it's also about loving her husband to an almost painful extreme and "enjoying life so much with this person, even though it's not going to last. Because nothing in life can last. So it's bittersweet, it's beautiful and it's awkward."
Having met Galafassi, she's gone from "thinking life is a cruel joke somebody is playing to appreciating the time I have". She wants to emphasise that "even before I was involved with film I used to think everyone I know won't be here in a hundred years time." She pauses, then smiles. "It meant I didn't trust life and now I do." (s)
"The sky, the sea, the food, the friends and the ease."
"That we don't have electric buses yet."
Favourite Sydney ritual
"Walking my dog [Gertie, a beagle]."
"Coming back across the Harbour Bridge to the city from the north side at dusk."
"Fratelli Fresh [in Waterloo]."
"Sean's Panaroma [in Bondi]."
An ordinary day involves
"Feeling grateful to be home."
How to impress a visitor
"Rent a boat and get out on the harbour."