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The Daily Telegraph Stellar Magazine (2017)
Toni Collette: Muriel wasn’t so terrible for me
February 18, 2017 | Written by Jordan Baker
It is a feat, in this day and age, to be an international star without becoming public property in the process.

Usually it’s a package deal, part of the contract of Hollywood success; in exchange for money, work, and the fame that will guarantee more work, an actor must surrender their privacy. But somehow, Toni Collette has managed to negotiate herself a better deal. After more than 70 roles on film and TV around the world, you still won’t see paparazzi pictures of Collette, 44, in unflattering Lycra, or rushing through an airport with a strained expression. She can exercise and fly stress-free. Collette puts it down to a small-target strategy. “I make myself appear to be very boring,” she says with a laugh. As a result, she is a blank canvas on which people can project their own favourite Collette character. Siblings tell her how much they loved In Her Shoes, a study on sisterly love with Cameron Diaz. In the US, African-Americans stop her to talk about Shaft, the cop drama with Samuel L. Jackson. Music lovers still want to talk about Velvet Goldmine, a glam-rock film with Christian Bale. But in her homeland, Collette will forever be synonymous with Muriel, an ABBA-loving dag from Porpoise Spit. Even though that was almost 23 years ago, she is happy to still be stopped on the street and told, “You’re terrible, Muriel.” If there is a downside to flying under the paparazzi radar, it’s the perception ... that Collette is a little aloof.

“I am so thankful, [that film] has given me so much, and continues to give me so much,” she tells Stellar. “Those doors would never be opening now were it not for Muriel’s Wedding.” Collette has been based in LA for the past two years, even though she’d rather be in Australia, or even in London for that matter. But for an actor and a musician — her husband Dave Galafassi is a drummer — LA is the centre of the universe. “I feel like this is a temporary thing,” she says. “We’d love to come back to Australia, it’s just too far to do it.” They seize any opportunity to come home, and in late 2015, there was one too good to pass up. Jasper Jones, a coming-of-age movie set in the 1960s, was filming in Pemberton, a small timber town near the south coast of Western Australia. In it, Collette plays the unhappy mother of the young protagonist, and her old friend Dan Wyllie, her one-time brother from Muriel’s Wedding, plays her husband (“I guess it’s only natural that a brother and sister from Porpoise Spit would marry,” Wyllie jokes). When showbiz rolled into their tiny town, the people of Pemberton were beside themselves with excitement. They played extras. They offered up their vintage cars. The local council even kicked in $45,000 to the film’s budget.

“There was a buzz in the town all the time,” Manjimup shire president, Wade DeCampo, tells Stellar. “There was a hype around having someone like Toni and the rest of the crew in town.” There was one tiny element of disappointment, though. “[Actor] Hugo Weaving was very good, he’d come in for coffee,” says DeCampo. “The general feeling around town was that Toni was a bit stand-offish.” “Having kids is a huge shift and I also get so much out of my work, so trying to balance it is tough.” If there is a downside to flying under the paparazzi radar, it’s the perception, as echoed by some Pemberton locals, that Collette is a little aloof. She does not appear to be one of those celebrities who see their role as a people-pleaser; she doesn’t tell vignettes about her private life in interviews, she doesn’t frequent red carpets when it’s not required. She’s true to herself and her family first, and the rest of the world second. She is also a hands-on working mum with little time for much beyond family and an intense work schedule. She took her brood (Sage, nine, and Arlo, five) to the five-week shoot in Pemberton, to show them the ancient forests around the town; her mum and dad came too, and when she wasn’t working, she was spending time with them. “Being in that part of the world, I wanted my kids to experience it — it’s thousands of years old, it’s so special,” she says. “Just having the experience of living in a place like that for several weeks, it’s a great gift.”

Collette’s children are her priority. “I am in love with them, and will do anything for them,” she says. “I want to be with them as much as I can.” She has the same work-life balance struggles as any working mum. “Having kids is a huge shift and I also get so much out of my work, so trying to balance it is tough. I think for everyone, ultimately, it’s a struggle to balance life. There are so many hats that a woman wears, you just have to know when to take one off and when to firmly put another one on.” Wyllie has nothing but admiration for the way Collette has managed her fame. “I think she realises that an actor’s cachet and value is about keeping that self maybe a bit private,” he tells Stellar. “She doesn’t go out for publicity unless she’s promoting a film. I think that’s admirable. She wants to keep her private self for her family and friends, also for her career as well, so she can keep going and keep doing different things. If you do lots of publicity and commercial stuff, you lose a bit of the mystery, and that’s what she has in spades.” “I was unprepared for what it did, but not just in terms of career. It was a very deep life change; it was huge.”

Collette came from humble beginnings. She is from working-class Blacktown in Sydney, the daughter of a secretary and a truckie. She dropped out of school to pursue an acting career at age 16 after she was offered a scholarship from the Australian Theatre for Young People. That’s where she first met Wyllie. “We used to have crying competitions to see if we could turn on a dime from laughing into abject horror, and tears at the flick of a switch,” he says. “That’s what we thought acting was at the time. It’s served Toni pretty well.” Her first television gig was on A Country Practice; she played a pregnant teen. Her second role was in Spotswood, the 1992 film in which she shared the screen with Anthony Hopkins, Ben Mendelsohn and Wyllie. Then came the life-changing Muriel’s Wedding. For Collette, nothing was the same after that. “It was so much fun to make, and so you know the actual making of the film, I loved it so much, I didn’t really contemplate what would happen afterwards,” she says. I was unprepared for what it did, but not just in terms of career. It was a very deep life change; it was huge, and unexpected. I stupidly didn’t anticipate anything like that, I was just having fun on set.” Yes, people still do stop her and say, “You’re terrible, Muriel.” She doesn’t mind (although there was a period soon after the film where that catchphrase was flying a bit too thick and fast). “It’s pretty incredible that a film has stayed with people on such a deep level,” she says. “It really is a favourite for so many people. It makes me proud to be part of a film that people retain in their psyche. “[Muriel] was so repressed, and came from such a repressive family, and she came out on top. It was a story of an underdog finding a taste of autonomy. Everyone wants to feel free, everyone wants to be authentic. She did it, she got out, she was the most unlikely of heroines, and she changed her life.”

“Truth and humanity are what she looks for in things and people.” Collette, too, was an unlikely heroine. She wasn’t a typical Hollywood leading lady, like Cate Blanchett or Nicole Kidman, with their Vogue covers, perfume ads and haute couture. She has played a series of ragged characters, ranging from a depressive in About A Boy to a drug addict in Cosi and a woman with multiple personality disorder in United States Of Tara. Over the course of her varied, prolific career, she has starred alongside so many Hollywood luminaries that she could be the new Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Collette very nearly had another Muriel-style breakthrough role, one that would have taken her to another level of stardom. But she turned down the opportunity to play Bridget Jones because she was busy with a play. “In a way I am glad it didn’t happen; it would be very similar [to Muriel],” she says. “It was too obvious, to be honest.”

That’s one of the reasons Wyllie describes Collette as an actor’s actor. “She’s one of the greats, really,” he says. “It’s monumental, the things she’s taken on, the amount of challenging stuff — stuff that’s not necessarily going to be commercial; experimental stuff. She wants to keep challenging herself, that’s her primary concern. She is looking for truth, she wants truth. That’s what she’s known for as an actor, it’s that honesty.” Wyllie says fame hasn’t changed Collette. She is still strikingly similar to the young woman he met 25-odd years ago. “She’s a formidable personality; she’s highly opinionated and insightful and humane, yet witty and funny and boisterous as well. She’s just a powerhouse really, she’s powerful and connected. Truth and humanity are what she looks for in things and people.” “They are also very aware that Australia is home.” When asked what Collette is like to have a beer with, he laughs. “She wouldn’t drink a beer, first thing’s first,” he says. “She’d have a kind of French champagne. The girl from Blacktown would have a French champagne.” Compared with other Aussies in the US, Collette is not a particularly visible flagwaver. She’s not doing Tourism Australia ads, like Chris Hemsworth, or taking Sydney Theatre Company productions to New York like Blanchett. When asked if she considers herself a member of the Gumleaf Mafia, she replies, “I’ve never even heard that term, so I guess that answers your question.”

But she does consider herself deeply Australian. “I plan to get back to Sydney,” she says. “My kids are really happy [in LA], this is the longest they have been anywhere. But they are also very aware that Australia is home.”

Jasper Jones is in cinemas on March 2.