SHE’S HIP. SHE’S HOT. SHE SHAVES HER HEAD. WITH MURIEL BEHIND HER AND HOLLYWOOD HOVERING, HAS TONI COLLETTE HIT THE JACKPOT? ALEXANDER McGREGOR INVESTIGATES
Toni Collette is hot. Again. In the corridors of Hollywood studios, on the boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes, in the bars and restaurants of Soho, the speculation about awards, deals and roles is becoming deafening. The actress whose career was launched internationally by her portrayal of the hapless heroine of Muriel’s Wedding is once again under the harsh glare of the entertainment industry spotlight.
What has started tongues wagging is her performance in the upcoming film Velvet Goldmine as Mandy Slade, wife of a 70s glam-rock star. Shot in the UK, the film chronicles the rise and fall of fictional rocker Brian Slade – think David Bowie and Iggy Pop in their glitter days – and was directed by idiosyncratic American Todd Haynes (Safe, Poison), who revels in the debauchery of the period. The film follows the road to excess and, inevitably, Slade’s burnout, and Collette’s on-screen power in Velvet Goldmine has led Variety’s film critic to call her “a revelation”.
While Collette talks about her determination to play the part of Mandy, she reveals that she thought she had missed out on the role. “I was completely wrong for it physically, which is what a lot of people judge you on.” This is Collette speaking over lunch at a shady table in the garden of the ultra-hip Chateau Marmont, a cool retreat from the Los Angeles summer heat. “I was so thankful to Todd, who cast me from the inside, and ultimately that is what I am trying to get out anyway.”
Outwardly, Collette has a prickly elegance: a floral shirt is set off by very short hair fashioned into tight spikes, making her oval eyes seem even bigger than normal. What makes her tick is harder to work out. Her conversation swings from the unabashedly giddy excitement of someone who is just beginning to take account of her achievements and opportunities, to the world-weary mutterings one might expect from the veteran she already is at the age of 25.
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY I ACT ANYMORE BUT I KNOW THAT I LOVE IT AND I FIND IT REALLY INTERESTING AND SATISFYING … IF THAT MAKES ME AN EXHIBITIONIST, THEN FINE”
Certainly, Collette’s experience since Muriel jumped on-stage to sing Abba songs has made her more keenly aware of the “business” side of the film business. Two years ago she was a reluctant visitor to LA, disdainful of the industry and the commercial opportunities opening up to her. Now she is back again, almost willingly, considering the offers as she puts her head down to read through a pile of scripts that are stacking up on her agent’s desk.
“I used to find it really hard even calling [cinema] a business,” she says. “I was so in love with what I was doing that I had romanticised my whole involvement, to the extent that I was offended when words like ‘product’ were involved. But that is what film is – it is very obvious and I have learned to accept that.”
It didn’t help that for a long time Collette was expected to be just like Muriel. A combination of time and a few more characters on celluloid have completely divorced Collette from the phenomenon that was Muriel.
“In some way it doesn’t feel as though it belongs to me,” she says, “or I was ever a part of it.” She has become even further removed with leading roles in the Australian film The Boys and Velvet Goldmine.
Then there is last year’s Sundance Festival hit, the US film The Clockwatchers, seen in art-house cinemas. There are few actresses who can boast of having major roles in three films, each shot in a different part of the world, opening in the same year.
Right now Collette is consumed by Velvet Goldmine and her character, whom she describes as “a mad, drug-fucked, camp woman who is a complete slut”. According to one of the film’s executive producers, Scott Meek, she embraced the role and all its excesses. She had to go through several different stages, ranging from “being young and vivacious to a broken-down woman – older and sadder, and a little wiser. Toni has the most extraordinary energy, and showed the ability to swing through all extremes and changes in the character,” he says. “Also, she was able to look so glamorous, which I don’t think people will expect if they only know Muriel.”
“I was free-falling,” explains Collette. “I was doing things I would never do in my own life, and it was so liberating and brilliant. I am so titillated by that whole experience and now a little bit scared of myself.” Press her for more details and her comeback is long, deep laughter crowned by a flirtatious smile. “That is for me to know and live with, and love.”
One quickly learns that this level of enthusiasm is the norm from a woman who doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve, but rather has them tattooed onto her forehead. “I think that people who don’t show their emotions are fearful of something,” she says, with a directness that leaves little room for argument.
“It is not that I am an exhibitionist, but I think it is healthy to be honest and truthful to yourself, as well as everyone around you.”
Not an exhibitionist? How can a person be an actress and not – on some level at least – be an exhibitionist? “Here we go,” Collette sighs deeply, as her mood and face sag. “That old can of worms.” Once started, though, she makes little effort to hide any ambivalence or doubts she may have.
“I don’t understand why I do what I do,” comes her brash response. “I don’t understand why I act anymore. But I do know that I love it, and that I find it really interesting and satisfying to enter into other worlds and explore different ways of thinking. If that makes me an exhibitionist, then fine. I don’t think of it like that, I can’t see it like that, but I totally understand why you would say that.”
Collette may sound as if she has little idea of how she has arrived at where she is, but nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly the girl that hails from Blacktown, NSW, has come a long way from her debut in a school performance of Godspell when she was 14. Back then, Collette knew a lot more about the Balmain rugby league team than she did about the world of stage and screen. All her idols wore Tigers jerseys.
“I had the biggest crush on Wayne Pearce,” she recalls with unselfconscious glee. “I had ‘Wayne for Toni’ written on my school rucksack and a T-shirt with a tiger that went all the way around. How embarrassing is that. I was totally weaned on rugby league and now I can’t stand it. Although, when I was at home a couple of weeks ago, I was watching a footy game with the family. I was sitting there, reading or doing something, and they were all yelling at the game on the television. All of a sudden I realised that I was yelling [too]. It was fantastic, just so fantastic.”
“I GREW UP IN SYDNEY’S WESTERN SUBURBS,” SHE EXPLAINS. “I WAS WELL AWARE OF SHIT THAT GOES DOWN … I DIDN’T HAVE TO RESEARCH THIS SIDE OF THINGS”
Discovering that theatre was even more fun than rugby league prompted Collette to leave school at 16, determined to be an actress. She performed with the Australian Theatre for Young People before opting to train at NIDA. Receiving offers of work while still a student, Collette left during her second year to perform in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya, directed by Neil Armfield.
“I asked Neil why he wanted me,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘because of your teeth’, which I found really funny.”
Her premature departure from school, and later NIDA, highlight Collette’s determination to strike out on her own.
Her success certainly hasn’t changed that attitude. Most actresses who attract a modicum of attention in smaller independent films are quick to trade up for bigger-budget studio pictures, no matter how inconsequential the part. But Collette has seemed determined to hew her own path.
If her number of credits is any indication, her path is turning into a thoroughfare. A cursory look at the work she has done since Muriel reveals enough films for two actresses twice her age. She jumped at the chance of appearing with Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, but her overriding attraction for smaller-budget independent projects, she admits, is her suspicion of the US and the larger commercial film world.
“One thing that I like about America is their encouragement. They really have this attitude that people can achieve anything – if you totally believe it, the whole universe will conspire to make it a reality for you. I think that is a good way to think, but it is hard work to be like that all the time. On the other hand, there is this crass sense of fraudulent, effusive, wanky bullshit which you can’t avoid, and which is hard to not let affect you.”
One way she has found to escape the accolades and attention is travelling, which she does inveterately between jobs. Certainly she is a lot happier exchanging travel yarns about Nepal and Tibet than being interviewed about her work. “Travelling feeds you – it is like eating for your soul,” she says in mock-earnestness, before launching into a story about shaving her hair off in Mexico.
Not that Collette is blind to some of the bonuses of working at the hip edge of the mainstream, like hanging out with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Michael Stipe (of R.E.M. fame and executive producer of Velvet Goldmine) or getting a private audience with the Dalai Lama.
Success has also opened other doors. She has done informal gigs singing with members of Vince Jones’s band in Sydney – “I did one song that I had written and the rest were by people like Rickie Lee Jones and Michelle Shocked” – and ended up being offered a recording deal. Before that unfolds, Collette’s celluloid journey takes her to Switzerland, where she dresses up as a nun to work in a brothel for the new Peter Greenaway film, 8½ Women, a role she secured in typical Collette style. “I went in for another part and I had just had my head shaved and I had a Buddha hanging around my neck. Afterwards I thought, ‘This is going to teach me to go to an audition looking like that’.”
She filmed The Boys in Sydney immediately after Velvet Goldmine. The critically praised adaptation of Gordon Graham’s play, itself loosely based on the events preceding the Anita Cobby murder, could hardly have been further from the commercially oriented Goldmine. But Collette’s botte-blonde, hard-edged character – played opposite the dynamic David Wenham – proved be a homecoming. “I grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs,” she explains. “I was well aware of the shit that goes down, and understood [my character’s] psyche. I didn’t have to research this side of things.”
The demands of work mean Collette has had a somewhat peripatetic existence, which has slowed only slightly with the acquisition of a flat in London. Not that she expects to be spending much time there. “More often than not I am just passing through. But I am sick of hotels and other people’s little narrow beds. You need your own place, or at least you need to be able to visualise it … I have a flat in Bondi, but it is constantly rented out so it doesn’t feel like home. My parent’s place still feels like home, but I am rarely there. At least having this new place means that at last I will be able to have my own teapot.”
One suspects that the way industry insiders are talking about Velvet Goldmine, Toni Collette will soon need a spot for her teapot in Hollywood.