The Telegraph (2014)
Toni Collette interview: 'If I couldn't work, I'd wither and die'
March 13, 2014 | Written by Horatia HarrodToni Collette fell in love with acting, made ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, and became a star. The honeymoon isn’t over yet, she tells Horatia Harrod, as her new film A Long Way Down hits the screen
Twenty years ago, when Toni Collette was 21 years old, she got on a plane to France to watch her new film, Muriel’s Wedding, for the first time. “I turned up at the Cannes Film Festival, which is madness itself,” she says, “and I sat there in an auditorium with a few thousand people, and it was the most intense response. I mean, very, very positive and very vocal and very focused on me.” She laughs. “They pulled us all up onto the stage afterwards, and I thought it would be maybe one minute, but we were standing there for… ever. It was like 15 minutes of people clapping and cheering and hooting.” How did she feel, I ask? “Uncomfortable!” she says. “I was elated but I was also very jet-lagged, and it was just surreal. It was strange… and wonderful.” The first time most of the world noticed Toni Collette she was playing Muriel Heslop, a gauche, Abba-loving ugly duckling desperate to escape the suburban hell of Porpoise Spit, Queensland. People still come up and talk to her about Muriel “all the time”, she says. “It’s been used in schools and therapy, because it’s got so many different elements you can tap into.” So effective was Collette’s performance in P?J Hogan’s film that the line between the role and the woman seemed to blur, which was ironic, since Collette was neither a sad-sack nor a daydreamer. She left school at 16, already knowing that she wanted to be an actress. “I had big balls at that age,” she says, laughing. “I had no fear.” Within a year her courageousness had paid off: at 17 she was playing Sonya alongside Geoffrey Rush in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya.
Physically, too, Collette was nothing like Muriel, having put on almost three stone to play the part (“Every time Toni opened her mouth,” Hogan claimed at the time, “I put a doughnut into it”). An American magazine profile of the actress, written two years after Muriel’s Wedding came out, began with the line: “?‘My God,’ I shriek, ‘But you are so gorgeous!’?” The woman sitting opposite me in the restaurant of a central London hotel is indeed gorgeous, and squarely Hollywood in her presentation, with long, precision-tousled blonde hair, immaculate make-up and sleek, expensive-looking clothes. But there is nothing icy about her: she reminds me of some glorious Antipodean marsupial, with her wide, expressive eyes and slightly buck teeth. She greets me with a hug, and there is warmly hippyish talk of the need in life to be “open” and “present”.
Collette is a protean actor. The prime evidence of this might be her roles in the television show The United States of Tara, in which she starred as a woman whose multiple-personality disorder played out in a succession of alter egos including T, an oversexed teenager; Gimme, a feral grotesque; Alice, a prim housewife; and, perhaps most startling of all, Buck, a macho Vietnam veteran. Then there is Hostages, the Homeland-esque (for which read: quite mad) thriller currently airing on Channel 4, in which she plays a high-powered thoracic surgeon. And compare her most recent film appearances: a small part as a caustic, glamorous and unhappy wife in Nicole Holofcener’s sublime comedy Enough Said; and a leading role as Maureen, a frumpy, selfless mother in A Long Way Down, a soon-to-be-released film based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name. When we meet, Collette has yet to see the new film; indeed, she’s flying off to the Berlin Film Festival the next day to see it for the first time, although in an unfortunate inversion of her experience with Muriel’s Wedding, the film will be greeted there with almost uniformly bad reviews. It’s an odd little fable about four people – Collette, Pierce Brosnan, rising British actress Imogen Poots and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul – who meet at the top of a tower block from which each intends to jump.
Collette’s character is driven to suicide by the idea that her disabled son will get a better quality of care if she’s out of the picture. If the plotline tugs a little too insistently at the heartstrings, Collette’s commitment to her character remains the best thing about the film. “Oh my gosh, she’s so gorgeous,” she says effusively. “There’s such a sweetness to her.” In many of her best roles – as Muriel, of course, but also as the suicidally depressed mother in About a Boy, the frazzled mother in Little Miss Sunshine, or the bewildered, ferociously protective mother in The Sixth Sense – Collette is an advocate for her characters, giving a voice to people who might otherwise fly “under the radar”, as she puts it. (Collette and her husband, the drummer Dave Galafassi, have two children, Sage, 6, and Arlo, 2, but she insists that the mother thing is coincidental: “I played a lot of mothers before I even became a mother,” she has said. “It wasn’t like I set out to be some sort of mother crusader.”)
“Retrospectively, if I look at stuff,” she says, “I’m starting to realise that there are certain themes that I return to, those being that there is no such thing as normal, and people finding their voice and living authentically. And also that you can be influenced and helped through an extended family.” Were they themes she sought out? “No, there was no plan. No plan!” she says emphatically. “The plan is to have no plan, because no matter what plan you have, you’ll go off-plan.”
If there’s never been a plan, there’s always been a sense of direction. Collette grew up in Blacktown, in the western suburbs of Sydney, just on the cusp of rural Australia. She was an energetic, gregarious child, ferried by her parents – Judy, a customer service rep for a courier company, and Bob, a truck driver – from netball practise to tap-dancing lessons to the local swimming pool. “Oh my god, swimming, that’s why I’ve got these bloody shoulders,” she says. “My mum sat there one day and counted, I did 52 laps of the Olympic pool, which is a lot for a teenager. I remember they made us do backstroke with one arm. I can’t believe I ever kept in a straight line!” When she was 11, she feigned appendicitis so successfully that even the doctors were convinced, rushing her to the emergency room and removing her appendix. In the early days, her love of acting was intertwined with a passion for singing. (She’s recorded several albums with her band, the Finish, whose members include her husband, and in 2000 she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway musical The Wild Party.)
In 1989 came a moment of epiphany, watching Geoffrey Rush on stage in Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman. “You know when someone talks about having some experience listening to music or looking at a piece of art?” she says. “When I watched him in that, it was like being in church, I had a full-on spiritual awakening. I even wrote him this letter – I don’t remember what it said, but it was very complimentary.” Looking back, she says, she finds it hard to believe that she abandoned school when she was still so young. “It was just outrageous,” she says. “I was 16. And it’s not like I wasn’t good at school, or I didn’t enjoy it, I did. I just loved acting more. I don’t regret that decision, but I can’t believe I made it…”
Muriel’s Wedding was her second film. (Her first, Spotswood, an unlikely comedy in which Anthony Hopkins tries to increase productivity at a moccasin factory, is said to be one of Rupert Murdoch’s favourite movies.) “We were in a bubble when we were making it, it was just freedom,” she says. “And then it completely changed everything. I had no real plans in life, I just had this passion, I guess, and it… took over and contributed to a very big swing to the left – we’re going this way!” After the film took off, Collette had moments of anxiety. “I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with it all initially,” she says. “Having to do this sort of thing [being interviewed] made me feel really uncomfortable, and as much as I loved acting… I had a funny relationship with it for a while.” In her twenties she travelled a lot, shaved her head five times, bought a flat in Brixton, south London (“where I managed to witness a guy having his head bashed in with a pole”), and had a “tumultuous, crazy, hedonistic, fabulous time”. It sounds like most people’s twenties, I begin – “but turned up a notch?” she says. “You’re probably right. There’s so much change and you’re being thrown around and throwing yourself around and exploring so many different ideas, and just kind of looking at life and trying to understand it.”
As she’s grown older, she finds she approaches acting in a different way. When she started out, she says, “it was just a way to get s--- out of my system. It was just a need to communicate something, anything, a form of expression, just to get it out so I wasn’t walking around with whatever it was. Now it’s more fun, more inventive. And each job is different, it’s never just the same old grind, there’s always something surprising, which I love.” Recently Collette was in Ireland shooting a film, Glassland, in which she plays an alcoholic – guess what? – mother. “I had to do an Irish accent that I’d never heard before, a very specific accent from an area called Tallaght, which is where we were shooting. And I was petrified, really petrified. I haven’t felt like that for ages. First of all the accent was really freaking me out. And then, you know, I didn’t want to let them down. I just… didn’t want to f--- it up.”
How did she get over her fear? “I eventually got out of my head and just made it practical and had that exchange with other people, which is what it’s all about.” No plan, then, except maybe this: keep going. “I love working. I love it! It makes me feel awake and alive and appreciative, as does my family, but in a different way. If I was told I couldn’t do it,” she says firmly, “I think I would wither and die.”
A Long Way Down is released on March 21