A difficult delight
Toni Collette is mass of contradictions – finding fame with ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ she’s made a career out of pathos but yearns for comedy. So who’s it to be today? Chloe Fox reports
Deciding what to drink for an early evening interview with Toni Collette is harder than you’d think. By all accounts, the Australian actress comes in two different guises – the peace-and-love hippie chick (‘Meditation is an essential aspect of my life’) and the party animal (‘I’m not averse to a little binge drink now and then’). This is the girl who had a private audience with the Dalai Lama a few years ago and then got so drunk on tequila afterwards that she decided to have her head shaved. Unsure whether she’ll be in green tea or green cocktail mode, I opt for an orange juice. My arrival at the Covent Garden Hotel has been greeted by not one, but two publicists – the first for About a Boy, the film I am here to discuss, and the second (and by far the most frightening) for Toni herself. ‘I just wanted to let you know that Toni is really tired,’ she briefs me in her Californian whine. ‘All this publicity has been totally exhausting for her and it’s just unfortunate for you that you have got her at the end of such a long day. We’ll just have to see how she copes. I’ll go and collect her from her room now.’ I’m now pretty sure which Toni I’m going to get. Almost 10 years ago, a low-budget Australian film made a 21-year-old girl from a Sydney suburb into an overnight star. Muriel’s Wedding, an indie flick about an overweight, Abba-loving suburban misfit desperately seeking marriage, touched hearts worldwide and won for its female star, who gained three stone for the role, the Australian equivalent of an Oscar. Since then, she has held her own alongside Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine, Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (for which she won an Oscar nomination) and Samuel L Jackson in Shaft. But despite the A-list star status, Collette has retained a dignified anonymity. You won’t catch her airbrushed and underdressed on the cover of a magazine, giggling with Kylie front row at Julien Macdonald or welcoming Hello! magazine into her lovely home, that’s for sure.
Unlike so many of her glossier contemporaries, Toni Collette is an actress first and an image second. She’s no beauty in the conventional sense of the word – her forehead is too high and her teeth are too wonky – but there’s a power in that face which defies you not to be transfixed. Her hair colour seems infinitely variable, but her virtual unrecognisability from one film to the next is about more than just vegetable dye: somehow Collette’s jolie-laide beauty allows her the freedom to assume the identities of the characters she plays to such an extent that, for those two hours, there is no Toni Collette – only the desperate Muriel, the silly, muddleheaded Harriet in Emma or the lonely, tracksuited Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense. Her performance in the forthcoming About a Boy is no exception. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s hugely successful novel and directed by Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie fame, the film is essentially about two boys – one, Will (Hugh Grant), who refuses to grow up and the other, Marcus (12-year-old newcomer Nicholas Hoult) who has to. Will is an Audi-driving commitment-phobe whose only worry in life is where his next date is going to come from. Marcus is a bullied schoolboy who thinks all his problems will be solved if his suicidal single mum ceases to be single. Collette plays Marcus’s right-on hippie mother, Fiona, with an expert combination of humour and pathos, deftly steering her away from a lentils-and-hemp stereotype by emphasising her breaking heart. What so many actresses could have turned into the caricatured antithesis of Hugh Grant’s consumerist funny guy, Collette – absolutely true to form – makes her own.
‘She’s a comedian,’ Hugh Grant tells me in an email, ‘but the kind who gives the impression that the humour is born out of pain. We were all unanimous in wanting Toni as our first choice. I was just scared she’d be too good and show me up.’ Relations were good between the two stars, the only downside being that ‘she liked to mock me for being so neurotic and took great pleasure in trying to make me drink her revolting lemon-grass tea’. The Toni Collette who finally arrives, 15 minutes late, for our interview is, superficially, a far cry from Fiona. She is thinner and more fashionable in black trousers, trainers and a green-and-white striped viscose retro football shirt. Her hair is cut in a peroxide blonde crop, making her huge eyes seem even larger. She may not be wearing Nepalese knits and Birkenstocks, but she is, none the less, in hippie mode. Her publicist is behind her, suggesting just about every alcoholic beverage known to man, but she is adamant. ‘God, no! If I have a real drink I’ll fall asleep right there at the table. I think I’ll have a green tea. Hi, I’m Toni.’ Slumping in the chair next to me, she rubs her eyes. ‘What am I gonna do? I’m so tired, I can hardly think.’ Rarely has anyone seemed less in the mood for an interview than Toni Collette. She is distracted and stares at her hands, the table, her teacup – anything rather than make eye contact. What made her do About a Boy? There’s a long pause and then, all in one breath, the reply, ‘Well, um, the film makers are great people to work for, I admire Hugh enormously, the story is wonderful and, um, I had bought a house and really needed the money to pay for it.’
OK, so clearly not a subject that is going to get her going. Perhaps the new house might be. Where is it? ‘On the beach in Sydney.’ What’s it like? ‘Absolutely gorgeous.’ Does it make you happy? ‘Yep.’ Feeling a little stressed by this blood-out-of-a-stone situation, I ask if she minds if I smoke. Silly question. Of course she does. But at least it gets her going. ‘God, people drink and smoke like crazy over here! It’s amazing. If you’re into it, it’s fantastic but, if you’re not, it’s like “I think I’ll go to bed now”. I’m not into any of it at the moment. I’m almost 30 and I’ve really slowed down and learned to be gentle on my body. I’m a Scorpio so I’m a pretty intense person – it really has taken me a while to work out who I am and what I want from this life. ‘My 20s were totally bonkers. I was living out of a suitcase and burning the candle at both ends. But I tell you – I am totally over it. I just want to find some inner peace and I think I’m getting there, slowly but surely.’ Exhausted from her unexpected outburst, she sits back in her chair and stretches her arms above her head. The shutters have come down again. ‘When you see Toni, you never know what you are going to get,’ says Daniel Lapaine, who played the swimmer she is paid to marry in Muriel’s Wedding. ‘We have been friends since drama school [the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney] and I have watched her become famous. She has always been a creature of extremes – it’s what makes her so alive and so unpredictable.’ Lapaine remembers a 20-year-old nobody that the unexpected success of Muriel’s Wedding suddenly made a somebody. ‘There was something about Muriel that people really identified with and I think all the sudden attention probably freaked Toni out a bit.’ She agrees. ‘I just ran. I dived into my career and I hardly looked back. I was so afraid of the change, of being the black sheep of my family. A huge part of me felt sad and guilty about moving on in my life but another part of me really needed to do that.’
The oldest of three children, Collette grew up in Blacktown, an hour away from Sydney. Her father, Bob, was a truck driver while her mother, Judy, worked for a courier company. When their headstrong only daughter decided, at the age of 16, that she was leaving school to become an actress, they had no option but to support her. ‘If I hadn’t had acting, I would probably have imploded,’ she says. ‘I come from a very close, grounded family but they are not the most communicative of people. I always had this stuff inside me that I felt I needed to let out and acting seemed the best way to do that. The only way, really.’ Watching Collette’s film performances over the past decade, there is a depth and intensity that fits in with this self-analysis. Lonely, abandoned, undesirable – the women she plays more often than not seem defined by their otherness. They are outsiders, but behind their isolation is a strong sense of self. Like The Sixth Sense before it, About a Boy sees her playing a hurting woman trying to bring up her little man. In Stephen Daldry’s forthcoming The Hours, the hurt is evident once more as she portrays Kitty, a woman whose life is destroyed by childlessness. Emptiness may be her professional forte, but Toni Collette has had enough. ‘If I get one more script sent to me about a woman whose child gets killed by a paedophile, I’m gonna kill myself. It’s too exhausting. I feel depleted by all this sadness. I just want to do a funny movie. I need to do a funny movie.’ Is there an unhappiness in her life which has drawn her to these poignant roles? She speaks mysteriously about ‘stuff going on inside’ but rarely expands. The closest she gets to elaborating is when she tells me that for eight months before she started filming The Sixth Sense in 1998 she was experiencing panic attacks. ‘My life was coming crashing in around my ears and I had to address a lot of stuff that I had been suppressing for a long time.’
She admits that the weight she had to put on for Muriel’s Wedding and take off after it distorted her self-image and that for a while in her early 20s she was suffering from bulimia. That, combined with the end of a year-long affair with her Velvet Goldmine co-star, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, brought her to a crisis point. ‘I was 25 years old and I needed to learn to nurture myself and address my problems. It was during filming that I started to meditate daily. I think it helped my performance in a way because I was very connected to myself.’ To say Collette has a spiritual side is an understatement but any further probing on the subject is greeted with evasive lack of interest. She just can’t seem to disguise the fact that she would rather be anywhere other than here. When, in slight desperation, I resort to mentioning a mutual friend, however, the effect is dramatic. ‘Ohmigod! This is so fantastic!’ she cries. Leaning forward and clutching my arm, her huge eyes finally meet mine straight on and I wonder why this point of contact should make me so much more interesting than I was before. It is somehow as if she is reassured and can now feel free to trade intimacies, without resenting the intrusion. ‘I kind of hate interviews,’ she confides belatedly. ‘I find it really hard to analyse myself – I get sweaty palms and everything.’ Bubbling up is the real Toni Collette. And this one can barely draw breath.
She is in love, she tells me. So in love that she barely knows what to do with herself. The object of her affections is called Dave and is the drummer with an Australian band called Gelbison. ‘He’s waiting for me upstairs,’ she whispers glowingly. ‘We’re going to the River Cafe for a romantic dinner and tomorrow we are going to Paris.’ The couple met at the end of last year when she returned home to Sydney after finishing work on About a Boy, determined to take some time off. ‘My friend took me to his band’s EP launch and I only intended to stay 10 minutes. That was at one in the afternoon, she left at nine and I was there until two in the morning. He came home with me and he has never left. He is the best person on the planet and there is this amazing warmth and connection between us. The best thing is that he doesn’t really care what I do. He just loves me for me. Meeting him has made me realise what it is that’s been missing from my life all along, you know?’ All lit up and grinning, Collette excitedly tells me about her dreams of marriage, babies and beach houses. She tells me about the Oscars (‘So daunting, so silly, but quite enjoyable all the same’) and fame (‘I can’t deny that sitting in a room three feet away from Meryl Streep is exciting, but making movies can be a very lonely experience’). She gleefully outlines the production company, Figurehead Films, that she and a female friend have set up and the two scripts – one about a female navigator and the other about a women’s gang that ran rampage in Sydney in the Thirties – that they are trying to get made.
I am finally experiencing the Toni Collette who Hugh Grant described to me as ‘very unprecious for such a highly regarded actress’ with ‘none of that hushed-voice self-importance you find in a lot of the “incredible actor” group’. But, let’s face it, her life does place her firmly in the incredible actor group and, inevitably, the reality clock strikes. ‘Hi there, time’s up I’m afraid,’ chirps the publicist. I’m just about to reassure her that it’s all going swimmingly and I’m sure Toni won’t mind staying a little longer when my new best friend stands up to go. ‘Good meeting you,’ she says, shaking my hand formally before allowing herself to be led off through the bar with not so much as a look back. As I fumble with my coat and prepare to take on the rain, I can’t help but wish that I could have had a few cocktails with Toni Collette, the 29-year-old in love, rather than green tea with Toni Collette the movie star, with the publicist for a bodyguard.
About a Boy is released on April 26