Straight to the top
Rather than play a string of Muriels, Toni Collette gambled on darker roles. That punt has put her in the major league.
Toni from Blacktown left school at 16 and says things like: “I’ve never really had a plan or thought I was shit-hot.” Then there’s Hollywood Toni, keen on “creative visualisation” and eating (organic) meat again because “I realise I’m part of the ecosystem myself”.
Blacktown Toni is renovating the Tamarama home she shares with her husband, Dave Galafassi, of the rock band Gelbison. She is mystified by tradesmen who remark on its proximity to the flats in The Block. “What’s the friggin’ block?” she asks.
That’s a measure of how busy Hollywood Toni has been lately, making two movies in North America and enduring 10 flights in two weeks between film festivals. Neither Toni touches coffee: “It sends me into a spiralling mess. One sip. Even decaf.”
This month, Toni Collette became the youngest recipient of the career achievement award at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Previous winners include Gloria Swanson, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep and Peter O’Toole. At 30, she has won three Australian Film Institute awards, has been nominated for an Oscar and wowed audiences on Broadway in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical The Wild Party.
“Her ability to play women going over the falls is terrifying,” wrote Herald film critic Paul Byrnes of her latest role in Japanese Story. Thankfully, there is no sign of such a woman here today. When the photographer asks her to assume an awkward pose on the bed, she cheerfully adopts an Indian accent to discourage him: “I think you are living in another world, Quentin,” she says. When it’s over, she starts singing Born Free.
The daughter of a truck driver, Collette grew up in Glebe before her family moved to Blacktown when she was six. “It was all very normal,” she says of her upbringing. “The suburbs. We talk, we don’t talk, we fight, we watch television. I [once] threw a sausage at my cousin across the dinner table.”
Her immediate plans are similarly grounded. She intends taking the rest of the year off to do “the normal things that normal people do”. Barbecues, for example.
She has a longish face framed by blonde hair and an intense gaze. Her smile could guide shipping at night. That smile first won over film audiences in Muriel’s Wedding, nearly a decade ago, but they have rarely had a chance to revel in it since. Recognising that, she has just made two comedies.
“I’ve got to stop crying,” she says. “After Muriel’s Wedding, everyone kept saying give us that Muriel grin. I was so determined to show that I could be a very straight dramatic actress. And I think that I did it.
“Now I can come back and laugh with others and at myself on screen. It’s a much nicer way to work. It’s just lighter. You’re not beating yourself up.”
She put on 20 kilograms to play Muriel but doubts she would do it again. “I don’t think I would. I’m older. It’s harder to get off.”
She has strong emotions about the roles she plays, even in comedies. In the forthcoming Connie and Carla, Collette and Nia Vardalos, of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, play fugitives who disguise themselves as drag queens. But she expects to cry all the way through it. The emotions of acting can take their toll, she says.
“Usually there’s a huge kerplunk at the end of a job where it feels like I’ve just fallen into the depths of who-knows-where. You kind of have to rebuild how you want to live again.”
Two years ago, she felt that acting had robbed her of an emotional life. “I just wanted to experience things for myself, because it felt like everything was being funnelled through work.”
Collette, who dropped out of NIDA, has an exceptional ability to be a character. At her best – in The Sixth Sense, her cameo as a woman heading for a breakdown in The Hours or taking a Japanese businessman into the desert in Japanese Story – she disappears. Unlike many of her peers, especially in Hollywood, she seems unselfconscious about her appearance on screen. You don’t see Julia Roberts show the physical side of emotional unravelling – the pale tear-stained face with its wounded expressions – like Collette does in Japanese Story. Director Sue Brooks says she turns dialogue into talk.
As Collette watched 35 minutes of clips from her films, at Telluride, she was reminded how much emotion goes into her performances. “There are certain films where I’ve had such involvement that even now when I watch it, I feel like I’m reliving it and I get slightly teary,” she says. “That’s how personalised most of the work has been.
“Sometimes I watch it and I don’t even feel like I’m watching myself. But the others that really affected me personally still affect me when I watch them.”
Muriel’s Wedding, Velvet Goldmine and The Sixth Sense evoke the strongest reaction, she says.
Collette accepted the role in Japanese Story virtually overnight after reading the script.
“I just found it really interesting that somebody who seems so in control and so together could melt so easily. How could somebody so smart be so f—ing stupid?”
Nailing the role meant “not letting my head get in the way”. She concedes it can be a problem thinking too much when playing a role. “You’re looking at people’s lives and analysing things.
“I think you need to do that to a certain extent. But once you’re up, the most freeing and good work that I feel I’ve done is when I’m not even aware of what I’m doing. It’s almost like meditation. You’re just not there. It just flows.”
Turning 30 brought a new perspective on things. It also brought new happiness through marriage. She has a great voice and a new ambition to record songs she has written. She has re-evaluated her work and plans to start a family.
“I’m very happy to be out of my 20s,” she says. “They were quite tumultuous in many different ways – very enjoyable but I don’t want to go back.
“Now I feel much more relaxed and settled, and stable in myself.
I’ve got a lot more love in my life, which allows you to like yourself a bit more.”
Recording songs in the studio she and Galafassi have built on the South Coast “will be a good balance to what I’ve been doing. When you’re working as an actor, you’re dependent on so many other people putting the pieces of your performance together,” she says. “With music, I’ve written it and it’s very personal and there’s more control.
“I feel I’ve come to the point where I actually know I have a career and it’s not going to end. I’m comforted by the fact that I can take a break and there’ll be something waiting eventually. I’m able to take advantage of it more than it can of me.”
She is still surprised by her decision to quit school. “At this point in my life, I can’t quite believe I made that decision. But at the time I was just so gung-ho. My naivety helped me make a decision that I probably wouldn’t have made later on.
“Going to Blacktown Girls High School and having two afternoons a week when I caught the train by myself into the city and went to the Australian Theatre for Young People just opened my life up a little bit.
“It really turned me on. I just pursued it without thought in a way. It was just a very instinctive, enjoyable thing to do.”
And what’s it like going back to her family in Blacktown these days?
“It’s just like visiting home. Usually, I’m so exhausted I fall asleep on the couch because it’s immediately relaxing. I was speaking to Mum last night and I was like ‘I’ve only seen you three times since March’. It’s a sign of what’s going on.”
Japanese Story is now showing.