The Prettiest Star
Toni Collette puts Muriel behind her as glam-rock widow Mandy Slade.
TONI COLLETTE IS ON THE MOVE. Paying a final visit to her agent’s Sydney office, where a Thai lunch has heen polished off, she’s about to get on a plane for London, where she has an apartment. She’ll stay there for all of a week – “just long enough to unpack my clothes, wash them and then repack them” – before she migrates to Philadelphia, where a new film set and her next co-star, Bruce Willis, await her.
“Bruce,” she replies, stretching it out playfully. Brooooce.
“I haven’t met Bruce yet,” she notes diplomatically. But then again, Bruce hasn’t met Toni Collette yet.
WHEN WE FIRST MET TONI COLLETTE SHE WAS lost in a reverie of wedding dresses and bridal veils. In 1994 Collette, then just 21 years of age, helped turn Porpoise Spit’s most lovable misfit, Muriel Heslop, into a national obsession in P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding. With her co-star, Rachel Griffiths, Collette offered a new breed of Australian actress, one who could twist up the kinks in a comedy but also leave you something to empathise with. A great range was hinted at, the sense that Collette could inhabit a role without the frostiness of Judy Davis – the benchmark for Australian actresses – or the showy technical precision of Jacqueline McKenzie. Hollywood beckoned, and Collette supported Gwyneth Paltrow in The Pallbearer and Emma whilst also returning home to star in Lillian’s Story and Cosi. But Collette was uneasy. While she openly admits that there’s only one film she’s regretted doing (quite probably the hopeless Diana & Me), she nevertheless felt she was still being pigeonholed as Muriel Heslop.
“Muriel’s Wedding, honestly, was a fantastic experience and it affected a lot of people,” she explains. “But it got to the point where it was so popular that people could only see me in that light. I was all ready to do other types of films, but it was a matter of convincing people.”
It was when Collette read the script for Velvet Goldmine that she knew this was the film that mattered. Written hy American indie icon Todd Haynes – whose short film, Superstar, told Karen Carpenter’s life story using Barbie dolls, and whose most recent, Safe, was the story of a privileged housewife whose environment may or may not be killing her – it was a wildly ambitious recreation of London’s glam rock years. Collette wanted the part of Mandy Slade, the high society wife of the movement’s figurehead, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a union that is threatened when Slade becomes fascinated with American Singer Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). The trio’s dissolution is told in flashback by the fourth lead, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a reporter and former Slade fan.
“I had never read anything like it and I probably never will again,” says Collette matter-of-factly. “It was just so different from what I had done previously. It’s very original, in a medium where not much is, and Todd is very much one for sticking to his vision. He wasn’t going to be manipulated by higher financial forces. It was worth fighting for.”
Collette immediately faxed Haynes from her south London home upon reading the script, making an impassioned case for why she should be given the role of Mandy, a high-wire act without a safety net. Haynes came to London to audition people and they met. It didn’t go well. “He was jetlagged and I’d spent the whole morning tying myself into a messy, frayed knot. It was pretty hideous, although they said it wasn’t,” laughs Collette. A second meeting, with a tumbler of champagne on the table, loosened up both of them. Shortly afterwards Collette had the part. But as much as Collette wanted the part because of the quality of the script – being cast was considered a major coup – she also knew there was something about the role that scared her, a fear she would have to surmount. “I knew I wanted to do it, but when I got to the set I realised I didn’t know how,” she recalls. “We had a couple of rehearsals where everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I was shithouse. I was petrified, because the energy around the making of the film was so amazing. It drove everyone. I didn’t want to let the side down.”
Briefly, Collette even considered quitting. Instead she just let go, throwing herself into the role. She started to live the life of Mandy Slade, socialising, staying out, experiencing what it was like to live in the very centre of a social whirl that never slows down. For someone who’s normally in bed at 8.30 most nights while working, it was a sea change. “I plunged into it and it was one of the most liberating periods of my life. And probahly one of the most profound working experiences I had ever had. I was going out till all hours and then getting up a few hours later and going hack to work. And that felt right, it felt part and parcel of my having to let go. I was doing things I hadn’t done before. The lines blurred.”
That wasn’t the complete end of the difficulties for Collette, however. “I didn’t take platform shoes off my feet for the entire nine week shoot.”
THE LATE NIGHTS AND SORE FEET PAID 0FF. Collette’s Mandy Slade is a memorable presence, one totally in tune with the licentious times and then completely sideswiped by the events that run out of control around her. It’s all closely modelled on real events, leavened out with Haynes’ dramatic licence. Brian Slade and his alter-ego Maxwell Demon substitute for David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, while Curt Wild is unmistakably Iggy Pop (Pop’s songs are used, but Bowie retained his tunes for his own future use). Does this make Bowie’s wife from the glam years, Angie, the model for Mandy?
“She was there, absolutely,” notes Collette carefully, “but I wouldn’t want to emulate her. I read her books and other books by those who were present. I watched the documentary Rock Wives, which is about the wives of rock stars and what they go through and what they give up.”
Collette’s most enduring achievement as Mandy Slade is to bring out the resilience beneath the party girl left derailed. It’s telling that Collette doesn’t view Mandy as a victim, but a survivor. As she sees it, “She’s quite strong for going through all that. I think she probably did try to slit her wrists, she really scraped the bottom of the barrel. People say how dreary she is at the end, but I think about how strong she is and what she has overcome. She might not have the glitter eye make-up and lip-gloss, but she’s comfortable with herself.” It appears that Collette’s only problem with the film – “I swear to God, this was the first film shoot I never wanted to end” – was that while McGregor and Rhys Meyers both got to sing and perform, she didn’t. Having given voice to a quivering take of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” for Cosi, Collette was left to sing Behind the Scenes.
“I swear to God, this was the first film shoot I never wanted to end.” Not that she had memories of glam. She didn’t live through it; she was born (in Sydney’s Blacktown) during it. The early ’80s are when she came of age musically, although she tries not to ponder that. “I did get into a few ’80s bands, but I was into a lot of ’60s stuff like the Beatles. I suppose there was Wham!, but I’ll say that very quietly. Maybe Pseudo Echo.” There’s a pause, as the smart, careful Collette wrestles with herself. “Oh my God,” she suddenly blurts out, “I used to think Brian Canham was gorgeous.” And while there was talk of a recording deal post-Cosi, Collette now appears too busy for the foreseeable future. Since Velvet Goldmine wrapped she’s made two more films, including Eight and a Half Women by Peter Greenaway (“He’s odd, but very interesting. And he let me try everything I suggested.”) Then there’s the Bruce film in Philadelphia. Titled Sixth Sense, it’s another highly touted screenplay, which is being directed by its writer, Night Shyamalan. “It’s not an action film, it’s a very beautiful drama,” Collette is quick to emphasise, lest anyone think she’s signed up for Die Hard IV. Her challenge this time is to play the mother of an eight-year-old boy, the first time she’s portrayed a parent. Willis is the child psychologist who’s drawn into her child’s fractured mental netherworld.
Despite both the quality and quantity of Collette’s work, she still plainly professes a happiness to just be simply working regularly. “Actors act for different reasons and they approach it in very different ways,” she concludes. “I was shocked when I sat down next to an actress in make-up one day and she said, ‘I’m really glad I went through the entire script before we started shooting, usually I just read the pages I’m doing the night before we start shooting.’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is outrageous! Am I really hearing this?'” Bruce Willis, you have been warned.