Desperately in Need of a Laugh
Toni Collette 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.
An interview with her at London’s Covent Garden Hotel is greeted by a publicist with a Californian whine warning that her star is tired.
“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’m now pretty sure which Toni I’m going to get.
Almost 10 years ago, a low-budget 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, an AFI award for best actress.
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 a Julien Macdonald fashion show 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.
Collette plays Marcus’ 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 actors could have turned into the caricatured antithesis of Grant’s consumerist funny guy, Collette – true to form – makes her own.
“She’s a comedian,” Grant says by e-mail, “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”.
Collette, who arrives 15 minutes late for the 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. She opts for green tea, rubs her eyes and says, “What am I gonna do? I’m so tired, I can hardly think”.
Mentioning a mutual friend, however, has a dramatic effect. “Ohmigod! This is so fantastic!” she cries. Leaning forward and clutching my arm, her huge eyes finally meet mine straight on. “I kind of hate interviews,” she confides. “I find it really hard to analyse myself; I get sweaty palms and everything.”
She is in love, she says. So in love that she barely knows what to do with herself. The object of her affections is called Dave, and he is the drummer with the Australian band 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 … 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.”
She has just bought a house on the beach in Sydney. All lit up and grinning, Collette excitedly talks about her dreams of marriage, babies and beach houses. She talks 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 1930s – that they want to get made.
Collette grew up in Blacktown. Her father, Bob, was a truck driver while her mother, Judy, worked for a courier firm. When their headstrong only daughter (she has two brothers) decided, at 16, to leave school to become an actor, they supported 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.”
Watching Collette’s film performances over the past decade, there is a depth and intensity – the women she plays more often than not seem 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 Collette has had enough.
“If I get one more script about a woman whose child gets killed by a paedophile, I’m gonna kill myself,” she says. “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.”
She speaks about “stuff going on inside” but doesn’t expand. For eight months before 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 distorted her self-image and that for a while in her early 20s she was suffering from bulimia. And, the attention “freaked” her out. “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.”
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.”