From Blacktown to Tinseltown
Back home after Hollywood success in The Sixth Sense, a serene Toni Collette meets Ruth Hessey.
When Toni Collette glides into view. it’s hard to believe this is the same girl who boogied about in the large white satin jump-suit in 1994. The goofy exuberance of Muriel’s Wedding is gone. Today a towering Collette – slender, controlled, elegant – compares hibiscus-coloured tattoos with her makeup artist, who has sprinkled her elfin eyelids with pink sparkles. This touch of the hippie-chic in no way fluffies the Collette mystique. She’s always been a sharp character and despite her many adventures all over the world, Toni Collette has both platform soles on the ground. For our interview she steps down from the shoes and sits cross-legged on the floor of the Quay Grand Hotel. Outside jackhammers are screaming. Collette is serene. “For a while I was nervous about coming home – she admits. “I wasn’t sure if it would feel like home any more. Travelling so much, in and out of hotels, the hardest thing has been finding that base inside myself.” She returns with an American blockbuster securely in tow. The Sixth Sense (a son of Rosemary’s Baby meets Ghost) was box-office number one in the States for five weeks. Her co-star is Bruce Willis.
It’s 10 years since Collette was swimming in the backyard pool of the family home in Blacktown, and told her dad shit wanted to act. Now she’s hit the bigtime. How does it feel? “Well, I’ve never had a hard time with work.” she says. “Things seem to naturally flow.” The huge success of Muriel’s Wedding was confronting – “it can be difficult to deal with having achieved a dream. in terms of ‘what next?’ But I think it’s wrong to confine creativity to art. It’s about how you live your life creatively.” Last time she was in Sydney, Collette had three creations up her sleeve – a tough peroxide Aussie sheila (The Boys), a glam rock casualty ( Velvet Goldrnine), a simple Australian girl obsessed with England’s erstwhile Queen of Hearts (Diana and Me). It was an impressive range of roles, even if none of them gave her a juicy lead like Muriel. In The Sixth Sense she plays a struggling American single mother. There’s a wig, a Philadelphian accent and scary airbrushed nails – “which felt tacky to me but beautiful to the chancier” – and no hint of the girl from Porpoise Spit, or Blacktown. It’s a powerful performance which also consolidates a sulking ability to be different every time.
For Bruce Willis, stardom is another story. “Bruce is like a half bottle of great wine, but someone’s put the cork in it,” she says. “I can’t imagine his life. I think he feels really stifled.” Collette initially overlooked The Sixth Sense, which came with Willis already attached, thinking it would be “a formulaic studio film full of people racing round with guns”. But she was pleasantly surprised by the spirituality of the screenplay. “I was very moved by it I didn’t realise it was scary.” In fact The Sixth Sense is very scary. It’s about the special powers of Collette’s son who is played by an extraordinary new child star, Haley Joel Osment. “Haley is not a child,” she says simply. “He’s a working, thinking, analytical, self-aware, and therefore, very compassionate person. We developed an unspoken bond which was very hard to let go of.” In the film he’s a peculiar child, with no friends until the psychologist played by Bruce Willis comes to his rescue. Up until that point, mother and son are going nowhere. “She’s working two jobs and struggling so hard to piece it together.” says Collette. “She’s not a victim. She’s so strong. It’s just doing her head in that she can’t help her son.”
Collette has her own theories as to why the film has forged such a resounding connection with American audiences. “America is so thirsty,” she says. “People are scared of being out of control. It’s sad the way Western culture is taking us so far away from what is innate in us all.” Whether that’s magic, or history, she says the film’s 28-year-old writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan, certainly has thc sixth sense himself. “He’s so focused: she says. “The minute he met his wife he knew he would many her. He also had a premonition that he’d make this film. starring Bruce Willis.” Collette’s sparkling eyes narrow. “And that’s just what he did.” What Collette will do next is still a secret. She’s already finished the new Peter Greenaway film, Eight and a Half Women. After that, being such a chameleon, it’s impossible to predict.
The Sixth Sense opens on Thursday.