Sense and Sensetivity: The Toni Collette Story
How fame took “our Muriel” from household to housebound. By Jim Schembri.
There’s a lovely sound you hear Toni Collette make early in The Sixth Sense. It’s the scene In the kitchen where Collette’s character, Lynn, gets a taste of the supernatural powers possessed by her son, Cole (played by Haley Joel Osment). As Lynn walks around her kitchen, her slippers make a distinctive scuffing sound on the floor. Its an intimate, homely sound, a touch Collette added herself. “That’s an establishing scene. and that sound does create a feeling of homeliness and of a certain type of person running around the house,” Collette says. “You never get to see them, but they were the most fantastic slippers! They were really fluffy and leopard-printed. Yeah, scuff on lino, racing around getting things done in the morning. I don’t know where it came from. I think it was from my nan. It just creates a warm kind of feeling, a familiar sound.” That distinctive sound, however, is the least of Collette’s achievements in The Sixth Sense, written and directed by up-and-comer M. Night Shyamalan. Sporting a convincing working-class American accent, her portrayal of the struggling single mother trying to cope with her troubled psychic son already has some Oscar buzz going.
Beyond that, Collette’s work In the filn has branded her name on to a lot of Christmas-card mailing lists in Hollywood’s upper echelons. This is due partly to the fact that The Sixth Sense, a relatively low-budget ($US30 million) supernatural thriller with no noticeable showcase of special effects, has surprised everyone by taking over $US150 million at the box office. Collette has a lot of reasons to feel good at the moment, though she does a good job of playing it down. The film, which was released in the wake of the shock success of another low-budget ($US30,000) supernatural thriller, The Blair Witch Prefect, has defied conventional Hollywood thinking, something Collette takes obvious pride in. “It’s a perfect amalgamation of something commercial and an intelligent, provocative, character-driven piece that has integrity. It’s an unusual mix. It’s a studio’s wet dream and it negates any theory that they know what an audience is needing. I initially didn’t even want to pick up the script because I just assumed that it was going to be like all other films where the studio is assuming that they know what an audience wants. It’s really unusual in that it identifies something that is innate within each of us. It’s about life and death, and that’s something we all have to confront. I like working on films that I believe in, full stop. How often does a big studio make something that actually contributes something worthwhile to the universe? It’s pretty rare.”
Collette was doing very nicely after hitting big with her performance as Muriel Heslop in P.J. Hogan’s 1994 hit Muriel’s Wedding. Locally she has appeared in Cosi, Lillian’s Story and The Boys, while her international profile, fuelled by Muriel, continued to rise with turns in Velvet Goldmitte, The Pallbearer, The Clockwatchers and the much-lauded Emma. With The Sixth Sense, however, things have shifted up a few gears. Normally, the star of such a film would be inundated with offers for similar roles, but Collette is pleased that of all the approaches vetted by her agent, she’s only had one other supernatural thriller. She feels secure that she’s still being recognised as an actor, not a star. “It’s great for me in terms of the diversity of roles that have been offered,” she says. “People are looking at this character in The Sixth Sense who’s completely different from me, worlds away, and who’s almost 10 years older than me, then looking at stuff I’ve done in the past and realising that I’m not an actor you can pigeon-hole. I actually am into transformation. It’s not just about being on the front of magazines. In fact, It’s not about that at all. I run a million miles, screaming, from that. It’s all about choice. That’s what an actor dreams of – to have as much choice as possible.” Like many film talents who have spread their careers internationally, Collette lets the material determine where she works. Having said that, though, she says the local scene is a little limiting. “The pool’s too small to swim in. You ain’t sustain a career in the Australian industry. The audience will get sick of you, you’ll get sick of yourself. “But (working overseas) is not just about the film industry. I think that everything is becoming much more globalised. It’s not about where it is, it’s about what it is. It’s about the story, It’s about the script and it’s about responding to something that turns you on and challenges you, and that can happen anywhere. Art isn’t about segregation, It’s about reflecting themes in life, so I’m not trying to work in any one specific nation or within a specific culture. I don’t want to feel bad about working overseas. I don’t. I’m lucky.”
Her career trajectory owes more to serendipity than to design, she says. She balks at the idea of planning her moves. “No, I don’t think like that. You know, I’m lucky to be alive each day, so I lust take it from moment to moment. If I think back at being a teenager, there’s no way I would expect to be sitting where I am. Life is a snakes-and-ladders game: you’re up and you’re down, you climb and you slide and there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen. ever. I’m not a planner. We eat when we’re hungry and we’re fed what we need to eat. I think. Fate’s a very strong word, but I think that, to a certain extent, it’s almost pre-ordained, you know? I’ve never planned anything. I’ve never tried to join the dots, and things seem to happen really easily. That’s all I’m trying to say.” While the success of Muriel’s Wedding was a boom for her career and won Collate un AFI award for Best Actress, there was a dark linking to the aftermath. Word is that she was unhappy with acting. “Not with acting, with what it brought about,” she says. “I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin because life changed dramatically. I think change Is the scariest thing In life. I got really upset because it felt like this amazing experience had been trivialised and taken away from me.”
“When we were making Muriel’s Wedding I didn’t know what the out-come would be. I knew eventually It would come out, but you don’t expect something to travel and to speak to so many people. I really didn’t enjoy life for a little while afterwards.” She pauses. “Massive changes.” she adds. “And I was 22.” Pause again. “I became quite agoraphobic. I was living on Bondi Beach and I would only go down there really early in the morning cause people were always looking at me. That was a really strange thing to come to terms with. It brought about so much change. I was spending so much time away, having to do press and travelling around. I just felt very alone, actually.” What upped her spirits? “I decided that my love of acting wasn’t going to be outweighed by this sort of thing (media attention), which I really despise. It made me feel really uncomfortable, really contrived and unnatural. So I just focused on what actually made me want to do it in the first place.” She’s happy to work in L.A. but would she live there? “No. God no. I would never want to live there. I go there, work, and I leave. I have a place in Sydney and I have a place in London. I don’t really like cities so much, so I just got a place in the country in Ireland. I live out of a suitcase, which I found really diffitult at first. Now I don’t think I can probably give it up any time soon. I enjoy it. It’s just the way life is. It’s normal to me now.”
Collette’s work, by and large, has been commendable. There has, however, been the occasional misstep. In 1997 she appeared in Diana and Me, a local film about a woman, played by Collette, who wins a magazine competition and goes to London to meet her idol, Princess Diana. The film was released soon after Princess Diana was killed. Topicality, however, could not change the fact that Diana and Me, while likeable, was pretty ordinary. Still, Collette gained something from It. “Every film I do for a specific reason, and I think with that one I learned that I should never betray my gut.”