Don't Call Me Muriel!
STOP THIS NATALIE, KYLIE AND DANNII MADNESS. ACTRESS TONI COLLETTE IS THE BEST THING TO COME OUT OF AUSTRALIA, SINCE, WELL … EVER
Toni Collette is getting pissed off with the make-up artist. She wants glitter and silver on her lips and a big fat line of kohl on her eyes. He prefers understated. There’s nothing understated about Toni Collette. She laughs loud; she shrieks. Ask her if she drinks and she says, “Alcohol?”. And, like a true Aussie, “Hell yes. I’m either like a 12 shot a night person or I’ll go for months drinking nothing at all.”
At her hotel, I call reception to ask if Toni Collette is in. “What time are you meeting her?” they ask. “Because that’s the thing about Miss Colette: she’s never late, but she’s never early.” They’re not wrong. A few minutes later she calls up and, like an old friend, says, “OK, I’m just goinq to jump in the shower and wash my bod and I’ll be down. I’m just warning you I have these horrible trashy blue nails.” We arrange to meet in her room so we can pick out some of her own clothes for the shoot. She worries that her room is a mess. It isn’t. But there are lots of purple and green clothes on her bed, and big chunky shoes an the floor. There’s not a single thing you’d call “designer” in a Prada or Gucci sense. Her suite smells of incense and there are Indiany looking bits and pieces around and herbal tea in the kitchen. Toni has a hangover. “We just went out for dinner,” she says, “and the next thing we’re drinking all these Cosmopolitans.”
Before we head off to shoot minx’s cover, Toni checks her answerphone. She left a drunken message for Christian Bale last night and wonders if he returned her call. “I was so drunk I can’t remember what I said.” Now that we can understand.
She gained two stone
Toni Collette is a great actress who throws herself into any role: nuns, junkies, dowdy best friends. But there have only been two films in her life, “That I’ve really wanted, two films that have had a profound effect on me.” One was the fantastic Muriel’s Wedding. On hearing she’d got the lead, Toni hit the bakery in a big way. Her weight gain (roughly two stone) for the part of the porky, ABBA loving misfit, Muriel Heslop, completely overshadowed the fact that she won the Australian equivalent of an Oscar for the performance. The trouble is that, for Toni, the hysteria over Muriel has made the film “too surreal”. Two years after it came out, an American journalist interviewed Toni. The first line of her profile goes: “‘My God,’ I shriek, ‘But you are so gorgeous!’ Everyone in the restaurant stares …”.
Toni talks about how negative the whole hardcore-dieting-daily-treadmill-exercising-cosmetic-surgery-my-legs-are-fat thing is. Later I mention how depressing it is watching water-thin 18-year-old models troop in and out of the minx office all day. “I can’t believe it,” she says. “After all we talked about earlier, you’re a traitor.” She’s disappointed in me. Hell, I’m disappointed in me.
“It’s so sad, the way women live,” she says quietly. And you know she really means it.
So Toni Collette’s career was spent playing ugly, frumpy, plain, junkie or bad-hair roles supporting waif-like actresses that she frequently out-performed (mentioning no names) simply because she’s a far better actress with a less marketable face.
But she never gets to play the Love Interest, or the Vamp. She has co-starred with Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma, The Pallbearer) and Ewan McGreger (Emma, Velvet Goldmine) twice, also Lisa Kudrow, Parker Posey, Sir Anthony Hopkins and David Schwimmer. But she doesn’t choose her films for career reasons: she does them because she wants to.
She lost a stone
The second film that changed Toni’s life is the recently released Velvet Goldmine. As Mandy Slade, the wife of Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Bowie inspired glam rock star, she has been called a “revelation”. It’s a great part: Mandy flakes and manipulates her way through the full tragic rock ticket – the classic orgy of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. “Mandy is so insecure, she’s just pasting different qualities onto herself and coming out as this weird, complex character. Pretentious, crass, camp, very girly, brittle, quite in your face, very sexy.” Her co-stars are Eddie Izzard, Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor. Bet they like the odd drink? “Oh yes. Poor Ewan.” Director Todd Haynes had him on a strict diet to keep him thin for his Iggy Pop character, Curt Wild. “He was ordering like vodka and diet tonic and saying, ‘God, all want is a pint’.” “It was not like working, it was an amazing job, I mean it was a job but I just loved all of it, the script, the music, the people.”
So this time she lost a stone, took up smoking, and changed wigs 11 times. This time, as soon as she got the job she went directly to the newsagents, bought cigarettes and started smoking. At last Toni Collette had her vamp role. Toni throws herself into each role mind, body and soul. But with Velvet Goldmine she got to keep more than just the fabulous clothes. “The people I met when I was making that film thought I was someone else because I was not living my own life, on or off set.” Who were you? “Probably Mandy. I didn’t go around speaking like her, but I was out all the time. It was really extreme in every way.”
Director Todd Haynes says, “I knew the actors were having an amazing time … there was a great spirit on the set which was captured on film.” In fact, the making of the whole film is slowly acquiring the same legendary status as Muriel’s thighs. Ewan McGregor stood up at a film festival and told the audience that the entire film was made on drugs. In the scene where he jumps about on stage, trousers round his ankles, he says he was wasted. The film spilled over into all their lives. Toni and the only other major female lead, Emily Woof, “Would spend hours sitting in corners, pissed on wine, and chatting. It was very hedonistic. I’ve worked in London on a few things but this had a very definite, very specific quality … There’s never going to be anything like this again, ever. I had the time of my life. I can’t listen to David Bowie, or any of that music now. I even find it hard watching the film. I get so nostalgic. Really sad and emotional. Oh.”
She shaved her head
Today Toni looks like a doe-eyed hedge-hog. She shaved all her hair off in Tibet, and kept it that way for her last film role as a Buddhist nun. We meet in Philadelphia where she’s starring in a film opposite Bruce Willis. “I know what you’re thinking,” she says, “and I thought ‘Hmmm’ when they rang me, but I read the script and just bawled my eyes out.” Toni Collette is taking the Ben Affleck route to fame, co-starring with Bruce, albeit wearing a big trailer trash wig and ugly nylon nails. The other weekend, Toni went away with one of her co-stars, Olivia Williams. “We stayed with this friend of Olivia’s, Marilyn, who is looking after all these horses on this huge estate in the countryside near here. I wandered round looking at this amazing place. These people were so fucking rich, and I was like, ‘Ohmigod. How did I get here?’.”
Toni left school at 16. She’d been top of her year for her entire school career, unquestionably brainy. But she knew what she wanted to do. “There was an art teacher at school, you know, he treated us like adults and we found that pretty flattering. Everyone else was like, ‘Stay, have something to fall back on’. He was the only one to say, ‘You go, go for it’. And I’ll never forget him for that. His name was Mr Hale. H.A.L.E. Ian Hale at Blacktown Girls High School, Sydney. I didn’t want to push a pen at the age of 18. I wanted another life. I was wearing crazy clothes, always changing my hair, painting furiously, I was just into things.” She went to drama school. And half way through the course, she walked out on that too. She acted, in theatre, short films and a feature film with Sir Anthony Hopkins. In between jobs she delivered pizza. She was delivering thin crust margheritas when, aged 20, Muriel’s Wedding came along. Since then she’s been a movie star. But after Muriel, no one seemed to notice.
Back in her room there’s a message from Christian, arranging to see her when they’re both in New York for a screening of Velvet Goldmine at the weekend. Toni checks her messages all the time. At the end of the day we are taking pictures in the bathroom. “Look at that pout,” says Fay, the photographer. Silence. Then, “You want to know who taught me to pout?” It’s significant. “Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” Your boyfriend? “Technically we aren’t together. It’s too difficult.” “Well, something’s going on,” Fay says, “because you’ve been fiddling with that tap for ages.” “He changed my life, and I changed his,” is all Toni will say after some consideration. I want to leave it at that.” Meanwhile in New York, Rhys Meyers is telling a journalist how much he loves Toni. And when, a few weeks ago our Polly Fantasy Dated Rhys Meyers, he kept bringing up Toni Collette, saying they’d been together for eleven months but had recently split up. “She’s the most amazing woman,” he said.
She changed her life
After Velvet Goldmine Toni went home to Sydney to do a low budget movie about a multiple rape and murder, The Boys. First-time director, Rowan Woods, is a huge admirer of Toni. “She’s a great character actress, just perfect.” He didn’t even bother asking “The biggest star Australia has” to be in his film. Then, one day, he said, “Fuck it, let’s just ask her”. And discovered Toni was itching to do the job. The Boys is set in Blacktown, the suburb of Sydney where Toni grew up, and doing the film was her “going home” project: “I know that life”. One day Woods took her aside, told her how much it meant to him that she was in his film, then promptly burst into tears. “Look at all these poor trees,” she says suddenly, pointing at the pavement. “Poor things, poked away like this.” And you don’t think, ‘Oh please’. When she says, “I believe the tree and I, we are one,” It’s OK. (Honest it is.) Because Toni Collette’s dad isn’t a Buddhist academic like Uma’s, or a millionaire rock stud like Liv’s. Toni’s dad is a truck driver. “I feel for him, he’s such an amazing well-adjusted man and him and Mum have given me the most brilliant upbringing.”
Toni Collette is a mixture of extreme confidence and painful human frailty which she isn’t afraid to show. “God, I think everyone gets depressed, the trick is to learn not to feel bad about feeling bad.” For the same reason she almost quit Velvet Goldmine. Even though, “I knew I wanted to do it”. While she waited to hear whether the part of Mandy was hers, she lay on her back staring at the night sky, willing a sign. “Suddenly there were like seven shooting stars. I got the job. I started rehearsals. I was petrified. I looked around, everyone involved was brilliant and I thought, ‘God shit fuck, I don’t want to let Todd down ’cause this is his baby’ and I didn’t want to fuck it up for him. I contemplated quitting. I am attracted to things that scare me. But then, when you jump that fence, you go ‘Wow, look at this beautiful meadow’, and just run around.”
Are you self critical? “Oh God, yeah. There have been times when my fucked-up-ness is so magnified.” And she is kind. In the evening after the shoot when she is tired, tired of us, she asks, “What are you going to do now?” I say I don’t know, maybe check out Philadelphia. “What, alone?” I suppose. “Oh no,” she says, “meet me in the bar in five minutes.”
I see more of this Toni later: “What am I going to talk about, what can I say about the film? It’s all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – I can’t talk about that on American TV.” She is drunkenly trying to choose her Velvet Goldmine anecdotes for a show the following night. “It’s just some stupid chat show, what am I worrying about?” She’s not a namedropper, but after we are ushered out of the hotel bar and hit the streets of Philadelphia, giggling and looking for “Bruce” and the rest of the crew, she tells me about hanging out with Michael Stipe, Massive Attack, Ewan McGregor. Then the full force of her imminent fame suddenly hits home. Toni Collette is going to be a star. And deservedly so. Not only she is she talented, she’s honest and kind. Ten minutes ago this 25-year-old woman was lending me a tampon, tomorrow she’s going to be a superstar. Then she loses her shoe with a shriek. “Whoops!”
Velvet Goldmine is out now. The Boys is out later this month.