About a boy and a no-frills film star
Forging ahead … An upbeat Toni Collette, top. Below, with Hugh Grant in About a Boy.
I try to play real people, says Toni Collette. This time it’s a mung-bean eating suicidal mother opposite Hugh Grant in About a Boy.
If, as Toni Collette maintains, “acting is a weird form of torture”, she must be a glutton for punishment. She 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 award 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 bleak afternoon she is a tad tired. Her conversation is peppered with ums, erms and pauses. Every so often, she loses her train of thought and apologises profusely for her weariness. Affable, witty and unpretentious, she’s easy to forgive.
“Oh, God, I think I need some chocolate,” she wails mockingly, 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.”
She talks frankly about the bulimia she developed after gaining 18 kilos in seven weeks for Muriel’s Wedding, 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 …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 glamorous). “I try to play real people who inspire me through something in their journey.”
Fiona’s journey is that of a right-on, mung-bean munching new-ager who 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, the character is little more than a two-dimensional figure. Collette imbues Fiona with depth and humour. This comes as no surprise from an actress who reduced 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 was 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 … 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 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.”
She has never been afraid to discuss her personal life, and is well versed in questions about her “secret sadness”. She says she has never been happier 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. I think we’ll implode if we don’t express ourselves. For a very long time, if I hadn’t had acting, I could have imploded. 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. 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 eldest 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.”
Collette is sorted, sane and well balanced, an outlook she attributes to a lot of self-analysis.
She 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 the space is yours. It makes it much easier going away, knowing there’s somewhere to come back to.”
Collette was more excited about catching up with friends on her brief sojourn in the UK than anything to do with showbiz. She did present a Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award but wasn’t concerned with the foaming [from a downpour] red carpet outside ruining her shoes.
“They looked like leather but they were really some shitty vinyl,” she explains.
With upcoming parts in Changing Lanes with Ben Affleck and in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, Collette could let her work speak for her, but doesn’t.
“I’ve never had a game plan. I’ve never been like that. I’d rather not feel as if I have a seat belt 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?”
About A Boy is scheduled to open in Australia in August.