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The Australian (2009)
Four into one adds up for Toni Collette
July 18, 2009 | Written by Michael Bodey
Toni Collette, playing an unusually diverse role, is up again for a first Emmy.

Toni Collette's Emmy nomination for her role in the new US television series United States of Tara comes on top of many career markers for the Sydney actress. After all, Collette's five AFI awards are supplemented, or overshadowed, by an Academy Award nomination (for the 1999 film The Sixth Sense), a previous Emmy nomination (for the 2006 miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath) and even a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway musical The Wild Party. Recognition of her role in Tara is more than peer-voted acclamation. The series, which premieres on ABC1 on July 29, is different from most. Collette plays a wife and mother of two who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, a psychiatric malaise in which the subject displays distinct multiple identities or personalities, and memory loss. Tara has three alter egos and Collette jumps in and out of four characters.

Notwithstanding its pedigree (it was developed by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody), the series could have been a disaster if not for Collette's competence as the lead. Collette laughs. "Well, I didn't take it on thinking I would be bad! I took it on thinking 'Wow, what a brilliant opportunity.' That's all you can do with any project or any story." She is excited by such material and devotes her energies to making it seem real, rather than worrying about the outcome. "You've just got to focus on being present and making it truthful." Besides, she adds, she is just one of many contributors to the series. To an extent this is true. But reaction to the series in the US has been dominated by talk of Collette's crucial role in making a touchy subject and characterisation credible. "It could have been sensationalised or just slapstick or too dramatic, and I think it's just a beautiful, complex world that I could relate to," Collette tells Inquirer.

Her success in the role comes as no surprise to film and TV industry insiders. Although Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett get more headlines, Collette has a strong fan base among the people who matter in the Hollywood studios. Her performances in Muriel's Wedding and The Sixth Sense are obvious achievements but her emotional performances in less obvious Australian films such as The Boys and Japanese Story, and in smaller international films including About a Boy, have built her reputation. For instance, while Kidman and Meryl Streep dominated The Hours, Collette arguably outshone their performances in a role that gave her little more than 10 minutes of screen time. Tara allows her a great deal more screen time, albeit in a less familiar medium. "When I was 17 I did the obligatory episode of A Country Practice and GP, but that was it," she says of her TV work before Tsunami. In fact, her US agent forwarded scripts for Tara with a caveat: "I know you're not interested in TV but this sounds like it could be really interesting."

Collette wouldn't have been interested had the program required a more drastic change of lifestyle, as if often the case with US TV series: for instance, living in Los Angeles for 10 months of the year. Tara, a pay-TV series, involves shooting only 12episodes a year. "And the material itself is bloody brilliant, so I didn't really care what size the screen was," Collette says. "My experience of what I do is in the telling of thestory. It's not where it screens or how anaudience responds to it, so in a way it's almost irrelevant (that it's a TV show)." The show has been picked up for a second series, which begins filming next month. Collette is optioned for seven series in all. "I have complete faith in the project and it's just like doing a film shoot each year. And the series can go on and on," she says. "The potential for storylines with this story is perfect for series. A lot of series might have one great season or even two and get stuck, but this has endless possibilities."

Such possibilities are being explored more wisely by TV, which is now more daring and competent than most cinema. Recent American series, including The Wire, True Blood and Mad Men, compare favourably with cinema's more conventional output. It is logical that the two stars of Muriel's Wedding, Collette and Rachel Griffiths (Brothers & Sisters), find creative sustenance on US TV. (The early episodes of Tara were directed by expat Aussie Craig Gillespie.) The independent film business is in a rut globally and TV seasons allow the actresses to live at home. Griffiths stars in the upcoming film Beautiful Kate and Collette says she's flirting with the idea of making another Australian film this year while recording her second album. But for now she relishes the pace of TV. Film can be "a very slow-moving little animal" whereas shooting for TV jumps around, moves quickly and allows Collette to "do more of what I love in the day". The speed of filming also means she doesn't get the time to become self-absorbed about the acting and Tara's four facets: Tara the level-headed mum, Alice the homemaker, Buck the tomboy and T the pot-smoking teen. There is less time to reflect, she agrees. "There's always a certain amount of internal thought going on, but when I work on a film I find myself going home in the car thinking, 'Oh shit, I should have done it that way.' Whereas on this I'm either too exhausted or there's just no time to think about it. I feel like I'm thriving (in) that environment. I love it."

Collette also chose not to burden herself with a particular character to mimic. The show's writers met and spent some time studying one woman afflicted with dissociative identity disorder. Collette preferred to base her research on reading and documentaries. Opinion remains divided on DID's legitimacy as an affliction as well as its possible causes: some suggest it could be a side-effect of therapy. It remains a puzzle, with the switch to an alternative personality triggered instantly, seemingly by any odd sensation. "As far as I know about DID, it's a very varied kind of obtuse disorder and can affect people really differently, and I didn't want to feel responsible to just one person," Collette says. "One of the things that drew me into wanting to be part of the show is: yes, it deals with a mental illness, but it goes beyond that and it's kind of lovely in that ... (the characters) accept the situation and embrace it." Tara is not your typical commercial fare. Collette is happy it found its way to the ABC. "I did think about who would buy it all around the world and where it would sit. When I heard the ABC had it, I felt very safe," she says. "They've really forked out a bit of dough for it, and I really like the idea it's going to be commercial-free."