Touchy, Feely, Toni
When Toni Collette first tried acting, she had a panic attack and thought she was dying. Now she’s sharing screens with Hugh Grant and Ben Affleck. By Gareth McLean
If, as Toni Collette maintains, “acting is a weird form of torture”, she must be a glutton for punishment. The Australian actor who first came to the world’s notice in Muriel’s Wedding, earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense, was up for a Tony (appropriately) for her all-singing, all-hoofing role in The Wild Party on Broadway, and now stars opposite Hugh Grant in About a Boy. In eight years, she has built an enviable career with hardly any time to catch her breath. Little wonder, then, that this dreich Tuesday afternoon, she is a tad tired. Her conversation is peppered with ums, erms and pauses. Every so often, she will lose her train of thought completely and apologise profusely for her weariness. Affable, witty and unpretentious, she is easy to forgive.
“Oh, God, I think I need some chocolate,” she wails mockingly, burying her head in her hands. “I got here on Thursday and it was very odd arriving to freeze my tits off after swimming at Bondi Beach the day before. And I leave again on Friday. Air travel is so weird.”
For a famous actress, Collette is a little weird herself. While she does possess a rottweiler of a publicist (Marla) and is ensconced in a central London boutique hotel, she talks frankly about the bulimia she developed after gaining 40lbs in seven weeks for Muriel’s Wedding, and about her eight months of panic attacks after she split with her boyfriend (and Velvet Goldmine co-star) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and she is disparaging of Hollywood’s obsession with “skinny, beautiful women”.
“What they’re doing is helping create an image which is fairly unobtainable by the majority of the female population on this planet. I really don’t want to help push that. There are actors who are really fantastically talented at being natural on screen and appearing to be themselves, but I like the challenge of becoming somebody else. Not everyone is completely gorgeous and I want to play people who don’t normally have a voice or a presence on screen. I don’t consciously choose roles in which I can make myself look really bad” [although Fiona – “Miss Granola Suicide” as Grant’s character calls her in About a Boy – is hardly a glamourpuss]. “I try to play real people who inspire me through something in their journey.”
Fiona’s journey is that of right-on, mung-bean munching new ager whose life has reached an impasse. She is “being strangled by her ideals” and has attempted suicide. Worse, she is suffocating her son by foisting her strident anti-consumerist ideas on him. In Nick Hornby’s book, Fiona is little more than a two- dimensional figure. In the film, Collette imbues Fiona with depth, humour and a life of her own. This comes as no surprise from an actress who reduced cinema audiences to tears with her breakdown at the steering wheel in The Sixth Sense.
“Who wouldn’t want to play Miss Granola Suicide?” Collette grins. “It sounds like the name of a fantastic album. When I got told they wanted me for the role, I was aware of the book but hadn’t read it. When I read the script, I loved that it was so real. It’s really funny but also really bloody sad. I felt it conveyed a realistic sense of living in urban London. People are so fearful about opening themselves up. All you want to do is to be able to connect with other people. When you connect with other people, you connect with something in yourself. It makes you feel happy. And yet it’s so scary – it makes people feel vulnerable and unsafe. This film shows these bubbles being dissolved and that’s quite inspirational.”
Mind you, Collette adds: “I was a bit jealous, as everyone else on the film seemed to be making a comedy while I was a little depressed. When I’m at work, I immerse myself in it. I don’t try to live the life of my character but I think it’s inevitable that there is some carry-over into your life. It was bloody winter, it was dark, it was cold and I was playing a suicidal person.” With a personal life she has never been afraid of discussing, Collette is well versed in questions about her “secret sadness”. Today she says she has never been happier – and she exudes it, despite the fatigue – but still rails against “the silent rules we all adhere to”.
“I’m all for getting down to the nitty-gritty and talking about it. I think it’s unnatural to be happy all the time; we all go through ups and downs. In the western world, we’re told to close down and shut up. Well, I think we’ll implode if we don’t express ourselves. I think that, for a very long time, if I hadn’t had acting, I could have imploded. It was almost a case of needing to do it for a while. The first time I had a panic attack, I thought I was dying. That experience alone made me have more reverence for this life. I was 25 and was going through a lot of changes personally. I think if you don’t address stuff that’s going on, there’s a little thing inside you that will tap you on the shoulder and tell you that you can’t escape yourself.”
Collette says that with every character she plays, a parallel exists between her and the role. “With something like The Sixth Sense, doing that scene was a relief. It was towards the end of the shoot, I had been living with the knowledge of that woman’s story for so long and I had experiences in my life that were similar to hers, so when we were finally shooting that scene, it was almost as if the floodgates burst open – as if I didn’t have control over it because it had been lingering so long. With About a Boy, it wasn’t so personal. I was playing someone who didn’t want to live, which is pretty intense. It wasn’t as immediately personal but it was slightly depressing.”
Collette decided she wanted to be an actor at 15. The oldest of three children in a family who “weren’t the most communicative”, she says: “I’m pretty analytical about emotions and I think this job is good for working through that. I always had this stuff inside that I felt I needed to let out. I’ve always found acting satisfying because you’re working internally and presenting something which is understood through action, which hopefully is beautifully told within a story on film.”
Collette can sound terribly new agey, but she has Hollywood nous too: “I’ve been extremely happy and fortunate in terms of what I’ve achieved and the experiences I’ve been given,” she says, then mentions her production company and the fact that money has become a factor when a job offer comes along. “Working Title [who are behind About a Boy] are very good at making films that are successful commercially and that actually touch people’s hearts, too. It’s a good mix.”
Colette is sorted, sane and well-balanced, an outlook she attributes to a lot of self-analysis. “We’re all spiritual. We have this body but that’s not what gives us our passion or makes us get out of bed in the morning. There’s this other untouchable element and I have learnt to nurture that. People do it in different ways and life is one big journey. I’m not Buddhist but I am drawn to it because it seems the most beneficial of organised religions, and the most compassionate. It’s an ongoing journey for all of us.”
Collette still gets giddy when talking about Dave, her new boyfriend (“he’s the drummer in the band Gelbison”) and has, upon buying her first house (“in Sydney, on the beach”), discovered that her favourite colour is orange. Bright orange. “I’ve been running around the world like a crazy woman for so long, living out of suitcases and hotels and floating without any real base. Having this place of my own is really important and knowing that the space is yours. It makes it much easier going away, knowing that there’s somewhere to come back to. I went on a holiday to Thailand and the best part about it was getting home. How pathetic is that?”
She also admits she’s not terribly good at accepting compliments, as I have just discovered. I say she must get inundated with scripts and she hesitates. “Um, I suppose so.” I say I am amused that people are surprised she isn’t dowdy or damaged like many of the characters she plays and she’s almost dumbstruck. “I’ve done a couple of glam roles but…I dunno. Maybe playing someone who’s not conventionally attractive…people are interesting and beautiful for many reasons. If I get dressed up and my boyfriend says, ‘You look gorgeous’, I kinda feel funny. I don’t know if I’m particularly comfortable with being attractive” – she sniggers – “which I suppose is something I should figure out. Am I telling you the wrong thing here?” She laughs some more. An atypical actor, Collette has, on her brief sojourn in the UK, been much more excited about catching up with friends than anything to do with showbiz. She did present a Bafta but wasn’t concerned with the foaming red carpet outside ruining her shoes. “They looked like leather but they were really some shitty vinyl,” she explains.
It’s always a worry when you’re interviewing an actor that you are getting a performance rather than the glimpse of a real person. With Collette, you quickly realise that if she was putting on a performance, you wouldn’t get the unaffected, dozy and occasionally bitchy person you actually encounter. With forthcoming parts in Changing Lanes with Ben Affleck and in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, Collette could let her work speak for her – especially as her boyfriend is having a nap upstairs and, clearly, she’d much rather be with him than with me – but she doesn’t. This probably chimes with her belief that you should “live for the moment”.
“I’ve never had a gameplan. I’ve never been like that. I’d rather not feel as if I have a seatbelt on. True happiness comes from living freely in the moment. Planning and worrying and chaos in your mind? Forget it. What’s the point of that?”