The Irish Times (2015)
Toni Collette: ‘The story is what makes the job worthwhile. It would be pointless otherwise’
April 16, 2015 | Written by Donald Clarke
Her Tallaght accent is rapid, she’s been on the tear around Dublin with Jack Reynor, and she took little convincing to make Glasslands. Australian actor Toni Collette talks to Donald Clarke.

It takes few false starts before Toni Collette manages to make it to our interview. She’s not being in any way awkward. The Australian actor turns out to be as agreeably mouthy as you could hope. She has been having problems with her voice.

I assumed, at first, that she must have been bellowing cathartically in some big serious drama. Not quite. She’s been doing proper full-on final-girl screaming in a New Zealand horror flick (the details of which she must keep secret).

“Just another day at the office,” she says, now restored to full volume.

There are worse ways of earning a living.

“Yeah, there really are, unfortunately,” she laughs.

Toni Collette is a tricky artist to pin down. Since breaking through with the delightful Muriel’s Wedding 20 years ago, she has brought earthy integrity to an array of contrasting projects. You can see her in About a Boy and The Hours. She was the emotional heart of Little Miss Sunshine. She won a deserved Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense.

Yet she spends more time in smaller endeavours – such as Kiwi horrors – than she does in high-profile Multiplex ordnance festivals.

“That would be a soulless endeavour,” she tells me. “The story is always the link into what makes the job worthwhile. It would be pointless otherwise.”

Which goes someway to explaining how Toni, currently a bit hoarse from screaming her way through a Kiwi horror film, found herself in Gerard Barrett’s excellent Glassland. The Kerryman’s second feature, follow-up to the acclaimed Pilgrim Hill, co-stars Jack Reynor as a young man coping with an alcoholic mother in contemporary Tallaght.

She must get offered any number of interesting smaller films. What persuaded her to jump?

“Gerard didn’t need to talk me into it at all,” she laughs. “He wrote a poetic and stunning script about these two people who love each other greatly, but are kind of lost of lost. I loved it.”

A proper professional, Collette worked hard at perfecting the nuances of the Tallaght timbres. The Christmas before shooting began was spent in Mexico listening obsessively to a pal with a thick Dublin accent. This only served to make her increasingly fretful. Happily, a top dialect coach eased her into it and the cast helped her feel at home.

“Other things took over. The panic dissipated and everything became very real,” she says. “People say it’s a kitchen sink drama, but that’s bullshit. It feels like real life and it felt that way making it.

“I didn’t know Jack until I got to Dublin and he took me out to the Guinness Brewery. That was very sweet: a young actor who wants to bond. He’s an incredible person. That opened the door and it became effortless.”

Collette displays no obvious hang-ups or pretensions in her everyday conversation. It comes as no great surprise to learn that she emerged from a close working-class family in the western suburbs of Sydney.

She can’t really remember wanting to do anything else. She took ballet lessons as a kid. She sang. She did a bit of musical theatre. Eventually, she made the lunge towards drama school.

“My parents had concerns, because I really did come from a working-class family where people didn’t finish school and they thought I might go to university. But I was bitten by the bug.”

We’re coming down with Australian actors these days – Crowe, Blanchett, Pearce, Hemsworth – but that rush hadn’t quite started at that point. It wouldn’t have seemed so obvious that an international career was there for the taking. “It seemed crazy. I don’t know. I had no fear then. I just didn’t think of the negative side.”

Muriel’s Wedding came out of nowhere. The story of an awkward Abba enthusiast making her way in a forbidding Sydney, PJ Hogan’s picture hit a nerve with outsiders throughout the world. Eventually returning $57 million on a $9 million investment, the film rode the same wave that carried Australian pictures such as Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the world. Did she ever suspect Muriel’s Wedding would break out?

“Oh f*** no!” she says. “It’s like a metaphor for life. You have to be absorbed in what you are doing. If you are thinking about the future then you have defeated yourself. I was just happy to have a job, so I related to it and loved the experience of making it. I had no concept of what might happen. I was delivering pizzas beforehand. Then I had a career.”

At any rate, Collette was the answer to a question that nobody was aware they had asked. She’s not often a conventional leading lady, but you wouldn’t quite call her a character actor either.

Like her pal Rachel Griffith, co star of Muriel’s Wedding, she has the ability to bring angular reality to even the glossiest role. More often, however, she invests ordinary characters with eccentric charisma. She can be odd, but (thank heavens) she is rarely “quirky”.

That talent has brought her everywhere. Indeed, although married with two children, she still can’t say for certain where she lives.

“I’ve been living out of suitcases for 20 years,” she says. “I kept saying ‘I live I in Australia’ but I was spending less and less time there. Am I kidding myself? I love the easy way of life there, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful. But I have friends around the world. It’s a funny question.”

Even that Oscar nomination in 1999 failed to shake the integrity from her very Australian bones. Such attention has spoilt a few down through the years. Indeed, it seems to surprise her that the ceremony ever happened.

“Yea, I am surprised it happened at all,” she says. “I grew up in Sydney, making billy carts, swimming and climbing trees. The people in those movies seemed so far away. I never thought of myself as part of that world. But it’s the ultimate thrill when those things come together. Did that really happen?”

It was a long time ago. She’s due another.

“Yeah! Spread the word. Ha ha!”

Up Down Under : The rise of the Australians

Thirty-five years ago, when Mad Max was released, Australia seemed so foreign to “overseas” audiences that the distributors hired US actors to dub the dialogue. You had had your occasional Peter Finch and your odd Judy Davis, but actors from that nation rarely broke through.

Something happened though in the 1990s: Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie. Barely a week goes past when we don’t see a feature explaining why Ben Mendelsohn is the best young actor in the world. What was in the Australian water at that time?

“I think it is bigger than just the film industry,” Toni Collette says. “Everything is so globalised now. Look, in the past I’ve answered that there is a frankness to the Australian way that is useful. But that’s just bullshit. That’s just me trying to find an answer to your question. Ha ha!”

There is something in the globalisation argument, but the Antipodeans are still punching above their weight.

The new wave of Australian cinema in the early 1980s was an inspiration. Many among the current bunch are grateful for the experience gained in soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away. But still. Have we mentioned Chris Hemsworth, Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush?

What the heck?